The Kautz Headwall still strikes me as one of my most memorable, pleasant and exhilirating experiences on skis. Dan Helmstadter skied it in 2008 and is the only other person I know firsthand to have skied it from top to bottom. His opinion of it is not as high as mine. But he skied it «blindly» off the top without climbing it and dropped into the line quite differently; also, from his description, I believe that conditions were much better for me. To anyone else out there who gets inspired to ski this line, I'd love to hear about your experience on the Kautz Headwall!
Recently, I was having a conversation with a published navelist [sic!] and they told me I should write about my trips, even if I don't want to publish a trip report. Memory fails. And one should practice writing if one wants to write. Well, I don't consider myself a writer. I'd rather think of myself as an enzyme, a catalyst to catapult the steep-ski slacking masses off their complacent asses. Copious words are just one of the many byproducts of the reaction.
The Wilson Headwall was a sweet delight Wednesday, all to myself. The layer of clouds at Paradise Tuesday night left me deeply dubious. I had never crossed the Nisqually Glacier. Out of the clouds just in time to drop and cross the glacier, chased by a cloud through the night that never enveloped the upper mountain, took some pokes and inspected from different angles and wasn't dropped by a suspect crevasse bridge on the Wilson Glacier; all of my fears slowly dissolved the higher I climbed.
I momentarily crouched behind a boulder below the Wilson Headwall while some rocks fell, then climbed the route as quickly as I could. Much higher, I was treated to a view of the Nisqually Glacier and a sea of clouds far below the mountain.
Then at the top I was delighted to see tracks. Tracks from a soloist. A soloist from a different route, the previous day. There was something very beautiful about seeing that individual's fragile mark remain unblemished in the snows of the harsh environs of Point Success. There were ski tracks heading toward the Nisqually too, nice work!
The upper Wilson Headwall required a bit of sidestepping through an icy constriction between some rocks after sneaking onto a slope around Wapowety cleaver and above the Nisqually Glacier to avoid the highest rock band. After a traverse through the section of the headwall exposed to icefall from the Kautz Glacier, the southeast-facing aspects on the lower headwall provided some of the most satisfying steep corn turns I've ever had the pleasure to carve.
By Friday evening, the weekend warriors were heading elsewhere. The forecast wasn't good, but I didn't believe it. There was no real weather system out there, just some puny low. The Mountain will be above The Clouds. Desolate solo doubts dissolved during the preceding descent, I found myself driving toward Rainier Saturday evening, je suis tout seul, seeing the upper mountain clearly in gorgeous alpenglow. Looking at the Central Mowich Face totally gives me goose bumps.
Paradise Lost at 11pm, nary a cloud for the neurotic naysaying, this time I took a more direct route on the Nisqually Glacier. I stayed high and left and climbed to Wapowety Cleaver. I took a break partway up the cleaver, maybe 8k, and had some coffee. I saw a headlamp below me on the cleaver somewhere, along with innumerable lights from Camp Muir.
I headed left before reaching The Turtle, hugging the ridge above the Kautz Glacier, until I found the small snowy chutes that drop onto the glacier. The Kautz Headwall is big; its apron is lazy in its crescendo. All the cruces come high on the route. Luckily the natural climbing line goes to climber's left, the side which has a more easterly aspect, allowing it to get the early sun. The snow was nicely consolidated and guaranteed to grow into fat grains of corn.
Near the top of the headwall, having weaved through rockbands to my heart's content, one last rockband remained.
Here I found the same soloist's tracks I saw on the summit Wednesday, albeit with evidence of ample melt-freeze. It looked like the soloist did a bit of traversing and redoubling before picking the spot. Their selection looked good to me so I went for it. Rime ice over sixty-degreeish rocks. Comment descendre?!
The Kautz Headwall is a very aesthetic descent. I must compliment it for not slowly rolling to the summit in a neverending fashion. It rolls abruptly. Sitting on Point Success, two sets of soloist's tracks plus one more in place, I could see people on Columbia Crest. I took a nap. I didn't really feel like eating or drinking. When I awoke to more clouds (none of them anything near a real threat to the mountain), I decided it was time to go. Crampons off, boots tightened, axes packed, click-click, click-click, time to ski.
I skied gingerly to the edge of the precipice. The rockband looked intimidating from above. This was a job for an ice ax. I put my ski poles in my downhill hand and grabbed the tool with the big shaft. Tool firmly planted, I kicked the shit out of some rime ice with my skis. Stomp. The ax placements were actually worthless through the worst parts of the rockband, but it still felt better than nothing. Below the rockband, the snow was softening nicely. Ax back on pack, time to make tracks.
The rest of the headwall skied nicely. It was still a little icy in spots, but I like it that way. It's a good compromise for not having too many projectiles dropping. Two long traverses to get around the final rockband and I was free.
I was free for a long, continuously obstacle-free descent. I never enjoy skiing more than below something really sketchy. Keep it steep, remove the danger, and let 'em hang. The apron that was lazy in its crescendo was now determined in its dénouement. Forget the stress and GS the rest.
This is an addiction. No partner, no problem. My way and the highway. Then return to town by three. At least this way I'm not leaving a string of HAPE victims in my wake....
Skis, boots, poles
Crampons, two tools, helmet
2L water, six-shot americano and a big bag of potato chips
Less than 13 hours car to car, right now I'd call this my funnest, most stimulating experience on Rainier by far.