Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier by Mike Gauthier
  Mount Rainier National Park 2004  
  by Mike Gauthier, Lead Climbing Ranger  

Ohe 2004 climbing season was marked by large fluctuations in weather, a series of rescues, construction projects at Camp Muir and Paradise, and consistent staffing by Climbing Rangers both at high camps and in the ranger stations.

Climbing an ice bulge on Ptarmigan Ridge
Climbing an ice bulge on Ptarmigan Ridge. Photo © Eric Linthwaite
The weather on Mount Rainier varied dramatically over the season. In April and early May, temperatures were well above normal with below average precipitation. This led to a well-consolidated snowpack and excellent climbing conditions. By mid-May, winter had returned to the upper mountain, refusing to leave until the end of June. This prevented many climbers from reaching the summit, but prolonged the climbing season on many routes. Summer was back in full swing by early July and the Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons-Winthrop, the standard routes, remained in great shape throughout the summer and early fall.

Mountaineering Patrols, High Camps and Ranger Stations

Climbing Rangers patrolled over 13 routes this year maintaining a strong NPS presence on the upper mountain. Rangers monitored the climbing routes, provided up-to-date route conditions, and were prepared and positioned in the event of an incident. The average patrol included: inventory of resource impacts; removal of human waste; dismantling of cairns and rock walls; contacting climbers about leave-no-trace practices; sharing route, weather and other mountain related conditions; monitoring of concession activities and the occasional response to emergencies.

The 2004 Climbing Ranger Program consisted of four rangers based at Camp Schurman and the White River Ranger Station and eight rangers at Camp Muir and the Paradise Old Station. In addition, the program welcomed two new full-time volunteers and one part-time volunteer.

Together, rangers worked a total of 315 field days. Those included 242 days at high camps and 73 days on non-standard route patrols. Climbing rangers spent 170 person-days working in the White River and Paradise ranger stations.

High Camps
With few exceptions, Camp Muir and Camp Schurman were staffed daily with at least one ranger throughout June, July and August. Rangers at high camps provided updated route, weather and safety information to the public and the guide services. Climbing rangers traditionally provide this information during “evening rounds”. Evening rounds also allow rangers to note the plans of climbing groups, which can prove invaluable should the party encounter problems during their climb.

In addition to maintenance on high camp buildings, climbing rangers regularly cleaned and maintained the pit and solar dehydrating toilets. Having a dedicated maintenance manager staff Camp Muir Thursday to Sunday was also beneficial.

During the months of August and September the Camp Muir Public Shelter was restored and renovated. The original south entrance, which had been filled with masonry, was reopened and a door resembling the original was installed. New cooking areas and bunks were built and a state-of-the-art roof was installed. Walls were repaired, windows were replaced, and solar roof tubes (skylights) added. These upgrades will prolong the life of the shelter and provide the public with better light and ventilation. The shelter was closed during the restoration but is now re-opened to public.

On Ptarmigan Ridge.
On Ptarmigan Ridge. Photo © Eric Linthwaite
Ranger Stations
Climbing rangers staffed ranger stations at Paradise and White River providing route and weather information as well as the latest safety reports. These reports can be found on the web at: www.nps.gov/mora/climb/climb.htm. For pre-recorded information in the spring and summer, call 360 569 2211 ext. 2314.

Annual climbing passes are $30 and are required for climbing trips. Climbing passes may be purchased at the Paradise Old Station, White River Wilderness Information Center, Longmire Wilderness Information Center and at Wilkeson Ranger Station. Passes may also be purchased by fax or mail using a form available on the Park web site. Funds collected from the sale of climbing passes are used for the operation of the climbing and waste management programs on the mountain.

Farewell to the Paradise Old Station. Built in 1922, the Paradise Old Station has been the main point of contact for climbers and the NPS over the decades. 2004 was the last season climbing rangers will issue permits out of the station. In 2005, the rangers will move to the newly renovated Guide House. Renovating the Guide House was a huge effort, but climbers will enjoy the results. New exhibits and displays feature climbing, history, safety, and natural resources, available this spring. The Guide House is the high peaked building across from the Paradise Inn.

Climbing Visitation

9,251 climbers registered in 2004, a relatively light number compared to the record high of 13,114 in 2000. Of them, 3,714 were led by a guide service and 5,537 climbed independently. Table 1 lists those statistics in comparison to other years. Independent climbers have a 48% success rate; guide service averages a 60% success rate.

For more information:
Mount Rainier National Park Climbing Link

  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004  
Climbers Registered 13,114 11,874 11,313 9,897 9,251  
Independent Climbers 8,736 7,282 7,632
6,377 5,537  
Guides and Clients 4,378 4,592 3,681 3,520 3,714  
Total Summits 6,083 5,171 5,553 5,295 4,951  

2004 Projects

Camp Muir Renovations

Large scale restoration and renovation on the Camp Muir Public Shelter and Guide Service Cook Shack took place during August and September. The Public Shelter’s appearance, livability and durability have been greatly improved. At Paradise, the two-year-long refurbishing of the Guide House was completed this year. The Guide House will be the new home to the Paradise Climbing Rangers and Climbing Information Center.

