Mt Rainier, Sunset Amphitheater Couloir

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13-14 May 2006

Aerial of Sunset Amphitheatre Couloir Aerial photo of Sunset Amphitheater Headwall. The large version has a red dot just below the crux pitch. There was significant accumulation of new snow between our climb and this photo. Photo by Mike Gauthier, during the last week of May

SAC and Sickle Sunset Amphitheater Couloir and The Sickle are drawn in red.

Finally, a beautiful weekend. A chance to repent of my mercenary one-day weekday ways and spend some time with the desk jockeys. It sounded ideal, but I couldn't settle for any old trip. The desk jockeys were set on big projects that seemed out of season, better in winter, or not quite ripe. I went to the gym for a short workout Friday afternoon, completely undecided on what to do with the weekend. Then I got a call from a friend who helped cure my ambivalence.

"I don't want to go on a two-day death march for naught with those retards, Hannah. What should I do?"

"I want to climb Sunset Amphitheater Couloir in a push. You should come with me."

At first it didn't make sense. Then my tendentious thought processes got the best of me. Pathological ski mountaineer-errant that I am, I concocted a scheme. I decided to ski Muir Snowfield with Rebecca on Saturday before meeting Hannah in Ashford Saturday evening. Then we would head to West Side Road posthaste to begin our punishing push.

Picture me outside the IMA on my cell phone. I'm sitting there, yapping like an average cell-phone drone. Then, as if struck by lighting, I jump. I'm gesticulating wildly and talking loud now. I have an idea. At this point I'm nothing but an automaton, a slave to the vision; this is one possible scenario for the onset of Ski Sickness.

Scrambling to get all the gear ready Friday evening left me with a lackluster five hours of sleep. Oh well. I was a bit flustered at Paradise when I realized my poles were forgotten at home in the shuffle. Oh well. I tried to borrow poles from the ranger at the visitor center with no luck; all I got was a recommendation to try in Ashford. Oh well. It was a good opportunity to work on my technique with my new, "super light" 174cm K2 8611 skis (Thanks Adam, they rock!).

Sorry you had to see me in such a pathetic state, Rebecca. I wasn't happy knowing I would be expending extra energy ascending without poles prior to the big push. Meanwhile, Hannah was still sleeping. I finally got over myself and we started skinning up the cow path from Paradise. Skinning without poles felt strange.

It sure was a beautiful day. There was a line of lemmings from Paradise to Camp Muir, with hardly an interruption. It was nice to be a good worker bee. For a while. A little below Anvil Rock the breeze was steady, the beer in my backpack was calling my name, time was running short and I was beginning to fear my itinerary.

Rebecca could sense my weakness. Excuses flowed freely, "I've been to Muir. The snow won't be as nice up there with the breeze. I'll go if you really want." My realization that I had forgotten my hiking shoes for West Side Road and Tahoma Creek Trail didn't help with my enthusiasm either. Maybe a platitude would work? "Camp Muir, pshaw. Been there, done that."

She looked at me quizzically with no response. I cracked a Tecate and contemplated a nap. My stall tactics worked. She got cold in the breeze while I swilled. Soon we agreed to ski.

The corn was absolutely perfect. Rebecca was skiing very well. The short K2s felt like trick skis and I had no problem carving beautiful arcs in the forgiving corn sans poles. We skied below Pan Point, where we stopped and ate delicious avocado and tomato sandwiches. Rebecca was all enthusiasm. She went to hike for more turns while I took a nap. I joined her for another run after my nap.

There was a persistent lenticular atop Tahoma throughout the day. Not enough sleep, no poles, forgotten shoes and the cloud cap covering Columbia Crest all thwarted my enthusiasm. Beer and potato chips in the parking lot helped some.

The drive to Ashford from Paradise didn't take long. Hannah censured me for being a whopping two minutes late. I introduced Hannah and Rebecca, retrieved my gear, fetched a sex-shot Americano for the thermos from Whittaker's Bunkhouse and we were ready to go in no time. I broached how far we would be hiking before snow, which caused Hannah to speculate a bit before asking, "Do you want to see the map?"

"No, it'll just piss me off." It couldn't be good.

