Home > Trip Reports > April 6, 2009, Mt Rainier, Gib Chute via Ingraham

April 6, 2009, Mt Rainier, Gib Chute via Ingraham

WA Cascades West Slopes South (Mt Rainier)
Posted by Amar Andalkar on 4/11/09 7:26pm
Summary: Kyle Miller and I ascended Mount Rainier via the Ingraham Direct route, in total solitude on a beautiful spring day, and completed a ski/snowboard descent from the summit via Gibraltar Chute. The Ingraham Direct was in fine shape with minimal crevasse issues, and snow conditions on the upper mountain were good by late-winter standards, with mostly windpacked powder, occasional soft sastrugi, and minimal ice. However, the steepest 50+ degree part of Gib Chute near its entrance (about 12300 ft) was very icy, rough, and runneled, making for truly scary ski conditions due to the dire consequences of any fall in that location. After safely negotiating that extreme hazard, the remainder of the Chute down to the Nisqually Glacier far below was fairly smooth and in decent shape, scoured to a consistent predictable surface by previous icefall and avalanches. We descended the eastern edge of the glacier beside Cowlitz Cleaver, and exited out onto the safety of the Muir Snowfield.

The Mountain is finally out after a long storm cycle.

Details: Following a lengthy late-March to early-April storm cycle which dumped more than 100" of snowfall at Paradise over a 10-day period, it seemed like the best way to take full advantage of a forecast Saturday-Tuesday window of beautiful weather would be to spend it up high, way up high on the Pacific Northwest's loftiest peak, The Mountain. Despite the NWAC's forecast for high avalanche danger (applicable to areas below 7000 feet) due to the massive recent snowfall and sudden warming trend, I surmised that the upper mountain of Rainier might in fact be one of the more snow-avalanche-safe locations in the entire WA Cascades, due to its unique combination of elevation (hence cold) and wind-scouring. This conjecture would be supported throughout the four-day period, as we observed no snow-avalanche activity above 10000 ft during that time, while far below us an impressive avalanche cycle occurred on many aspects especially around 7000 ft, where recent snow deposition had likely been at a maximum and the warming was severe.

We got an afternoon start on Saturday from Paradise and skinned up to the public shelter at Camp Muir, surprisingly finding it nearly-empty with only one other party staying overnight, planning to climb Gib Ledges early the next morning. If conditions and fitness allowed, we were considering making summit attempts on both Sunday and Monday, via Ingraham Direct and/or Gib Ledges with the possibility of skiing down Gib Chute. On the way up to Muir, we saw the aftermath of several massive serac-fall-avalanches which had let loose earlier in the day from Nisqually Icefall and Ice Cliff, filling nearly the entire the upper Nisqually cirque area (roughly 9000 to 11000 ft) with deep lobes of avy debris. A single moderate-size slab avalanche had also occurred on the easterly aspect of Cowlitz Cleaver above camp (near 10500 ft), but this looked older and had probably happened the day before, during the tail end of the storm cycle.

A sunset view from Camp Muir of Mounts Adams, Hood, and St Helens.

We awoke on Sunday morning to a gusty wind and a fair amount of lingering exhaustion, due to a combination of four straight weekdays of deep-powder skiing on the lifts followed by the previous day's ascent to Muir with full packs. We would not be heading for the top on this day, and chose to sleep in late, very late. By mid-afternoon, sufficient motivation emerged for us to put in a skin track across the Cowlitz Glacier and switchbacking up the steep slope to Cathedral Gap at 10700 ft, but the continued strong winds shelved our plans to continue scouting up to Ingraham Flats at 11100 ft (which would have provided a view of most of the Ingraham Direct route). We skied down the face in breakable windpack and wind crust conditions, followed by a quick schuss around the Cowlitz cirque back to camp. Everyone else was headed down, the camp was soon deserted, and the night somewhat lonely.

Looking across the Cowlitz Glacier from Camp Muir,
at our previous afternoon's skin track leading to Cathedral Gap.   
View of the Ingraham Glacier (including the Direct route)
with Disappointment Cleaver at right.

