Thursday, June 21, 2012

Liberty Ridge

Liberty Ridge has rested comfortably among my climbing dreams for 6 years. In 2006, Jason Arnold and his cousin Sam Higbee traveled to the Pacific Northwest to join Justin Tatosian and I for an attempt at the infamous ridge. Although I’d already spent the majority of 8 years living near Mt Rainer it was my first crack at the summit. Incoming storms quickly forced plan B as we rushed to set ourselves up for a summit attempt the day after Sam and Jason arrived. Picking the Emmons as an easier, quicker alternative we scrambled to reach Camp Schurman before nightfall.

 Jason Arnold and Sam Higbee

Rainer is enormous, and its scale distorts time and distance. We reached Camp Schurman well after nightfall at 10pm and crawled into our sleeping bags around 11. After 3 hours of sleep we were up at 2am – moving through the dark towards the summit. 

Jason Arnold After 3 Hours of Sleep, Psyched for the Top.


The exertion, lack of sleep, altitude, and strong winds overwhelmed us at 12,000 feet. Defeat cemented my desire and on the way down I stole numerous glances towards St Elmos Pass, the gateway to Liberty Ridge.  

Turning Around

In the fall of 2007 I failed again on the standard route up the mountain, the Disappointment Cleaver. It was a guided trip (I was filling in for a missing guide) and by the time we reached 13,000 feet the weather had deteriorated enough that we couldn’t continue.

2007 Attempt

Finally, in the spring of 2008 I reached the summit. Success could not have been sweeter. Aaron Mainer and I climbed and skied the Nisqually Icefall, a rarely climbed and in all likelihood never skied before route on the south side of the mountain.

 Aaron Ascending the Icefall

 Success. Yours Truly at the Summit.

Mt Rainer was made for ski mountaineering, a unique niche of alpinism that involves skiing the descent after climbing a mountain. Conditions need to be perfect (low avalanche danger, soft edgeable snow) and the skiing is usually exposed and committing. Often rappels are involved along with lots of slideslipping. One needs to be strategic and careful about making turns because there usually isn’t any room for error. There in lies the enjoyment. During the deep breath inhaled before a turn there isn’t anything in the world other than you and the mountain. It is immersion in the moment that is the most exhilarating.

 Ski Mountaineering Involves lots of Trickery. Aaron Rappels into a Crevasse.

 Aaron in the Zone

 An Unlikely Place for Ski Turns

 Opening it Up After the Icefall

Sweet Success. Icefall is Just Above and Left of My Head.

Aaron and I met when we were both ski patrollers at Crystal Mountain. Aaron is very motivated, tremendously strong, and one of the best skiers I know. I’m no match for his sense of balance on skis or his endurance but we’ve managed some amazing trips over the past few years.

Ice Climbing Near Cody, Wyoming

Aaron Mainer. Ruth Glacier, Alaska

Aaron had some time off in mid-May and I bought a plane ticket, assuming I would have to cancel it because of weather. The gamble paid off. Warm temps and sunny skies provided the window we needed.

The road into the White River Campground was closed which forced us to ski the 8 km to the trailhead. Heavy spring snows buried the road just a mile from the gate. Since the first mile is mostly downhill, we rode bikes, coasting to the beginning of the snow.

 Aaron Mainer on His Fold Up Bicycle

Skiing Up the Road

Hiking the Bare Parts of the Trail

Skinning Towards St Elmo's Pass

 Traversing the Winthrop Glacier

Liberty Ridge

It took us 10 hours to arrive at the Carbon Glacier and our base camp. We took our boots off, and enjoyed a beautiful evening. 

 Basecamp near the Carbon Glacier

 Sun Protection

 Willis Wall

The high pressure was holding and we were tired so we rested the following day. We spent the day glassing options for our ski descent. 

 Aaron looking for a line

By the end of the afternoon out of this...

We had picked this...

Couloir in the middle of photo was our objective. A striking line.

There were two problems with our chosen line. At the base of the couloir we would be exposed to ice and rockfall from a large serac above. The other problem was navigating the bergschrund at the base. We reasoned that we could ski quickly through the ice and rockfall exposure, and the bergschrund looked small enough that we could jump over it.

The said issues with our proposed line in all likelihood meant it had never been skied.


