Mt. Rainier, Fuhrer Finger

Warren Caldwell & Brett Carter
11-12 July, 2010

written by Warren Caldwell

Brett and I attempt to climb the Fuhrer Finger on Rainier in a push. With 65mph winds in the forecast, we climb through the night in an attempt to get up and back before the winds hit. It was unsuccessful--we ended up pinned down at 12,600' in a suffer-bivy from 3am to 5am before the sun rose and we could get high enough (13,400') to traverse the Nisqually and descend the D.C. Left the car at 6pm, back at 1pm the next day. 8500' vert in 9.5 hours, then 7 hours to retreat.

Wednesday Night, July 7th:
Like so many good ideas, this one was born over margaritas. I was at a housewarming party when Brett C., one of the new residents, asked me if I wanted to climb Rainier that weekend. I was immediately on board, but wasn't sure if my tequila-influenced brain was making a smart decision or not. I'd just gotten back from a month of travel--a conference, another conference, field work and a wedding, with no time off between, so I hadn't been in the mountains or at altitude at all since May (not counting driving a pick-up truck around the Ruby Mountains for field work). I told him I needed a day to make up my mind.

Fully sober, I thought about a schedule and looked at flights, and by the afternoon decided I was in. Looking back, it seems we planned the whole trip in just eight e-mails spanning seven hours. Here was the plan we came up with:

Friday: leave Palo Alto, drive to Mt. Hood
Saturday: climb Hood
Sunday: rest/prep for Rainier
Monday: climb Rainier
Tuesday: buffer day
Wednesday: fly home

Brett was driving to Washington to visit his family, so we'd drive up together and I'd fly back to California on my own. We decided to stop at Mt. Hood as a warm-up and half-hearted attempt at acclimatization.

We both wanted to do Rainier in a day, despite never having been on the mountain before. The Fuhrer Finger route is one of the most direct routes to the summit, and is off the beaten path enough to be appealing without being so obscure as to be foolhardy for such a hasty trip. Additionally, Bill Isherwood, a sort of proto-mentor who I met in Alaska before I started climbing, had recommended the Fuhrer Finger, so it had long been at the top of my list of Rainier routes.

Our spirits were bolstered by reports like this: "Conditions on the upper mountain are as good as they get for early July. Routes such as Liberty Ridge and the Fuhrer Finger that normally get a little thin this time of year are still holding lots of snow and should really be climbed a lot in the coming weeks."

Twelve-ish hours in the car. We parked for the night in the Timberline Lodge parking lot on the slopes of Mt. Hood and scoped out the peak before darkness fell.

Up early and onto the slopes of Mt. Hood. We took a far-left line to experiment with some steeper terrain before cutting back to the trade route for the final steep section. We were on the summit at 9:15am and back at the car sometime after 11am.

Back on the road and headed for Brett's family's house in Naches, WA, I was getting delirious from the baking midday Eastern Washington July sun when Brett pulled up to a full Stonehenge replica set on a hillside overlooking the Columbia River. I thought I might be hallucinating, but I had plenty of time to come to grips with reality when we realized the car was overheated and we were forced to wait for the engine to cool down before we could continue driving.

Arriving at Brett's place after that car ride was like arriving in paradise. His place (which his dad built) is in the middle of a cherry orchard, surrounded by tall shade trees and adjacent to a briskly-flowing, swimmable aquaduct. Did I mention that they live on a cherry orchard? We could eat them straight from the tree, yet somehow I managed to avoid making myself ill.

I slept in until 8 or so, while Brett, being Brett, got up for a run. Our plan for the day was to hang around his place, rest, pack, buy groceries, and in the evening drive the 2 hours over to Paradise in order to get an alpine start early Monday morning.

After lazing about eating cherries for a whle, we checked the weather to make sure the beautiful weather was still holding. It wasn't. Sixty-five mile per hour winds were predicted for 14,000' on Monday. Not gusts to 65mph--sustained wind speeds of 65mph.

Frantically adjusting our plans, we decided to start climbing immediately and try to outrun the weather. Our rest day ceased to become a rest day, and we threw our gear in Brett's truck, bought a few final groceries, and peeled out of Naches headed for Rainier.

At mid-afternoon we arrived in the Paradise parking lot. The weather was still sunny, calm, and beautiful. After getting our permits and packing our gear, we started hiking at 6pm. After a few miles we split off from the main trail and down onto the lower Nisqually Glacier. A dense marine layer at 8000' obscured the route, but we were able to ask some descending climbers the way.

Breaking above the marine layer revealed spectacular sunset views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. Luckily we got a good look at the Fuhrer Finger itself before darkness fell.

