Skiing Mt Rainier's Central Mowich Face

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17-18 July 2005

Mt Rainier, Mowich Face Mowich Face from Ptarmigan Ridge

Overview of routes skied on the Mowich Face

2010 update: Dan Helmstadter skied the Central Mowich Face in July 2010, reporting thin snow over ice on the variation. Congratulations, Dan! Way to schralp it in one piece and tell us about it! Dan's trip report on CascadeClimbers.com

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[Introduction: rant written November, 2005 while stranded in Los Alamos sin nieve]

For several reasons, most of my ski partners and I share an all-around aversion to Mt Rainier. Despite that, attention-grabbing views of it taunt the ambitious ski mountaineer-errant from the metropoles of the Puget Sound region on any sunny day. The most prominent features from Tacoma and Seattle are the north-side wonders of Willis Wall, Liberty Ridge, Ptarmigan Ridge and the Mowich Face.

Despite what was nearly the worst snow year on record, the northwest's cool, wet spring made for good conditions on high-altitude routes. Nothing in Washington is higher in altitude than mighty Tahoma. Banking on good conditions high on the mountain, clearly this was our time to make a big, serious descent on Mt Rainier. While we lack affinity for the big one, it would be irrational for a big-game hunter in the ski descent business to pass on such an opportunity.

The objective seemed obvious. Liberty Ridge, as aesthetic as it is, has been skied several times and hosts crowds of climbers that might make for very awkward situations on the descent. Don't give us credit for not being wanton enough to endanger climbers in addition to ourselves; just consider us elitist misanthropes. The Central Mowich Face was the choice for several reasons. Andrew McLean, Armond Dubuque and Mark Holbrook attempted CMF in the Spring of '99 after their group's successful descent of the Mowich Face's Edmunds Headwall in 1997 with Carl Skoog. Well, an attempt by someone of McLean's renown makes it that much more enticing. Furthermore, it also saw a ski attempt from Ben Manfredi and the Hummels in the spring of 2001.

Even if it's not our favorite, Mt Rainier is the attention- and prestige-grabbing behemoth of the northwest. Lou Dawson's Wild Snow includes this famous quote:

If the locals wouldn't crank the steeps, it was up to the outsiders.
The locals have been working pretty damn hard the last few years in the North Cascades, which are the wildest, most glaciated range in the lower 48 states, but some people can't get past elevation. The Central Mowich Face with its variation is the most direct, down-the-gut descent on the Mowich Face, which points directly at Seattle. It was time to score one for the home team.

Without further ado, here is the trip report I wrote on turns-all-year (with minor editing). At the time, I wanted to give my friends the option of remaining anonymous (initially at Josh's request in jest) since I was the only one who had actually skied it.

[/Introduction]

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July 18, 2005, Central Mowich Variation
on: 07/19/05, 04:41 AM

(Names have been withheld to protect the innocent)

Early yesterday morning, six of us (five skiers and one climber) started across the north lobe of the Mowich Glacier toward the Central Mowich Face.

Intestinal affliction stopped one skier shortly above the bergschrund. The climber and I found a nice spot to wait for the other skiers to catch us about 1,000' above the bergschrund. We had started almost "climber early" (not really though), and the three other skiers were not feeling good at all about the icy state of the early-morning corn. They had probably just spent too much time looking at the variation through binoculars and rehearsing anxiety attacks.

At any rate, the remaining three skiers did not want to climb the remainder of the face. Of course, we could have skied something else, or performed some antics involving both skis and ropes, but they were content to sit in the freezing shade at 11,400 ft for several hours waiting for the snow to soften.

The climber and I were ready for some absolutely classic steep snow climbing. Conditions were perfect for moving quickly up the face on crampons. The surface was icy corn that held a flat-footed crampon effortlessly; no front-pointing was necessary. We began running belays using pickets just below the variation. The variation required, at most, a handful of steps on the front points of the crampons. I can't really imagine it being in better condition for a ski descent. We maintained running belays until the face crested below Liberty Cap.

We were atop Libery Cap circa half past eleven. The day couldn't have been nicer, but the breeze was still mighty cold. The climber had every reason to want to descend the DC before its south-facing snow got baked any more, so away with the climber....

I really should have waited longer for the snow to soften. The northwest-facing Mowich Face gets direct afternoon sun this time of year; somewhere in the range of 3-5 pm probably would have been ideal for the descent. However, it was really cold on top, and I wanted to rejoin my friends below the Mowich. I'm sure we would have waited longer had we been together, but we weren't. So, away with the skier....

I skied from the summit of Liberty Cap to the crest of the Edmunds Headwall, where a plane buzzed me at very close range. I began making turns on the smooth-as-glass surface at the top of the Edmunds Headwall. I was somewhat concerned that the snow on this portion, which hadn't even given me pause on the ascent, was not holding an edge nearly as well as I'd hoped. Every turn ended with several feet of skidding. A couple hundred feet below the crest, the plane buzzed me again at really close range. I'm pretty sure they saw me; I wonder what they thought?

I traversed to a different part of the face, looking for better conditions. But they weren't to be found. What are the options? I could change gear and climb to the crest again. No, I don't want to do that. I could carve myself a spot and rest, waiting for the sun to do its job. No, I really don't want to sit here staring down this thing for a couple hours. I'll just take it easy and see how it goes.

I noticed a chute on skier's right that had a different texture of snow than the open headwall. It was fifty degree-ish and about as wide as my skis. Ice was sparkling in the midday sun on both of its sides, but the center had this bumpy texture that looked like it would hold an edge. I thought it was an exit to the variation on climber's left. I stowed a pole and grabbed an ax to make the entrance. One turn that took about fifteen feet of skidding to stop put me in a good position to sidestep through the chute. Sidestepping complete, I made a turn on the open slopes below the chute before I noticed that I was perched above cliffs. OK, this is not the variation.

Luckily, I was able to traverse out of my predicament. On the headwall again, I was right next to the true variation. I eased my way to its edge and switched the ax to my right (uphill) hand. Just a short, icy traverse would put me on the Central Mowich Face, two-thousand exhilirating feet above deliverance. The variation was steep and icy such that once on it, I would be completely committed; there would be no chance to stop or turn. A moment's contemplation, and I pushed over the edge. Keep your weight centered. Feel those edges! Since you're reading this, there's probably no need to tell you that the edges held.

Sky and Mowich Face Sky heads toward Ptarmigan Ridge after the ski descent. Photo by Jason Hummel

I skied the next thousand feet rather tentatively. It took awhile to decompress. By the time I reached the place where the other skiers had stopped, the snow actually became CORN! I changed to the sunhat, removed the puffy, and enjoyed the rest of the face.

The Mowich Glacier was sloppy, but fun nevertheless. An intemission to relax and pack at camp, then we skied to about 7,300' before contemplating the scree-infested hell that is Ptarmigan Ridge. A seven-thousand foot descent in the latter half of July, not too shabby.

You could put a fork in me. Who wants to have a retirement party?

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Rainier alpenglow Sky admires sunset on the Mowich Face from Ptarmigan Ridge, July 2006. Photo by Hannah Carrigan.

[Spew: more November 2005 Los Alamos sin nieve]

Don't worry (or do?), I'm not actually retired. I just had to end a 37-month ski streak for some rock climbing. Now I'm ready for more. The fall of 2005 has given the northwest a great start to the snowpack, so let's hope it holds and puts us in a position for bigger and better things come next spring. Well, actually we'd have to go a long way for bigger, but better still seems possible....

[/Spew]

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Sky doesn't ski any more. He just works on his website.