Rainier is a unique mountain. It’s utter mass contains the many ski routes of several smaller mountains combined. That, along with the fact the gigantic volcano protrudes thousands of feet higher than the surrounding Cascades, makes it a challenging, enticing goal for glisse alpinism.
Last weekend Eric Svege, Eric Weherly, Brian Fletcher, and I headed up to the south side of Rainier to take advantage of clear, warm weather. I’ve skied Rainier a few times, but the big icy one still holds tons of routes that I salivate over. Two of those are the Wilson Headwall and the Kautz Headwall.
Driving up to Paradise as the early morning transitioned to dawn, we traveled through patches of fog and rain. A little uncertain that we made the right choice, and misinterpreted the weather forecasts, we were reassured by brief glimpses of a sunny upper mountain through the clouds. We left the parking lot around 8, and after a few minutes of hiking, the clouds began to break, revealing a clear blue sky. Although not our original plan, the sunlit Wilson Headwall enticed us, and we decided to head that way. We dropped our camping gear above Wilson Glacier and continued across toward the Fuhrer Finger. A few hours later we stood on top of the run, just as parts were beginning to be overtaken by afternoon shade. The corn on the headwall was still a bit hard, but the glacier below skied great.
Random gear tidbit: During this trip I tried a bit of a different sleeping system than I normally use. I usually carry a heavy 0-degree sleeping bag on ski trips, for maximum comfort and rest. This trip I tried out a super-light 32 degree bag, a Mountain Equipment Helium 250, along with an extra fleece upper layer, and some light down pants. I normally just use the bag for summer trips or winter hut trips, but it proved to work well for this trip as well, although the temps got well below freezing. I’m always trying to get my pack weight down, especially for trips like this that have a lot of necessary heavy gear.
We went to bed early, and woke early to head out toward the Kautz Headwall. A few hours later we got a closer look at the headwall. It appeared slightly more bare than usual, most likely from our lower snowpack this year, although still skiable. We debated continuing up the headwall, or climbing the Kautz Cleaver instead. Ultimately we decided to continue with our original plan.
As we got on the headwall proper, and as the sun hit, a few rocks started to let loose off the crumbling volcanic rock above us. As the igneous buzz-saws whizzed by our heads, we began to have second thoughts about continuing up the headwall. Although the rocks were coming down, strong winds threatened to never allow the corn to soften sufficiently — a tricky combination. We hung out under an overhang of rock for a few hours, and then decided to head down from that point at approx 12,500 feet. This was the first steep corn my skis had touched in months, and the descent was excellent. We skied the glacier down to our camp, and the corn only got better. After a bit of sun-lounging at camp, we packed up and headed down to the Nisqually bridge.
Our glimpse into spring was enticing, although the weather seems to be turning back to a more wintry pattern for now. Although we only got 1.5 out of the planned 2 headwall extravaganza, the trip easily brought maximum enjoyment and a welcome break from school.
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.