Sunset Amphitheater 2011

June 18th - Courtesy of Seattle Mountain Rescue

With partly sunny skies, on the morning of June 17, 2011,Seattle Mountain Rescue members Gordon Smith, Keith Schultz, and Kellie McBee set out to climb one of the Sunset Amphitheater Headwall routes. Planning to carry over the mountain, we left one car at Paradise and drove a second car to the gate on the West Side Road. We hiked up the West Side Road more than a mile to the Tahoma Creek Trail, and ascended that trail. A flood event a couple years before had substantially re-arranged the valley bottom and deposited several feet of rocks and sand in an area several hundred feet wide and several miles long. Quite impressive to think about the force of water needed to move bea
ch ball size rocks down the valley.

We reached the Wonderland trail and headed north on the trail. At about 4,400’ of elevation the trail become more snow covered than not. Once the snow became deep enough to hide the trail, the only sign of human presence was one set of tracks in the snow that ascended to a bit above 5,000’.

At 5,600’ we crested Emerald Ridge, between the tongues of the Tahoma Glacier, then ascended the ridge to its upper end. The clouds thinned, revealing fabulous views of the upper mountain. On other sides of Mount Rainier, it is a relatively monolithic bump. Below Sunset Amphitheater one has views south and east to the cliffs of Glacier Island and Success Cleaver, north to Tokaloo Spire, and up to Sunset Ridge, the Sunset Amphitheater Headwall, and Tahoma Cleaver. St. Andrews Rock is a distinct peak within the Amphitheater, and Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest appear to be separate peaks. With all the cliffs and peaks, it is almost like being in a mountain range, rather than being on a lone peak. The icefalls of the Tahoma Glacier add to the ruggedness.

Looking up Tahoma Glacier, from about 6,500’. St. Andrews rock is the symmetrical peak in front of the cloud near the center of the photo. Liberty Crest is obscured by the lenticular cloud on the left, and Columbia Crest is obscured by the lenticular cloud on the right.

We enjoyed the problem solving of choosing a route in the absence of wands, trails and tracks. Above 5,000’ we found the snowpack to be substantial, allowing clear paths up the glacier with alternatives avoiding the faintly darker bands of snow that suggested the shading of sagging snow bridges.

A major lenticular cloud formed over first Liberty Cap, covered both summits, then faded, then returned. We thought about the winds aloft, and thought about the weather forecast for generally decent weather until the next night, and the small weak system forecast to come through the next night. Hopefully, the weather would hold until we got high enough for the precipitation to be snow rather than rain, and hopefully the winds indicated by the lenticular cloud would fade before we got onto the headwall and the summit plateau. We did not think it odd that as the day got later and we gained elevation, the snow became softer. By late afternoon, at 7,500’ we were sinking shin deep with each step, and the winds were picking up.

We found a relatively sheltered camp on Puyallup Cleaver and were happy that the temperature was dropping as the sun descended. Hopefully we would have firm snow in the morning.

Some time around the middle of the night we awoke to the sound of rain on the tent. No big deal—the forecast included the chance of some small amounts of precipitation. However, it kept raining. Steadily. In the morning, the rate of rain decreased, but the rain continued. The temperature was well above freezing, the snow resembled a giant slurpee, and the visibility varied from a few hundred feet to a mile plus. We thought about snow bridges turned to slush. We thought about route finding with poor visibility. We thought about packing up sodden tents, and how wet our sleeping bags could get by nightfall, and how wet the feet of the person with non-plastic boots could get. But mostly, we thought about slogging in the rain.

We concluded that we had all been to the top of this hill before, we had accomplished the Park’s goal of assessing resource conditions (no sign of human-caused damage), and recognized that there was recent information on route conditions from other parties. Mostly we concluded that it would be really unpleasant to hike in the slush and rain, with the rain eventually turning to sleet. We decided to head down. With the rain, we did none of the sightseeing we had done on the hike up, and it took us only about four hours from our camp on Puyallup Cleaver to the car, without feeling that we were rushing.

This outing did provide benefit as a reconnaissance. All of us were impressed by the ruggedness of the scenery and appreciated the adventure of finding our own route rather than following the tracks of others. A descent of the Sickle Route looked very reasonable, and it appeared that one could see the entire Sickle Route (with the possible exception of the very top) as one ascended into the amphitheater, and scope out a descent route. Early season, one might ski most of the approach to a camp at 10,000’ or 11,000’ in the amphitheater, and ski out. With good visibility, one could choose a line up the headwall, tag the summit and avoid a carry-over by descending the Sickle Route back to a high camp.

As we wrung water out of our wet clothes at the car, all of us vowed to return again for an aesthetic climb.

June 16-

Rangers spent several days exploring the Sunset Amphitheater on the west side of Mt.
Rainier and enjoyed excellent weather and climbing conditions. The Sunset Amphitheater is one of the most spectacular terrain features on the mountain as well as one of the most remote parts of the entire park.

There are two main established routes in the Amphitheater; the Sunset Head
wall Couloir (pictured right) and the original Sunset Amphitheater Ice Cap route, which climbs between the two major walls forming the amphitheater.

The Rangers bivied at 11,200 ft and woke to clear skies above and set out for an ice-line on the right side of the Sunset Icecap. The climb was excellent technically and suspenseful as the top of the route was invisible from below and there were doubts as to how to exit onto the plateau above.

The climbing was classic, steep ice steps with some good easy mixed terrain and a spectacular traverse pitch on the ice cap.

Surprisingly the route gave an easy exit after the exciting traverse across the ice cap. A simple walk out onto the plateau above through a notch in the cap (below right) led quickly to the Sickle variation of the Tahoma Glacier and back to our camp.

Rangers spent the next day climbing directly up the Sickle route and carried over to Camp Muir via an excellent ski down the DC.

If climbers are interested in Westside routes this or a carry over to Camp Schurman offers a great full tour of the mountain. Sunset Amphitheater and the surrounding areas offered some interesting features including St. Andrews Rock, a natural ice arch forming below the ice cap and spectacular rime formations.