You could tell, even in the dark at 2:00ish a.m., that we were at a precarious point in our ascent. It wouldn’t be till our descent that we’d see just how precarious Disappointment Cleaver (pictured above) truly was. In the blackness, with only the focused beams of halogen head lamps from the chain gang of climbers, you could only see the rock, cracks, boulders, and loose gravel in front of you. For unexperienced technical climbers only 90-120 minutes into such a challenging climb, it was an unintended blessing to have but this three foot radius of light.
The steal points of our crampons didn’t offer reassuring bites into the volcanic rock. The harsh scraping and screeches of steal on rock were the sound track amidst our toiling. Before starting up the arête we tightened up our rope lengths. Before that, as we moved across the snow and ice of the Cowlitz Glacier and up rocky path of Cathedral Gap, and then across the ice of “The Flats”, we had been separated by 15-20 feet of slack in our rope. Now we were separated by no more than three feet of rope length as we traversed the Cleaver.
(A cleaver is a a type of arête that separates a unified flow of glacial ice from its uphill side into two glaciers flanking, and flowing parallel to, the ridge. In this case, the jutting rock dissects the Emmons and Ingraham glaciers. Cleaver gets its name from the way it resembles a meat cleaver slicing meat into two parts.)
An avid rock climber (in addition to his mountaineering vigor), you could see why Disappointment Cleaver was Casey’s favorite part of the route. Though not a sheer or vertical climb, you have to lean into the volcano and grab palms and fingers full of boulder and rock, leverage knees and slightly contort limbs to navigate these nature’s steps. As much as for stickiness as for cautiousness against triggering rock falls did we climb thus.
Being mindful of falling rock was crucial. And safety precautions are taken long before even encountering the potential. In fact, one of the first things we discussed during mountain school training the previous day was rock, ice, and snow fall avoidance procedures. Not surprisingly, there are specific techniques for responding to avalanches of earth or water. For example, one or two people only are to communicate to the group: “ROCK!” For several reasons:
- Avoid creating panic. The recipe for safety includes calm, deliberate, focused, and quick movements. If everybody is screaming ROCK then communications get drowned out, go unheard.
- Only the guides (or most experienced climbers) should be looking up and around. It is too easy to quickly lose balance and footholds by twisting your head around quickly in search of the danger. Slipping exacerbates the dangers.
- The combination of points 1 and 2 allow guides to swiftly provide instructions: move left, stay put, cling your face to the rock, etc.
It was taxing climbing. At least 400 feet of climbing, or 30-45 minutes worth (it seems like time on the mountain was measured in feet, not minutes). But eventually you ease out onto the snow cover, scramble across 30 meters more of cleaver rock, then are soon into the ice field of the second glacier – the Emmons.
From here it was only 2,100 more feet (or about two-ish hours) of climbing before the summit.
Having crossed and recrossed six crevasses, we had built a good deal of climbing confidence. Having summited through intense cold, we were feeling good and much more “experienced” for the descent. Coming down in the light of the morning sun, though, was also reminding us of the constant vigilance that must be kept. For example, during our night time ascent, while crossing one of the glaciers, we had passed only inches away from and over a crevasse that was in the process of opening up. Likely we had been on a snow bridge unbeknownst to us. As such, during the descent, we re-routed the trail and marked it accordingly for the danger that was awakening. We saw the opening at a glance. It was but a small hole, slightly larger than a football in shape, but with a depth that was immeasurable. Incredible! (If not a smidge disconcerting.) A stern reminder of Rainier’s potential to take you in.
On our way back down we (of course) encountered the rocky ridge for a second time, about 8 hours later. (I snapped the picture above during a break, a few hundred feet before tackling the cleaver a second time. Those dots at the base of the image are climbers preparing to descend down Disappointment Cleaver.) Though it is a bit counter intuitive, climbing in the dark is relatively safer. Primarily for reasons related to heat and cold. As the atmosphere warms up so does the mountain. And as the rock warms, ice melts, and rock loosens. Rock, ice, and snow falls are the result. This is what we can attribute our rock fall to.
Our spirits were high from our accomplishment. We were able to now enjoy the beauty of the Cascades and soak into our souls the timeless impressions of the experience. With the crevasse warning fresh in our minds, we remained tuned into our steps, rope lengths, and axe placements. As we encroached again upon the cleaver there was a group of climbers that intermittently passed, then stopped, then would pass again along the route. They were faster than us, but much less careful. With an experience level somewhere in between our rookie guides and ourselves. As we paused to shorten our rope length to three feet, Casey encouraged them to do the same. They declined. This was just one of the reasons Casey let them pass. He didn’t want them above us, knocking rocks or causing a slide. One of the reasons for shortening the rope is to prevent this. Too much slack in the line leaves potential for a rope to catch or knock rock.
They went ahead, at several points taking guidance from Casey as to the best path through. For the steps and safest route weren’t easily identifiable. As we let them go on we moved behind at a more measured pace – making sure to have a solidly planted foot at every single step. Casey was at the back of the rope following David, me, then the married couple up front with the husband in the lead.
I’m not sure who, but somebody above me made an untrue step, slipped, and dislodged an enormous boulder. With it slid loose rock and thawed earth. It happened suddenly and without warning. And as soon as I heard the yell the huge boulder was upon me.
I scampered to my right with three or four quick, choppy steps. But the boulder tracked me. I had no other escape but to hold my ground and work to straddle and hop over the slow rolling earth and it’s enormous tumbling companions. The slide came to a stop a meter past me. I had successfully evaded a leg crushing villain. It was quite the rush!
As a group we paused for a brief moment to secure the loose boulder with rocks and accumulated debris. Then, matter of factly, we moved on as though this was simply the natural course of things. A few more rocks fell from above as we moved through. Inspiring us to make careful haste as the warming sun minute by minute was ungluing the ice-infused stubble. Among the hairiest of moments, it made an indelible impression. It was both an unremarkable yet frozen-in-time moment of my Rainier experience. Even so, we were all quite satisfied with exiting from Disappointment Cleaver and clearing the rock fields and faces above.