The next morning, Monday, dawned clear and calm, truly an exceptional day for an ascent. We skinned up the previous day's track to Cathedral Gap, switched to foot crampons for the somewhat steep and icy traverse along its back side, and then skinned again past Ingraham Flats and on up the glacier. We roped up at the Flats, since I feared thinly-bridged crevasses such as the one I'd nearly fallen into in similar, late-winter, new-snow conditions in    
Skinning up the Ingraham Direct, with Little Tahoma already well below us.   
Climbing the upper Ingraham Glacier above 13000 ft.

We switched back to cramponing on foot at this point, as the firm and wind-ridged snow made skinning challenging on skis and nearly impossible on a splitboard. We continued up another nearly-straight line above that point, eventually angling westward to the lowest 14180 ft gap in the crater rim. Routefinding was simple despite the lack of any other parties or tracks, and the bergschrund near 13400 ft and the other large visible crevasses along the route were easily negotiable with minimal zigzagging needed. A combination of morning delays and gear issues (splitboard-related and crampon) had cost us a few hours, putting us at the crater rim in late afternoon. We unroped and switched back to skins for the quick jaunt across the crater and up to Columbia Crest, celebrating briefly in the brilliant slanting sunshine, with a moderate westerly breeze and comfortable temps in the teens.

Skinning up the final few feet to Columbia Crest, looking south at Mounts Adams, Hood, and St Helens.

We skied down from the summit into the crater, finding unexpectedly nice turns on firm windpack, and after gathering our rope and gear we continued out the gap in the crater rim. We chose to descend via Gib Chute, hoping to find better snow conditions than the Ingraham Direct since the sun had been warming the south-facing Chute much of the day. Gib Chute is a much shorter and more aesthetic ski line than the Ingraham Glacier, but it has very severe objective hazard due to icefall from the overhanging Nisqually Ice Cliff perched directly above its west side and rockfall from the cliffs of Gibraltar Rock far above its upper end. We hoped that the late hour and lowering sun would minimize these hazards as temps dropped.

Kyle snowboarding the unexpectedly nice snow within the crater.

So we headed down aiming for Gibraltar Rock, our route roughly following the sun-shadow line at that hour, with areas of smooth windpacked powder interspersed with areas of soft sastrugi up to knee-high. Certainly not great skiing, but not horrible either. We dropped rightward across another bergschrund onto the upper Nisqually Glacier near 13000 ft, just below a huge building-size mass of seracs, and angled leftward to the head of Gib Chute, just below the saddle (aka Camp Comfort) separating it from the Ingraham Glacier. Snow conditions remained decent on this stretch, but the Chute rolls over sharply near 12500 ft and we needed to carefully scout our intended line.

Dropping onto the upper Nisqually Glacier near 13000 ft.   
Looking down the upper mountain towards Gibraltar Rock.

I started off initially going down along the skier's right edge of the upper Chute, just above and adjacent to the bare blue ice of Nisqually Ice Cliff, to get an angling view down the entire Chute. This revealed that the snow conditions directly underfoot and below me were exceptionally nasty, with sharp thigh-high runnels only a few feet apart, totally unskiable by any method I knew. The left side (east side, near Gib Ledges) looked much smoother and better, but in order to get there I had to gingerly sidestep uphill from my precarious stance, perched atop two runnels with only inches of each ski edge holding me above the abyss curling away below. About ten feet of very cautious uphill sidestepping balanced atop the runnels brought me to slightly safer ground above the runnels, and I committed to angling quickly across the top of the Chute to the relatively safety of the rocks on the other side. Kyle waited patiently above, mulling out loud the obvious fact that we had quickly gotten in a little over our heads.

We're headed where?? Looking down the Gib Ledges route (left) and the steep rollover into Gib Chute.

