The Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier by area in the contiguous United States, covering over 4 square miles along the northeast face and flanks of Mount Rainier. It extends over 9000 vertical feet from the rim of the East Crater near 14200 ft down to its terminus near 5000 ft, which is among the largest vertical drops of any glacier in the lower 48 (perhaps trailing only its companion the Winthrop Glacier in that category). The upper portion of the combined Emmons-Winthrop Glaciers is the most commonly skied summit route on Mount Rainier, approached via the adjacent valley of Glacier Basin and Inter Glacier, but I've long wanted to ski the entire Emmons Glacier from summit to terminus and all the way to the trailhead at White River Campground (4300 ft). It's a pure and direct line offering over 10000 vertical feet of skiing down one of the most prominent and often photographed faces of the Mountain.
Morning view of Rainier from SR 410, well worth driving the extra half-mile south of the White River turnoff.
However, adequate snow cover to ski the lower portions of the route (below about 5000 ft) typically exists only during late winter and early spring, but the road to White River does not normally open until just before Memorial Day weekend. Thus skiing the entire glacier usually requires a snowmobile or a multi-day approach, so the route is very rarely skied. But this year, with an exceptional late-spring snowpack at elevations above 4000 ft in the Cascades, would be the best chance in many years to try the route. The crux of the route would be finding a way to cross the Inter Fork of White River safely, since the Glacier Basin Trail stays along the north side while the Emmons lies to the south.
(click for double-size version)
Telephoto view (336 mm lens) from SR 410 showing the Emmons route from Camp Schurman (lower right) to the summit. Note the open bergschrund which completely blocks the standard traverse going right to the 13600 ft saddle, parties will have to ascend directly to the crater rim this year.
A blog post showed that climbing rangers had skied the route on May 2
, using the plowed White River road which remained closed to the public. The road was scheduled to open on May 20, then rescheduled for May 27, but the park failed to meet either of those dates, and it finally opened on June 2. Luckily, due to the abnormally cold and wet Northwest spring which brought repeated snowfalls and delayed melting, the snowpack above 4000 ft had barely decreased over the entire month of May. Paradise at 5400 ft on Rainier's south side boasted its 2nd greatest June 1 snowdepth in 91 years of data (213", about 190% of normal), while Crystal Mountain located 15 miles NE of the summit and 8 miles NE of White River Campground still had 88" at its 4480 ft base station on June 1 (over 200% of normal), losing only 19" since May 1 which was mostly due to consolidation.
Even more fortunately, the forecast looked stellar for the first weekend after the road opened: mostly sunny, freezing level 11000-12000 ft. So by Friday evening, I had easily managed to convince a crew of 5 others to join me: Greg, Ryan, Khanh, Tobae, and Tim, all strong ski mountaineers with prior Rainier summits. We planned to leave town early Saturday and arrive at White River Ranger Station by 7am when it opened, in order to register and secure some of the limited number of spots at Camp Schurman in case it was a busy weekend. Climbing ranger David Gottlieb was manning the desk when we arrived, and he was a fount of useful information on the route and especially the approach, having skied it both on May 2 and again a few weeks later. He said that crossing near the end of the newly-built Glacier Basin Trail segment at the junction with the Emmons Moraine Trail would be best (about 1 mile from the trailhead), using either a large log or possibly the log trail bridge on the Emmons Moraine Trail, which had a steep snowbank along its far side. Note that this bridge was finally installed in September 2010 to reopen that trail, almost 4 years after washing out in the November 2006 floods.
We skinned out from the trailhead at 8:30am, carrying glacier gear and two ropes, but no avy gear. Snowdepth at the parking lot was about 4-5 ft, but as we reached the newly-built Glacier Basin Trail segment after a half-mile, there were several short and long bare sections of trail especially on bridges. Although we continued skinning across those, the trail became very bare at the sunny pair of switchbacks, so we continued straight through the woods instead and dropped down to the river bank, eventually finding an acceptable log to cross at about 4800 ft.
Crossing the Inter Fork of White River on a log near 4800 ft.
A short traverse across the Emmons Moraine and minor bushwhacking through the immature young forest brought us out into the open atop the 1963 rockfall avalanche deposit, looking directly at the terminus of the Emmons Glacier and up its entire length to the summit (see first photo above). Just a spectacular place, with an outstanding view of Big Tahoma and Little Tahoma rising above the glacier's trough.
A bright green glacial pond atop the 1963 rockfall avalanche deposit, with Little Tahoma rising above. This pond is currently much larger than the tiny pond shown on the topo map, revealing the likely presence of stagnant glacial ice within the deposit and the moraines buried under it. Melting of this stagnant ice has apparently been enlarging the pond's basin.
