July 18, 2005, Central Mowich Variation

Posted by skykilo on 7/18/05 8:41pm
(Names have been withheld to protect the innocent)

Early yesterday morning, six of us (five skiers and one climber) started across the south lobe of the Mowich Glacier toward the Central Mowich Face.

Intestinal affliction stopped one skier shortly above the bergschrund.  The climber and I found a nice spot to wait for the other skiers to catch us about 1,000 feet above the bergschrund.  We had started almost "climber early" (not really though), and the three other skiers were not feeling good at all about the icy state of the early morning corn.  They had probably just spent too much time looking at the variation through binoculars and rehearsing anxiety attacks.

At any rate, the remaining three skiers did not want to climb the remainder of the face.  Of course, we could have skied something else, or performed some antics involving both skis and ropes, but they were content to sit in the freezing shade at 11,400 feet for several hours waiting for the snow to soften.  

The climber and I were ready for some absolutely classic steep snow climbing.  Conditions were perfect for moving quickly up the face on crampons.  The surface was icy corn that held a flat-footed crampon effortlessly; no front-pointing was necessary.  We began running belays using pickets just below the variation.  The variation required, at most, a handful of steps on the front points of the crampons.  I can't really imagine it being in better condition for a ski descent.  We maintained running belays until the face crested below Liberty Cap.

We were atop Libery Cap circa half past eleven.  The day couldn't have been nicer, but the breeze was still mighty cold.  The climber had every reason to want to descent the DC before it got baked any more, so away with the climber...  

I really should have waited longer for the snow to soften.  The northwest-facing Mowich Face gets direct afternoon sun this time of year; somewhere in the range of 3-5 post meridiem probably would have been ideal for the descent.  However, it was really cold on top, and I wanted to rejoin my friends below the Mowich.  I'm sure we would have waited longer had we been together, but we weren't.  So, away with the skier...

I skied from the summit of Liberty Cap to the crest of the Edmunds Headwall, where a plane buzzed me at very close range.  I began making turns on the smooth-as-glass surface at the top of the Edmunds Headwall.  I was somewhat concerned that the snow on this portion, which hadn't even given me pause on the ascent, was not holding an edge nearly as well as I'd hoped.  Every turn ended with several feet of skidding.  A couple hundred feet below the crest, the plane buzzed me again at really close range.  I'm pretty sure they saw me; I wonder what they thought?

I traversed to a different part of the face, looking for better conditions.  But they weren't to be found.  What are the options?  I could change gear and climb to the crest again.  No, I don't want to do that.  I could carve myself a spot and rest, waiting for the sun to do its job.  No, I really don't want to sit here staring down this thing for a couple hours.  I'll just take it easy and see how it goes.

I noticed a chute on skier's right that had a different texture of snow than the open headwall.  It was fifty degree-ish and about as wide as my skis.  Ice was sparkling in the midday sun on both of its sides, but the center had this bumpy texture that looked like it would hold an edge.  I thought it was an exit to the variation on climber's left.  I stowed a pole and grabbed an ax to make the entrance.  One turn that took about fifteen feet of skidding to stop put me in a good position to sidestep through the chute.  Sidestepping complete, I made a turn on the open slopes below the chute before I noticed that I was perched above big cliffs.  OK, this is not the variation.

Luckily, I was able to traverse out of my predicament.  On the headwall again, I was right next to the true variation.  I eased my way to its edge and switched the ax to my right (uphill) hand.  Just a short, icy traverse would put me on the Central Mowich Face, two-thousand exhilirating feet above deliverance.  A moment's contemplation, and I pushed over the edge.  Keep your weight centered.  Feel those edges!  Since you're reading this, there's probably no need to tell you that the edges held.

I skied the next thousand feet rather tentatively.  It took awhile to decompress.  By the time I reached the place where the other skiers had stopped, the snow actually became CORN!  I changed to the sunhat, removed the puffy, and enjoyed the rest of the face.

