Plan A: Liberty Ridge Skimo Mission
Ever since our speed mission last year on Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), Nick and I have been planning to return for another but were looking for a route that would require a bit more actual climbing rather than just running up and down the cow-path on the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route. Liberty Ridge, on the North side of the mountain, seemed the perfect choice. The majority of the route is steep snow climbing with small sections of alpine ice and a potentially difficult bergshrund crossing near the summit. From the top, climbers typically walk or ski over to the Eammons Glacier route to descend, the easiest on the mountain. Since last May, we have been planning and training for fast go on Liberty Ridge.
When the road to the White River Trailhead was finally opened this spring, we only needed to wait a few days for a weather window that had a week of high pressure: warm temps, calm winds and sunny on the mountain. We made a dash for the border and headed down to the park over the weekend. Unfortunately, while we were preparing to climb and scouting out the route, there was an accident unfolding high on Liberty Ridge. We didn’t know the extent of what happened until we returned to Canada but when we went to the White River Ranger Station we were told that no new Lib Ridge permits were being issued and the route was closed indefinitely. We figured that people who knew we were planning on being on Lib Ridge this weekend might be a bit worried with new reports of missing climbers so we drove into Enumclaw to let friends know we were not involved and that our plans had changed.
After stocking up on cookies and coke in town, we decided that since we were there, and conditions were good, we should take advantage of the chance to retry the speed record on the standard route. Last year we set the record in early May, only to have Jason and Andy Dorias take it from us something like 16 days later. We were a little choked, but stoked by how much they raised the bar. We figured this year, we are both in better shape and have that much more knowledge of the mountain so decided to give it a go.
Plan B – Disappointment Cleaver Speed Ski
We arrived at Paradise at 4:30a on Sunday morning and had a quick breakfast in the fog sitting over the parking lot. It was cold and wet, not an inspirational start to the day. We started a bit after 5am, and the trail towards Camp Muir was the usual path of ski tracks and boot post holes and quickly we got above the clouds and started making good progress up the snowfield. The firm surface was very difficult to skin because of the ski tracks and I found myself unable to tackle it directly, doing long switchbacks instead. In hindsight, a full width pair of skins would have been a better choice over my skinny race skins. Nick was able to skin more direct and pulled ahead of me, crossing through Camp Muir just off the Dorias’ time. I came through a couple minutes later. We had to boot briefly up Cathedral Gap and then skinned through Ingraham Flats to the traverse along the base of the Disappointment Cleaver where we switched to crampons. I started to feel the altitude on the Cleaver but passing parties were kind enough to step out of the track and encourage us along so that kept me pushing to keep Nick in sight.
The route was fairly direct from the top of the Cleaver with only two small slots to jump over. I pushed hard, switching back to skis near the crater rim and saw Nick, fixing his boot. He said he tagged the summit (in 3:05!) but his boot was broken and told me to go tag it and then catch up to him on the descent. I topped out at about 3:18 and did my fastest ever race transition before speeding back down. The upper mountain skied well with chalky snow and some windblown ice. The Cleaver was a bit more firm than I would have preferred but still reasonable to power-slide down. I avoided getting boxed in by guided teams using the fixed rope before they reached the traverse at the bottom and had to briefly remove skis to cross some rocks but popped them back on to zip across the Ingraham Flats. I caught Nick walking with one ski near Cathedral Gap and asked if he was OK. He quickly explained that he had just lost a ski into a crevasse and that I was still on pace and should continue down. I traversed the Cowlitz Glacier and as I passed Camp Muir I could see Nick was still in sight just behind me. The Muir Snowfield was still very firm compared to last year when it had completely softened up to slush for our descent. I was able to ski extremely fast down the snowfield but had to remove skis twice near Pebble Creek. I knew the time was close so straight-lined towards Paradise and stopped the clock in 3:51.40 in the parking lot. As far as I know this is the new all-comers Paradise->Summit->Paradise FKT.
After catching my breath (laying sprawled in the snow), I put skins on and headed back up to meet Nick who was jogging down the Snowfield. I also got to chat briefly with Katie Bono, who holds the women’s record and is also a former Minnesota Nordic skier, currently guiding on the mountain.