It would have been nice to eat a good dinner, but going without one seemed more in tune with the weekend's song. My food for the climb was a box of Nilla Wafers, some Twix and four granola bars. It was my first time up the West Side Road and I was highly encouraged when the drive ended at a gate with no mountain in sight.

I had everything I needed. There really wasn't any excuse. But where was my enthusiasm? "Hannah, I'm gonna be a whiny little bitch today."
"I'm looking forward to it!" That was more than all right with her.

So it was all over but the crying. As is well known, the crux of most trips is getting to the trailhead with all the necessary equipment. We were hiking up West Side Road before eight.

To our astonishment, we encountered a group of five skiers. They had made a tour from Paradise to Pyramid Peak, then across the suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek and down the unmaintained trail. One of them advised us, "The trail is almost completely washed out. Much worse than the last time we were here. We left some boot prints for you."

Boot prints were here and there. We never got too far off the trail. I was only mildly annoyed by my loafers. Hannah was happy with the status of the trail, "It was just how I hoped it would be after their description."

Just before the junction with the Wonderland Trail there was a perfect drip for us to get some water. We drank some water and retrieved our headtorches. Soon we were on patchy snow. I was cursing every step in the snow with my loafers. I didn't want to ruin my only pair of nice shoes. I need new shoes.

I was ready to stop and change into ski boots before we had really made any progress. My brand-spanking-new ski socks were a luxury and they lifted my spirits. Hannah was quite amused when I showed her what was written across the toes of both socks, "Darn Tough." We both hung our shoes from high tree branches.

We booted much too long before I had the good idea to start skinning. On the exit I would confirm my suspicion that we easily could have gone low, but we took the worst possible route by skinning directly up steep slopes to the base of cliffs, from which we subsequently made a descending traverse to the open valley. The open terrain obviated our headlamps. We had to remove our skis to boot one short, steep slope and gain Emerald Ridge. Easy skinning up a few rolls put is in position to ascend the Tahoma Glacier. I decided a nap was in order somewhere on nice rocks, before the cold, snowy, neverending wasteland of the glacier.

I let her know what I was thinking, "Hannah, I'd like to take a nap on these rocks."

She inquired, "What kind of nap? Like a twenty-minute nap?"

"Yeah, something like that."

I arranged my pack next to a rock for maximum comfort (none), crouched into a fetal position and went to sleep. I regained consciousness to a severely numb left leg and asked Hannah how much time had elapsed. It had been an hour. And she had yet to don a hat.

After standing on my right leg, hopping in place and limping a bit I munched some wafers and drank half a liter of water. A shot of espresso made me ready to go. Hannah had been up the Tahoma Glacier before so I consulted her, "Which way do you want to head up the glacier?"

She gave me my bearings, "Right around those icefalls, then up and left."

Some serious magic was at work as we began to skin the glacier. The lenticular was gone. That's always encouraging. There was no wind and the air was mild. That sure was nice. But let me tell you about the moon! The moon was full. It was well above the horizon to the south. Stars are often enough to navigate on the highly reflective surface of a glacier. But we had a full moon!

The moon was treating us to a spectacular light show on the surface of the snow. The refrozen snow had alternating smooth and bumpy sections. The moonlight reflected brightly off the smooth snow and made it look like panes of glass, contrasted by darkness where the bumpy patches scattered the light more. After each roll I would get more excited, stop and turn to Hannah to mumble something about how awesome it was skinning up the glacier. She concurred with the sentiment, "There's no place I'd rather be."

Before long we had crossed the glacier to climber's left and we were making good time next to Puyallup Cleaver. It didn't look far to the top of the cleaver. Distances are always deceptive on the large glaciers of Mt Rainier, though. What looks like a stone's throw can easily be several miles and thousands of vertical feet. I was soon feeling famished and wanted to stop again. Hannah wanted to go to the next roll. "That thing's miles away," I responded. Whiny pansy mode in full effect.

This time I managed without a nap. We melted a couple liters of water. I ate my third and fourth granola bars. An hour elapsed by the time we'd melted all the water we wanted. I drank a couple more shots of espresso. Hannah still hadn't retrieved her hat. Maybe she was worried it would interfere with her pigtails?

