By Anna Keeling
Being a mum and owner/operator of a mountain guiding business means I’m all about other people’s missions. This is awesome but once in a while it’s good to shoot off on my own.
It can feel hard to do - like I’m being incredibly frivolous. Suffering restlessness approaching my 49th birthday in early May, I sought to exorcise it with a quick jaunt up a regular haunt near Salt Lake city - the East ridge of Mt Superior - with Caroline, a local big mountain skier. I was throwing around several trip ideas in my restless frenzy. Caroline helped me settle on Mt Rainier, the 14 440 foot volcano that dominates the Seattle skyline on clear days. All American mountain guides seem to work on this mountain. I hadn’t even climbed it. My friend Emilie Drinkwater, another Salt Lake City mountain guide also with a Rainier gap on her CV, was keen and able. We’d leave on Sunday morning, drive 800 miles, stay at the base of the mountain, head into the National Park, skin 3000 feet to bivvy, skin and climb 6000 feet the next day, ski 9000 feet, get in the car and drive home. This type of behaviour is locally called “the smash and grab.” It’s favoured by people who are at the wrong stage of life for leisurely road trips.
All weather reports painted favourable forecasts for Monday/Tuesday - great news in the notoriously unsettled Pacific Northwest. My husband Scott, a car buff, ensured our old Audi A4 was up to the job and we shot the gap, driving north into Idaho and Oregon, into Washington State and over a pass from the dry side to the wet side. Thirteen hours. A short drive by US standards, for the most part on easy driving freeways. Surprisingly domestic airline tickets in the US are generally expensive so flying that short SLC-Seattle leg at $600 was never an option.
Monday morning: we drove up through rainforest - cedar and hemlock - into the alpine regions on the south side of Mt. Rainier. The mountain’s vast bulk began to shine through the trees. We stopped to scope our route up the Fuhrer Finger. It looked steep but obvious. Rich glaciation poured from the mountainside. Gushing rivers raced from snow banks, still lingering 10 feet deep.
Paradise Visitor centre sits at 5420 feet. There are the usual conglomeration of people that you see at National Parks. We mingled into the Visitor centre to pay our climber fees and register our intention to camp on the mountain. The vast majority of folk climb the popular Disappointment Cleaver via Camp Muir which also departs from Paradise parking lot. Cleavers are rock ridges that divide the various glaciers. Camping was free (the Park just needs to keep track of numbers) while the climber registration fee is $48 per person per year. The helpful park staff had us out of the door in no time. We shouldered our 40L packs and set off, skinning right from the car park. Several parties were visible ahead of us, making their way across the lower section of the Nisqually glacier and up onto the Wilson glacier.
As we slowly made our way in shimmering spring heat, I tried to remember if I’d ever skied off a volcano. I’d toured at the base of Ruapehu but have never gone to the top. I was a volcano skiing virgin. “Emilie, have you ever skied a volcano,” I shouted across the gap (we were crossing a potential avalanche slope). “No,” she shouted back.
The bivvy site on a ridge between the Wilson and Kautz glaciers, was perfectly levelled by other travellers. Keeping it light, we just threw down our sleeping bags and hung out for a great evening watching the light change on three other volcanoes - Mt Adams, Mt St Helens (the one that blew up in the 1980’s) and Mt Hood down in Oregon. The thing about being so high on a mountain is that everything is foreshortened. 6000 feet doesn’t look far. It’s heartening. The route above us looked straightforward and we’d be returning the same way. Bivvying out with no tent, under the stars in good weather is one of the great luxuries of mountaineering. Although we could have elected to do the entire route in one day, if there’s a chance of a comfortable bivvy perched upon high with views of great cities and volcanoes, then why rush what was still a fast trip?
Waking at 3.30am we bolted water and a bar and set off by 4.10am, leaving the sleeping gear stashed for our return. We could see the headlamps of our fellow travellers moving slowly ahead up the Fuhrer finger - a 300 foot wide couloir that climbs approximately 2000 feet to rejoin the upper Nisqually glacier. Skis switched to packs as we donned crampons to crisply zig-zag up through the 45 degree Fuhrer finger into the dawn. Perfect travel.
Above the Finger we roped up for easy low angle travel through crevasses. The route steepened briefly as we reached the final lower angle summit snowfield. Time crawled and altitude made itself felt as we slogged those upper reaches to 14,000 feet, happily back on skins. Progress was solid though - we slowly gained on the parties ahead of us and arrived at the summit 6 hours and 20 minutes after leaving the bivvy. I was wearing one of my Nancy Loves Bikes tops (proof that these tops are actually perfectly technical as well as stylish) with a Nano puff vest over it. Cresting the summit, we left the sunny comfort of the warm southern aspect and hit a rude north wind. A mass of young men were gathered on top including Ben, a recent student (now friend) on two American Mountain Guide courses I’d taught. I grappled to throw on extra clothes while the young men shouted greetings to us - “hey, I heard your podcast” and “I'm going to New Zealand, can you give me beta?” and “Emilie, you taught my avalanche class.” These popular North American mountains are busy places and we’d managed to coincide with a bunch of other Salt Lake City locals.
Gazing into the crater (the volcano is dormant but still very much alive), I was too cold to linger. Emilie and I joined Ben and his partner, Vince to hit the corn. Ben’s binding on his split board had broken and he was making probably the first split-ski descent of the Fuhrer Finger. Luckily I’d seen him in action - Ben rips skiing a split board, heels loose yet not telemarking. I asked him why he didn’t just buy some skis. “I can’t ski,” he told me. Right.
Timing was perfect for the entire 6000 feet back to the bivvy as we swooped ever -improving corn. I love maritime skiing. I love skiing corn and not worrying so much about avalanches. Skiing steep lines with little care (apart from crevasses in this case). We made short work through the steeps of the Finger. At camp we drank all of our water and shot through the less-pleasant ski back to Paradise. The freeze had been high the night before and the sun had quickly turned the corn to mush. Still ok but it needed managing compared with the carefree turns of the upper mountain.
A short skin out of the lower Nisqually and we were back at the car to eat lunch with Ben and Vince. There was no putting it off: we were best to start driving back to Utah. Ice cream and coffee first at the forested staging town of Ashford then we drove away into the rain. Emilie admirably took the wheel to Oregon and we got halfway home that night. The following day was leisurely by comparison.
The trip was fabulous. I scratched my itchy feet and Emilie and I rectified that shocking omission on our mountain resumes. Mt Rainier is a fantastic volcano and we were lucky to get the timing exact for the smash and grab. Although it feels hard and selfish at times, sometimes it’s better to just go.
Images by Emilie Drinkwater and Anna Keeling.