Ascent of Liberty Cap on 2018-05-28

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Monday, May 28, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Liberty Cap
    Elevation:14112 ft / 4301 m

Ascent Trip Report

Liberty Cap and Mt Rainier via Ptarmigan Ridge, Grade IV, 5.6, WI3, steep snow

Eric and Duncan

May 26-29, 2018

May 26

We left town late Saturday morning, hoping to get behind the crowds and get permits for camping on Liberty Ridge, a classic climb up Mt Rainier. Around noon at the White River ranger station we found out there were indeed spots available for camping at Thumb Rock, the high camp on Liberty Ridge, on the day we wanted. However, there would be nine other climbers camped out there also.

That sounded like a high potential for ice- and rock-fall on route and traffic jams with so many climbers. There was another route nearby called Ptarmigan Ridge, that looked equally fun, though it had a slightly longer approach, was a longer climb, and was supposed to be a bit more technical.

Only one party was planning to do Ptarmigan Ridge, a day ahead of us, and we were equipped to climb either, so we got permits for Ptarmigan Ridge. The plan was camp near St Elmo’s Pass the first night, then move to the 10,300ft base camp the second day, then climb the route on day three.

We drove to the Glacier Basin trailhead and barely managed to find a parking spot with all the other climbers, picnickers, and day hikers. We were soon geared up and hiking up the trail in sneakers. Snow started about two or three miles in, and we hid our sneakers in the woods and changed into mountaineering boots.

Before long we reached Glacier Basin and hiked up the Inter Glacier to St Elmo’s Pass. It was extremely windy at the pass, and after briefly considering a few semi-sheltered areas, we traversed back onto the Inter Glacier to a sheltered rock outcropping with a few rock walls built. There we laid out our bivy sacks and went to sleep.

May 27

We were up at 3am and soon traversed to St Elmo’s Pass and descended to the Winthrop Glacier. A group of two had descended just before us, and we noticed them traversing high on the glacier. Most of the boot and ski tracks descended lower, dropping below a big icefall. We followed the lower tracks, which avoided all major crevasses and found a good route to the lower Curtis Ridge.

We reached the lower Curtis Ridge a few hours later, and saw several groups ascending toward Thumb Rock, the high camp on Liberty Ridge. Our high camp was farther across the Carbon Glacier, and surprisingly we didn’t see any tracks in that direction, even though a group was supposed to be a day ahead of us. There was a group of three climbers still bivying nearby, and we guessed they may have been the other Ptarmigan Ridge group, though they must have been delayed a day.

We descended to the Carbon Glacier, and then diverged from the Liberty Ridge route. Next, we kicked steps up the Russell Glacier and, after weaving around some crevasses, reached the crest of the Ptarmigan Ridge. Here we got our first look at the route, and it wasn’t encouraging. It looked much more melted out than any other pictures I’d seen from other trip reports. Snow was continuous up to the steep left traverse, then appeared to be discontinuous between the two snow aprons. It was again discontinuous in the hourglass feature, and looked like water ice higher on the route.

After a bit of food we decided to press on to the bivy sites and get a closer view of the route. I noticed the group of 3 climbers following our tracks now lower on the Carbon Glacier, and we suspected they would catch up to us eventually at camp.

The remaining traverse along the ridge was very melted out and sketchy. The ridge was a sharp knife edge of crumbly volcanic rock that fell off when touched. We traversed just below the ridge to the east on exposed snow slopes, and eventually reached the flat bivy sites at 10,300ft by 12:30pm.

There was plenty of light left in the day, but the route was now in the sun and subject to increased rockfall hazard, especially in its melted-out state, so we decided to spend the night and do the climb in the morning. The bivy site was positioned close to a huge icefall on the Liberty Wall, but luckily we were high enough to be out of the danger zone. Over the next few hours we napped and occasionally heard huge chunks of ice and rock fall off the mountain. By evening we even noticed a group topping out on Liberty Ridge, while many other groups were setting up tents at Thumb Rock at the base of the route.

