The ledges are starting to get their winter-coat back on. Considered the "standard route" in the winter months, Gibraltar Ledges is considerably more challenging than the "standard route" in the summer (the Disappointment Cleaver).
Some of the challenges are due to the season - winter storms are harsh on the upper mountain. They roll in quick, sometimes without warning, and can kick out the jams for days without letting up. The days are shorter and thus climbers have less time to navigate up and down from the summit in the daylight. New, unconsolidated, and deep snow covers the mountain and slows the pace at which climbers can ascend. Since there's no melt-freeze cycles occurring, like there is in the summer time, climbers can find themselves wallowing waist deep. Lastly, with the colder temps, higher winds, and more precipitation in the winter months, small human-errors which happen to all climbers (like forgetting your lighter, dropping a glove, breaking your sunglasses/goggles) can have fatal consequences.
Other challenges come from the nature of the route. The ledges themselves are narrow and portions don't allow time to self-arrest if a climber does slip. The Cowlitz Glacier approach and the Gibraltar Chute exit is steep and can have high avalanche danger. And lastly, the upper mountain portion isn't climbed often enough to form a boot-pack and there's no wands. Climbers must navigate around crevasses and find a route to the summit using their best judgement to avoid hidden crevasses.
When deciding to climb the ledges in the winter, please come prepared, have a good weather forecast, and track the storm cycle history for the two weeks before your climb so you have an idea of the avalanche dangers you'll encounter. Most likely you'll have the mountain to yourself which means you must have a plan for self-rescue if a member of your team gets hurt.
Though the challenges are many and can be extreme, climbing Rainier in the winter can offer one of the most rewarding experiences. The solitude is unmatched. Views in the winter air are at their best. And the mountain looks its greatest with a fresh white suit. Enjoy!
The Gibraltar Ledges route is currently out of season due to the lack on snow on the south side of Gibraltar Rock, extreme rockfall hazard, and a large bergschrund once you climb to the chute prior to Camp Comfort.
The route is still "in" and climbable, but fading quickly. The Cowlitz Glacier approach is getting a bit broken just above Camp Muir and the typically snowy ledges used to traverse alongside Gibraltar Rock and up to Gib Chute to access the upper mountain have been melting quickly. Come climb this route while it's still in shape!
Wednesday, April 20th
Current photo of the route. More to come soon.
For 2015 route conditions and information follow this link: Gibraltar Ledges 2015