Climbing a scary island in the sky: Fuhrer’s Finger on Rainier
My groggy mind just couldn’t make sense of why my phone was making such a loud racket at 4am. As I gained consciousness I the reality of what was going on set in – I had already climbed over 4,000 vertical feet on Mt. Rainier, the most glaciated mountain in the 48 states. I needed to wake up so I could climb another 5,000 vertical feet to the summit. As my sleepy eyes came into focus, what I saw took my breath away – a massive expanse of stars set against a black backdrop. I had chosen to ‘bivouac”, or camp out in the open with only a thin layer of material covering my sleeping bag – a decision that later came back to bite me. This night was surprisingly warm, and as I dressed to climb I warmed quickly.
The previous day consisted of an early wake up in Sioux Falls and couple flights with my friend Jesse Haller to Seattle, Washington. Upon arrival we met a couple guys we met on the internet – Mason from Nevada and Adam from southern California. After some quick intros, we downed Burger King, picked up some gear, and cruised to the trailhead.
|Ranger Station – $40 climbing passes required|
|The team: Adam (San Diego), Mason (somewhere in Nevada), me, Jesse (Sioux Falls)|
The approach hike started at a mild incline on sloppy snow. Temps were moderate and we climbed in our base layers. After a mile or so of “trench” walking on the standard “Disappointment Cleaver” route, we dropped down to the Nisqually glacier.
|The guys enjoying a break as we begin our ascent.|
We roped up and I took up the lead as the least likely guy to fall into a crevasse (100ft+ deep holes that cover glaciers). Glacier travel in June is excellent – very few crevasses and solid snow bridges – I felt great leading. The incline steepened as the glacier started up the mountain proper. As we climbed we began to see the clouds breaking and the beautiful evening sun stream onto the mountain side.
|Roping up as we walk onto the glacier.|
Glacier travel is awe inspiring. Huge ice objects were everywhere, and the cloudy atmosphere made the whole thing very surreal.
At about 3,000ft of climbing our pace began to slow. A full day of travel, 45lb pack weight, and thousands of vertical feet of wet glacier snow began to take its tole on the guys. I felt the rope go tight a number of times, and our stops began to become more frequent. I felt myself straining to slow my pace to fit the team. As we gained the ridge I got my first view of the mountain with the cloud deck just below us. What a view!
The last 800ft of climbing to camp was even slower, but the views made up for it.
As I waited at the top of each push I stopped to take in the breathtaking view. I was reminded of the passage:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. – Psalm 19:1
|Feeling great a few hundred feet below camp.|
I wondered: Why is it that I feel I need to rush? I’m in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in. There was clearly no reason to rush to camp. The climber in me needed to chill out.
A big castle-shaped rock marked our camp. We slowly staggered up to camp just as the sun set. My tasty dinner of instant mashed potatoes was wonderful!
|Instant mashed potatoes never tasted so good!|
As I downed supper, I was interrupted by the gut-wrenching sound of Burger King going the wrong direction. Adam puked his guts out over and over – not a fun experience. I didn’t think much of it, I’ve heard that puking isn’t out of the ordinary in climbing, and I figured it was just a bad end to a long day. After consulting Adam on the state of his health, and listening to his assurance that he was ok, we closed our eyes at midnight for a short rest.
|Adam and Jesse get ready for bed.|
We hit the trail the next morning at 4:30, which we knew might be a bit late. The sun lit up the horizon as we began our ascent of “Fuhrer’s Finger”, a steep snow couloir feature that to be the crux of our climb. As I stepped into my crampons, the bag that guarded their sharp spikes slipped from my hands, and I watched it fall 1000ft into a crevasse. If that happened to my backpack or ice tools I would be in trouble – a scary reminder of how high the stakes are up here. We began ascending the with Mason in the lead. Snow conditions were perfect – each step ended with a satisfying crunch on the consolidated snow.
|The team straps on crampons for the steep portion of the climb.|
|Enjoying the view before the real climbing begins.|
|With the cloud deck thousands of feet below, it looked like we were on an island in the sky.|
|Looking down Fuhrer’s Finger to the Wilson glacier below.|
|Mason climbs a steep section of the Finger.|
|The rock walls that boarder “Fuhrer’s Finger”.|
As we crested the couloir the sun began streaming onto the snow in front of us. It was such a glorious moment that I’ll never forget. The snow, the sun, and a feeling of doing what I loved.
|It got warm! We climbed in only our base layers under the powerful morning sun.|
|It doesn’t get much more fun than this!|
The moment didn’t last. WIZZZZZZZZZZ, CRACK! A rock the size of a microwave ripped past the group less than 15ft away, and crashed down the couloir below us. “What the f***!” yelled Mason. The reality of what just happened hit the team all at once: we were climbing 500ft below a giant rotting piece of this volcano that was crumbling into our couloir. What just happened could have been fatal, and we could be 10 seconds from another rock. We immedietly began pushing our pace far beyond comfort, and our lungs began to burn as we began attempting to climb at an unsustainable pace. We should have left earlier – 2am. That kept pinging around my head. Should have left earlier.
We gasped to a halt at the top of the couloir and paused to catch our breath. As we stood discussing our close call with death, I heard another CRACK, and as I looked up a rock the size of a grapefruit bounced off my axe and smashed into my left knee and took my leg with it. Pain shot up my leg and a torrent of fear gripped my mind. Judging by what the rock did to my stance, my leg was probably broken. I yelled in pain and staggered to my feet as feeling returned to my leg. It wasn’t broken, in fact by some miracle it wasn’t more than bruised. Another close call.