Not surprisingly, the top of the cleaver was nowhere near as close as it looked. We skinned at a steady pace for several hours as the sky began to glow. The stars slowly faded and we found ourselves near the top of the cleaver. Glacier navigation became a much more serious issue, with lots of bridge crossings and crevasses everywhere. Finally I reached a roll too steep to skin without ski crampons.

Time for the rope. While attaching my new skis to my pack, I happily contemplated whether it was more of a joy to skin with them so light on my feet, or carry them so light on my back. At 7.5 lbs for the pair with bindings, it's hard to go wrong. I finished my espresso and away we went.

crossing bergschrund Hannah leads toward the constriction.

yummy nuts Hannah eats those really good toffee nuts before the upper part of the couloir.

upper cooley Hannah just after we switched the lead.

It was easy to cross over the little saddle above St Andrew's Rock to the Puyallup Glacier. The snow on the Puyallup wasn't fully consolidated. Sunset Amphitheater looked so close and I hate changing gear, so I persevered booting across the glacier, but it probably would have been easier to skin. We were at the base of the couloir by seven.

It seemed like a good place and time to rest before attacking the route. Another nap sounded good to me, an idea with which Hannah couldn't disagree. We were lazily enjoying the calm, warm morning above 11,000 ft until I looked up and saw sun hitting the cliffs above the route. That's enough of that!

I asked still-hatless Hannah, "What time is it?"

It was eight thirty, high time to get after it. I didn't like seeing the sun hit those cliffs one little bit.

I took our two screws and two pickets and started steps to the bergschrund. The sun hit me slightly before it, so I waited for Hannah with the sunscreen. Hannah wanted to take the lead. You go girl!

Hannah couldn't decide which way to go to get above the bergschrund. Around the left side looked easy, but highly exposed to rockfall. I suggested a snowbridge leading right, after which a traverse left above the bergschrund would be necessary. There was also a crazy bridge right over the middle below an obvious slide path. That was her tentative choice.

She moved up the bridge slowly. I let the rope go taut just in case. After much poking, prodding, plodding and peeking she finally got to its apex. At this point, Hannah was highly hesitant. Getting nervous watching little rocks whizz by as the seconds ticked, I offered some encouragement, "Just get your ax in the ice above the bridge and GO!" Finally she went. She climbed up a bit more in the trough before exiting it to the left.

She sagely placed a picket before I crossed the bridge. Now we were cruising. The snow had crazy sharkfin ridges with lots of rocks in it. I immediately discarded any thoughts of a ski descent. Hannah confidently continued toward the center of the hourglass as little rocks came down it marking the time; only the left side of the constriction was visible, exhibiting an interesting ice bulge. As she got closer she stayed right and found an easy ice ramp. I was a bit impatient, not allowing the rope to remain fully taut, so that the slack would periodically catch on the icy ridges. Sorry! I really wanted to get away from the increased rockfall danger of the bottleneck. At one point I batted a grapefruit-sized rock away with one of my axes.

As we continued up and right, there were two ramps visible above us. We both thought the higher one would be better. Just below the upper ramp we took a break and switched leads.

The snow got really steep. I placed a picket. Up and right seemed to be the way. There was an exit directly above me, but it was steep and thin. I rounded a corner to easier snow on the right.

The easier snow ended below a cliff covered in rime ice. To the right was a steep, highly exposed ramp with thin ice. It looked fine to climb, but there was no way to tell to what it would lead around the corner. To the left was a ten-foot overhanging step of rock and rotten ice, but above that was an easy ramp to exit the difficulties. I belayed Hannah to my perch.

With consultation she agreed I should try the step. I was nervous with us both sitting below the irradiated rime ice. She clipped into an ax and picket and I downclimbed to the step.

Closer examination made me decide against the step. An easy decision, when I felt the likeliest outcome was pulling a huge chunk of rotten ice onto my head. We improvised a new plan: downclimb to the corner and climb the steep and thin exit I'd ignored.

sweet sun effects in the snow Doesn't that look cool?

