Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Rainier

Conditions were perfect; we cramponed up the snow slopes and found steep little fingers of snow to get past each cliff. I was in the lead when we came to a steep “apron” of water ice about 20 feet across. I started across, but noted that one slip would yield a quick trip to the glacier thousands of feet (well, much more than one thousand feet) below with no chance of arrest. I turned to Carson and told him I wanted a belay. He said it was too awkward to rope up here, so I stepped aside and said “After you,” thinking he might reconsider. This did not change his mind; he pulled out his ice hammer and side-stepped across on his crampon front points using ice axe and hammer for additional support. I followed in the same manner. When climbing steep ice, one tries to maintain an erect position rather than “hug” the ice; in this position, it was thrilling to look down between my feet and see the glacier far below. I could not watch as Dan came across because I did not want to see the novice fall to his death. But he made it.

In addition to being water ice, the “apron” was clearly a place where water, snow and rocks funnel down from far above. Since the sun was starting to make its appearance, the apron and the route above it are not a place to dally.

Shortly after the ice apron traverse, we came to a section of rotten rock. It was Class 4 (class is the difficulty of short sections and is rated from 1 to 5.9), but so rotten we were afraid of large rocks coming loose. A fall meant serious injury IF one managed to keep from falling all the way to the glacier. This time I convinced Carson to belay because the rock was less predictable than the ice (cf.  Kautz Glacier). He was reluctant, but agreed after I found a crack and wedged a stone into it with a sling around to use for protection. I tried to make myself as stable as possible to catch a fall. Carson went first, with me belaying. With Carson's assent, I did not tie the rope to myself during the belay; if he was trapped in heavy rockfall and the belay could not be held the rope would be lost with him rather than pulling me along. He made it across without incident. Then Dan went (with belays fore and aft) and I followed. The “rotten traverse” got us around the ice cliffs. From that point on was steep glacier stomping to the Liberty Cap summit.

The accompanying composite picture was taken from our base camp at about 10,300 feet. The summit is 4,000 feet above. The red line approximates the route we took. I believe Carson led us up from the ice apron traverse (marked with an X) then left to the rotten rock traverse (marked with an R). This is known as Variation 1 or the Ice Cliff Variation of the route and avoids the difficulties we would encounter had we gone right up the rotten gully to the Rock Chimney Variation. It is questionable Dan would have been up to the latter alternative. I do not recall the exact route we took after the rotten traverse, only that after a few difficulties it was easy compared to what came before.

Some excellent pictures and route details can be found here.

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