Mt. Rainier - Liberty Ridge

June 4-5, 2003

Dave Svilar, Matt Alford


Matt sets off on the Carbon Glacier walking the thin red line.

-written by Matt Alford (July 2003)

It’s said that great minds think alike; it is also said that misery loves company.  In any case Dave and I were both thinking the same thing when we saw the weather forecast for the week of June 2-8: an ascent of Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier.  Not ten minutes after I phoned Dave and let him in on my plans, he had called back and informed me that he also had Liberty Ridge on his mind.

Fresh off our month long hiatus of rock climbing in the desert, we were hot to trot to get back in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  Never mind that neither of us had come in contact with crampons or a set of ice tools in several months, we were confident in our ability the get up Lib Ridge, one of Steck and Roper’s 50 “Crowded Climbs” of North America.

Since neither of us had jobs, and both are hopeless with members of the opposite sex, we had very few plans to clear before departing for the White River Ranger Station.  I sped down to Rainier in the middle of the night rocking out to several mixed cd’s highlighting the musical taste of the Redhead.  Dave slept.  Since it had been nearly a week since Dave and I had spent the night in the back of my truck together it felt good to get reacquainted as we dozed off into dreams of steep exposed ice climbing with the Carbon Glacier falling away beneath our feet.

After securing a permit in the morning Dave and I were stomping down the trail towards Glacier Basin at a good pace.  Our plan for the climb was to go fast and light, carrying minimal food, gear, and bivy sacks instead of a tent.  Although this style carries a bit more risk and leaves you more exposed to the elements in the event of a storm, we believe that the ability to move quickly and a strong weather window is a better recipe for both safety and success than hauling loads of gear.  With reasonable packs we put the miles behind us, clearing St. Elmo’s Pass, crossing the Winthrop Glacier, and ascending up and over Curtis Ridge in less then 4 hours.  Upon dropping down on to the Carbon Glacier, our objective came into full view and we headed south for the base of Liberty Ridge. 

The unseasonably warm June weather had made the glacier snow the consistency of mashed potatoes and slowed our progress considerably as we began to ascend the lower right hand side of Liberty Ridge.  I distinctly recall one fun-filled section of loose scree and unconsolidated mush snow where for every foot gained I seemed to slide two back down the ridge.  While I truly do love climbing, it doesn’t stop me from throwing a curse laden temper tantrum from time to time; this was one of these special occasions.  I will spare the reader details.

Putting the Carbon Glacier behind us Matt sweats his way up the lower section of Liberty Ridge.  This was shortly after his obscenity-laden outburst.

At 6:00 pm we dropped our packs at Thumb Rock, just nine hours after leaving the Nissan.  Several other parties were already camped, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a bivy pit from and RMI guided trip awaiting our arrival. 

Dave fired up the stove and began to melt snow for water.  Staying hydrated on big mountains is the single most important key to success.  A well-hydrated climber acclimates better, moves faster, is more resistant to hypothermia, and thinks more clearly.  As we forced down several liters of liquid we chatted with the other climbers at Thumb Rock.  Both Dave and I were a bit surprised at what a scene Liberty Ridge turned out to be, as we were the only Washington natives on the ridge.  Several guys from California and a party from New Mexico turned out to be our neighbors at the bivy.  Not long after our arrival, a couple of RMI guides on a personal trip showed up carrying much less then Dave and I.  We ended up chatting with them and combining our water melting effort for a couple hours before we slipped inside our sacks for a couple hours of shuteye.

Tents of other climbers at Thumb Rock.  Steep and imposing (unappealing) Willis Wall in the background.


Dave and Matt digging in for a short night.

A 12:30 am wake-up came soon and we quickly racked and roped and were ready to go.  The route description gives two options for ascending out of the Thumb Rock camp.  The first is entering a steep ice gully via a 25-foot rock step, the second calls for a rising westward traverse to a broad slope that joins the upper ridge.   Always looking to build an adventure, I disregarded the route descriptions and led out steeply eastward onto a broad steep ice slope bordered on the right by a large rock outcrop.  Dave only protested a little, but I knew on the inside he was thinking “Off route on purpose, just like a redhead.”   I was able to place several stoppers in the crumbling volcanic rock as I ascended several hundred feet and rejoined standard route and the ridge proper.  We swapped leads and continued climbing, setting little or no gear as we ascended the constant 45-55º slope.  At about 13,000 feet Dave stopped at a pre-cut ice shelf and belayed me in.  I was thankful for the stop, as I hadn’t gotten the chance to practice my crapping skills on an exposed route since our North Face of Mt. Shuksan  trip last summer. 

Relieved and refueled from several packets or GU, I led out again ascending the ridge onto the Liberty Cap Glacier and the final 15-foot bergschrund; the technical crux of the climb.  I stopped and tried to set several screws in the wall, but conditions were much to warm and the screws pulled out easily with a pull of my hand.  Such being the case, I buried a picket near the base of the shcrund, while it wouldn’t keep me from decking if I fell, it would hopefully keep Dave and I from an express descent back down the ridge to the Carbon Glacier.  I took several swings with my tools looking for good purchase with the picks, but every time I tried to weight a placement it pulled trough the soft ice.  I changed my game plan to horizontal plunging with the tools combined with delicate foot placements and climbed the schrund with minimal grunting.  I set up an anchored belay and brought Dave up.  We swapped leads and Dave set out up the final slopes of the Liberty Cap.  While the wind had been quite calm all morning, as soon as we crested the ridge onto the exposed summit cap, we were hammered full force by 35-40 mph winds.  Being the skinny little redhead that I am, and quite a baby, I didn’t desire to spend much time in the wind.  Apparently Dave had similar thinking because he led directly over the summit cap and kept walking down the south side of the summit until we dropped out of the wind. 

Matt on the upper section of Liberty Ridge.

We sat down on our packs, gave each other a quick congratulations and split the last of Dave’s egg salad sandwich his mom had prepared the day before.  After the quick break we traversed S.E. across the upper Winthrop Glacier and picked up the wands that marked the descent down the Emmons back to Camp Schurman.  A quick climb up to the Inter Glacier and an epic glissade led back to Glacier Basin and the longest “three-mile” hike in the Cascades back to the Nissan at White River Campground.  Dave and I completed the route in 29 hours car to car, and while certainly not a speed record, it was in good time and style on one of the more difficult and committing lines on Rainer.  The only thing close to an epic was Dave getting lost in Auburn on the drive home.  I was thankful that didn’t turn into a forced bivy.

It is always a pleasure climbing with Dave, a great mountain companion and friend in life.  It has truly been rewarding growing with Dave as climbers, serving our apprenticeship on lesser routes on lesser mountains, paying dues on long training runs, and gaining the confidence and skills to be successful on demanding climbs that we thought impossible for us only a few years ago.  I look forward to sharing trips and adventures with Dave in other wild places both near and afar.

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