The Silver Sprayer The Silver Sprayer. Visualize Valhalla! Photo by Joe Catellani

The steep, thin exit was very fun to climb. Classic rotten alpine ice over rocks. I pounded one picket ten meters into the pitch. Another ten meters and I looked to pound the other picket, but it would only go a foot into the ice before bottoming against rocks. A screw would have been absolutely worthless. I climbed another little bit to a rockier step. The ice was a little better, but I still couldn't find a place to put a screw. I tried above me. I tried to the left. I tried to the right. The climbing wasn't really difficult, but to lose a foot because of a loose rock or the thin ice giving way would have been catastrophic. I felt invested in placing the protection just because I'd already tried. Finally I abandoned the effort and finished the pitch. The 30 m rope went taut just as I traversed onto easier terrain, hearing Hannah's familiar holler, "Sky, that's the end of the rope!"

I was able to pound a solid picket. Hannah enjoyed the climbing. I snapped some photos. The background was a spectacular contrasting mix of dirty volcanic cliffs and rime ice. Hannah climbed past me toward Sunset Ridge. I pulled the belay when she was out the rope's full length and followed.

Once again, I couldn't wait. I just knew the climbing was over. But the stupid mountain was in the way. Creating lots of kinky slack with my haste, Hannah reprimanded me, "You're so impatient!" It must have been funny (or at least it should be in retrospect) when I had to downclimb twenty feet, cursing the whole way, because the rope lodged itself so perfectly under a chunk of ice. After that I took my lumps and waited. Soon we hit the ridge.

It was time for a break. We sat there a long time. My heart never quit pounding. Somehow it had taken us five and a half hours to climb that thing! I knew the Tahoma Glacier was getting a lot of sun. Hannah commented how she was really happy and felt like just taking it easy. I was happy too but I had to add, "Let's take it easy somewhere other than the top of Liberty Cap."

I decided to get the show on the road. With my pack loaded, I skinned to the top of Liberty Cap. Looking across the amphitheater to Point Success, I noted that we would need to traverse high to hit the Tahoma Glacier. Soon I was atop Liberty Cap, waiting for my partner to join me, unlike sixteen days prior on Liberty Ridge.

Hannah joined me by the time I was ready to ski. She was nervous about the descent, but still kind enough to be quick. Her first summit descent of Rainier, yahoo! Better yet, not via Ingraham Direct or the Emmons Glacier. To the Tahoma!

I made a mistake and didn't go high enough to reach the Tahoma Glacier proper. Neither of us felt much like reascending. I scoped the rolls and coaxed Hannah to join me bit by bit. Soon we were surrounded by towering seracs and skiing superb snow in The Sickle! I had accidentally guided us down a fascinating feature.

The west-facing glacier was like an oven in the afternoon sun. I made an observation to Hannah, "I'm sure you know this, but that was not the place to be on a hot afternoon." All is well that ends well. We had escaped the pickle.

We both felt a tickle having skied The Sickle. The snow got really mushy on the glacier's lower angle slopes. I quickly learned that I would have to adapt my skiing style to my little toothpicks. Hannah was happy to see the 8611s put some kinks in the GS turns I normally incorporate on such snow. She could stay with me much better.

Below 7,000', after more than 7,000' and many miles of skiing, we were able to hit slightly more north-facing slopes on the skier's left side of the glacier. I was finally able to link faster carved turns on the toothpicks. Hannah finished a fine figure-eight down one roll.

Having made it off the glacier, I realized that Hannah never once used her hat. She's clearly made of stouter stuff than me. She responded to my rant, "Maybe I'll wear it after we get to the truck."

Despite my dilapidation and deflation, I was denied the usual delirium. No haggard hallucinations, which are one of my favorite parts of a day trip. Speculating on the subject, I told Hannah, "That's it. No more naps, damn it!" I won't be denied the psychedelic aspect of these trips.

Now that was a great weekend. Thank you, BC Becky and H Bomb!

And to all the fellas who flailed on their weekend projects, I'm sorry you got served. But it's the truth. You got SERVED. (Phil and the Hummels didn't get Jack, plus Peter and Eric didn't make out like Bandits....)

Now I'm taking a rest week. But no worries, the Silver Sprayer will ride (and write) again.

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