Finally skiing Mt Rainier's Edmunds Headwall

3 July 2009

MOWICH FACE! The Mowich Face from Mowich Lake Road. Mouseover to see our route.

Liberty Ridge, Ptarmigan Ridge, Mowich Face, Sunset Ridge: They may no longer be day-altering highlights of walks across Red Square at University of Washington for me, but indelible impressions from all of them remain scratched onto the cornea of my mind's eye: bewitched and working wizardry on the Central Ice Express, twenty-four-hour days chasing a dream, over the top and into the Sunset, an epic climb followed by a more epic, benighted downclimb. Downclimbing the Edmunds Headwall remained a bit of a thorn in my side; only my skis could serve as tweezers, sliding down that face in graceful arcs, a carved catharsis.

Now that I live in Vancouver, BC, it seems like a good time to change the Washington silhouette next to the SkiSickness logo at the bottom of the page. The outline of BC doesn't seem as striking. Maybe this can be the last trip report with the WA, since this is already about closure on the NW side of the great grand volcan And I wish Ryan and Dan would quit calling it the west side; Mowich Face is a logarithmic leap in radness from the Tahoma Glacier.

Work was too hectic for me to take advantage of the immaculate weather that ended May. I've been patiently waiting for the next heat wave. The forecast was perfect from Canada Day through Independence Day. I was hoping that the unstable weather, which persisted through most of June, left some fresh snow on the upper Mowich Face. That didn't seem to be the case, but it didn't stop us either. The glacier and the face up to 12k were both in excellent condition.

I was contacting all the competent fellas I knew for this trip, because usually only one or two (or none) are able to join the mission. This time there was a convergence. Dave B, fitness buff and all-around hoss from Laramie, joined us but had to cut his trip short because he hadn't allotted enough time to get the line and make a reasonable exit. Another case of unemployment being wasted on the unemployed.

sunset on puget sound Sunset from our camp. Take a look at the holes in the ridge.

moon Sunset on the Mowich Face from lower Ptarmigan Ridge

So we lost Dave B. It was just Wehrly and me. And the two salty old dogs had an uncharacteristic bout with maturity and reason: we saw the condition of the face, knew that the upper portion was neither ideal nor a "gimme," and decided to take an easy second approach-and-rest day so that we'd be ready to send it. We took our time crossing the North Mowich Glacier and found an exquisite place to camp between the North Mowich and Edmunds Glaciers, situated two thousand feet of beautiful fall line below the Edmunds Headwall bergschrund. Then we spent the afternoon napping, eating, and enjoying the views. It's not traditionally the way I've operated, but there sure is something to be said for it. More free time please! The leisurely approach allows more time to concentrate on photographic efforts, too.

crossing north mowich glacier Wehrly crosses the North Mowich Glacier with the Great Choss Barrier of Ptarmigan Ridge behind him.

The only interruption to our afternoon siestas was the arrival of Dan and Ryan. We were impressed with their approach effort. Less ambitious goals were discarded for a no-holds barred group summit siege.

We debated when to start. Earlier avoids rockfall? Daylight is nice. It's always cold atop Rainier and nobody wants a little chill to force them to ski before the snow is ready.

The bergschrund crossing was easy. The snow below the face and just above the bergschrund was mostly free of debris, a pleasant surprise. The snow up the face was mostly perfect frozen corn with ice lurking below the surface in patches.

Above 12k the ice became more gregarious. The first rays from the sun mingled with the icy steep slopes near the high point on Sunset Ridge.

Climbing Edmunds Headwall Wehrly climbs near 12.5k with Ryan below him.

We took a break on the flat spot atop Sunset Ridge circa 12.5k. Our break could have been longer, but it was tough for me to sit there and relax. The crux of our ascent was just before us and the breeze was getting chilly for this skinny guy.

himmelstrider on ice Helmstadter opts for the ice.

Climbing the chute on the climber's right side of the top of the Mowich Face was a blast. The gut of the chute consisted of 50°ish ice. The east side of the chute against the rocks featured small accumulations of snow, with much larger amounts of steeper, chunky snow here and there against the rocks. The steep bulges of consolidated snow against the rocks were really fun to climb, like an alpine jungle gym atop the Mowich Face.

I was elated. It's always gratifying to reach the top of Liberty Cap from one of the many big routes that flank it. I was particularly inspired by one of Lady Gaga's brilliant hits, so after scaling another bulge, I'd yell to them from atop a nice rocky perch, "Discostick!"

After reaching the gentle, rolling ridge toward Liberty Cap at 13,300 ft, I discarded my ice axes and switched to slog mode. Having dealt with the infernal gentle rolls several times, I was adequately prepared for delayed summit gratification.

One, two, three, four: finally all together on Liberty Cap, I was getting cold again. I can be rather impatient. Maybe I should buy a bigger puffy. We saw a party of eight (!) ski from Columbia Crest. They skied to the saddle then toward the Winthrop Glacier. I was afraid they would come to Liberty Cap for a moment. We all joked about how we would trundle them if they tried to follow us down the Mowich Face. Maybe Ryan didn't joke about that; he's too nice. LOLZ.

Now for select photographs! The memories will never fade, but solo ski descents of Central Mowich Face and Sunset Ridge left me with nothing to ogle. Wehrly to the rescue....

sky skis steeps yo Let's have some fun this face is sick...

ptex warrior ...I want to carve it up with my RippingSticks.

Merci buku, brah!

I skied the top bits first and, for one short moment, put myself in a precarious position on steep ice. I was able to find softer snow after shuffling over a rib in reverse; I had gone for the gut too soon. When the others asked, I recommended downclimbing, but continued to ski myself. The snow clinging to the side of the chute was actually very nice.

A very short downclimb led to another break at the flat spot atop Edmunds Headwall and Sunset Ridge. There was a debate about whether more direct sun would soften the ice on the steep section just below us. I did a little downclimbing while the others were resting to scout the ice. I found that we could avoid some of it, until we couldn't. I was also convinced that the ice wouldn't soften.

Between an intermittent breeze to make my skinny ass cold and my general impatience, I was soon champing at the bit to ski. I wanted to get the last crux behind us; I knew that the ice was manageable even if it would require some ugly sidestepping; plus a lot of steep, velvety corn was waiting to be carved.

Dan and Ryan thought the ice might soften and chose to wait a little longer. Eric and I waited for them just below the steepest slopes where the snow softened. Conditions apparently didn't improve; Ryan even chose to switch to crampons for the last bit. But soon enough we were all together again.

From 12k to the bergschrund, the snow was perfect. In the midst of continuously linking fast turns for about 1,000 feet on a 45° slope, my mind became a blank slate. Even the most basic mechanics of the turns disappeared. The large cliff down the fall line no longer mattered. Fully engaged, living life, linking turns: this is my most religious experience.

oldy but goody Wehrly,

ski steeps super skiing toward nirvana

ryan skis steeps too Lurie,

steep luv skiing toward nirvana

himmelstrider steep rider The man, the myth, the legend: Helmstadter. An elusive beast, solitary by nature, captured in its natural habitat.

Dan wanted a Central Mowich experience. Ryan needed to get home to work, but wanted to rest, so we spent another night there between the Edmunds and North Mowich Glaciers. I'm glad we did. Note to self: if Ryan ever offers to feed you, check that he has food.

Thanks for a great trip, fellas! Would I do anything differently? My long-term shopping list now includes a big puffy down jacket. So I'll have one less excuse for my impatience, I guess. I still don't think that snow would've softened. Besides, who needs soft snow? We're Washington skiers.

Have some hot links

If you've read this far, perhaps you'd like to click on one of these fascinating links!

Washington Ski Map