Sunset Ridge Ski

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31 May 2007

2011 editorial: This is still one of my favorite trips, a big adventurous one-day up-and-over on Mt Rainier with a bit of technique required on both sides to keep it interesting, plus the wild west deproach. Dan Helmstadter and Eric Wehrly skied Sunset Ridge in July 2010, without removing their skis at any point, by traversing around the high point of Sunset Ridge on its north side. They definitely had better style in terms of a continuous ski descent. See also Dan's trip report on Cascade Climbers. I subsequently suffered a severe case of sedentary hemorrhoids, technically known as "butthurt," because I was swamped with work responsibilities and had neither the time nor fitness to make Rainier my playground that month. But I'm glad my buddies got it so good.

top of sunset ridge Casey at the top of Sunset Ridge

casey skis sunset ridge Casey skis Sunset Ridge.

casey skis sunset ridge Sunset Ridge has lots of good skiing.

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1 June 2007 editorial: Written the morning after the trip in a haze of caffeine, adrenaline, and sleep deprivation....

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Hannah and Casey attempted to climb Sunset Ridge with me two weeks ago. We made it to the 12,500 ft high point adjacent to the Mowich Face, then retreated due to a combination of time constraint and the intimidating, tortuous terrain remaining between us and Liberty Cap. Keeping the "play it safe" theme, we downclimbed until we were below some icy, steep bulges circa 12k and skied from there.

Two insights emerged from this trip:

  1. Sunset Ridge is a kick-ass route and
  2. The approach via West Side Road and Tahoma Creek Trail is in terrible shape and I don't want to do it again.

I convinced myself that I knew enough to ski the route without climbing it. New plan: up and over from Paradise, don't forget your tennis shoes for the hike to West Side Road.

Between incubating and hatching this rotten scheme, I decided that it would be good style to climb via a route new to me and tag all three summits en route to Liberty Cap. It's not fair to just start from Paradise and make it easy, now is it?

Phil met me at Paradise at 2 am yesterday morning. We were going to cross Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers together. Tennis shoes safely stashed in the bottom of my pack, we skinned to Glacier Vista.

For a moment I entertained the notion of climbing one of the Success Couloirs with Phil, but then I decided against it. All that extra traversing might be the straw to bust my hump (I don't want to use "camel" because certain persons already call me that.). I would climb the more direct Kautz Glacier. We went our separate ways at half past five.

I really took my time on the way to Camp Hazard, in the interest of conserving energy. The warm sun was really pleasant when I got there. I drank a Perrier, dropped my derriere, and took a nice nap. Shortly after nine it seemed like time to move.

Kautz Ice Chute solo ice climbing The ice chute was fun to climb.

Kautz Ice Chute The ice chute was fun to climb.

The ice chute was short and sweet: some of the funnest climbing I've done on Rainier, while it lasted. Higher, I stayed left for a direct line up the Kautz Glacier to Point Success. Snow was balling on my crampons terribly, which was frustrating and decelerating. I finally reached Point Success at two in the afternoon.

I felt really great, which was encouraging. But I was quite concerned about my plan. The three-summit traverse consists of almost two miles and 1,000 ft of extra climbing, all between 13,600 ft and 14,400 ft. I hoped that my sea-level dweller's resilience would withstand the excursion and leave me in good enough shape for an engaging descent. Also, dropping in blind on the Mowich Face? WTF!?

Having seen the Mowich Face two weeks prior, apparently in good shape, was my justification. But looks can be deceiving. And I expected powder on the Park Headwall just Monday, but found very hard, icy snow.

Don't let your fear control you. Go look. Maybe I could scout the Mowich Face in climber mode, then ski it after verifying its viability.

I found myself on Liberty Cap almost two hours later. Joel, an RMI guide who had just led a party up Liberty Ridge, was nice enough to take my picture. I drank another Perrier - French beverage for good extreme skiing luck - and prepared to ski.

I clicked into my skis and schussed toward the Mowich Face once again. The snow was very soft on the ridge. I veered onto the Edmunds Headwall a bit and found that it was quite icy just under the surface. I returned to the refuge of the ridge, but soon reached its end.

party time! So glad to be done with that!

Regain Sunset Ridge Now I just need to get up there.

skiing atop the mowich face Top of the Mowich Face: Sunset Ridge is directly ahead.

The exposure was incredible. From 13,300 ft on Sunset Ridge, to the one side was over 3,000 ft of exposure above the Mowich Face, to the other side an 800 ft cliff above a steep glacier slope in Sunset Amphitheater.

I was so scared. By myself, with all that exposure, not knowing exactly what I would find below me. There was soft, steep snow between rockbands hugging the ridge, so I skied there ever so slowly. I gained confidence methodically working my way through steep lips and tight gullies. The snow stayed soft near the rocks of the ridge.

