Sunday, October 21, 2007

Liberty Ridge - Revisited

A: very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary, especially in size or scale

B: A climbing adventure in which abnormal events occur on such a routine basis that the feats undertaken to survive them come to seem routine as a consequence

Known to local Seattleites simply as “The Mountain,” the 14,411 foot heavily glaciated Mount Rainier holds distinctive challenges not many mountains found in North America can offer. It is no wonder that so many people have often drawn strong comparisons between Mount Rainier and it’s distant Himalayan cousins. It is here that sub alpine meadows and vast canvassing glaciers hold hands with massive avalanches, gaping crevasses, hazardous rock fall, calving seracs and violent weather. Rainier truly has it all - minus of course an altitude that extends itself into the death zone[1]. So much beauty, wrought with so much danger, and yet it’s only a two and a half hour drive from downtown Seattle. Rainier’s allure resides in her steep, milky-white slopes. Enormously visible on the occasional clear Seattle day, these slick icy couliours sing a Siren’s song to so many climbers who have sworn to their loved ones that they shall never step another crampon on her again; a promise often broken come early Summer. Rainier is an object of sheer massiveness that looms over the town like a conical war chief cloaked in white. Its’ lips sealed in a steady meditation. There is a dismissed notion that grumbles in the minds of the great Emerald City’s residents, “When will this chief awaken?” Oh, did I mention that Rainier’s an active volcano?

The first recorded summit of Mount Rainier was made in 1870. Today, the summit can see up to 4,000 people stomping up its snowy slopes to greet it annually. For some, Mount Rainier is a lifelong goal and aspiration. For others, a stepping-stone to the 20,320 foot Alaskan giant, Denali. But for all it is an undeniable challenge that is guaranteed to leave you humble and with great stories to pass on to the grandkids. Not to mention, a trip like this gives you the excuse to buy the coolest gear imaginable. Can you say, shopping spree?

There are over a dozen routes that can bring you to the summit. And for a fee there are a host of guiding companies that can get you there in a very calm and casual manner. For most people that is the way to do it. ‘Here’s my thousand bucks, now get me to the top.’ The guides earn their seasonal business, and the clients walk away with an amazing experience - A wonderful symbiotic relationship indeed. But I like to think that the act of climbing is so much more than just getting to the top; so much more than stroking one’s ego. Climbing is about the climb itself. The sharing of responsibility, the experience of hardship, the witness of beauty; its all to simply earn the view and fill the soul. If the intention of your climb is only to reach the top, you will never truly summit any mountain. Though, there are climbs where you must reach the top, for the alternative is a much more harrowing endeavor. Which is the case of the famed
Liberty Ridge route. There is only one thing more dangerous than climbing the Ridge, that’s descending it. Once committed to the Ridge, you must summit. You must then descend a much kinder, gentler slope, such as the Emmons route. Overall, it is a solid climb that can be summited quickly and safely; provided the weather, rocks and ice decide to play nice with you.

Liberty ridge is a true climber’s climb. The route is not quite the roped up, monotonous, one-foot in front of the other, boot packed, death slog to the summit akin to March of the Penguins. Categorized as one of America’s top 10 alpine climbs,[2] Lib Ridge from its very beginning emits a very committed, summit or die trying kind of vibe. Not that the route has any extra sketchy segments in its’ beginning; in fact it shares the same entry point as the very casual & climber friendly Emmons route. It just has this air about it from the moment you strap on your crampon and pierce the glacier’s frigid crust. It’s one part beautiful, one part sinister. But, recalling the accidentally found information one stumbles across while collecting beta[3] prior to this climb often transforms itself into one hell of a mind-fuck right from the start.

It is difficult to find any information about this route without skimming over information regarding the numerous injuries and fatalities “June 2004- climber dies after falling 200 feet on Liberty Ridge—May 2002 - Climbing party of four descend the wrong slope from Liberty Cap during a whiteout, three fell to their death.” These are the very headlines my mom really shouldn’t read. But in attempt to keep up on her son’s adventurous lifestyle, she does anyway. So, when I called her a week before the climb at the ol’ New Jersey homestead, the conversation went very much like this:

“So, you’re going to Rainier again this weekend?” (with just a hint of a N.Y. accent)

“Yes, mom.” (escaped with no accent)

“Didn’t you already climb it?” (why do you do this to me?)

“Yes mom, three times.” (…)

“So, why are you going back up there? Are you trying to give your poor mother a heart attack?!” (here comes the guilt)

“No mom. Don’t worry, I’m doing an easier route this time” (lie).

“I’m taking some friends up there that have wanted to climb the mountain their entire lives.” (big friggin’ lie – actually going with a couple of friends a retired Exum guide and a current glacier guide from Juneau. I thought that I would make up for my lack of experience with the wealth of theirs)

“Oh.” (…)

“ I promised them I would take them up as a wedding present to them. It’s my gift to them.” (oh c’mon now!)

“Well, that’s very sweet of you, what is the name of this easier route you are going to do?” (care-ful, she’s getting suspicious)

At this point, I’m distracted by a combination of tv commercials being over, the Simpson’s flashing back onto the screen and an especially delicious apple that I’m eating and say, “Liberty Ridge, mom.” (oh shit.)

“What?!!! Oh no you’re…” (..!..)

Quickly interrupting, “Oh, did I say Liberty Ridge? I meant the Cleaver. We’re climbing Success Cleaver. I…umm…the dog’s on fire, I gotta go.”

My mom has known me for thirty-one years. She knows when I’m lying. I will now carry the mother’s curse: Five phone calls a day for the next seven days.

June 26- Day 1

Getting from point A to point B has never been one of my strong suites. Some may even say that I am “directionally challenged.” So when I called a friend of mine in Seattle to get the short cut to the National Park, even I knew that it was a bad idea. I scribbled the directions as quickly as I could, racing against the fading cell phone signal; then read them back to my friend for confirmation. Just before the garbled signal crapped out, a couple of failing words managed to trickle through the tiny earpiece of the cell phone. Unfortunately, they weren’t the right words. “dude—you—go—entrance!” Yeah, buddy you go entrance too!” I replied. (translation: Dude, wait since you are climbing Liberty Ridge, you need to go to the north entrance!) Unbeknownst to us, we had received flawless directions to the south entrance to the park. And in fact, if that were the entrance we wanted to get to, we would have been elated! However, since the roads running through the park were washed out by unusually severe floods last season, we were now screwed if we wanted to begin our climb this evening. We must now drive entirely around the park, delaying our arrival to east entrance by over three and a half hours.

[1] Death Zone – Elevation of 26,000 feet and above, point of where no living thing can survive due to lack of oxygen.
[2] Alpine Climb – In short, alpine climbing is the act of rock and/or ice climbing at altitude. Usually entailing the use of passive pro, cams, ice tools, ice screws and a slightly larger set of balls.
[3] Beta – Updated route data passed to a climber typically from another climber that has recently finished the route. When beta is given at a rock gym, the casual passerby often interprets this climber jargon as testosterone fueled, eye rolling, bruddy gibberish. The passerby is often correct in this observation.


  1. I like the story. Had I not known how it ended, I would be very curious at this point.

  2. Dan..this is some good writing. It makes me want to cap Rainier, and Hooman has actually offered to haul me up next year. I know I could do it. I wonder if I will.You just don't know until you toss your balls to the fire. Sometimes life scares me more than death. On the other hand, I know freezing cold very well...I was married once. Can you add my blogspot link to your site?

  3. "dude—you—go—entrance" coupled with bad directions sounds like advice from James to me, was it James?