From here, the broad open glacier is basically a highway leading directly to Camp Schurman. The glacier's surface was covered with recent new snow above 6000 ft, with only a single faint skin track from sometime several days earlier. Easy travel skinning on a supportive crust, which sat atop 1-2 ft of mushy rounded grains that one could punch a ski pole into.
A welcome downslope breeze kept temperatures tolerable in the blazing sunshine on the glacier, and we enjoyed the remoteness of this route variation. We would see no one else from the parking lot until reaching Camp Schurman. Lots of wet slides from the sunny south slopes of Mount Ruth to our right, but the snow on the glacier was stable and not sluffing or sliding. Crevasses were well buried and not an issue, except a few incipient cracks near 9000 ft where our route joined the standard route descending from Inter Glacier onto the Emmons.
Two-shot panorama looking down the Emmons Glacier from about 8000 ft.
It was almost 4pm by the time we reached Camp Schurman, a fairly tiring haul from the car. A bit chilly there with an easterly breeze. We set up camp in a large vacated site with ample snow-block walls, a MegaLight, a FirstLight, plus two bivy sacks out in the open. After dinner and melting lots of water, we got to bed early, unfortunately missing the sunset which is usually spectacular looking down from the camp at Puget Sound and the Olympics. After much indecision about whether to boot or skin the next day, we had finally planned to leave the next morning in two groups: one team of three heading up at 5am on foot and roped up, the other leaving an hour or two later and hoping that the snow would have softened enough to skin up the entire route. I had only ever successfully skinned the Emmons-Winthrop route once, on an amazing July 2009 trip skiing up and down all three summits
. I've cramponed the entire way from Schurman to summit most of the times I've skied this route, as had the others in our group. We had serious doubts whether the route would be skinnable the next day.
[hr">The spectacular rosy colors of sunrise on the Emmons the next morning made up for missing the sunset. Tobae, Khanh, and Tim headed up at sunrise, while Ryan, Greg, and I had just awoken and started getting ready to go. The mountain above was totally clear, but off to the east an unexpected deck of high clouds was looming, enhancing the sunrise but putting snow conditions for skinning in doubt.
The incoming high clouds at sunrise (photo by Khanh Quach).
Our first team heading out from camp.
The three of us finally set out at 6:45am, on skins with ski crampons and wearing harnesses but not roped, with high clouds now mostly obscuring the sun. Despite the lack of intense morning sun, the snow conditions turned out to be excellent for skinning, with solid grip and no slip on the smooth snow beside the typically messy Emmons bootpack.
We took turns breaking trail in broad gentle efficient switchbacks, seeing faint traces of an older much steeper skintrack in places. The clouds thickened ominously overhead, while off to the north it was entirely clear over the central and northern Cascades.
We made rapid progress up to nearly 12000 ft, where we hit the first steeper section between a few partially exposed seracs and crevasses, including a section of exposed blue glacial ice. We considered putting the skis on our backs and roping up, but decided to keep skinning. A pretty good decision, the route was entirely skinnable without any major slips by any of us, although the caution and concentration needed to skin the steeper bits slowed our pace considerably.
Skinning past exposed blue glacial ice near 12000 ft, with a narrow corridor of snow between seracs and crevasses to the right.
The high clouds were moving from east to west, and clearer skies off to the east gave hope that it might clear out. But the cloud deck was now sprouting streamers of virga, and eventually it snowed briefly on us a couple of times.
Yes, it's snowing! Around 10:15am, near 12500 ft, with the terminus of Winthrop Glacier visible nearly 8000 ft below us.
The first open crevasse which needed to be crossed by snowbridge was near 12700 ft, and then the route traversed slightly east to the right edge of the bergschrund at 13000 ft, which required a short section of sidestepping downhill about 5 vertical feet to negotiate.
Greg gingerly sidestepping across the snowbridge at 13000 ft, Ryan photographing.
We had almost caught up to the other three by 13200 ft, I was in the lead setting the skin track only a few yards below them, when suddenly it happened: I looked down and knew instantly that the toepiece had ripped entirely out of my right ski. I couldn't avoid spewing a few obscenities seconds later as the full weight of what this meant hit me. I was screwed. I was clearly not going to complete a full ski ascent of the entire Emmons Glacier. I was probably not going to complete a full ski descent of the entire Emmons Glacier either. I was going to have to walk the rest of the way to the summit, and then most likely have to walk down the entire f***ing Mountain, stumbling and sliding and postholing just like those climbers on foot that ski mountaineers feel so superior to, while my partners would be ripping turns down the whole route in style. *&^%$#@!
