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Whatcom climber tells cautionary tale about Mount Rainier

On the afternoon of June 9, 1989, a Friday, four aging mountaineers from Whatcom County departed to make an attempt on Willis Wall. The four were Anton Karuza (who talked us into it), 36, a podiatrist; Jeff Steger, 42, a psychologist; Joe Abbott, 47, an attorney; and Howard Evans, 54, a university professor.

We were not professional climbers and not young. Howard Evans and I met in the first mountaineering course for each of us when he was 45 and I was 38.

Willis Wall, the Nordwand of Mount Rainier, is a route known for loose boulders, cliffs of frozen mud, frequent rock fall, and occasional massive ice avalanches from the 300-foot ice cliffs that hang above the climbing routes.

Anyone who sees Willis Wall hardly needs to be convinced of its danger. The wall encompasses the avalanche-scarred stretch of Mount Rainier’s north face between Curtis Ridge and Liberty Ridge. It rises from the Carbon Glacier some 4,000 feet to meet ice cliffs spilling from 14,112-foot Liberty Cap, the lowest of the three prominent nobs on the mountain’s broad summit. Chunks of ice and rock frequently careen down the wall in warm weather and scatter debris down its 50-degree sides. ...

We thought conditions on the mountain would probably be as ideal as they can ever be. There had been recent snowfall, daytime temperatures at low elevations only rose into the 60s, and we optimists opined that the Wall should be well-cemented together and stable. We were probably over-educated and lacking in common sense.

After late lunch and a fight with Friday afternoon traffic through Seattle, we were able to leave the White River campground trail head by 7 p.m. We moved rapidly and soon reached Boulder Basin (5,000 feet) where a bivouac with sleeping bags and bivy sacks was comfortable and uneventful. The large and sometimes aggressive marmots we encountered on previous trips to Liberty Ridge were not out and about.

Anton was our most experienced climber and the one who dared to propose this climb. He and I had climbed Liberty Ridge and Price Glacier (Mount Shuksan) together. Jeff had climbed steep ice on the north side of Mount Hood and joined Anton and I on the northeast buttress of Mount Goode.

Howard was a strong outdoorsman with solid experience on the Cascade volcanoes, including Mount Rainier, in summer and winter. When asked whether he was interested in joining a Willis Wall climb, there was a long pause before the answer of “why not?” came. He knew what Willis Wall is. Until 1960, the National Park Service had prohibited climbing on the Wall, believing it to be too dangerous.

On day two of our trek, the weather remained cool and bright as we crossed Curtis Ridge and slowly wound our way up the center of the Carbon Glacier east of Liberty Ridge to nearly 9,000 feet. We found what we were looking for; a 20-foot wide crevasse running from east to west to protect us from all but the largest avalanche (we hoped) from the Wall.

We had all read “Beckey,” and Dee Molenaar’s “Challenge of Rainier,” heard a few additional tales and were well aware of what the Wall could do. A few years before his death, I had the pleasure of meeting a fine gentleman, Mr. Pete Schoening. When we talked about the Wall, he related that once, in his early climbing years, he and some friends were camped in a similar place on the carbon glacier, waiting to do the Wall the next day. About 10 p.m. they were jolted by a huge icefall coming down the Wall. He said that was enough for them; they couldn’t sleep at all and went home the next morning. However, I had not heard that story when we were on the route.

As we lazed about on our sleeping bags in hot afternoon sunshine, we “scoped out” a solid-looking, 45-degree snow ramp just left of the center of the Wall and concluded that was our starting point to access the Wall from the Carbon Glacier the next morning.

At dusk we heard something and noticed a small cloud coming down the right side of the Wall near Liberty Ridge. It was obviously big enough to sweep away anyone in its path, but nothing for us to worry about behind our crevasse barrier. We managed a picture or two of the “small” icefall. We were feeling smug about the lack of activity on the left half of the Wall, our intended route.

Sometime after 10 p.m., in darkness, something broke loose on the left half of the Wall. Thunder brought us half-way out of our sleeping bags and we searched the darkness upslope for any sign of movement toward our new friend; the 20-foot wide crevasse. Soon the noise died away and no ice monsters had appeared.

By 3 a.m. some of us were stirring and trying to rouse those who weren’t. By 4 a.m. we were roped up and ready to climb. The temperature was about 9 degrees and we were hopeful that the Wall would remain quiet.

We angled leftward toward Curtis Ridge and our hoped-for ramp. Alas, as the light improved, we saw that our ramp was gone, smashed by the large icefall a few hours earlier. However, in its place was a pile of broken ice completely filling the bergshrund and covering the place where the ramp had been.

