Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier is one of the most celebrated Alpine climbing routes in the United States. It splits the Willis Wall and the Liberty Wall, the two most hazardous slopes on the 14,410-foot volcano in Washington’s Cascade Range.
After Allen Steck and Steve Roper added Liberty Ridge to their famous climbing guide book, “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America,” the route began to see more traffic and earned a reputation for being a committed, involved climbing route.
The Pacific Northwest has seen a lot of snowfall the last two years, and Mount Rainier is slathered in snow. Over the last few years I have ventured north to Rainier three times to get in some late-season skiing.
My excitement to get to Rainier this year was compounded by the rumors of washed out roads and a massive spring snowpack. I was excited to see if I could descend one of America’s classic climbing routes on skis.
Andrew Eisenstark and I had been planning this out, and the time had come to head to Rainier. The park rangers had confidence in the route conditions for climbing, but they were a bit concerned about the approach.
The hiking trail that leads to the north side of the mountain had been washed out by the river, which was swollen with snow melt from the huge winter. David Gottleib, the park ranger at White River campground, told us that “some of the trail is gone. It has been well marked but is gone. Might be hard to navigate with skis on your back.”
In fact, most of the trail was gone, and our grueling adventure started off with a bang.
We planned on doing the route in two days but brought food for three. During the first day we wanted to get to Thumb Rock ” a somewhat safe camping spot about two-thirds up Liberty Ridge. This meant 6,300 feet of vertical gain, 10 miles of distance and crossing two major glaciers, the second being the deepest glacier in the lower 48 states.
When we reached Thumb Rock at 7 p.m., both Andrew and I were tired and ready to eat. Tucked into the mountainside, we dug out a camp, started to cook dinner and began to dodge the non-stop barrage of falling rocks that kept our attention the entire time on the mountain. The volcanic rock on Rainier is loose and always falling. This is what makes routes here so dangerous.
During the restless night at Thumb Rock, we woke up once just in time to watch a pile of rocks fly by us and tear a path down the mountain. I had never dealt with so much loose rock, and definitely never had to dive so many times for my well being on one trip.
By sunrise we were out of camp and on our way up the route. Warm temps and cloudy skies made for good climbing conditions. Conditions were so good that we didn’t need to rope up once on the route, and the weather was looking like we might be able to carve some turns back down what we were climbing.
Winding through ice and rock, we made our way to the steep top slope that joins the Willis Wall. This was an area of concern. According to “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide by Mike Gauthier,” the section of Willis Wall that we were on is called Thermogenisis, and “of all the routes on Willis Wall, Thermogenisis is the most hazardous.”
Dodging rocks was now part of every move. With clouds moving in on the summit and rocks falling down on us, we quickly moved upwards.
Mount Rainier actually has three summits: Columbia Crest at 14,410 feet, Point Success at 14,158 feet and Liberty Cap at 14,112 feet. We were headed for Liberty Cap.
Clouds were rolling over the summit and it was getting warm, which meant we needed to be skiing soon.
Just below Liberty Cap, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to ski from the summit. Discussing our options, we decided it was time for us to put our skis on and make it down.
It seemed that the clouds were keeping the route in condition in front of us and that the warming temps were softening the snow perfectly behind us. Our time was now. Finding a place to put our skis on was a task and took some time, but once our feet were locked into our skis we felt more comfortable and were excited.
We had plotted our descent while climbing up through the ice. It was looking good.
With each descending turn it seemed like the snow was getting better and that we might be able to ski the entire route down. Keeping our eyes on the tumbling rock while managing each turn, we slowly descended what we had just climbed. We both felt more comfortable about the falling rock on the way down because we could move a little quicker on our skis to avoid getting hit.
Before we knew it we could see Thumb Rock and all our gear that we left there. We knew that the terrain above Thumb Rock was going to be the toughest section, and that once to Thumb Rock we could relax a bit.
Packing up our gear at Thumb Rock, we felt really good about the progress we had just made. We still had some tricky terrain to manage but felt better about it than what we had just skied. Tired and sore from the long two days, we made the final turns on Liberty Ridge and onto the Carbon Glacier.
Once off the glacier a sense of relief came over us. We still faced about seven miles of terrain to get to the car, but the hard work was done and we had skied this classic climbing route in good style.
The sun left before we had completely navigated the devastated forest trail to the car, both of us doing the best we could to place each foot in front of the next.
Our backs were sore and our legs tired, but our spirits were high. All that was left was to enjoy the beverages and Kettle chips waiting for us at the car.
Taking my heavy pack off and removing my smelly boots, I thought back to the morning and how beautiful it is to spend time in the mountains ” excited to be back but sad it was over.
Kip Garre is a 10-year resident of Squaw Valley who works in the spring as a guide for Points North Heli-Adventure in Alaska and paints houses in the summer when not mountain biking, climbing, running, skydiving or even skiing. Andrew Eisenstark has lived in the Tahoe area for four years and spent this past winter coaching for the Sugar Bowl freeride team.
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