Words: Drew Tabke
The alarm went off early—2:30 a.m.—for a Seattle-launched backcountry mission. This is the price I pay for living in the metropolis—unholy start times and long drives. The reward, however, is just. Alpine grandeur many people don’t even realize exists in the Lower 48. National parks filled with glaciated peaks rising from deep forest-choked valleys, vast and remote, to the point where feeling too alone is more a problem than feeling too hassled by crowds.
Arriving at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, I log my climb in the self-registration box, leave the car at 6 a.m. and head up. I’ve decided to go alone. Breathing deeply, I’m well acclimatized from a trip here just a few days prior and I pound out the thousands of feet that separate me from where I hope to arrive.
I climb a route along a ledge system below the towering Gibraltar Rock that gives access to the upper mountain. The route is historic: It was the mountain’s first ascensionists’ route to the top in 1870 and remains a classic to this day.
Interesting in appearance, untrustworthy in structural integrity, a rainbow of mineral-rich volcanic rock makes up these great rock buttresses of Mount Rainier. Some of the rock is extraordinarily unstable because it has been metasomatised, or thermically altered. Coupled with the grinding of glaciers and the erosion by wind, water, and high temperatures, 14,410-foot Rainier can be very prone to landslides and avalanches.
The Emmons and Ingraham glaciers grind around Little Tahoma (11,138 feet), a now-independent peak that was separated from the main mountain mass during the Oceola mudflow around 5,000 years ago. The ice and mud avalanche, also known as a lahar, flowed 30 miles west to the Puget Sound and the site of present-day Tacoma. Before the event the mountain was approximately 16,000 feet tall.
These lahars are the main danger posed to surrounding communities by a possible volcanic eruption, which could happen during our lifetimes. Rainier is still active and scientists constantly monitor its seismic activity for any signs it may be “waking up.”
Reaching the top of the ledges, I climb steep snow another couple hundred feet to the small col separating Gibraltar Rock from Mount Rainier. I leave my backpack and climb up a few more feet of rock and stand on top of Gib Rock.
Around 1,800 feet of climbing over rolling, windswept, and crevassed terrain separated me from the true summit of the mountain. I had been there before and hoped to stand there again, but today the mission involved only what was now below me.
The ski descent was thrilling from the start, with steep, perfect corn rolling steeper and steeper as I left the saddle behind. I was soon at the crux. Here the objective danger looking me in the face was the teetering edge of the Nisqually Ice Cliff that guards the top of Gibraltar Chute. If passage seemed unsafe, I would be forced to retreat. But having studied the ice cliff during the recent week, finding the snow in the couloir below to be extremely clean of recent rock or icefall, and encountering extremely good, consistent snow allowing fast passage, I decided to ski.
For two or three turns, I was directly beneath the reach of the ice cliff, but soon a slope to my left opened up allowing an “if necessary” exit from the most-exposed heart of the fall line. The snow was tinged brown with the dust of the volcano, but skied like the most perfect of corn. Every two or three turns, I’d look back over my shoulder, keeping an eye out for rocks or ice being released by the mountain. As I arced turns towards the bergschrund, I was graced with a moment of extreme clarity, feeling as though I had solved a puzzle proposed by the mountain through my choice of tactics, my training, and my commitment.
Skiing nonstop, I came to the bergschrund. I traversed left to an easy crossing, and navigated the remaining crevasses on the Nisqually Glacier before it finally released me back to the warm security of the Muir snowfield.
Hardcore locals give heavy vibes in the crowded parking lot.
This drawing shows an approximation of the day’s route. At 6:00 a.m., I left my car at Paradise (5,400 feet) and at 10:45, I stood on Gibraltar Rock (12,660 feet). I dropped into Gibraltar Chute on skis at 11:00 and was back at the car 20 minutes later, for a total time of 5:20. The run of 7,260 feet has massive scale and consequence, but takes an extremely direct and careful line. Contrary to popular belief, this mountain won’t always be here, and visiting its slopes when conditions allow is a privilege.