Around 12,700 ft, starting to feel confident and making more turns, I was on another steep lip after which only an open slope, a short downclimb, and a short climb remained between me and our previous high point. I was assiduously assessing the best way onto the open slope, when I noticed a blue sheen glowing through the white snow. I finally found a reasonable way off the lip. I gave the blue-sheened snow a whack with my pole, while still in deeper fresh snow just below the lip. Further investigation with an ice ax revealed that the slope featured only a centimeter of fresh snow over bumpy, blue glacier ice. Yuck.

I changed into crampons to cross the ice. Then I had an argument with myself.
"You could traverse through that." All right, I put my skis back on.
I stepped onto the ice with only one ski and I really didn't like the feel of it.
"Shut up." I changed into crampons again. I would need them to climb the high point on the crest of Sunset Ridge at 12,500 ft anyway.

I began by downclimbing on my front points, but I really didn't need to downclimb. I needed to traverse. But I was too gripped by fear to stroll across the ice with good technique. Finally, I took a deep breath, retrieved the pick of my ax from the ice, put the ax in a cane position, and strolled across the slope pied à plat.

Time to regain Sunset Ridge. Originally, I expected to ski the top bit of the Edmunds Headwall, then regain the ridge. I'm glad that my fear kept me from doing that. In retrospect, not only was it more aesthetic to stick to the ridge as much as possible to ski Sunset Ridge, but it would also have been a much bigger ordeal to regain the ridge from the Edmunds Headwall, with much more nastiness, including the same blue sheen coming from all over the Mowich Face. The climbing was nasty enough in the first place: Downclimb steep volcanic choss fully exposed to the Mowich Face, then climb steep mixed choss and six-inch-deep rime to the high point.

I made it! From the top of the Mowich Face to the 12,500 ft high point, descending a whopping 800 ft in one hour and fifteen minutes.

Sunset Ridge - skied View from the Puyallup Glacier: Sunset Ridge's goodness on the left skyline from the 12,500 ft high point, the top of the Mowich Face the apparent high point, and Liberty Cap the much snowier high point to the right.

Sunset Ridge Point Steeze Point Steeze for the Maggots: The place to be at 6 pm: atop 4,000 ft of steep, creamy goodness.

I marked this Mowich Face photo from Mike Gauthier's Mount Rainier blog to show where I skied and where I was in 'poons.

The snow on Sunset Ridge was wonderfully soft. To the victor go the spoils: 4,100 ft consisting of 400 ft of gentle ridge with striking exposure; a steep roll onto the face where the ridge bifurcates; 600 ft of open face; 1,500 ft of a sweet, steep gully; then a final 1,300 ft of open, fall-line skiing.

My exhiliration with the skiing, coupled with my relief from deescalation, gave me one of those highs that keep me doing this retarded skiing stuff. I watched the sluffs, but they were harmless.

wet avalanche above tahoma glacier I started the big slide above the cliff just to the right of the shade. I used the slide's path as a safety zone to ski.

ski tacks below sunset ridge My ski tracks around the base of Sunset Ridge

I expected the glaciers to be perilously soft, but they were actually firm enough to keep me moving. I made a high traverse off the South Mowich Glacier and continued across the Puyallup Glacier, until I could make an easy descending traverse to a notch onto the Tahoma Glacier.

The south-facing slope onto the Tahoma started sluffing. I'm glad that I was still paying attention. I stayed high and stopped to watch the carnage. A football-field sized wet slide quickly ripped over a cliff. That would have hurt. I skied the slide's path for its relative safety.

My memory treated me well and I was off the Tahoma Glacier in no time. The turns were nice. Below Emerald Ridge, I was seriously buzzing from a 10,000 ft descent.

Reality check: It's after 7 pm and it will be an arduous ordeal to reach my car. I quickly lost the trail on skis, then spent half an hour booting through brush and throwing a hissy fit.

It became dark enough to require a headlamp while I was hopping boulders for the last mile down Tahoma Creek. I was delirious, having imaginary conversations with all kinds of people I know, and not taking a very efficient finish line.

I was so happy to see Hannah at West Side Road when I got there after 10 pm. Thanks for being there! She agreed to come with me to South Hill to get a bite, but I was falling asleep at the wheel too much, so I stopped to take a nap in Eatonville and she headed home. When I finally woke up, I had to stop to take another nap in Puyallup. Then one more nap in some town south of Auburn, the name of which I can't even remember. I finally made it home to be greeted by a very happy dog at 5:30 am this morning. Lots of coffee and these delirious ramblings - now I better do some work.

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Get bent for the ligne de pente