In the early morning twilight we climbed over the ice block pile, then upward rapidly as a four-man rope on frozen snow, needing only crampons and one ice tool as the angle was never very steep, varying from 30 degrees to 40 degrees. We started up toward the crest of Curtis Ridge but soon angled to the right, aiming for the nearest rock cliff, which would provide some protection from the objective danger of rock and icefall.

The morning sun was on the cliffs above and on us before we gained the shelter of a cliff, but nothing substantial fell. We rested, then climbed upward through a break in the cliff band to reach what Beckey describes in his “Cascade Alpine Guide” as a “key ramp,” then followed it right on a traverse.

At one point, the ramp ended and we were forced downward on water ice interspersed with boulders. Only about one rope length of front pointing was required to pass around a cliff corner (East Rib?) and regain our ramp. The maneuver was one of only two or three where we belayed each other.

We continued to gain height, climbing snow or ice chutes through cliff bands and generally moving upward and westward toward the upper portion of the Wall. At all times we hugged cliffs when we could, and moved fast when we could not.

During most of the morning the rock fall was sporadic, just an occasional clatter from small rocks. Then, as we were luckily hugging a rock wall, with no warning, there was an explosion on our scree-covered ledge no more than 30 feet from the nearest climber. The air was filled with rock dust and we were all shaken. However we were high on the route and there was no thought except “let’s get up this thing and out of here.”

We took a number of breaks through the day, but tried to keep them short. Although we carried bivy sacks and sleeping bags, we weren’t giving thought to a bivy on the Wall. We wanted this to be our one and only day on this rotten drainage of rock and ice.

Pushing westerly around a cliff corner on a scree-covered ledge, we faced the obvious crux of the battle; a steep drainage couloir above where our ledge ended in a drop-off. The couloir is probably just east of the Central Rib.

The upper couloir began some 15 feet above our heads and appeared to be a narrow, perhaps 15-foot wide “cannonball alley.” To reach this dubious escape route someone would have to lead 15 feet of vertical, frozen mud imbedded with small boulders. Everyone agreed Anton would lead the pitch, including Anton.

While this conclusion was being reached, an interruption occurred; a growing rumble, then a thunderous roar of what we estimated to be two 10-yard loads of ice and rock, mostly ice, crashing past us down the couloir. We, of course, were pressed against the cliff on our ledge just short of the couloir.

Although the sun was on the ice cliffs above, we quickly decided it was now or never to tackle the couloir, the only apparent way up. A comment was made that we might have 20 minutes, or perhaps none!

Anton led the mud wall in five minutes or less, front-pointing with two tools. In the icy couloir above he placed one ice screw and belayed the second up. Quick climbing by all of us and we were above the crux and out of the gun barrel for a break on a small shoulder below the snowfield that lies below the summit ice cliffs. For the first time in hours we felt confident we would complete the route and escape it unscathed.

However, the climb was not over and we could not relax. It was late afternoon and we gave no thought to climbing the ice cliff looming above us; instead opting for a leftward traverse toward the top of Curtis Ridge. The traverse turned out to be easy, walking on 30-degree snow compacted by frequent ice avalanches.

We hurried as best as four middle-aged guys with packs can hurry above 12,000 thousand feet. Now, when we were all very tired, we faced one last obstacle, several hundred feet of steep, near knee-deep, soft snow.

After taking inventory of energy levels, Howard, at age 54, took the lead and kicked steps to a shoulder where we could begin a descent down the Emmons Glacier. Howard had previously climbed Mount Rainier from 6,500 feet in one day and always performed well at altitude.

I perform less well. As we started down near dusk, it had been a 17-hour day following a short night. We came to a flat area on the glacier. I could go no farther. I was down and on the ice, barely awake. I heard a voice say “I guess we’re bivying here; Joe is out.” After I was rolled into my sleeping bag I began to warm up. I could hear Jeff fighting a sputtering stove. Soon I was handed a lukewarm drink.

The next day was a pleasant descent in brilliant sunshine. Leaving St. Elmo Pass we met four strapping fellows. Climbers know the type; six-feet-two, slender, twenty-somethings, small high-tech packs. They looked like professionals. We looked like their fathers, or worse.

After pleasantries they asked, “Are you the guys who signed out for Willis Wall?” Response: “Yes.” Then, “Did you do the route?” Response: “Yes.” Then “ALL RIGHT,” followed by high-fives all around.

The twenty-somethings were headed for Liberty Ridge and buoyed by the knowledge that they could look forward to another 30 or 40 years of climbing.

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