The other climbers never reached our bivy site for Ptarmigan Ridge, and it appeared we would have the route all to ourselves. .

May 28

We got up with the sun around 4am and we soon moving. The approach to the climb requires briefly crossing below the icefall, and we did this quickly and efficiently in just a few minutes. Duncan took the lead at the lower bergschrund crossing, and from here we simulclimbed up the ~40 degree snow and ice slope for a dozen or so ropelengths. We protected the route with a picket or ice screw every rope length down low, with a micro-traxion device on the protection so if the second climber fell, he wouldn’t pull down the lead climber.

As we climbed higher, the route turned icier and required more careful tool placements. We eventually reached the rightmost snow apron and began the traverse left. The snow started out deep and powdery, but almost completely disappeared in the gully separating the two snow aprons. Duncan led a sketchy pitch as I belayed from a snow anchor. There was about a 20m section of thin verglass ice, followed by a 20m frozen mud section that required delicately balancing our frontpoints on little pebbles sticking out of the mud.

Luckily Duncan found solid snow to build an anchor on the other side. We were now below the hourglass feature, and noticed rockfall increasing as the overhanging chossy cliff above us was hit by the sun. We were careful to choose protected belay locations and to move quickly.

Duncan led the next pitch, which crossed a melted-out rock band in the middle of the hour glass. On top of the rock band was a tricky section of thin verglass ice on rock, then continuous snow again. We simulclimbed up to a flat bivy site, and took our first food break. I noticed remnants of a stove windscreen here, and I bet parties have slept in this location before.

The next section was probably the technical crux of the route. A snow and ice traverse led to a small cave, situated below a long stretch of steeper water ice. All other trip reports I’d read described this section as a steep snow climb, but in this melted out state it was considerably more difficult.

I took the six ice screws and started up as Duncan belayed from the cave. The climbing was actually pretty fun and secure. The water ice was much stronger and more reliable than glacier ice, and I usually only took one swing per stick with the tools. The ice was WI3 for a full ropelength, and at the end I reached a snowy rock horn I slung for an anchor.

Duncan followed, and from here we simulclimbed a few more ropelengths of snow and low-angle ice to the base of the rock chimney. This was also very melted out compared to previous route pictures. We unroped to scramble up an exposed talus field beneath the step. We had decided to save weight and not bring rock gear, because the pitch was supposedly short, and had fixed pins. Luckily we spied the two fixed pins high up in a crack to the right of the chimney.

I slung a boulder as an anchor, and Duncan led up the rock in crampons to snow ledge above. I think the rock is graded 5.6, but there were excellent hand and foot holds and it was no problem to climb in crampons, even with a full pack of overnight gear.

Past the chimney we reached the broad, low-angle snow ramp of the Liberty Cap Glacier, and the technical climbing portion of the route was over. It was noon, and had taken us about 7 hours to get here from high camp.

The wind was roaring, so we quickly switch to glacier-travel mode and started heading up towards Liberty Cap. We alternated leads breaking trail, and soon reached the summit of Liberty Cap. Here we met up with a well-established boot path leading up from the Liberty Ridge climbing route.

From Liberty Cap we descended to the col below Columbia Crest, the summit of Rainier. Duncan waited at the col while I quickly hiked up to tag the true summit, following another well-established boot track. We then followed
another track down the Emmons Glacier. The route was complicated, weaving through many huge crevasses, but eventually brought us down to Camp Schurman.

The day was getting late, and neither of us technically had to show up in person to work the next morning, so we decided to spend another night on the mountain and sleep at Camp Schurman.

May 29

A big group of 15 climbers started up the Emmons route at 3am, but we slept in a few hours longer. By 6am we were headed back down the Inter Glacier, and were soon back to the trailhead.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
Summary Total Data
Ascent Statistics
    Route:Ptarmigan Ridge
Descent Statistics

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