My quick downward-angling traverse across the very icy head of the Chute worked, depositing me onto a small shelf, the topmost end of the Gib Ledges route. Despite the late hour and darkening shadow, the snow was still soft along the edges of the Chute (not yet refrozen), and I even let loose a small sluff of the upper inch or so. The snow along the bench and the Ledges was covered with postholes from the previous morning's climbing party, already partially-filled by copious quantities of small rocks which had fallen from the cliffs above during the intervening 36 hours. Not a place to linger at all, but decisions had to be made, and they had to be made carefully and correctly. There were three options we discussed, as Kyle waited at the head of the Chute a few dozen feet above and west of me: 1) ski the route as planned, even though it might be dangerously icy; 2) switch to crampons (easier said than done on such a steep exposed slope) and descend the postholes of Gib Ledges to the top of Cowlitz Cleaver (11600 ft) and then ski the Cowlitz back to camp; 3) climb back up a few hundred feet (either sidestepping on skis or switching to crampons) to Camp Comfort, and drop down the Ingraham Glacier from there, rejoining our ascent route in the broad cirque near 12000 ft. We knew the last option did go (crevasse-wise), as we had scouted it from below during our ascent.

A nervous pause: resting on the narrow shelf at the top of Gib Ledges, looking down the Chute and across at the Ice Cliff.

We decided on option 1, to just take our chances and ski down Gib Chute, which had the huge advantage of avoiding a changeover in that narrow exposed spot which might result in dropped gear and thus an even worse predicament, or possibly even a fall. I'd go first, and Kyle would hold still on the cliff-side perch here for several minutes until I had descended the entire 1000+ ft vertical of the Chute, to avoid knocking rockfall or other debris onto me. My first turn was a nasty right-hand hop turn into the gut of the Chute, and I slipped at its conclusion as my skis hit the bumpy icy gnar, but I quickly arrested my slide within a few feet using the Whippet arrest-grip in my upper hand. Heart racing, chest pounding, that was nearly it. So glad to have a pair of Whippets, and 12 years of experience and practice using them. I decided to forgo any attempt to make elegant linked turns down the Chute as I'd always imagined, and instead would side-slip the entire icy gut of the Chute, self-belayed by the Whippet in my upper hand. I made only about a half-dozen turns through the next 1000 ft or so, only when necessary to switch the uphill side due to fatigue. Not elegant, but survival skiing never is. Luckily, other than the steepest 50+ degree part near its entrance, the remainder of the Chute was fairly smooth and in decent shape, icy but not too icy, scoured to a consistent predictable surface by previous icefall and avalanches.

Self-belayed "skiing" down Gib Chute, with massive piles of serac-fall-avalanche debris filling the Nisqually Glacier far below.
(photo by Kyle Miller)

After passing through the Chute proper onto the broad apron below, the terrain opened up and it seemed safe enough to turn as needed. The snow was softer and although it had a slightly breakable crust in places, the consequences of any fall were now minimal. I continued steadily down the apron as Kyle began his descent, only occasionally stopping to snap a quick photo of him and the route, as the threat of icefall and rockfall still remained high until we were completely off the apron. Eventually we reunited at the edge of the Nisqually Glacier near 11000 ft, so overwhelmingly relieved to have safely descended that route in marginal conditions.

Kyle snowboarding in Gib Chute, below the menacing Nisqually Ice Cliff.   
Relief! Relaxing at the edge of the Nisqually Glacier.

A number of small schrunds and crevasses marked the edge of the glacier below the apron, so continued caution was still in order despite our sense of relief. We descended the eastern edge of the glacier beside Cowlitz Cleaver, skirting monstrous piles of serac-fall-avalanche debris, and exited out onto the safety of the Muir Snowfield near 9800 ft. The short 250 ft skin back up to Camp Muir and the hut would seem interminable in the fading light, even though it was still an hour before sunset. We knew we'd be spending our third night at the shelter, there was no question of trying to ski down to Paradise at night in our current state of physical and mental exhaustion.

Zoomed view of the upper portion of Gib Chute after our descent.

Several other parties had arrived at Muir (including some TAY regulars), making for lively conversation through the lovely evening. We slept in late the next morning, and descended just after noon, finding a broad range of early spring snow conditions down to Paradise. A bit too firm and crusty on the uppermost Snowfield, then OK corn for a long stretch, then stickier snow below Pan Point, but never softening to complete mush.