By the time the climbing steepened at the base of the coulior, it was fully night. We hadn't decided if we'd try to bivy or just keep climbing through the night, but at that point we were feeling fine and once we started up the steep terrain of the Finger, we were committed, so we kicked our way up in the darkness. Soon the winds started building.

Climbing at night was a little spooky. Unluckily, we were there exactly at the new moon, so it was truly pitch black. We had no sense of our surroundings outside of the circle of our headlamps, which was eerie, but also freed us from the demoralizing habit of staring at a point in the distance that never seems to get any closer. Fortunately there were excellent steps kicked in the firm snow, so we merely had to climb the staircase laid out ahead of us.

Once we got out of the Finger and onto the upper Nisqually, at around midnight, we had to do a little bit of routefinding. Not being able to see more than 30 feet away, this consisted of intuition and guesswork.

Over the next few hours the winds continued building, and somewhere in the 2am hour I found myself kicking steps into an increasingly vertical section of snow until suddenly my head popped over the top of small wall and into the full brunt of a raging wind. Cresting the top of this wall would require something like a mantle, but the wind was so strong that I was afraid I'd get blown off as soon as I attempted it, so I spent about five minutes waiting for anything close to a lull. Finally one came and I got up onto the flat terrain of the ridge. The wind was so strong that the only stable position to be in was spread-eagled flat on the ground. Being on all fours wasn't secure enough, and forget trying to stand. We couldn't climb any further in those winds, and neither of us was keen to descend the fairly steep and fairly crevassed Nisqually--at least not in the dark. Thus our only option was to wait it out. We were at 12,600' and had done 8500' vert in 9.5 hours.

Rocks were exposed on the ridge, and we found the largest one to hide behind and spent 20 or 30 minutes stacking more rocks into an improvised windbreak. It was pretty feeble. Then we huddled out of the wind as best we could. By then it was 3am.

Our plan was to wait until the winds died down enough to continue ascending, or, failing that, until daybreak when we'd be more comfortable descending our ascent route. We ended up having to wait two hours for the sun to rise. The first hour wasn't so bad, but in the second hour we started to get cold. I was half in my bivy sack and Brett was half in his sleeping bag, but we were still getting chilly.

"For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?" -Thornton Wilder

A little before 5am dawn began to creep across the sky, and I felt immense relief. To our surprise, the winds seemed to slacken a little, enough that we felt comfortable continuing upwards. We knew that if we could at least get to the upper mountain and traverse over to the Disappointment Cleaver route, we'd have a much easier time getting down than we would descending the Nisqually and the Finger.

The winds were still strong enough that we had to move slowly, bracing ourselves with both legs and an axe when the gusts hit, sometimes dropping onto all fours for the big gusts. In an hour and change we'd gained another thousand feet. It was now a little after 6am and we were at 13,400'--a thousand feet shy of the summit. In order to keep our spirits up we'd talked about pushing on to the summit if conditions were favorable, but from this vantage we could see the summit plateau and the clouds ripping across it at such speed that it conjured up images of jet fighters, making it clear that going further would be foolish. Thus began the long way back.

It was around 6:30am when we started traversing the mountain towards the DC. Traversing was tolerable with the wind at our back, but descending in a cross-wind was terrible. At one point I got blown off my feet, hit my face on the snow, split my lip, rolled once, and had to self-arrest. I'd hoped that the winds would die down as we dropped lower, but, frustratingly, they seemed to maintain their force.

Somewhere around the Cleaver proper I started to reach exhaustion. At 10am we sighted Camp Muir, and we reached it in a half-jog, half-stagger. At Camp Muir we unroped and began trudging down the Muir snow field, which turned out to be an exercise in frustration. The snow was inconsistent: too soft in places, too firm in other places, requiring constant attention and careful footwork--two things I was in no mood to conjure forth.

At 12:30pm I started to fall asleep on my feet, slipping into half-dreams. Apparently 28 hours without sleep was my threshold on that day. I felt as though my consciousness was physically retreating into my own head and out the back of it so as to observe myself from the air behind me.

At 1pm, we reached Paradise, and not a moment too soon. I was fully tripping balls by then. We'd taken 7 hours to descend from our high point.

I was happy to be down but too fatigued to be able to enjoy much of a sense of satisfaction at our efforts. We drove back to Brett's place in Naches, but upon arriving, I started to feel normal again and had no urge to nap. I went to bed at a normal time and woke up the next day feeling--to my suprise--not too sore.

We picked some cherries and I caught the Greyhound to Seattle, where I spent a day with my folks before flying back to California.

All in all, a great trip.