Liberty Ridge - 2008

Liberty Ridge Route Conditions - July 10th

Just returned from an interesting few days on "the ridge". Overall, the route seemed to be in less than desirable shape with the exception of the upper snowfield leading to Liberty Cap, which was stellar. The crux of the route was definitely found on Day 2 moving from Curtis Ridge to Thumb Rock which involved some real "A" game glacier travel and crevasse negotiation followed by an abundance of chaucey rock scrambling and persistent rockfall from above. With this stated, however, any day in the mountains is a good day and if you are looking for a more challenging version of Liberty Ridge than perhaps these conditions are for you. Below is a more detailed account from day to day.
Day 1 - 7/7/08

The approach from White River T.H. to the Curtis Ridge Camp was straight forward enough with mostly snow covered terrain to St. Elmo Pass and minimal crevasse negotiation on the Winthrop. This portion of the route took about 5 hours.

The photos to the right were taken from Glacier Basin looking toward St. Elmo Pass and from Curtis Ridge looking back at the Winthrop Glacier traverse.

Day 2 - 7/8/08

Moving from Curtis Ridge onto the Carbon followed the standard line descending into the moat and follwing it up and onto the compression zone below the ice fall. From here, it appears that you can still travel either up and left or down and right. We went for the up and left approach which took some persistence in our route finding as we got crevassed out a couple of times before putting together a reasonable line. The down and right option looked like it may have been more technical at the first ice fall but may have been more direct in the end.

Once above the lower Carbon ice fall, the route traversed across the rock and ice runout debris pile from Liberty Wall which is actually what the "cloud" in the top photo is. Not a good place to spend too much time. From here, we had planned to ascend the the snowfield straight off the Carbon Glacier to Thumb Rock, but the over hanging bergschrund at the bottom combined with rock fall detoured us to gain the ridge crest at the toe and ascend the rock bands to a higher point of the lower snowfield.
After moving back onto the snowfield the climbing was mostly straightforward on firm snow and ice that required the use of both ice tools and vigilance in keeping an eye upslope for persistent softball size rockfall. At one point on this lower portion of the route we both had to shield ourselves with our packs and move quickly from one point of cover to another as if we were under fire in Lhadok. Eventually we found ourselves able to relax once we arrived at Thumb Rock in what seemed like a long 4 hours.
Current conditions at Thumb Rock high camp.
Helmets on?

Day 3 - 7/9/08

We left Thumb Rock around 2 am as we wanted to avoid any more rockfall and get on and off the route before it got too warm. Here, we opted for the rightward traverse on very dirty water ice as the left option looked chaucy and exposed with water running through the middle of the access point to the upper cliff bands. Once around and to the right of lower rock buttress we stair stepped up a series of bergschrunds and crevasses with some steep ice moves. Above the buttress the climbing turned to more dirty ice until able to trend left and around onto the lower portion of the upper ramp. This section contained a lot of steep tool swinging into dirt and rock covered ice which at various times made me cringe a little bit every time I saw the sparks fly off the tips of my tools.
Moving onto the lower ramp with the sun rising we both sighed a sound of relief as we knew we should have more picturesque climbing conditions from here to the top. The conditions on the ramp went back and forth between firm neve snow and ice providing solid tool placements and excellent cramponing.
Topping out at the end of the ramp we were then confronted with the negotiation of the upper bergshrund and some more steep ice to Liberty Cap. There appeared to be two options of ascent at this point. One, a meandering and exposed line to the left or a more technical line to the right. We opted to go right and found some very high quality ice moves over a slight bulge that led to the grand finale of ice climbing on some very funky multi-layered ice to the top. I found it prudent on the last pitch of climbing to to double check every tool placement to assure that you were sunk into the good ice below the layered rotten ice on top. With the last crux behind us we were finally able to stand upright for the first time all morning and make the gentle walk to Liberty Cap and then down the Emmons. The ascent to Liberty Cap from Thumb Rock took about 6 hours traveling mostly un-roped and only stopping for a packet of GU every now and again.
As I said before, the conditions on the route were definitely not perfect and not at all like the photos you see in the guidebooks. But any day spent climbing on Mt. Rainier is always a good day in my opinion.