Cruising down the corn of the Muir Snowfield, with Gib Chute looming directly above Kyle.

It was a great way to spend the first looong weekend of spring, four days of sunshine and warmth and the matchless feeling of being up high. My lucky 13th ascent (and 9th ski descent) of Mount Rainier was quite a memorable experience. Both Ingraham Direct and Gib Chute are routes that have been on my ski agenda for over a decade, and it's quite satisfying to have finally gotten both of them done in a single trip despite the less-than-ideal snow conditions. Thanks to Kyle for being a fine partner on our first backcountry trip together.

Here's the weather forecast on the morning we left town:

342 AM PDT SAT APR 4 2009




                       SAT    SAT    SUN    SUN    MON 
                            NIGHT         NIGHT       

SUMMIT   (14411 FT)      9     10     11     11     12
                     NW 10  SW 15   S 20  SW 20  SW 10

CAMP MUIR(10188 FT)     21     26     28     29     30
                      E 10   S 10   S 15  SW 15  SW  5

PARADISE  (5420 FT)     33     22     43     27     48
                      E 10   E 15   E 15   E 15   E 10

LONGMIRE  (2700 FT)     38     26     46     32     52
                      CALM   CALM   E 10   E  5   E  5

And if there's a problem with too many thumbnailed images in my post above, please let me know. I can easily replace 8 of them with dummy text links in order to strictly comply with the TAY photo guidelines, but I really think that the TR is so much nicer with the real thumbnails instead of linked captions.

Superb trip and report - congratulations!

Great account of your trip.  Enjoyed the the detail and excellent pics.

Great trip report.  Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for sharing Amar. Great account and pictures. Living close to Baker, the Rainier area to me has only been through (mostly yours) pictures and accounts ... until last Friday. We climbed through the clouds to glimpse some of Rainier's beauty and impressive size on our way to Anvil Rock. I hope to be back someday with more time and better weather.

author=Amar Andalkar link=topic=12992.msg54154#msg54154 date=1239532005]
Not elegant, but survival skiing never is.

Smiling at the bottom always is. :). Very glad your Whippet held. Excellent TR. Thanks for continuing to add conditions calibration information to the collective mind!

author=Amar Andalkar link=topic=12992.msg54154#msg54154 date=1239532005]
A combination of morning delays and gear issues (splitboard-related and crampon) had cost us a few hours

Damn Snowboarders  ;)
Nice write up Amar I had a great time.

Thanks for the great report.  A friend and I are planning an over night trip to camp Muir next Saturday, and would appreciate any advice for over nighting at Muir. 

Well done.  Wonderful report and pictures.


What kind of splitboard gear issues did you face? 

author=skinup link=topic=12992.msg54182#msg54182 date=1239595472]
What kind of splitboard gear issues did you face? 

Oh just the standard traversing above gaping crevasses on icy slopes so I took my time making sure my edges were holding. I just picked up some crampons for my split so it shouldn't be a problem anymore though.

Great TR, as usual. Nice work on a dangerous descent.

Thanks for sharing and nice TR Amar.  Way to take advantage of the weather window.
I'm with you on the whippets.  They obviously don't belong on every tour but when they are warrented, they can be life savers.

author=Kyle Miller link=topic=12992.msg54174#msg54174 date=1239575921]
Damn Snowboarders  ;)

Snowboarders are ok.  It's when they get split boards and venture o.b. that causes problems!
Let's get you on skis.  We could start you on a split mono ski and ease you into it.   ;D

The runout below the Nisqually Ice Cliff is really impressive in the background photo of Amar skiing the Chute.  I may think twice about skinning that section of the glacier!  Glad you guys had a good trip and got Gib Chute.

Thanks for sharing this great TR.

Nicely done Amar and Kyle, great report and photos Amar!

Thanks everyone for the kind comments.

author=snbdman link=topic=12992.msg54177#msg54177 date=1239579709">
Thanks for the great report.  A friend and I are planning an over night trip to camp Muir next Saturday, and would appreciate any advice for over nighting at Muir. 