The Mowich Glacier was sloppy, but fun nevertheless.  An intemission to relax and pack at camp, and we skied to about 7,300' before contemplating the scree-infested hell that is Ptarmigan Ridge.  A seven-thousand foot descent in the latter half of July, not too shabby.

You could put a fork in me.  Who wants to have a retirement party?  

Jesus! :D I got scared just reading your report!
You are one sick puppy. 8)
Congratulations, absolutely amazing but scary too!

Damn, Sky, I'm glad you made it. Congratulations on the descent, and more so for surviving.

Did the 'climber' get down the DC ok?

Nice work sky.  Btw what's the pucker factor on that descent?  By the way you described it, sounded like a can crusher for sure. ;D

Damn, another TR I got gripped just reading!

Conditions were perfect for moving quickly up the face on crampons.  The surface was icy corn that held a flat-footed crampon effortlessly; no front-pointing was necessary.

Hey Sky, How do you flat-foot up a 50degree face in tall, plastic ski boots?

Excellent, Sky. Wish I'd known, I would have liked to watch.

While I wasn't willing to commit, it was facinating watching someone who could. Heck, I'm almost considering getting an AT set-up after this. There is so much more control - climbing and skiing (no tele toe on the climb, no freehill on the descent). This route was #1 on my list, and I'm glad a local and friend was able to ski it, get to the bottom and tell me about it. Now I don't have to go back for a 3rd time.

I'm going fishing next weekend...

I'm almost considering getting an AT set-up after this.

You've been considering it for a while...do it!  

The 'climber' made it down the DC just fine.  :)

Jeff, I believe Sky meant he was positioning his feet perpendicular to a front-pointing position. If the snow isn't water ice, it approximates the traditional french technique quite well.

Oh well that just sounds like awesome snowboarding conditions, y'all, I don't know why I wasn't invited? ??? lol

I'm just glad skier2 had intestinal distress, and skier3 and skier4 had tele gear, otherwise they would have had no excuse for not continuing, and I would have had to go with them!!  yikes...

But luckily, instead I got to enjoy sitting in the breezy freezing cold shade on a rock outcrop at 11400ft, with skier3 and skier4, where we all whimpered like little babies wanting to crawl back into a womb.  8)
(Meanwhile, skier2 was performing a Cascade poopfecta all over lower Mowich Face)

(Meanwhile, skier2 was performing a Cascade poopfecta all over lower Mowich Face)


Congrats! Glad to hear you guys made it out safe and sound. I was thinking about you guys on Sunday.

We crossed paths on the trail, early on your hike in. I was the one that offered encouragement about the Russell, only to have my eyes bug out when you mentioned the Mowich Face. Wow. Conditions on that route looked sweet as I scanned it with binoculars earlier in the day. What a great day/route to Liberty Cap.

Again - great job!! (Any pictures? Faces blurred to protect the innocent, obviously.)


Wow, cool serac shot Phil!  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any skiing pictures.  

Jeff, Paul knew just what I meant.  I guess it's not really pied à plat, it's more of a demi-pied à plat.  It requires a lot of traversing, almost like setting a steep skin track, but it's much less strenuous than being on the front points.

Slut, the pucker factor is clearly big.  If Skier2 was having explosions just above the bergschrund, imagine the intestinal fortitude necessary above the variation.

So can we expect aerial photos of you charging the route in the full-on hardman conditions?  Or, were you not cognizant of the identification number of the aircraft, whilst frolicking in that sea of icy white murder?

If Skier2 was having explosions just above the bergschrund, imagine the intestinal fortitude necessary above the variation.

Skier number 2?  Appropriately named, I guess.   8)

To be clear, the intestinal difficulties were NOT related to the climb.  I've never had any altitude issues.  If not for my stomach bug, I'm pretty confident that skiers 3, 4, and 5 along with myself, would have finished the route, then waited at the Cap for the appropriate amount of time for things to soften.  All said, I stopped to "take care of business" twice; once at about 10,800 then finally at about 11,100.  Both times I had to chop a platform big enough to safely take my pack off with only my adze (imagine an icy snow surface over rotten granular at 45+ degrees).  After that first stop, I felt I was OK, and I decided I needed to try to catch up to the crew.  By the next outcrop at over 11K, there was more business to tend to and after chopping-out my second platform, I was too far behind to catch up.  I sat down for about an hour on my perch and then decided there was no point prolonging the magic.  By now, I actually felt fantastic, and wish I had been able to continue up.  Despite the icy nature of the face, I felt very confident in my skiing.