Climbing Rangers ~ Kevin Hammonds/Phil Edmonds

July 8th

This update provided by John Stanfield,

We went to the left of the rock buttress just above Thumb Rock and it was straight forward snow climbing, no sketchy dirty ice and the rock fall was at least visible. (See photo)

We took the blue line drawn on the last photo in the day 3 group of the June 30th route condition blog. It was a great set of connected ice and snow ramps that put us at the base of a large, icy bowl.

In the final "bowl" we stayed left and climbed fairly solid ice to the Cap. (See photo) We were very fortunate with the weather and had blue sky the entire time on mountain.

We had a 30m rope, 4 screws and 4 pickets. This seemed to be enough gear, but it would have been a little faster if we had 2 more screws and a longer rope. We ended up pitching out more than we had anticipated. We left TR at 6:30am, were on the Cap by 4pm and to our car at White River by 9:30pm.

June 30th

This report was provided by Joe Steinmetz and Bryan Cowger.

It took about 8 hours to get to our camp on Curtis Ridge. Snow conditions in Glacier Basin and on the Winthrop weren't too bad considering the temperature and the lack of overnight freezing. All obvious crevasses were easily avoided. There were good tracks up until Curtis Ridge. We kept to about 7500 feet as we traversed the expansive ridge to the edge of the Carbon Glacier. We established our camp in a nice sandy area just below the point were one descends onto the Carbon Glacier. Another team of two were camped farther down the ridge. They had the same plan to head to Thumb Rock in the morning.

The camp site was fantastic - spectacular views of the Carbon and its ice falls, as well as the entire Liberty Ridge route. There was, however, no silence, as the Willis and Liberty Walls continually emitted rock, ice and water.

Day 2: Curtis Ridge to Thumb Rock (5 hours)

We descended to the Carbon at about 5am and were on the Glacier just as the sun illuminated the upper slopes of the mountain. It wasn't fun because of all the loose rock under our feet. Eventually we reached a snow ramp that took us onto the Carbon.

It only took about 20 minutes to traverse over the opposite side where one starts to head toward Liberty Ridge. Again, there were good tracks to follow and the snow conditions were okay considering temperatures. No issues with crevasses.

The path up to the bergshrund that protects the West side of Liberty Ridge crosses rock, ice and avalanche debris fields. We tried to move quickly through these areas as we fully expected Liberty Wall to launch seracs into our path. Luckily we did not encounter any serious rock or ice avalanches.

We decided to gain the snow slopes leading to Thumb Rock on the far left side of the bergshrund. This involved about 20 feet of class 3-4 rock. The route up to Thumb Rock from here was 30-40 degree snow slopes, and other than skirting obvious rock fall areas, we didn't encounter any issues getting to camp.

We arrived at Thumb Rock and had our pick of sites. We setup our Bibler for what would be a very long day of seeking shelter from the sun. Shortly after we arrived, we were joined by the other climbers. And about an hour later 2 more climbers from Vancouver, BC arrived. Afternoon entertainment was watching ice dropping off Liberty Wall with background noise of rock fall from Willis Wall.

After sorting equipment, eating and making a few phone calls to spouses (AT&T wireless coverage works just fine from Thumb Rock) we all settled into our bags for some sleep.

Day 3 - Part I: Thumb Rock to Liberty Cap (12 hours)

The camp awakened at about 3:30am. The first team left camp at 4:30am followed by the 2nd 15 minutes later, with us in the rear. The day started with the first team deciding to go to the right of the rock outcropping that protects Thumb Rock. This seemed like the right thing to do (we all discussed it the night before), however it wasn't fun. When we traversed out to the edge we had to pass under a very active rock fall area. We then went over some weak ice covered with dirt, before finding some reasonable ice/snow that lead to the upper snow slopes. Just as the first rope team started to go up the first slope a large serac let loose - it was loud and way too close for comfort. Luckily it missed everyone and dumped onto the lower slopes of Liberty Ridge. In hindsight, it may have been worth exploring the route to the left of
the rocks above TR.

The climbing up to the Pyramid was uneventful and relaxing (so long as constant exposure isn't a problem). The views were wonderful as we gained the upper slopes of the ridge. The lower slopes just to the left of the Pyramid were snow. However, going higher there was harder ice - some which could be avoided by climbing close to the actual ridge line. There was great exposure and enjoyable climbing from here up to the bergshrund protecting Liberty Cap.