Driving home, we had some mixed feelings about the weekend. It is never a good feeling to abandon plans for reason out of your control but it is even worse knowing what likely happened to the party missing on the mountain, especially as more details emerge. We were happy to get the chance to redeem ourselves with a plan B but Nick’s lost ski on the descent was a huge bummer. We would have much rather skied back to Paradise as a team not to mention if Nick had pressed on ahead for an even faster time. We were happy that we did manage to lower the overall record and Nick likely set a new fastest ascent time.
Both Liberty Ridge and the DC routes seem to be in excellent climbing condition. The DC is starting to melt out, making continuous ski descents more difficult. Several exposed rock patches are growing quickly with the warm weather. Katie said she thought that the ideal time to attempt the DC record would have been in the good weather window about two weeks ago when the route was completely snow covered. Lib Ridge looked to be in beautiful condition. The Carbon Glacier crossing looked relatively simple and we could see tracks up much of the ridge. There were patches of ice above the Black Pyramid but they looked avoidable by linking snow fields. Below Thumb Rock, the ridge did seem to be a bit low on snow but still perfectly reasonable to climb.
I used my Suunto Ambit 2 to record the day but the GPS seems to have gotten pretty messed up on the descent. I think the data intervals for the ‘Ski Touring’ setting that I used are not appropriate for fast descending as it seems to lose accuracy. Obviously I did not ski off the cliffs at the bottom of the Cleaver or manage quite that directly straight of a descent down the Muir Snowfield as my track seems to indicate. I also did not stop my watch on the snowfield, but actually the parking lot. Unfortunately, it must have assigned the stop time to the last position the GPS had a fix. Luckily the altitude and time are accurate in the data graph to confirm that we started and stopped at Paradise (~1660m I think – I forgot to set a reference altitude before we started). I think the ‘Running’ setting may be more appropriate for speed ski attempts like this. Heart rate also failed on the descent but seems accurate on the ascent. You can see I only took one short break to switch water bottles. I was skiing at my race pace HR on the snowfield ~175bpm but you can see it gradually drop as we gained altitude to a very low HR of ~153bpm on the upper mountain despite feeling like I was at an all out effort. Crazy!
- Wearing: Dynafit PDG skis w/ Plum Race bindings. Colltex PDG skins. Dy.N.A. Evo Boots. Dynafit race suit. Black Diamond Vapor Helmet. CAMP race gloves.
- Packed: Dynafit RC20 Race pack. CAMP Race 290 crampons. Dynafit Trail DST wind jacket. Patagonia Micropuff jacket. CAMP Wind Pants. SPOT2 Tracker. Warm Gloves & Buff. Dynafit ski crampons. Emergency space bivy. CAMP Corsa nanotech axe.
- We opted not to carry a rope and avy gear after what we saw last year and what we saw on the North side of the mountain on Saturday. We felt comfortable with conditions and stability. Time was down to the wire so no chance to take photos during the attempt on Sunday (and we don’t have a film crew in tow :).
- Nutrition: Four Hammer Nutrition Raspberry Gels mixed into a soft flask with a few mls of hot water. Two 750ml bottles, one with dilute HEED and one with plain water.
Dynafit, Hammer, Challenge by Choice and Colltex have been awesome throughout the skimo season but for Liberty Ridge specifically, Black Diamond helped us with a bit of cheap gear that we thought would be ideal for climbing and skiing the route light and fast. We also won a Live Your Dreams grant from the American Alpine Club. It was great have a few of the costs associated with making the trip down covered by the grant. It also makes it less pressing to attempt something when conditions are not perfect. I would encourage everyone to apply for a LYD grant because it is pretty awesome. So thank you to everyone who helped!
Now it is time do tackle the pile of gear and and stinky clothing in my basement. With skimo season closed, I am looking forward to a short training break before getting back into the swing of things for the running season. I am excited to do some rock climbing, continue exploring the new Sea-to-Sky Gondola. More importantly, I have my PhD thesis proposal coming up in July so need to spend a bit of time preparing for that!
Other than watching the helicopter searching the Carbon Glacier on Saturday and what I read in the news back in Canada, I don’t know much about what happened to the six missing climbers. It sounds like they may have been swept down the Thermogenesis Couloir to the Carbon Glacier below the Willis Wall from high on Lib Ridge. It seems unclear if they were climbing or camping when it happened. Regardless it sucks. It is a sobering reminder to be careful and that even well prepared parties can suffer the consequences of poor timing. My thoughts and best wishes are definitely with the climbers and their families.