Second Night on the Mountain

The next morning we were up at four and out of camp by five, well rested and excited to be climbing.

Navigating Cracks in the Predawn




Finally on Liberty Ridge

A party had been up the ridge just a few days prior and we were happy to follow in their footsteps. Without skis they had taken at least three days to climb the ridge itself. Here Aaron takes a break in a hole they dug for their camp just below the summit of the Liberty Cap.

Aaron. Glad to Have Skis in His Backpack.

Carbon Glacier

The final bit of the Liberty Cap was steep alpine ice. Ski boots are surprising good on steep ice.

Aaron above the Crux and Headed for the Summit

Mt St Helens

Aaron Reaching the Summit of the Liberty Cap

Glacier Peak

 Getting Ready to Ski

Game Time

Pounding In a Picket for the First Rappel (Over the Steep Ice)

We had two rappels within the first 500 feet below the Liberty Cap Summit, all to navigate sections of ice. Afterwards we were looking down at over 4,000 feet of steep exposed skiing.

 Top of our Couloir

 In the Moment

The couloir was fantastic. The snow was edgeable and the skiing was steep and demanded all our concentration. Once through the couloir we traversed above cliffs and into the choke where we would be exposed to rock and icefall. We skied quickly and in less than a minute we were through the choke and headed to the bergschrund.

 Serac above the Choke

The bergschrund didn't go as easily. The small 6 foot drop we glassed from over a mile away was really closer to twenty feet. Jumping was not an option. It was time to be creative. We grabbed some large rocks, and made a surprisingly solid rappel anchor by burying them in the snow. 

 Solution to the Final Problem. Our Anchor.

 Rappelling over the Bergschrund


We arrived back at Basecamp around 5pm, made some soup, and packed up. 

 Weather is Changing. Time to Leave.

 Walking Out

It was a calm, clear evening as we traversed the Winthrop. The setting sun bathed the upper mountain in its soft glow and our skis made comfortable noises as they glided over the snow. 

 Liberty Cap is the Summit on the Right

Aaron Reaching the Top of St Elmos Pass

We reached the top of St Elmos pass at sunset and skied down to the rushing headwaters of the White River. Rainer, looming magnificent in the background, water rushing to find its way to the ocean. We carved big turns through a tricky trap crust and walked large sections of trail that had melted out during the sunny weather. The magnificent evening invigorated my worn out body.

We reached the road around 10pm and to our horror realized that the park service had plowed the road while we were on the mountain. Our efficient method of travel came to a halt. Ski boots are not made to walk on pavement. It was a painful, slow walk out, but the warm Rainer beers in the truck never tasted better.

Aaron at the Bikes. Wrecked.

The results of our labor. First Descent of "Cryogenesis."

Cryogenesis aka Liberty Ridge East, (LRE in photo)

Photo from Lowell Skoog's Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project.

Here is a short video I made...


  1. Sweet turns there at the end! Bet that made it all worth it....

  2. Great trip with excellent report/graphics. It should be noted that Chris Landry skied the Liberty Ridge some 10-15 years back. Unknown as to his exact route compared to yours. I recall that he skied the route in March or early April prior to making a first ski descent route on Mt. Whitney. Lou Dawson of Wild Snow was with Chris on that Rainier ski although I believe he either down climbed or descended by a different route than Chris. After taking a long, long fall down Whitney, Chris stop extreme skiing.

    Steve Bunnell

  3. Great trip report, and well done. A few questions: 1) What tent did you use, 2) Did you have to leave the picket buried in the snow, and do you have any plans to retrieve it?, and 3) Could you elaborate on how you built the rappel anchor from those two rocks? (e.g. did you girth hitch a sling around each and then run the rope through the slings?). Looking forward to the answers!


  4. We had a black diamond first light for a tent. We left the picket - no plans to retrieve it. We girth hitched each rock with a long sling - then equalized the two rocks - and ran the rope though the equalized sling. It worked great!

  5. Super! Congratulations! FUCKYEAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

  6. For more information about the original Liberty Ridge descent by Chris Landry (1980), see the following links. The first page includes topo diagrams that show both routes:

    Landry was accompanied by Doug Robinson, not Lou Dawson. I believe that the fall that caused Landry to give up steep skiing was on Mt McKinley, not Whitney.

    --Lowell Skoog