Climbing Ptarmigan Ridge
Climbing Ptarmigan Ridge.
© Chris Bielecki.
Waste Management
On the mountain, properly disposing of solid human waste is accomplished by one of two methods, using the established toilets or by using blue bags. Toilets are available at Camp Schurman and Camp Muir. When toilets are not available, climbers collect their waste in “blue bags”. In 2004, over 27 barrels of human waste (five and a half tons) were collected from high camps and Panorama Point. Rangers also removed 82 incidents of improper human waste disposal around the mountain. Climbing rangers carried down over 472 lbs of trash from high camps, dismantled 79 cairns and rock walls, and contacted 18 parties who were camping outside the scope of their permit and in high impact zones. The great majority of climbers do their part to leave no trace, and we appreciate it greatly.

Search and Rescue
While 2003 had few rescues and no climbing fatalities, 2004 was a different story. The most dramatic and publicized incidents were on Liberty Ridge, where four fatalities occurred. Other incidents included 2 broken ankles, 3 knee injuries, 2 dislocated shoulders and 3 climbers becoming stranded. In the sidebar is a short narrative of the major accidents. For more details and a full analysis of the accidents and rescues, see the park website, or refer to the 2005 publication of Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

Looking Ahead

In 2005 the Paradise Climbing Rangers will work out of the Climber Information Center in the Paradise Guide House, the new location for climbing registration and information at Paradise.

The Camp Muir Public Shelter, when its restoration is complete, will again serve climbers. Accommodation will remain first-come first-served. More construction is scheduled to take place at Camp Muir during the summer of 2005 as work crews reconstruct, stone-for-stone, the historic men’s restroom. Built in 1936, it has been slowly collapsing due to geologic changes.

Lower slopes of Mt. Rainier at sunrise, from 11,000 feet on Ptarmigan Ridge. Photo © Eric Linthwaite

2004 Summary
Climbers on popular routes
5400 - Disappointment Cleaver
1700 - Emmons/Winthrop Glacier
700 - Ingraham Glacier Direct
450 - Kautz Glacier & Fuhrer Finger
130 - Liberty Ridge
120 - Gibraltar Ledges
120 - Little Tahoma
100 - Tahoma Glacier
531 - Other Routes
Search & Rescue Highlights
Liberty Ridge
A climber took a 30 foot fall while leading, just below the Black Pyramid on Liberty Ridge near 11,800 feet, and sustained a serious head injury. The NPS was notified via cell phone and dispatched ground-based climbing teams. On scene rangers coordinated a helicopter hoist evacuation with the Oregon Army National Guard.

A climbing party of two fell on Liberty Ridge again near 11,800 feet. One climber died from his injuries a few hours later; the second sustained hand and serious leg injuries. Both were air-lifted by an Oregon Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter.

After two climbers were reported overdue, the body of one was discovered at the base of Liberty Wall on the Carbon Glacier, but the second was not found. In mid-July, an independent climber spotted the second body below Liberty Wall. The investigation strongly indicates that the pair was caught in an avalanche above 13,000 feet on Liberty Ridge. Both climbers were found wearing down parkas, but no climbing gear.

During the recovery efforts for the previous incident, a two-person team with no injuries called the NPS via cell phone from Thumb Rock to request a rescue. The climbers felt moving was too dangerous. The NPS and the Oregon Army National Guard hoisted the two climbers from Thumb Rock a day later.

Emmons Glacier

A party descending the Emmons Glacier to Camp Schurman reported that one of their team sustained a debilitating knee injury during a fall. Rangers were flown to 12,300 feet on the Emmons Glacier where the climber was assessed, lowered, and flown off the mountain that day.

Two climbers fell above the Disappointment Cleaver on the Emmons Glacier. With absolute luck, the pair landed on a semi-detached island of ice in the glacier, surrounded by deep crevasses and steep ice. While no serious injuries were sustained, the pair reported being stranded and requested help. After first light, climbing rangers assisted the climbers off the mountain.

Kautz Glacier
A climber sustained a dislocated shoulder while arresting a fall on the Kautz Glacier. He was able to descend to Camp Hazard with the assistance of his team, and was later flown off the mountain.

A two person team had taken a 400 foot fall in the icy steps of the Kautz Glacier around 11,900 feet. The fall was arrested when one climber fell into a shallow crevasse. Both climbers were injured; one sustained a compound fracture of the ankle. RMI guides assisted, securing the scene and stabilizing the injured climber, who was airlifted by Blackhawk.

Ingraham Glacier
On October 24, two climbers were practicing glacier skills in the crevasses on the Ingraham Glacier. Near the Disappointment Cleaver, the pair explored a large cavernous crevasse. While ascending an exit ramp, a slab avalanche triggered and engulfed the pair. One climber was buried completely, the other partially. The partially buried climber extricated himself in ½ hour. When he located his partner, and cleared his head from snow, his companion had died. A team of three climbing rangers assisted by a MD-500 helicopter recovered the body early next morning.