This last June I went for a climb up Liberty Ridge on Rainier. I had been planning on climbing this route for most the winter so I what I felt was a perfect set of gear, very light of course, and I had been training all winter so I was strong and ready for the climb. My partner was coming up from California so unfortunately we had a short window in which to do the climb. So as the time approached we began watching the weather very closely. We found what looked like a three day window. The first two days were perdicted to be slightly rainy and the third day was clear and sunny. We figured we only needed three days for the climb and since the third day was the only one which required difficult climbing we decided to give a it a go, so we packed up and got going.
Our first day gave us partly cloudy weather and a little rain.
We woke to the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tent walls. Time to get wet.
We started climbing under a light rain, but navigation was easy. Clouds were either below us or above us the entire time, so visibility was fine on the Carbon Glacier.
Rain turned to snow as we neared the toe. We had hoped to take the direct variation to Thumb Rock on the west side, but we couldn't find a way through the crevasses and were forced to endure about a pitch of unprotectable skice and slush mixed into a vertical gravel slurry to gain the toe from the east.
We made it to thumb rock plenty early in the day. The rain/snow which we encountered in the morning gave way to partial sun at the bivy, which provided a perfect opportunity dry some clothing and watch the ice/rock falls off Willis Wall.
The plan for the next day was to start climbing by 3am to get us over the Cap and down to the TH at a respectable hour, but when I checked the updated forecast on my phone, I saw that our "Mostly Sunny" weather window had changed to "80% chance of snow, 1-3" @ 13k'".
We were tempted to pack up camp then and there and just keep climbing since at the moment It was clear and sunny, but we were tired, relaxed, and decided that since the weather was forecast to move in later in the morning, we'd wake at midnight and be climbing shortly after 1am to beat the weather. We figured we could leaving earlier we would beat the weather.
We awoke and made a quick start. Climbing was great under a bright moon, and although we climbed in darkness, we had nice views of Seattle and the north side of Mt Rainier as we ascended.
As we got higher we encountered more early-season conditions as the hard neve/ice often had a layer of fresh snow on top. Sometimes we could crampon, but often we where kicking steps calf deep and sometimes knee deep in the snow to make steps or reach purchase in the ice beneath. This was hard work and slowed our ascent more than expected. We took turns breaking trail, swinging leads about 6 times on the route.
The weather was still clear as the sun rose shortly after we rounded the Black Pyramid to ascend the slopes above Willis Wall. My partner took the sole climbing picture of the day, by the time we reached the top of the Black Pyramid, the storm had already broken.
We moved at a snail's pace as we tired from the elevation and soft snow, but the snow kept getting softer and deeper. As we traversed over to the bergschrund crux, we were often digging through waist deep snow, right up to the ice pitch. By this time it was snowing hard and the wind was blowing around 30-40 mph. The ice pitch had a continual dumping of windblown snow that was sluffing off the slopes above. I belayed the Ice pitch and was continuously being burred in spin drift. I had to dig myself out of the snow a few time while belaying in the whiteout.
After the first Ice pitch I took the next trailbreaking lead and found another nice pitch of sustained low and angle ice. Though exhausted at this point, We welcomed the ice for the break it provided from the soft snow. Plus it was fun! I finished another pitch of ice to the top of the route.
Unfortunately here the wind gusts picked up and visibility dropped to near zero. We had difficulty reaching the top of the Cap as a large bergschrund stopped us less than 100 ft from the top. Going left, it grew larger, so we backtracked to the right and end-ran it and were shortly on top of Liberty Cap.
The problem at this point was that we could barely see the snow 1 or 2 steps in front of us. Despite having our waypoints for descent set in the GPS, that only helped us for the larger scale routefinding. We realized that we could easily walk off a cliff or into a crevasse with the visibility as bad as it was. We were both thoroughly soaked and becoming mildly hypothermic. We already had the "umbles" and was beginning to get the "stumbles" and both of us had been shivering non-stop for the past 3 or 4 hours.
The last forecast we had seen showed the weather to dissipate Monday, so we decided it was best to set up shelter on the Cap to get warm & rested, and attempt to descend once visibility improved a bit more.
We dug a platform into the bergschrund wall that we had end-run and I built up some hardy wind walls. Despite the howling wind, the BD First Light we were using was pretty calm, and our biggest complaint was being buried from snow drifting over our tent. Because of all the blowing snow the tent began shrinking in size until if had only half the space that it originally did. I took initiative and shoveled snow off the tent a couple of times throughout the night, if I had not done thing our tent would likely been buried by morning.
Everything in our packs was saturated, including our sleeping bags. The heat inside the tent and from by body was enough to dry my down coat but my sleeping bag remained a wet soggy mess. We melted more water and spent the night gradually rewarming as we slept in our soggy bags and clothes.
I woke up several times during the night to dig and check the weather. We ended up having to wait until 7am before we could see better. I tried to melt a bit more water since I only had .5L left, but could not get the stove to light. So out of food, slightly dehydrated, and tired from a sleepless night we packed up camp to head home. Once all was packed up we were ready to head home, visibility had drastically increased to 30 FEET!!!
It was an easy decision to skip the true summit and just head down Emmons Glacier. We actually made very good time in the 50mph winds and whiteout. Once over Liberty Cap all that wind had blown the soft snow away so we were no longer post holing. The downside to all the snow snow being blown around (amoung others) is that ALL the creasves were filled. My partner had two small crevas falls as we made our way across the summit. The second one was large enough that he stopped his fall by hooking the far side with his tool and stemming his legs. He ratcheted back up, rolled onto the near edge, then jumped across to keep up the pace. Barely a setback at this point.
We did get held up briefly in the seracs atop the Winthrop Glacier, as apparently you can't traverse straight over to the Emmons from the height of the saddle connecting the Cap & Crest (oops). For future reference, you still need to ascend a couple hundred feet up the Crest to bypass the seracs & 'schrund before dropping back town towards the Emmons Glacier.
Gradually the skies cleared and we found the Emmons Glacier wands! Once these wands were found we both knew it would be easy going the rest of the way home.
The rest of the trip home was easy as we had hoped, one long glissade took at least an hour off the decent. Once we made it below 11k the weather was warm and sunny and soon we were hot. With more food and water in my truck there was plenty of motivation to move quickly.
Overall a good experience. All my climbs to this point have been very easy with no unforeseen stuff happening so it was good to know I can take care of myself the sh*t begins to hit the fan.