Mt. Rainier - Gibralter Ledges

September 11 - 12, 2002

Matt Alford, Matt Elley, Dave Svilar

-written by Matt Alford (January 2003)

note: pictures will likely appear abnormally small on your browser.  Until I return home and we can fix the problem either find a larger computer screen or squint.  -D.S.

My master’s degree work at the University of Idaho was beating me down and the prospect of spending another weekend behind the computer in Moscow was likely to drive me to drinking.  In actuality, I really don’t need to be driven to drinking, and I had pretty much resolved to take incompletes in a couple of my courses and finish them during the summer. 

The former, combined with the late spring high pressure system of May 2002 gave me a perfect excuse to drive 350 miles to climb Mount Rainer.  I made a midnight run across the state and met Dave and Matt Elley at the Paradise parking lot at about 10 am on Saturday morning.  Matt was a longtime friend of my climbing partner Dave, and Svilar assured me that even though Matt was a bit green, he was in great shape and keen to climb.

Nissan, Alford, Elley, Corolla, and Dave in the Paradise parking lot.

We split gear (Dave bitched about getting the rope again) and headed out for Camp Muir.  There must have been 300 people on the Muir snowfield that Saturday sporting everything from snow shoes to Tele Skis.  We wore boots and tennis shoes and passed them quickly with 40 pound packs in solid snow.  We made Camp Muir in 3 ˝ hours with little effort and my confidence grew in Elley as he kept pace with Dave and I, arriving at Muir only 10-15 minutes behind. 

At Muir I ran into some old friends from WSU and reminisced about our beer drinking days and the '97 Cougar Rose Bowl appearance, which coincidently is the same year that both Dave and I had our last dates with a member of the opposite sex.  Soon my old boozing buddies departed for Paradise and I unloaded my pack and had a bit to eat with Dave and Elley. 

Elley, Dave, and Alford relaxing on top of the Camp Muir hut.

Our intended route for the climb was Gibralter Ledges, the original summit line on Mount Rainier.  The route climbs directly out of Muir, skirting the huge outcrop known as Gibralter Rock on its western flank.  The ledges themselves are crumbly and exposed, and while not difficult to climb, a fall would most certainly result in serious injury or death.  Given my track record of falling down on easy, uncomplicated terrain this was more than enough to cause me concern.  Rock fall can also be a huge factor on the ledges, especially in the afternoon when the sun moves around the west side of the mountain, thaws the ice on Gibralter Rock, and sends down a cascade of rocks on unfortunate climbers below.  This was confirmed to us by a party of climbers who returned from their summit bid through the ledges at 6 PM that evening and were quite grateful that none had been killed by one of the many rock showers they had endured.

Armed with that knowledge we planned on a 12:00 am rise and a 1:00 am departure for the summit.  This would leave us plenty of time to return through the ledges before the sun made a crumbly mess out of Gibralter Rock. 

After a warm dinner and a Laurie Jo Svilar cookie for dessert I was ready for bed.  As the sun faded in the western sky, we noticed a party of three ascending the Cowlitz Glacier at about 11, 500 ft. moving in the direction of Cadaver Gap.  We discussed how foolish we thought it was that they were climbing on a soft glacier so late in the day and wished them luck from the comfort of our bags.

About 11:00 we were awaken by the sound of frantic voices in the permanent climber’s shelter at Camp Muir.  Following the conversation we soon learned that the party of three that we had seen several hours earlier had ascended up and over Cadaver Gap on to Ingraham Flats where one of members on the rope team had broken through an ice bridge into a sizable crevasse.  Apparently there had been quite a bit of slack in the rope and the guy had fallen 20 feet into the slot.  Despite their best effort, the other two climbers couldn’t free their partner because of the severe lip on the crevasse, which the rope had cut through.  In desperation, these guys had tied their partner off to an anchor, returned to Muir and roused the RMI Guide Service to coordinate a rescue.  To this point, I couldn’t really fault these guys, save their poor judgment about climbing a wet glacier so early in the season, but I could hardly believe their next move.  These guys proceeded to cook a meal and go to bed while their “buddy” was fighting for his life at 12, 500 ft.  Maybe these jokers were cold and tired, but I would have a very hard time sending someone else to rescue my climbing partner while I slept in the comfort of my bag.  Dave, Elley and myself agreed these guys were pretty low class to pull such a stunt.