I'm assuming that you're planning to stay in the hut? Not much advice I can think of, just bring standard winter camping gear. The hut is not much warmer than the outside unless there are a lot of people in it (and often on a sunny morning, it's colder inside than out). Normally I would have said to make sure to get there early enough on Saturday (or go Friday evening) to ensure snagging a spot in the hut, since only about 20 can fit on the bunks. But there was hardly anybody there during our trip, so that advice may not matter so early in the season.

Bring some plastic grocery bags for carrying in large quantities of clean snow to melt. And make sure to get snow only from the slope above the hut, anywhere else is someone's late-night urinal.

A few small candles are really nice to brighten the long dark evenings inside, they can be safely setup on the metal countertop.

Some type of warm camp footwear is really nice so you don't have to wear your ski boots the whole time. Down booties worked great for me.

Maybe bring a good book?  I highly recommend the brand-new Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier by Bree Loewen, a gripping account of a young woman's experiences as a climbing ranger on Rainier. Including recovering the bodies of two men who died in 2005 on the Paradise Glacier after being turned away from the Muir hut in bad weather by a large group of skiers inside. So on a serious note, if the weather turns bad, even if the hut is already quite full, don't let anyone turn you away from cramming inside if you feel the need to do so.

It's tempting to walk around on the roof of the hut, but please don't! There used to be a sign warning against walking up there, but it appears to be gone or have blown away. It causes leaks, and nobody needs that. Plus you could fall on the solar panels (like some people) and almost break them  ;D

Oh, and don't leave your skins at the hut when you ski or snowboard down  ;)

Glad you had such fine time Amar.

author=Snow Bell link=topic=12992.msg54199#msg54199 date=1239639875]
Snowboarders are ok.  It's when they get split boards and venture o.b. that causes problems!
Let's get you on skis.

there is nothing like picking up someones skis that way 1/10 the weight of your splitboard   :-[
Id be willing to try out some skis that is if your paying  ;D.

author=Amar Andalkar link=topic=12992.msg54219#msg54219 date=1239661616]
Oh, and don't leave your skins at the hut when you ski or snowboard down  ;)

That was cold  :'(

author=Kyle Miller link=topic=12992.msg54227#msg54227 date=1239672145]
there is nothing like picking up someones skis that way 1/10 the weight of your splitboard   :-[

Took a tour of the Prior factory in Whistler last week. They have a light weight split board in the works. Just have to fine tune it so it doesn't keep snapping in half.

Good job Amar and Kyle. The top of that thing is really effing steep (50+ is convervative) and scary. Falling above the constriction would be a bad thing for sure. It was soft when I skied it, but that meant I had no chance to arrest if I fell. I made a kick turn on that ledge and almost fell over head first when I did it. Sure felt good to finally side slip through the constriction and have open slope below. Scary shit. Good work!

Thanks Loren, I like your comment. I'd heard about your Gib Chute experience from H at some point.

But right now, it sparked my memory that I, too, had tried a kick turn in the same spot. Facing left on that ledge, I tried an outward kick turn, but gave up after kicking my right ski around and realizing that I was likely to slip if I went any further with it or tried to bring the left ski around. So I gingerly put the right ski back and did a little hop turn, the one that ended with the slip and Whippet self-arrest. Oh well, six of one, half-dozen of other, I guess.

On another subject, I forgot to mention in the original TR that while relaxing in the sun atop Muir Rocks on the day that we exited (Tuesday, April 7), we watched two other parties on the upper mountain. One party of two on the Ingraham Direct who might have had skis, and another party of 3 skiers on the upper Nisqually Glacier above the top of Fuhrer Finger. The ski party turned around near 12000 ft around 11am, after this HUGE raven nearly devoured them:

Telephoto view of raven and ski party on the upper Nisqually Glacier, viewed from Muir Rocks with 360mm zoom.

Anyway, I never saw a TR posted by either group, so not sure who they were. But I took several telephotos of the Fuhrer Finger ski party, and didn't even realize until I got home that the raven had been captured in flight in one of the frames. Thought it was a cool photo.

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Amar Andalkar
2009-04-12 02:26:45