Congratulations, Sky!  I am jealous!

PS..I think everyone should have the pleasure of descending and ascending the exquisite Ptarmigan Ridge talus at least once in their life!

I was somewhat concerned that the snow on this portion, which hadn't even given me pause on the ascent, was not holding an edge nearly as well as I'd hoped.  Every turn ended with several feet of skidding.

Yeah, I think I'll just stick with the climbing.... ;)

Good Man Sky.  Congrats on one hell of a sweet descent.  Looks like a nice ski.

Congrats on your trip, guys. Glad everybody stayed safe. You might find Andrew McLean's 1999 trip report interesting, if you haven't seen it. Interesting how Andrew's party found super icy conditions in a big snow year while you guys found good snow conditions in a meager year. June weather is the key. This year it was pretty snowy in June; that year, the upper mountain was in the clear much of the time.

From: "Andrew McLean" <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Subject: TR - Mowich Face Revisited
Date: 1999/08/02
Message-ID: <7o4u62$f8e$This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
X-Deja-AN: 508094896
Organization: Black Diamond Equipment LTD.
Newsgroups: rec.skiing.backcountry

Lured by reports of a massive snow year, Mark Holbrook (UT), Armond Debque
(WA) and myself (UT) thought it would be a good time to try skiing the
Centr.... er, uhmmmm, a still unskied line on Mt. Rainier's Mowich face over
the July 24th weekend.

I drove up (12 hours from SLC) and met Mark at the airport.  We then drove
up through Wilkerson, where we registered like good little campers at the
Red Caboose Ranger Station, then continued on and met Armond at the Mowich
Lake Trailhead.  Unfortunately, this time the gate was really locked, so we
pulled out all of our gear and started to pack just as the rain really
started to come down.  Not to be deterred (but having forgotten a few things
in our excited hurry to walk the extra 5 miles up the dirt road - yippy) we
started the long trudge.  The road really wasn't that bad and they could
have easily opened about four miles of it.  There was about 3' of snow right
around the base of Mowich Lake, but the trail all the way up to Spray Park
was fine.  We ditched our tennis shoes right by Mowich Lake and regretted it
for the next 3 miles of trailwalking, which we did in our ski boots.

We camped right at the entrance to Spray Park, mainly because we had already
walked about 8-9 miles, we were soaking wet and had hardly had any sleep.
And because it was getting dark.  As it was only lightly raining at that
point, I put on a down jacket and was immediately reminded of Lowell's post
on how to stay dry in the NW.  Down wasn't on the recommended list.  The
image of cold, wet toilet paper came to mind.

The next morning broke clear and sunny, so we aired all of our gear out
while demonstrating to Armond that coffee isn't lethal in huge quantities.
Fully wired, we cruised through the rolling hills of Spray Park, then
climbed up onto Ptarmigan Ridge where we got a full view of the Mowich Face.
"It looks like it's covered with blue ice." said Armond.  "Hmmmm, yeah.
Maybe it's just the way the sun is hitting it." we countered with, then
proceeded to surf loose scree for about 1,000' all the way down to the
Mowich Glacier.

The crevasses were in pretty good shape - very obvious and with strong snow
bridges.  We roped up and crossed over to Needle Rock, then swung around and
climbed up the North (?) Mowich Glacier to about the 9,200' level where we
found our old campsite from a couple of years ago.  After a bit more
excavation, we had a nice flat platform on which we set up the deluxe Bibler
Bombshelter with the door strategically oriented to watch the sun sets over
the Olympics.

