Liberty Ridge continues to be a popular objective despite the current conditions. Several teams have recently run into trouble on the ridge resulting in their team turning back or delaying their progress by days. Currently the Carbon glacier is very broken up an requiring a lot of time to navigate. If you are able to get across the carbon the lower ridge is mostly melted out, making rock fall a very real hazard. Above thumb rock climbing teams have been encountering many pitches of ice which further slows progress up to the Liberty Cap bergschrund, currently an ice climbing challenge.
Moral of the story? Liberty is still climbable but is a serious undertaking not to be taken lightly. The mountain is in a transition period and many of its popular routes are past their prime. Be prepared to handle more technical climbing and objective hazards than you may have expected. Most importantly be prepared to turn around and try again another day.
Two independent climbers successfully navigated the entrance onto the ridge from the Carbon over the weekend. The upper part of the ridge was icier than they expected, and they decided to pitch it out in shorter intervals. Overall, the ridge took them longer than they expected, and with low visibility, they decided to overnight in their tent on the summit.
Please remember to schedule and plan for extra time on the ridge, especially in later-season conditions. Also - having a dialed exit plan from the top of the mountain is critical. Navigating down the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier Route to Camp Schurman in a white out without a GPS track or recent route beta can be the crux of a Lib. Ridge climb. Descending down the Dissapointment Cleaver can be a good alternative in a white out since there's typically some wands marking the way - but be sure to set up a way to shuttle back to White River Trail Head.
We're a little behind in getting this post up, but thanks to Vik Sahney for sending it in:
Glacier Basin trail is snow free for maybe the bottom quarter or third.
We entered the Park on Friday (June 7th) about 3pm and spent 4 hours hiking up to the Curtis Ridge camp. Given the high winds on the ridge we dropped onto the snow and dug in behind a large boulder to get out of the wind. We woke at 4:30am with the sun and traveled early and arrived at Thumb Rock by 10am to get a good site as it was full (12 people) that night and we wanted to avoid the heat of the day. The route to Thumb Rock was straight forward and well traveled. Access to the Ridge was from the climbers right and it looked like you could opt for snow/rock in an early gulley (which we picked) or a straight snow shot further up the Ridge (unclear if there is a way past the bergschrund there). Rock fall was an issue and helmets and communication with others on the route are essential. Winds at Thumb Rock were 30-40mph and two parties opted to dig snow caves (3 man each) to get out of the winds. One is slightly above Thumb Rock and one is slightly below and both are out on the face.
Summit day we started out about 2 am after packing camp. We made good time climbing at about 1,000ft / hr up to the Black Pyramid in well defined boot pack on the climbers left (Willis Wall side). The central waterfall ice route option was not in shape. The right hand route looks like it could go. At the Black Pyramid, the the route turned to solid alpine ice from here nearly until Liberty Cap. Route descriptions often talk about 3-4 pitches and mention the bergschrund as the major challenge. We figure we pitched out something like 12 pitches of ice including one pitch after what was a minor bergschrund challenge that was close to 70 degrees. We ran with a 60m thin rope and 7 screws and 3 pickets. We used the pickets to protect part of the bergschrund pitch and the belay for the follow on the last ice pitch.
The wind on the route was strong and probably 30+ mph most of the day but on Liberty Cap it was 70 mph (per talking with the ranger's this morning)! We literally crawled on all fours with ice tools in hand to get there and stood long enough for a photo. We were glad to have packed goggles both for the wind and the brittle ice fragments. Helmets are definitely required on the route. We had only light rock fall on the lower part of the ridge (below thumb rock) but the ice chunks from the wind and climbers above were significant. I took a couple square in the head and am glad I was helmeted up! Depending on your comfort leading ice (at altitude and with a carry over pack load), I would recommend 7 screws so that you can run a full 60m rope with good anchors. There was a strong team of three that used running belays on a number of the lower places we had pitched out.
We descended the Emmons and joined it at the saddle dropping over a small crevasse and then traversing (climbers left) to gain the standard route without any uphill climbing. Thankfully on the Emmons the wind was less intense and the route was straight forward. We opted to bivy at Camp Schurman on Sunday night as we got there at about 10:30pm. We work up early today (3:30am) and made it back to Seattle about 11am.
This was our first climb on Liberty Ridge but in talking with 2 others on the route who had done it before, this was the most ice they had seen.
Some rangerly advice on Liberty Ridge...
Yes, it's a classic climb. Yes, it's awesome. It's Mt. Rainier, and it's just a slog... Uh, no...
Liberty Ridge boasts the highest rescue rate of any route on the mountain per 100 climbers. Statistically speaking, your party has about a 5% chance of being rescued. A much higher percentage of people end up having some kind of difficulty from minor inconveniences to many having a major epic.
What are the reasons for this?
Liberty Ridge is a route that people don't like to down-climb. Once above Thumb Rock (10,400), climbers tend to keep ascending into worsening conditions and weather thinking that if they can just get over Liberty Cap, they'll get home free and a nice mellow trip down the Emmons that will lead to rainbows and unicorns. The problem is that Liberty Ridge is on the sheltered north-side of the mountain. Often, climbers are unable to see worsening weather coming from the south-west. And if you're at 12,800, and you can see the epic coming, and you're hoping that if you can get just a few more hundred feet and you think the conditions will improve, they most likely won't, they may get worse, or more challenging.
