Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Kautz!

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to guide the Kautz Glacier on Mount Rainier. This was an unusual trip for a couple of reasons. First, I'd never climbed the route before. And second, a film team was supposed to follow us up the mountain.

After a bit of driving around, I picked up all three climbers from different locations around Seattle and made for Ashford, a small town just outside of Mount Rainier National Park. The diverse team included Dax, a geologist from Seattle; Peter, a scientist from Washington D.C.; and Virginia, a radiologist from Auburn.

Each of the climbers on the trip had already completed a fair bit of training ahead of time. Dax took a variety of courses over the years, the most recent of which was our Alpine Ice Course. Peter climbed in the Alps and on Mount Shuksan and Virginia completed all three parts of our Alpine Leadership series. It was a very skilled team.

Once we arrived in Ashford, we met the other guide for the trip, Dawn Glanc, and the camera people, Nick and Robert. Dawn has been guiding for six years and is slowly working her way up the climbing sponsorship food chain. She is currently sponsored by Mountain Hardwear and is being courted by a number of other companies. She's no small potato, she's on the cover of Alpinist magazine this month. And lastly, Nick and Robert were both Northwest climbers and filmmakers.

Nick and his Camera

Once the team was all together, we went through a thorough gear check and got everything together for the start of our ascent.

Nick videotapes as Dawn goes through the gear check

On the first day we hiked up to the base of the Nisqually glacier, made camp and reviewed some snow and ice climbing techniques. The filmmakers set-up their camera and went to work filming us while we went to work teaching. Both Dawn and I did our best to avoid stuttering or stammering as we taught in front of the camera. Both of us believe that we did a good job. I guess we'll have to see once they edit it together. Who knows, they can do a lot with footage. For all I know, they're going to make it look like Dawn voted me off the mountain...

Virginia and Dawn set-up a tent as Nick videotapes

Early the next morning, Nick -- the younger of the two filmmakers -- informed me that Robert had injured his back. This wasn't terribly surprising. The two were carrying nearly twice as much weight as the rest of us. Unfortunately, the injury forced the pair to leave.

Early on the second day of the trip.
We broke camp and made our way up to high camp. This was a difficult leg of the climb. We moved full packs up the mountain nearly 4000 feet under a searingly bright and hot sun.

At one point on the ascent, I attempted to chop a step in some hard glacier ice. Surprisingly, the adze of my ice axe bent completely over. Though the ice axe still worked, that particular tool had been on a lot of mountains with me. It was a sad moment in my climbing career. But it was only a moment, we still had a lot of mountain to climb with or without my nostalgia.

A broken ice axe -- like losing an old friend...

Peter and Dax working up toward high camp.

The author leading up a short rock pitch on the way to high camp.
Photo by Peter Kaskan

Eventually we established high camp in the rocks at 10,700 feet. This is the highest regularly used camp on the mountain and is normally a cold and desolate place. On this particular trip the camp was warm and inviting with water running out of the snowfields above. We quickly set-up our tents and began to refer to the location as home.

Peter and Virginia at High Camp

The following morning we got up well before the crack of dawn and grunted up to the first technical difficulty. We had to make a blind rappel down onto a shelf that worked itself into the Kautz Glacier proper. It's a little disconcerting to rap into complete blackness, but Dax, Peter and I each did it.

Unfortunately, Virginia and Dawn were forced to turn back at the rappel. Virginia was a trooper and an absolutely wonderful team member, but it wasn't in the cards for her that day. We have no doubt that the mountain will give her another chance in the future.

A climber leading up the ice pitches

Peter and Dax on the ice

After rappelling, Dax, Peter and I, quickly skirted below a series of ice cliffs to the base of a series of steeper ice pitches. Over the next couple of hours, we worked our way up the bulletproof ice by using steep ice climbing techniques. After completing four long pitches at altitude, it seemed like the rest of the climb was going to be a piece of cake.

The upper mountain -- of course -- had other ideas. What looked like easy French technique terrain, turned out to be steep and physical penitentes. Penitentes are snow or ice fins that stick out of the glacier late in the season. They are beautiful objects and give the mountain a lot of character, but they definitely require a tremendous of energy to climb through.

As we worked our way slowly toward the top, Peter asked for some help. "Jason, I need a little psych. Can you give me a little psych to motivate me?"

"Only a few hundred feet left," I responded. "We're going to make it. Only a few hundred more feet...a few hundred feet to the glory," I smiled.

The last few minutes to the summit were difficult, but both Dax and Peter held on. When they finally pulled up onto the highest point in the Pacific Northwest, there was no longer a deficit in psych...

Peter and Dax on the Summit

The view from camp the morning after we summited, before we descended.

--Jason D. Martin

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great TR! Looks like a fantastic trip. Don't mean to pick nits, but does Ingraham Flats not count as a regularly used camp? It's over 11,000 feet...