The next morning we set out across a very broken up glacier to the base of
the Central Mowich Headwall.  This went pretty quickly with only a bit of
backtracking and some skirting around the edges on loose rock, but
eventually we emerged on the central snowfields, which were, surprise (!)
blue ice.  Armond decided to call it quits at the "Hole in the rock" (a very
cool natural arch located on the ridgeline), but Mark and I were more
optimistic.  "I bet we're just on a patch here and it's better up higher."
So, we continued up with crampons, one ice tool and one Whippet self arrest
grip apiece.  The ice was, well, quite icy, and quite continuous, which is
hard to overcome with even big doses of optimism.  About 2/3rds of the way
up the wall, we traversed out underneath a huge rock sickle, then had to
wrap around a very steep little frozen drift and clamp onto the face, which
of course was solid ice.  As the expose was approaching the Gob Smacking
level (just under Mind Numbing) we would drive the ice tools as hard as
possible, wiggle them loose, snuggle the self arrest pick into the hole,
then pull the tool out and place it higher. This worked pretty well, but was

We eventually made it to Sunset Ridge, where we climbed 8" tall sustrugi all
the way up to Liberty Cap.  As Mark had never been to the summit of Rainier,
we dropped down, crossed the open snowfield and continued to the windy
summit for about .1432 seconds.  After a brief lunch of GU and nuts, we put
our skis on, shot back across the snowfield, climbed back up to Liberty Cap
and side slipped down to the top of the Mowich, which was still blue ice.
Hmmm.  We debated about downclimbing, trying to belay each other and a few
other tactics before deciding to "just try one turn."  Knowing that a skier
had died a few weeks earlier on his first icy turn down the nearby Liberty
Ridge, it was a very tentative turn.  "Not so good."  We decided to traverse
way out towards the Edmonds Headwall and see if we could sneak down far
enough to traverse back towards the center line, but to no avail - it was
just too dicey.  But, the snow over on the Edmonds seemed OK and as I'd
skied it before, I knew what to expect and where to go.  We downclimbed a
bit to get off the ridge, then put our skis back on and made some turns.  At
first it went pretty well.  Then, within one turn, we were back in the
middle of a huge ice field.  We started slowly sidestepping down, then after
a while that got too scary, so we broke out the ice axes and kind of side
stepped while placing the picks as we went down.  It took an incredibly long
time to cover about 1,200' of vertical, but the photos should be worth it.

Eventually, we found that the margins right next to the rocks had some
softer snow, so we opted for hitting the occasional rock versus the patches
of ice and worked our way down.  Finally setting edges on the mellow glacier
was quite a relief.  Slightly shell shocked, we skied back to camp and tore
into our meager Scotch supply.

The next day was the third clear day in a row.  We skied back down the
glaciers unroped, then roped up to cross a few major cracks.  This deposited
us at the base of the dreaded Ptarmigan Ridge Screefest, which wasn't as bad
as we had anticipated.  Once this was done, we had a nice ride all the way
through Spray Park, where we met the only and only person we saw on the
trip - a Ranger.

The trail out through the woods wasn't bad, but the dirt road seemed to go
on forever.  When we finally made it home, one of the first things we did wa
s to weigh our packs - Mark came in at 80lbs and I was a measly 70.

We used TOPO! generated maps and waypoints for the entire trip and had great
success with them as you can create custom maps, GPS waypoints and lots of
annotated details on your specific route (halfway points, elevation
milestones, close up summit day maps, overall maps, driving maps, etc..)


Thanks for posting that TR Lowell.

We also stopped at the bullet hole. Beyond that the slope steepens and reversing from there isn't fun, as it was just what Ben, Josh and I had to do several years ago. My anticipation of putting myself in the same situation again wasn't something that I wanted to do. Sometimes going back to a demon you think you know is worse than the unknown.

Here's another point of view for those who've read down this far:

Hey Jas - checked out your trip report.  Nice photos dude!  I think Paul would agree 8)

Seconded. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest.

The teletips discussion about Phil's photo is fairly amusing as well.

super trip guys.  nice nads sky.

pb, shouldn't this be a form post entry?

The teletips discussion about <insert any topic> is fairly amusing as well.

Reply to this TR

2005-07-19 03:41:42