Blackbird climbers up high on an empty Emmons Glacier route on Mount Rainier in July. Incredible weather and a solid team made for an awesome day on the most glaciated peak in the Cascade Range. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Blackbird teams summited Mount Rainier during a 5-day trip on the Emmons Glacier earlier in July. The trip, Mount Rainier Summit and Skills Expedition, is a skills-based program that includes a summit of the highest and most glaciated peak in the Cascade Range.
The Rainier Summit and Skills Expedition started with a gear check and orientation for the climb. We covered proper layering and helped climbers choose the most appropriate layers for the current weather, how to pack food for Mount Rainier, how to pack a large expedition style backpack, and concerns about climbing in Mount Rainier National Park such as conservation and Leave No Trace.
Our team ready to start the Emmons Glacier Route on Mount Rainier during Blackbird Mountain Guides Rainier Summit and Skills Expedition.
Our first day on the mountain began with a strenuous hike to Camp Curtis. With our packs weighing in between 40 and 50 pounds from 5 days of food and fuel, plus tents, sleeping bags and camping gear and our mountaineering equipment, we were happy to have cool weather and cloudy conditions to shelter us from the sun on the approach. Despite ideal hiking conditions and cool temperatures, the 5 mile and 4,300' hike was a full day. Once at camp, we set up our tents and settled in for the evening.
The route to Camp Schurman from the White River Trailhead on Mount Rainier.
Our second day was a short day of movement, which left a lot of time for skills at camp. After packing up at Camp Curtis, we moved to Camp Schurman at the tip of Steamboat Prow, the rock feature that divides the Emmons Glacier from the Winthrop Glacier. Brutal west winds prevented us from setting up tents right away, so we left our gear in place as we started in on skills on the eastern side of the ridge.
We had covered the Rest Step and other basic footwork, but we expanded on crampon techniques and covered ice axe arrest extensively. After movement skills, we set up a fixed line, like those used on Denali and 8,000m peaks like Mount Everest, and practiced ascending mountaineering terrain with the aid of fixed lines.
Tents at Camp Schurman on The Emmons Glacier Route of Mount Rainier. Photo: Zeb Blais
After ice axe arrest and fixed lines practice, we covered knots and hitches used in mountaineering. From the flat overhand to the butterfly, we covered the most critical knots that mountaineers need to know and which specific tasks each knot is used for in the mountains.
With basic rope skills down, we moved on to EARNEST anchors and how to build snow anchors. We covered how to place snow pickets, including vertically placed top clip pickets, vertically placed mid-clip pickets, and T-Trench or "Dead Man" anchors. From there, we revied the basic concept of mechanical advantage and how we can build mechanical advantage systems to increase the load we're able to lift in situations like crevasse rescue.
A massive crevasse on the Winthrop Glacier on Mount Rainier that we used for crevasse rescue practice during the Rainier Summit and Skills Expedition. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Day 3 was pure fun: Crevasse Rescue practice and Ice Climbing! We started off by dropping Blackbird guide Brandon Seymore into the abyss. After guide Zeb Blais demonstrated how to rescue our fallen comrade, the team took turns being lowered into the crevasse and leading the rescue from the surface of the glacier.
Being inside of a gaping crevasse is a wild experience and can only be appreciated from the depths of the ice! It's a really amazing way to experience a glacier and really underscores why we rope up on glaciers: we don't want to fall into them!
Learning basic ice climbing movement on the Winthrop Glacier on Mount Rainier during the Emmons Glacier Summit and Skills Expedition. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Ice Climbing conditions weren't ideal, but everyone had a great time learning efficient movement on steep snow and ice. Soft snow made for difficult climbing, so we picked a crevasse that was less steep. The conditions were great for practicing techniques that can be useful in ranges like the Cordillera Blanca, where steep snow climbing can be a necessary skill.
That night, we settled in early to prepare for the summit attempt. Getting up before dawn, we started climbing with nearly perfect conditions. Wearing only light fleece over our base layers, we took off towards the summit.
Taking a maintenance break during our summit climb of Mount Rainier via the Emmons Glacier Route. Photo: Zeb Blais
The route was in excellent condition thanks to an incredibly stormy spring and early summer. Massive snowfall made the route straight forward and the snow bridges over the crevasses were thick and strong. Despite knowing the history of crevasses on the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers from many years of trips on the mountain, there were little signs of these gaping divides during our climb.
Near the top of the Emmons, a large bergschrund forced the route to the Winthrop near the saddle of Curtis Ridge and Columbia Crest (the true summit of Mt Rainier. After end running this massive crack, we made our way to the summit crater, where we celebrated the summit in perfect weather!
Our team on top of Mount Rainier during the Blackbird Mountain Guides Summit and Skills Seminar on the Emmons Glacier.
The descent went smoothly, and our teams managed the deep, sun-softened snow with ease. Back at camp we were happy to get our boots off and use our tents to take a break from the intense sun.
Day 5, our last day of the program since we didn't need to use our weather day, we packed up early and made our way down to the InterGlacier to take advantage of conditions there before things got too soft. Glowing from a perfect summit day and an incredible experience on the mountain, we made it down to the trailhead with a sense of accomplishment!
Descending from Camp Schurman to the Inter Glacier on Mount Rainier. Photo: Zeb Blais