In any case the situation turned out for the best, the RMI guides followed the tracks to the slot where the lone climber had managed to free himself from the crevasse. Although the climber was relatively uninjured, he was very cold and no doubt pretty scared.   The guides were just escorting him back into camp as we were departing for the summit.  The RMI Service is often talked poorly about, but these guys really stepped up to the occasion and likely saved the life of a lucky climber.  Hats off to them.

We ascended the Cowlitz to the base of Gibraltar Rock and began a rising traverse leftward across the ledges.  The route did prove to be terrifically exposed in areas and steepened to a 45-degree snow and ice chute at 12,300 ft.  Overall the difficulty was low, but I was sure to carefully watch every step I took.  The Gibralter Route joins the upper Ingraham Glacier above Gibralter Rock and ascends the last 2,000 feet directly to the summit.  I led the rope and was amazed to find that I didn’t have to circumvent one crevasse en route to the summit crater.  We passed the only group in front of us at about 13,500 and were the first group on the summit to enjoy the 5 am sunrise.  We had made it to the summit crater in just a little over 4 hours from camp-not bad for a red head, a balding chemist, and a guy who drives a mid-eighties Corolla with a home-tint job on the windows and lifts weights in his living room. 

Sunrise on Columbia Crest.

After a walk across the crater to Columbia Crest, Dave, and especially Elley were beginning to show the effects of altitude.  Elley wanted to sit down and rest and Dave was losing hair (oh wait, I forgot that started happening when we were seniors in high school), in any case I shoved some of my food and Gatorade down Elley’s throat and he perked up a little.  We began our descent and were at the top of Gibralter Rock in a little over an hour.  Elley was looking pretty wasted again and seemed insistent on taking a nap at 12,500 feet.  I noticed that the temperature had increased significantly and was quite anxious to get through the ledges before the afternoon rock showers began.  I fed Elley my remaining GU and we began climbing down the exposed snow chute.  The snow had softened enough that we felt it prudent to set some pickets and belay down exposed sections of the route.  We made it through the ledges and never heard a single rock fall from above.  We arrived at Camp Muir at 9:30 AM and rested a little before packing up and heading out. 

Elley and Svilar on the summit ridge.  Mt. Adams on the skyline.


Alford and Elley on the summit.  Elley's sporting a snowboarding helmet.


Alford and Elley plunge stepping below Gibralter Rock.

The party that had been involved in the epic the night before was still in camp and I really had to bite my tongue to keep from giving them a piece of my mind.  I had to laugh listening to these young men talk about what good climbers they were and formulate plans for speed ascents on difficult routes on Rainier.  Just 10 hours before, these guys were cowering in their sleeping bags because they were too wasted to go to the aid of their freezing partner and discussing giving up the sport of climbing.  Had not the RMI guides saved their asses, their partner would have likely been a permanent popsicle in a slot high on Mount Rainier.  These are the individuals who constantly bite off more than they can chew and endanger the lives of others who come to their aid when the shit hits the fan.

We made it back to Paradise by 1:00 PM, about 28 hours round trip. 

Looking back, I am able to identify several highlights about this climb on Rainier.

1)       Elley’s first summit of Rainer on a intermediate level route: congratulations Matt.

2)       Dave carried the rope to and from Muir: thanks Dave.

3)       As always, Dave’s mom made cookies: thanks Laurie Jo.

4)       I didn’t have an epic tale of trying to take a shit high on an exposed route without any TP: thank God.

5)       This began a streak of four consecutive weekends that I blew off my homework and drove across the state to go climbing, and still graduated with honors: thanks to professors who believe graduate students have too much integrity to plagiarize and cheat on final exams!

We parted ways from Muir to return to our less-than-adventurous lives away from the mountains.  Although saddened, I felt recharged and ready to face another laborious week of bloodshot eyes and stale coffee in front of my laptop while being distracted by the over abundance of 18 year old freshmen females carousing late at the University of Idaho student building.

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