We pulled slightly ahead of the other two teams at this point - not sure if this was by design or not. We headed up to the bergshrund (trying to remember all the beta from the blog) and looked for tracks. We decided to go far to the right side to start our attack (see yellow line in image below). It later became obvious to us that the far left side would also work, likely with less effort (see blue line in image below). Everything looked so easy from a distance, but as we got closer, things got bigger and angles got steeper. The ice ledges leading up to the bergshrund were covered with crusted powder that was about 2 feet thick. Finding ice took some patience, but without too much effort, we eventually led ourselves to the edge of the upper bergshrund slope. This last section was definitely made possible through pure adrenaline and pressure of 5 other climbers watching with patience and anticipation of following the same route. It wasn't pretty, but we made it the upper ice slopes that lead to the Cap. We offered to top rope the other teams and they all accepted. Within 20 minutes, 6 climbers stood just below Liberty Cap spying the final route to the top of the route.

The experienced ice climbers chose direct elegant lines that led to the Cap. The rest of us chose to follow the ice ramps up to the Cap.

We reached Liberty Cap at about 5pm. Our plan from here was to head to the West Crater rim and setup camp. However, the weather was changing and it looked like thunder and lightning may be a factor.

Day 3 - Part II: Liberty Cap to bivy site. (1 hour)
A classic Rainier weather change ensued over the course of the next 20 minutes, and we quickly found ourselves in high winds, white-out conditions, and needed to pull out all our warm clothing and Goretex. We dropped down off the cap toward the summit crater, but realized that we weren’t going to make it to our planned camp site. Instead, however, we found a crevasse just above the top of Willis Wall with one side, the leeward side, about 5’ below the other. This conveniently dropped us out of the wind and we dug a flat spot large enough for our tent plus two bivy spots. Getting out of the wind allowed us to get the stoves going, top up our water bottles, and make some hot dinner. We went to sleep with ¼” hale pounding the tent, the wind whipping the sides, and an electrical storm that far exceeded anything we’d ever encountered – brilliant flashes of light every 5-10 seconds that seemed to consume the entire sky.

Day 4: Bivy site to Summit to Camp Schurman via Emmons and then out to White River Trail Head (10 hours)

We woke up Monday morning to a beautiful sunrise and calm conditions. Hail and snow had buried most of our gear. We coaxed the stove into action, got some hot breakfast, and then made for the summit. It was a relatively easy trek across to the summit, where it was windy and cold, but with good visibility. From there we headed back to the north side of the crater where we found the route down the Emmons well marked. The down climb was typically slow and tedious with heavy balling conditions while our crampons were on. We ended up removing them as often as the route allowed, making much faster progress with just boots. We got to Camp Schurman in about 4 hours from the summit, had lunch, then over to the Inter Glacier for a 2000’ glissade down. Out to the car by 5pm and home.

Gear: 4 - 24" Pickets (only needed 3), 7 ice screws (only needed 4).

June 20th

This is a two part report. The first section is from Mark Bryan.

Day 1: White River to St Elmo's Pass - The trail had a lot of avalanche debris on it, but by the time we walked out, the Park Service had mostly cleared it from the trail. In another week, I imagine it will be totally clear.

Day 2: St Elmo's Pass to Thumb Rock - Mainly just a long slog. The snow conditions were good, if a bit soft in the afternoon. No crevasse problems until we hit the Carbon, and those were easy enough to see. I only remember needing to leap one crevasse. There was also a huge avalanche debris field, which we had to cross, but it caused no difficulties - in fact it might have actually helped.

We ran into another party, consisting of a man and woman, around Curtis Ridge, with whom we traveled through the majority of the Carbon. One of the pair, the man, said he had been to Thumb Rock previously and said the right side of the ridge was "out" due to a big bergschrund. We followed him, rather than our own good sense, around the left side of the ridge. DON'T MAKE THAT MISTAKE. There were several vertical bands of snow and rock to traverse. The "rock" was the worst stuff I've climbed, but we kept going, hoping that the next snow ramp would lead to a good traverse over to the west side of the ridge. We finally got over the crest to the west side, and began making some progress towards the snow ramp below TR. A few minutes later, the woman from the other party was hit by a falling rock (there was PLENTY of it), and thought she broke her arm. They said they would descend on their own, and wished us good luck. We spent the next hour traversing, snow climbing and dodging falling rocks, mostly small, but some big enough. There was a short, fun ice pitch below TR, which could probably be avoided to the right.

