Dodgeball on Mount Rainier
A popular route turns into a perilous journey
Like a spire peeling off a cathedral, an 80-foot serac crashed down the ice chute above me. Another line of seracs loomed on my left; to the right was the 20-foot cliff I had just rappelled. Below me the glacier disappeared into clouds.
At 11,000 feet on Mount Rainier, I stood in the middle of a chute as wide as a football field, steep enough that my partner and I were roped up and had an axe in each hand, but broken by enough steps and penitentes—tight columns or blades of snow forming at high altitude—that I found places to stand flat-footed as I traversed.
I’ll never forget the rumbling sound I heard; even the thought of it still disturbs me. Rumble, rumble, crack-crack-crack-boom. The massive block of ice broke off the serac 200 feet overhead. I snapped my head up as the ice crashed onto a rock shelf out of my line of sight.
Poised on a snow step, I tensed and gripped my tools, knees bent, waiting to see which way to dodge. Left or right? Left or right?
As a low roar echoed off the mountain, David’s voice cut above the sound.
“Avi, you have to come toward me right now! Move move move!”
The deadly icefall rocketed out over the shelf.
I plucked my tools from the ice and sprinted right, lurching from snow step to snow step. I didn’t know if I could outrun the icefall, but felt no fear or hesitation, only a sense of detachment.
[Also Read My Epic: Short Fall, Long Consequences]
I made it about 30 feet, and was only 20 feet from safety when the rope—which gained slack with every step toward David—snagged on a yard-long penitente a couple of feet behind me and yanked me backwards. I was in the path of the ice avalanche, and I was stuck.
I live near Boston now, but grew up in Portland, Oregon, where on a clear day you can see the high Cascades. Those glorious peaks have long been a joy and wonder for me. Over the last few years I have ticked or attempted most of them, including Hood, Adams, Jefferson, Baker, Shuksan and Broken Top.
Mount Rainier had been on my mind for years, particularly the Kautz Glacier route, which ascends a southwesterly aspect of the mountain and features a 1,000-foot section of WI 2/3 ice. David Cain and I planned to climb it in two long days, carrying all our gear over the summit and descending Disappointment Cleaver, the southeast-facing route considered the easiest way up or down the peak.
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The first day, July 2, was a long hike starting at 5,400 feet on snowfields and the receding lower Nisqually glacier. In early afternoon we set up the tent at 11,000 feet near Camp Hazard, a gravelly rib of dirt and scree just below the start of the Kautz Glacier, ate dinner and set our alarms for 2:30 a.m.
The next day began with a rappel from the rock rib where we had camped onto a tongue of the Kautz Glacier, to access the start of the ice pitches. Unfortunately, our attempt at an early start was foiled by a cluster of nine unprepared climbers. Bottlenecked at the fixed-line rappel station at 3:45 a.m., we discovered that no one in the two groups ahead knew how to rappel. After nearly an hour of horrifying experimentation with knots and belay systems on the 20-foot fixed line, both groups turned around and let us pass. Their retreat probably saved their lives, because, five minutes later, I was the only one in the fall zone when the serac collapsed.
Clenching my right-hand ice tool, I yanked hard on the rope stuck on the penitente.
It didn’t budge.
I flicked the rope upward, but it remained stuck fast. I slapped my pack’s chest strap, and considered whether I could drop my pack, remove the Kiwi coil of rope around my chest, and unclip from the rope and two prussik loops before the debris blew me away.
The leading edge of the ice avalanche seemed only a few dozen feet away.
Another desperate upward tug … and the rope popped free! David had edged out toward the path of the icefall, giving me another couple of feet of slack, just enough to flip the rope off the penitente.
A car-sized ice chunk demolished the step where I had first paused. Pieces blew hundreds of feet down the slope. Just as I reached the outer edge of the avalanche, my rope snagged on a second penitente. With no time to try to free the rope, I closed my eyes and threw myself flat as an ice block screamed by a few feet from my head.
A fine layer of snow settled on my shoulders as, from 15 feet apart, David and I stared at each other.
I noted how calm I felt. My hands didn’t shake, and I didn’t feel the spike of terror that usually accompanies a mishap. I wasn’t even upset, and would have immediately started climbing again if David hadn’t spoken up.
“At least wait until you catch your breath,” he said as I stumbled up and wheezed. “Hey, you might have to sprint again!”
[Also Read My Epic: Mountain of Trouble – Mt. Katahdin, Maine]
We crossed the chute and re-racked, and I started up the ice pitches.
An hour later, we had simul-climbed 800 feet of WI 2/3 ice when a cold wind ripped over the mountain, dumping snow in my face. I was in a band of shitty ice, 20 or 30 feet above a screw, when my tools started to wiggle, and I realized one of my crampons had come loose. My composure, placid during the serac fall, crumpled in an instant. Balancing on one crampon, I punched the ice with my gloved fist and screamed.
I knew that continuing up would be easier and safer than retreating. A line from my favorite book, Dune, came to mind: “Fear is the mind-killer.” The best way to finish was to calm down. With a sheepish glance at David, I took a breath, buried a screw, re-attached my crampon, and led on. Despite some fun and games with weak snow bridges, we reached the summit in good time.
Rainier is notorious for unpredictable and dangerous icefall. On July 7, four days after we summitted, a massive section of the Ingraham glacier collapsed in the middle of the night, an unsurvivable event had any climbers been below. In May 2014, a cornice collapsed on Liberty Ridge, killing a guided party of six in the middle of the night (see “Climbers We Lost in 2014“).
In the months after our climb, I wondered whether there was something different we could have done to minimize our risks.
Was the serac fall due to warming temps? We crossed the fall zone later than intended because of the stalled parties at the rappel station. If we had crossed at 3:45 a.m. instead of 4:45, we likely would never even have heard the ice event. Still, 4:45 is not an unreasonably late start. We were in predawn twilight; I had just turned my headlamp off, and the temperature was around 20 degrees.
More attentive rope management from either David or me during my sprint might have prevented the snag. Waiting to rope up until the Kautz chute proper would have prevented it, but the terrain was steep enough to be risky, and there were crevasses. Ultimately, crossing under any serac is dangerous. While I was unlucky to have been there when a piece calved off, I was lucky David’s quick action with the rope saved me. In a way, I’m lucky to have climbed a classic alpine route and experienced Rainier in all of its intensity. In 50 years, the Kautz Glacier will likely have melted beyond recognition, those seracs may be gone, and the route we climbed may not exist at all.
Avilash Cramer is a PhD student in medical engineering at MIT. His trip was supported by the Sean A. Collier Adventure Grant, in memory of the MIT police officer killed following the Boston Marathon bombings.