Not good: something is missing from one of my skis at 13200 ft, with the 13720 ft summit of Curtis Ridge beyond.
Our team on foot asked what they could do to help, but I told them "nothing", just keep going and we'll figure it out. I put the skis on my back and followed them up the bootpack, while Greg and Ryan kept on skinning. At least Greg was confident that we could remount the binding somehow, enough for me to ski down. The easterly wind was getting stronger and gustier as we climbed, and the cloud deck was looking more and more threatening, although a lenticular was definitely not yet forming.
Our group at 14100 ft, with a random climber curled up in front waiting for his partners to catch up.
We regrouped at about 14100 ft, in a spot slightly sheltered from the wind but almost at the edge of the cloud deck, and considered turning around. But several of us wanted to continue, so we decided to keep going. We reached the rim near 14300 ft just before 1:30pm, to find the wind gusting at 40+ mph, making it hard to stand with skis acting as sails on the pack. In a near whiteout we continued a short distance up along the rim before calling it quits. Ryan and Greg had made it all the way from the parking lot up to here on skins, but it was definitely not worth the discomfort or the risk of continuing along the rim to Columbia Crest, probably still 10 minutes away, when the clouds could fully envelop us at any moment.
Greg and Khanh at our high point on the crater rim, with the rest of the group just a few minutes behind.
We quickly retreated back down to 14100 ft, and Greg and Ryan started helping to remount my toepiece, while the others began their ski descent. It took about 30 minutes to clean out the holes, clean the frozen rotten-wood / epoxy mixture off the screws, and remount the binding in the same holes using my Leatherman tool, then strap it on very tightly to the ski with my two 15" Voile straps. Another five 24" Voile straps from Ryan were used to secure my boot to the ski and binding, which took another 10 minutes. A total of four Voile straps passed under my right ski, making it extremely grippy on any firmer snow -- it was almost impossible to turn left except by jump-turning. I eventually figured out that it was faster and safer to just sideslip the majority of the route with my good left ski downhill, making turns only on the patches of softer powdery snow. The snow was generally firm windpacked powder with sections of softer powder, but luckily there was no ice. If it had been icy, I probably would have needed to crampon down on foot instead of staying on skis.
Finally skiing down at 2:30pm.
It took an exhausting and painful hour-and-half for me to reach Camp Schurman around 4pm, with Greg running sweep uphill of me in case of disaster. The snow softened into mushy corn below 11500 ft on the Emmons Corridor, and I could finally make turns for real, nice ones with the left leg and cautious jerky ones with the right. The toepiece held until camp, but just barely: it had partially ripped out again and was being held on only by the Voile straps, along with the straps holding my boot directly to the ski.
Greg carving turns in the soft corn below the Emmons Corridor.
The rest of the group had already arrived and informed David Gottlieb of our situation (he had also skinned up via the Emmons terminus later on Saturday evening). He offered a cordless drill to help us remount the toepiece, which was an amazing stroke of good fortune. I stood atop the workbench outside the ranger hut with my boot used as a measuring guide, while Ryan and Dave remounted the toepiece about 1cm back, taking advantage of half the 26mm travel of the Vertical FT heel. Done in just about 5 minutes. Thanks for all the help, Dave!
David Gottlieb at the Camp Schurman hut.
We all finally skied out after 5pm, finding deep mushy oversoftened corn on the lower Emmons Glacier. Decent skiing, but not all that great, more fun for some than others. The snow surface was crawling with ice worms coming to the surface in the cooling evening light, with a few dozen per square foot in spots. (More ice worm info: Wikipedia article
, North Cascades Glacier Ice Worm research
, and Seattle Times article
Synchronized skiing down the mushy corn of the lower Emmons Glacier.
We exited a somewhat different way than we had come, staying close to the Emmons Moraine and following the ski tracks of a group of Colorado skiers who had exited by following Gottlieb's skin track from the evening before.
Last look back up the Emmons towards the Mountain.
This way eventually required skinning to get up and over the forested part of the moraine and down to the trail bridge across the Inter Fork, with several bare spots to skin across to get there, and a steep eroding slope to descend to reach the river.
Crossing the bridge on the Emmons Moraine Trail, installed in September 2010.
We kept the skins on for the remaining 1 mile and 500 vert of descent back to the parking lot, with several ups and downs along the trail, and bare sections which had gotten even longer since the previous morning, a couple of them long enough to force the skis off our feet. Skied out to the parking lot by 7:30pm, a long and tiring day. We were all stoked though to have skied the entire Emmons Glacier from crater rim to terminus, with two of us completing impressive ski ascents which are much rarer these days on Rainier than summit ski descents. A great way to spend the weekend, thanks to all my partners for coming along and sharing the experience with me!