Day 3: Thumb Rock to Summit and Camp Schurman - We woke around 3:00 am, which was just about right. The air was still and cold: perfect. We took the left variation around the rock outcrop, which was just absolutely beautiful, classic snow climbing. Probably some of the most enjoyable climbing I've done. Progress was quick, and we didn't run into any rock or ice fall, though I believe the weather had a lot to do with our luck. Around the black pyramid, we ran into several hundred feet of 40 degree bullet-proof blue ice. It wouldn't have taken screws very well, and definitely didn't give any plunker placements. Sometimes the ice was covered by spindrift or snow, but rarely enough to help. My partner brought one ice axe and one ice tool, rather than two technical tools, and didn't feel comfortable soloing the ice with the ice axe. I didn't think we had time to pitch it out, so I took his axe and gave him one of my tools. At this point, I might suggest that two technical ice tools are highly recommended for the route this year. Even marginal placements took a lot of work with the axe. The ice wasn't really difficult, just awkward and insecure.

Next, the angle backed off, the ice turned to snow, and we came upon the bergshrund. We studied it for quite a while and decided the weaknesses in the left section might go. I lead up a serac, only to realize I could have walked around the back side of it - doh! After that, I traversed left on a wide, angled snow bridge, protecting the traverse by placing screws in the wall. I turned a corner and climbed some WI-2 to the end of our 60m rope, and put in an anchor. The next pitch was the most interesting one. I topped out the WI-2 section, traversed back right on a snow ledge, then tried to find a good way to make it onto the ice ramp above the snow ledge. The ice ramp clearly lead to the (false) summit, but it was kind of tricky getting onto it. The ice ramp was about neck high, and took tools well, but there were no feet. A bit of sketching and belly flopping got me through it. I ran out the rest of the rope and brought Eric up. At this point, all that remained was ~250 feet of easy 40-70 degree ice and snow to the false summit, but we were both tired, and Eric wanted a belay, so we pitched it all out: one pitch up and across the snow/ice ramp and a second up some fun, secure 70 degree ice.

We then found ourselves just below Liberty Cap, where Eric kicked steps to the proper summit. The descent was uneventful, if longer than I expected. We got to Schurman late in the afternoon, brewed, took some analgesics and slept like babies.

We took 5 screws, which wasn't enough. I expected one or two pitches of ice, but I don't think you could do it in fewer than 3 (without soloing), so if you want to have reasonable anchors AND have reasonable protection while climbing, bring 7 or so. Did it work with 5? Sure, but it was hair-raising, especially with suspect belay anchors. 8 would make it feel very secure, but might be overkill if you're trying to go light.
Three pickets was fine for us. Some might want more, some might not want any. I was able to use pickets to augment my anemic screw selection on a couple of pitches.
Rope: Take at least a 60m
Tools: bring two technical tools

Totally straight forward, except for the bergshrund, which might have some good tracks on it now. Also, it should be fairly easy to find the "right" way to the snow ramp below TR, but just stay on the west (right) side of the ridge.

Here is the report from his partner, Eric Cohen.

My partner and I climbed Liberty Ridge June 18-20. The climb was pretty straightforward. Crossing the Carbon was easy with a track to follow, then over avalanche debris to the base of the ridge. We gained the ridge right at the toe via some sketchy rock to the Willis Wall side. Climbed a bit of snow, then over more rock to gain the west side. We contoured over to the long snow slope below Thumb Rock. (There was another party of two on the route with us at this point and one of them was hit by a rock and injured on the arm during this traverse so they went back down.). There was a short stretch of hard ice on this slope below Thumb Rock but other than dodging a few rocks ourselves, there were no issues. We had expected to encounter another party at Thumb Rock as the rangers said there were 3 teams on the route, but never saw them, and we had the rest of the climb to ourselves.

After bivying at Thumb Rock we made quick progress up the left hand snow slopes. We encountered a long stretch of hard ice near the black pyramid that made for awkward climbing as the slopes were not steep, but the ice was very hard and brittle. The bergshrund required a few zig zags and an awkward "pull up" move to overcome (nicely lead by my partner Mark). This was followed by a few more pitches including a short pitch of 70 degree ice to gain the snow slopes below Liberty Cap. We then made the long slog to the Emmons route and descended to Camp Shurman.

For more route conditions reports on Liberty Ridge, check out our archives.