Current Snow Levels in the San Juans
A few of us have been out and about in the San Juan Mountains during the last week – including Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. Recently the area has experienced a few significant storms that had a decidedly winter component to them. Below average temperatures and above average precipitation has been the general weather pattern for the past few weeks and the mountains are really starting to show it.
Based on the current forecast and amount of snow already on the ground, I would suspect that the majority of the snow of shaded aspects will remain there for the rest of the season – eventually being buried by subsequent snow storms that are sure to effect the area in the month of October. This can be good on a number of levels, including the potential for an excellent early season ice cycle. The ice climbs around Silverton and Ouray above 10,000 feet are dependent on ground water and robust melt/freeze cycles. With all the recent snow above those altitudes it’s setting up to be a banner November/December for early season backcountry ice climbs.
The recent new snow however can become “old snow” – but at this point in the season likely only on aspects and areas where the snow has blown in deep enough to eventually be buried by subsequent storms. This old snow, especially from the first few larger storms in October and November, can become problematic later in the winter as the faceting process starts to take over, helping to hasten the creation of the all-to-familiar depth hoar we commonly see at the base of our snowpack – the cause of many early season avalanche cycles here in the San Juans.
Below are a few photos taken of the Chicago Basin area, Engineer Mountain, and views of the Sneffels Range and Ice Lakes Basin from a distance. All photos were taken between 9/24/13 and 9/27/13. As always, watch the forecast, plan accordingly, and travel safe in the mountains. Late fall/early winter storms are nothing to be trifled with in the San Juan Mountains.
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
100% Success on the Kautz Glacier
Earlier this summer, July 28 – August 1 to be exact, myself (Nate Disser) and Dave Ahrens successfully led 4 climbers to the summit of Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route. Things started off for our team in Ashford, WA, the best place to meet for groups climbing either the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route or the Kautz Glacier Route. An afternoon gear check left us hungry for a pre-trip meal and we decided on the Copper Creek restaurant – a very worthy place to get a great meal before the climb.
The Climb Begins
The following morning we all headed up to Paradise and after registering at the Ranger Station we were off on the trail towards our first camp for the evening. Starting off from Paradise is always a bit of a circus, as countless other day hikers and climbers adorn the trails heading out from Paradise. Most folks are headed up towards Panoraman Point, or perhaps even Camp Muir, but our destination was Glacier Vista where we would drop down onto the edge of the Nisqually Glacier. The lower Nisqually Glacier must be crossed in order to reach the Kautz Glacier, and after cramponing up and roping together for the glacier crossing we were making quick work of the day. Crossing the Nisqually is relatively straightforward, save for a few end runs around large crevasses and is much easier with good visibility. Having crossed the Nisqually many times previously in white out conditions, I was enjoying the fine weather and classic Northwest July high pressure system that typified our trip.
Skills & Forward Progress
We settled on a camp for the evening at about 7800′ and enjoyed fantastic views and a beautiful sunset to the south. The following morning we awoke somewhat lazily as our goal for the day was only to travel to a popular camp known as The Castle at about 9600′ and only 1800′ above us. After some snow and glacier travel skill practice in the morning, we headed up to The Castle, gaining the Wilson Glacier in the process. The next day we rose to more fine weather and barely a breath of wind. After more skill practice – this time on crevasse rescue protocols, hauling systems, etc. we packed up and headed onwards to high camp at about 10,800′. High camp on the Kautz Glacier Route is accessed via the Turtle Snowfield at the top of which there are a collection of campsites scattered amongst the rocks. Making this high camp puts you in excellent position for the summit bid the following night/morning.
The Summit Climb
After a lazy afternoon, everyone turned in early in anticipation of waking early that night/morning for the summit bid. Our team decided to leave camp around 1:30 am, planning on a 6.5 hour one way trip to the summit. A slight change in the weather gave some cause for a heightened sense of awareness for the summit climb. However, upon leaving camp precisely at 1:30 the stars were visible and very little wind could be felt. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached one of the technical challenges of the day, the rock step which requires a lower/rappel to access the Kautz Glacier proper and subsequently the often intimidating Kautz Ice Chute.
Our team made quick work of the transition and we were all very soon making our way up the steeper ice sections of the ice chute. A combination of short pitches and short roping led us to the top of the ice chute in about an hour. Climbers had the opportunity to swing two tools on the climb this year, as the route offered more and steeper ice than other times I had done the route. Overall, the Kautz Ice Chute is a very fun, engaging, and unique aspect to the Kautz Route.
Above the ice chute, we transitioned back into glacer travel mode and made our way to the Wapowety Cleaver which separates the Kautz Glacier from the upper Nisqually Glacier. At about 13,000′ our team took a nice long – yet predictably cold – rest break prior to setting off on the last stretch across the upper Nisqually to the crater rim of Mt. Rainier. At this point, we started to experience a more dramatic shift in the weather with higher upper level winds helping to form a “cap” or lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt. Rainier. A lenticular cap in such instances is quite typically the harbinger of an approaching storm. However, our team pushed on towards the summit, navigating increasing winds and decreasing visibility as we climbed. Adequate safety margins were maintained throughout the ascent though and all of our team members felt strong as we neared the summit. Finally, after a long (1.5 hour) stretch from our last break we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. Once inside the crater, the winds abated considerably and we enjoyed a nice long break with plenty of food and water prior to the descent back down to high camp. A few team members who had not previously summited Mt. Rainier before this trip decided to make the extra effort and climb to the Columbia Crest - literally the highest point on the crater rim of Mt. Rainier.
An Efficient Descent
As we descended, the weather began to improve slightly and we were able to make it back down to our camp with relative ease and minimal hassle. After a 2 hour nap, our team decided to make the effort to move camp further down the mountain in anticipation of leaving early the following morning and reaching Paradise in the early afternoon. It’s tough to resist the temptation of a hearty meal after such effort on the peak, and visions of cheeseburgers certainly provided additional motivation to maintain our focus and efficient style all the way back to the parking lot – the true summit of any mountain climb.
Overall, the trip went off without a hitch – the perfect combination of good planning, great weather, and an efficient, motivated climbing team. When it all comes together like that, it just doesn’t get much better. I can’t say enough what a pleasure it was to climb with Rhon, Kevin, Brant, and Brian and spend 5 days in the mountains sharing life stories and the requisite compliment of tasteful jokes as well. Both Dave and I look forward to climbing with them in the future – most likely in Ouray this winter!
Stay tuned for our Mt. Rainier dates for 2014!!
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide