Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Liberty Ridge, Revisited

The north side of Mt Rainier, the upper Carbon Glacier where the bodies of six climbers last week found their final resting place is one of the scariest places I’ve traveled.  I’ve been there twice, both times in winter, in the mid-1970s a few years before Liberty Ridge was anointed one of the 50 Classic Climbs in North America.  In the winter on the north side the sun barely rises over the mountain and the daylight, such as it is, holds a bluish arctic tint, shadowy, until dark.
The first time we were there we got caught in a white-out high on the Carbon.  The snow was heavy, the visibility non-existent and the tents precariously located in a heavily crevassed area.    That should have been enough to have prevented me from going back.
But I went back one more time in the winter.  On that occasion, Denny Cliff and I made it to Thumb Rock rather easily. The slope above it was diamond hard and we could barely get a crampon point to hold.  The hell with it.  The photograph I have from that trip is one of Denny winding his way through a serac field on the Carbon, the serac a good forty feet tall.  I remember the creaking and groaning of the ice and how quickly we moved through it, scared to death every minute.
I have been thinking about the party who were swept away there.  There is a kind of false security when you’re on a ridge climb: you say to yourself that the ridge is protected from avalanches, sort of forgetting that you’re rarely on the ridge proper.  We’ll never know exactly what transpired. May they rest in peace.

Michael Ybarra wrote a piece on his climb of Liberty Ridge (Alpinist 43) that was really haunting. One of his partners was so utterly depressed by the experience, its brutality, his frostbite, that he gave up on climbing forever.  Ybarra himself did not give up, but would fall to his death from the Sawtooth Ridge in the Sierra during a solo traverse.
I haven’t gone back to Liberty Ridge, but I did go back to Mt. Rainier and summited it by its most popular route, twenty-five years after I first climbed it.  It’s a glorious place, providing, of course, the weather is good and you acclimate okay.  I rather doubt I’ll climb it again, but I do entertain hopes of hiking the trail that circumnavigates the peak, The Wonderland Trail.
One more thing about Liberty Ridge.  On the way out the first time we ran into a party of guys intent on the Willis Wall.  This was January.  One of the guys in our group knew some of them and we chatted about conditions and weather.  The tone of our conversation light and carefree now that we were off the glacier and were only hours from the cars. They knew a couple other guys also climbing on that side of the mountain, Al Givler and Dusan Jagersky.  As it transpired Jack Lewis, Scott Baker, and Tom Boley went on to do a first winter ascent of some variation up there on the Willis.  And, I think Al and Dusan were successful, too.  We had missed the window of good weather by a couple days (thank God, I think now!).
The next year I had become friends with Lewis and Baker and we went in a group of five up to the St. Elias Range where we managed the second ascent of the north ridge of Mt. Kennedy, a 35 day trip accessed in and out on skis.  The trip of lifetime, I thought then, and do now, 37 years later.
We were on the ferry heading back to Seattle when we heard of a climbing accident.  When we got back we heard it had been Al Givler and Dusan Jagersky who had perished on Mt. Crillon.
This summer I am heading to the Sawtooth Ridge in the Sierra, a place I always think of as benign.  But, obviously, it isn’t.  If I hadn’t just reread Michael Ybarra’s Liberty Ridge piece I would have forgotten that was the scene of his last climb.
The  popular climber’s on-line Forum Super Topo has been down for maintenance for few days.  Its placeholder reads simply:
“Climbing is Dangerous. Climb at your own risk.”

Maybe they should just run that for a few months.

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