The technical difficulty of the routes on Mt. Rainier aren't necessarily made difficult by static unchanging criteria. Indeed, the weather and climate have a greater effect on the technical difficulty of each than anything else. What may be ankle-deep, styrofoam, primo conditions on one day, may be terrifying dinner-plating glacier ice a few days later. So the weather and time of year play a huge effect on the difficulty of a route. On one day at 12,800 on Liberty, you may be climbing in your capilene top with great views all the way to Seattle (what could be nicer?!), a few hours later there may be a cap with 40 mph winds, no visibility, and it's everything you can do just to keep your toes and fingers from turning to ice (literally).
So as you ponder a climb of Liberty Ridge, remember:
1. You do not have to climb in poor weather, please descend.
2. Take plenty of gear (and fuel) to keep yourself warm if you should get benighted by weather or injury.
3. Take a cell phone, weather radio, ham radio, and get a weather forecast before your summit bid.
Climbers often underestimate how challenging Liberty Ridge can be.
Route report from International Mountain Guide's Erica Engle:
I had the great pleasure, along with co-guide Peter Adams, to lead International Mountain Guides’ first Liberty Ridge trip of the year. Despite high freezing levels and considerable trail breaking at the lower elevations, conditions on the route were good overall. We spent four days on the mountain, starting from White River and finishing with a carry over down the Disappointment Cleaver. Monday’s conditions involved soft snow with calf to knee-deep trail breaking, as we traveled over St. Elmo Pass and across the Winthrop Glacier and Curtis Ridge. While we ploughed through the soft snow down low, we observed significant dry blowing snow at the summit and upper mountain, moved by Monday’s northerly winds up high.
We made an early start the next day, in order to take advantage of firm conditions on the Carbon Glacier and lower ridge after a good refreeze overnight. We found relatively easy passage through the middle section of the main broken area of the Carbon Glacier at 7,400-7,600’. We then aimed directly for the toe of the ridge, bypassing another broken section that lay to the west, and gaining the ridge around 8,600’. We made an ascending traverse along the west facing slopes of the ridge to reach Thumb Rock, encountering knee to thigh-deep, dry, wind-affected snow from last week’s storms starting about 9,000’. To avoid rock fall at Thumb Rock and to take advantage of our early start, we continued climbing for about another 1,000’ and chopped platforms just big enough for two small tents at about 11,500’. The snow on the east facing slopes above Thumb Rock had begun to see solar effect and again required trail breaking. Caution is advised here in traveling these slopes in warming temperatures, as the steepness and exposure make for significant objective hazard.
With another early start on Wednesday, we climbed along the ridge to a rising traverse on the east facing slopes up to the Black Pyramid, with variable conditions including some moderately soft, dry, snow and firm, but chop-able snow. Another party climbing above sent considerable ice fall down the route and moderate winds sent substantial spindrift, adding to the hazard and alpine feel of the morning. We paused for a break and to allow passage of the above party before ascending to the ice. Three to four 50 m pitches of moderate ice with decent screw placements took us to the Liberty Glacier. Some of the ice climbing could be bypassed on the right, on snow. Liberty Glacier provided straightforward climbing to the bergschrund, with only one crack requiring a bulge move to climb over it, or a traverse to end run. With rising wind and lenticular development, we decided to make camp below the bergschrund and wait for clearing weather. The steepest parts of these slopes could pose wind slab avalanche problems if subjected to enough warming. In cool temperatures, camping here below the bergschrund proved to be an excellent decision and allowed us to climb in beautiful conditions up to Liberty Cap the next day.
We crossed the bergschrund near the left side of the slope, making a zigzag on good, bulgy, steep ice to the slopes above. Another three to four 50 m pitches on the middle left side, on variable quality ice, snice and snow led us to a significant crevasse that could be passed on the left or carefully crossed on plugged sections. This crack extended across the majority of the face. Stiff, wind-affected snow allowed for good step kicking to the summit of Liberty Cap, where we enjoyed stunning panoramic views, high fives, and a photo session. The upper part of the Cap is broken and could prove tricky to navigate without good visibility. We then descended to the saddle between the Cap and the summit, climbed to the high point on the crater, signed the register and booked it down the standard Disappointment Cleaver route in warming conditions.
With deteriorating snow conditions in the heat, if the crew had felt greater fatigue, we may have opted to camp again, taking advantage of pleasant conditions on the summit. However, a strong and fit crew allowed us rapid descent (2 hours) to IMG’s camp at Camp Muir, where another guide on layover between trips made us the best burritos this guide has ever eaten at 10,000’. Feeling nourished, and still strong, we opted to continue on to Paradise, forging through soft, plunging conditions on the Muir snowfield. With boots off, we enjoyed the pleasant drive back into the forest, relishing an awesome trip of beautiful sunrises, interesting route finding, swinging tools and great mountain companions!