Another hour of harrowing climbing took us above the rock band and onto the top of the glacier above the finger route. We ended up climbing straight up the headwall above the rock band – the steepest and most exposed part of the entire climb. 60 degree ice made using our extra ice tool essential for staying attached and away from the 100ft deep crevasse below.
|The team traverses a large crevasse at the top of the “Fuhrer’s Finger” feature.|
|Adam uses a snow picket/ice tool belay to ensure my save passage up the pitch.|
As we crested the route, our path became much more gradual, yet our pace slowed. Adam, still feeling the effects from last night’s pukathon, was beginning to feel the effects of Rainier’s massive altitude gain and challenging terrain. We were now at 12,500ft, over 7,000 feet above the trailhead. Frequent stops and a maddeningly slow pace tested my patience. I felt excellent and knew the crux of the climb was behind us. A couple thousand feet of easy climbing was between me and the summit. A warm sun streamed down on us this cloudless day, and all danger seemed behind us.
|A stunning view from about 12,000ft.|
But it was not to be. At the junction of the Finger route and the normal DC route, the team halted on flat ground. Again. This time Adam’s health status was grim. He felt nauseated. He couldn’t get enough air in his lungs. We began questioning him about how he felt and about the route ahead of us. His answers were garbled and sometimes incoherent. He finally stated that he couldn’t go on, and suggested we finish the route and pick him up on the way down.
I squinted through my glacier glasses at the summit block.
We were standing at 13,000ft, leaving just under 1,500ft of climbing left. At our team’s speed, that would be AT LEAST an hour and a half, probably two. And another hour down. That meant Adam would be sitting on a glacier at 13,000ft for 3 hours if everything went well. I looked at Adam, thought about how he looked and acted, and realized the guy probably had AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness. AMS doesn’t get better with time. Adam is a competent guy, but the guy in front of us wasn’t acting like Adam. I looked at the summit block again. Just 2 hours and I’d be on the summit.
It took me about 10 minutes to realize that in order to bag the summit, I would be playing with someone else’s life. I’m a Christian guy, and I desire to glorify God with how I run my life. Bagging a summit at the expense of someone else (especially someone who’s standing with God I didn’t know) flew in the face of everything I’m about. This was an easy decision, my drive and selfishness was just getting in the way. The mountain will be there next year. Adam might not.
I threw my full voice behind a call to descend immediately. After some discussion, we did just that. I threw one last glance up to that glorious summit that I might never set foot on. I was satisfied with my decision. We stopped to take pictures from our high point.
|The team at our high point of about 13,000ft.|
|The view from our island in the sky.|
|400 meters that separated me from the summit.|
After a few minutes for photos, the team began to descend. Part of the way down the Kautz glacier I heard what sounded like thunder. We looked 500ft to our right, and hundreds of tons of ice began to peel off the glacier headwall then avalanche down the glacier.
|Kautz Glacier. The area that collapsed is on the left side of this photo.|
Another close call I had about had enough of this treacherous mountain. We arrived at the final snowfield above camp and enjoyed a thrilling glissade over 1000ft down to camp. What fun it was!
|Jesse gets in position for a long glissade.|
|Jesse used the “open legs” method for controlling his speed. I think it’s sketchy.|
|Our glissade tracks down 1000ft+ of mountain. The best way to get down a mountain.|
The glissade ended less than 30 feet from camp. Awesome. After hanging out with the guys and giving Heidi and update, we crashed for the night.
|My bivy setup.|
|Mason looking like he’s ready to call it a night.|
After falling asleep for a few hours, I awoke to rain on my face. My bivouacked experiment was backfiring. The mountain is called “Rainier” for a reason. It rains. A lot. The remainder of my night was wet, cold, and bothersome. I asked myself again why I decided to experiment with a new bivy bag on a major mountain.
|Looking cold after a very wet night.|
|Mason and Jesse get warm before we leave.|
Morning came with more rain, and we began our descent in freezing drizzle. As we prepared to descend over a ridge, our team leader gazed into his GPS looking confused. We all just stood there and wished we weren’t standing there. All of a sudden, our leader plunged over the ridge with a near vertical cornice. I objected but stupidly followed. It was really hard to see, and I thought maybe the ridge he had climbed down was short and flattened out below.
|A whiteout of wet snow followed us all the way down the mountain.|
As I came over the ridge the snow beneath my feet began to crumble. Instantly the snow below the cornice turned into moving corn. Someone yelled “AVALANCHE!!!” as everyone started jabbing the moving snow with our axes. Useless. We kept sliding. I looked up and saw a crevasse 100ft away. Either someone was going to hook something that wasn’t moving or we were all going to die. Another wave of terror. More digging into the corn that surrounded us. All of a sudden my axe hooked and my descent halted. Others gained purchase. We stopped.
The rest of the trip down was uneventful. A wet and tired team of four guys walked into the climber’s parking lot a few hours later. The adventure was over. It was more than I ever expected it to be. More beautiful. More frustrating. More frightening. More humbling. Rainier beat us this time. But we all came home relatively unscathed. I’m thankful God granted us some grace up there. We made some decisions that could have gotten us killed up there. But we all walked off.
I get it now – God is the master of his domain, and mountains illustrate this in obvious ways. I feel privileged to be a witness to his power.
Surviving with only bruises warranted a celebration. Pizza fit the bill.
|We all got our own pizzas. After all, we all just got done burning 25,000 calories…|
We opted to rent a cheap hotel room to dry out. It was way worth it.
|Everything was wet. Our hotel room illustrates.|
Overall the trip was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t do it again. But I wouldn’t take it back if I could. I guess that’s how climbing works…
|Life on the mountain – awesome when it’s good, harrowing when it’s bad.|