May 10, 2011, Mt Rainier, Cowlitz Glacier via Muir

5/10/11
WA Cascades West Slopes South (Mt Rainier)
7677
4
Posted by Amar Andalkar on 5/12/11 5:08am
As has been so typical in this very cloudy and cool Northwest spring, the forecast showed only a single really nice day during the entire second week of May, with clouds and precip expected on all other days. Must ski . . . with the freezing level going up to 8500 ft, some incipient corn was expected on south-facing slopes. I really wanted to ski Mount Stuart (via Ulrich's or Cascadian Couloir) given recent positive conditions reports, but I only had a short day available, needing to be back in Seattle by 5:30pm, so something closer and less time-consuming was needed -- back to the old standby, Rainier.

A 6am morning glance at the Rainier webcams showed an unpromising picture: Paradise was socked in, totally cloudy and with no view of the Mountain. But the forecast looked rosy, so Andres and I headed down from Seattle with a bit of a late start. The solid cloud deck overhead began to fracture as we neared Ashford, and as we drove up the park road we soon broke out into completely clear and sunny skies. It was a stunning day, cool and calm, but feeling quite warm with the intense sunshine.



Skinned up around 10:45am, following a good skin track all the way up Pan Face and onto the Muir Snowfield. Around 1pm the KING-5 helicopter began circling overhead and above the south side of the upper mountain. We feared the worst after the helicopter lingered and kept circling, not departing after just a quick scenic flyby.



This was confirmed when two climbing rangers passed us at 9800 ft at 1:45pm, skinning uphill at max speed. A brief chat as I struggled to keep pace with them confirmed that a body recovery mission was underway, with the park's helicopter being fueled at the Kautz helibase and then heading up to pick up the rangers at Muir. Sad news, see this thread,
Climbing rangers making haste to Muir.

We reached Muir just before 2pm, and lingered for a while, trying to find any info we could from others about the accident, without bothering the rangers who were much too busy. Hearsay was that the party had climbed Fuhrer Finger and that was presumably their intended ski descent too, but I have no idea if that info is correct.

Andres wanted to ski something interesting, anything other than the Muir Snowfield only. But given the expected avalanche hazard on steep south-facing slopes due to continued recent snowfall and a sudden rise in temperatures today, I thought that heading for Nisqually Chute would be unsafe and well out of my risk tolerance. I suggested Cowlitz Glacier instead, which has far less avy hazard, but grand scenery and a decent ski run too. Yes, we'd be skiing a crevassed glacier unroped, and given that we'd just heard of a skier falling into a crevasse and dying, it may seem like an ironic or even moronic choice to some people. But I'm comfortable navigating the Cowlitz Glacier from Muir, having skied it several times previously, and comfortable with our choice.

Skied down from Muir at 2:30pm, first traversing northeast across the Cowlitz Glacier to its sunnier eastern side, looking for corn while avoiding the tangle of crevasses directly below Muir and the east face of Muir Rock (Point 10188). Watched the park helicopter arrive at Muir and then head for the upper mountain.



Found a patchwork mix of smooth windpack and proto-corn, very nice skiing in spots, a bit unpredictable in others. Definitely needs more sun and consolidation.






Looking back up the Cowlitz Glacier from a field of old avalanche debris below Anvil Rock's east face, with our ski tracks at right.

We traversed southwest out from the Cowlitz near 9000 ft and back onto the Muir Snowfield, finding more of the same snow conditions down to 7000 ft atop Pan Point. We looked over at Nisqually Chute and saw a few fresh tracks, with no major slides visible.



Gingerly skied Pan Face fearing large sluffs or wet slabs, but stability was OK and nothing released, only a few large rollers growing to 2-3 ft diameter as they rolled downhill. The rest of the descent to Paradise was really sticky, almost impossible to keep moving even in the snowshoe/skin track, and totally hopeless outside the track. Clouds had also began to build as we neared the parking lot around 3:15pm, and as we clicked out of our skis and stepped onto the pavement, we were greeted by a KIRO-TV crew shoving a microphone and camera directly in our faces, looking for comments about the hazards of skiing glaciers on Rainier. No thanks, no comment.


KIRO satellite truck circling through the parking lot (right), with a crew ready to jump out and accost us within seconds.

A nice day of skiing and sunshine tinged with sadness for the fallen skier, thankful to be alive to ski another day on the Mountain.



[tt]MOUNT RAINIER RECREATIONAL FORECAST
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SEATTLE WA
352 AM PDT TUE MAY 10 2011

SYNOPSIS...WEAK HIGH PRESSURE IS OVER THE REGION TODAY. A FRONTAL SYSTEM WILL APPROACH THE AREA TONIGHT. RAIN WILL REACH THE COAST BY WEDNESDAY AND SPREAD INLAND WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON OR EVENING. DISTURBANCES ROTATING AROUND A DEEP UPPER LEVEL LOW WILL GIVE A CHANCE OF SHOWERS THURSDAY AND FRIDAY. SHOWERS WILL INCREASE NEXT WEEKEND AS THE LOW SHIFTS OVER THE REGION.

TUESDAY...MOSTLY SUNNY. FREEZING LEVEL 8500 FEET.
TUESDAY NIGHT...MOSTLY CLOUDY. FREEZING LEVEL 8500 FEET.
WEDNESDAY...MOSTLY CLOUDY. A CHANCE OF RAIN AND SNOW IN THE AFTERNOON. SNOW LEVEL 7500 FEET.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT...SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 5500 FEET.
THURSDAY...CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 3000 FEET.
THURSDAY NIGHT...MOSTLY CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 5000 FEET.
FRIDAY...MOSTLY CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 6000 FEET.
FRIDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY...SHOWERS LIKELY. SNOW LEVEL 8000 FEET.
SATURDAY NIGHT...SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 6500 FEET.
SUNDAY AND SUNDAY NIGHT...SHOWERS. SNOW LEVEL 4000 FEET.
MONDAY...SHOWERS LIKELY. SNOW LEVEL 3000 FEET.

TEMPERATURE AND WIND FORECASTS FOR SELECTED LOCATIONS.

                       TUE    TUE    WED    WED    THU 
                            NIGHT         NIGHT       

SUMMIT   (14411 FT)     13     11      9      2      3
                      W 13  SW 28   S 44  SW 51   S 45

CAMP MUIR(10188 FT)     29     28     25     18     18
                     NW 12  SW 15   S 26  SW 33   S 23

PARADISE  (5420 FT)     54     35     53     31     47
                     SW  3  NW  3   W  6   W  8   W  5

LONGMIRE  (2700 FT)     56     39     56     35     52
                      E  4  NE  4  NE  6   N  5   E  4
[/tt]

I probably saw you - I arrived at Muir around 2pm (girl on K2 Gotbacks).  Sad day indeed.  We also considered Nisqually Chute, but decided against for the same reasons you did.  Nice corn up high on the snowfield, and heavy glop below pan face.

Did a short tour today due to recovering from a cold, hacking and coughing; I was surprised to see some rather big avy debris in Edith basin and most slopes had lots of snowballs etc. covered with a skiff of new snow.  I was out of there by noon, but skied everything from packed powder to breakable crust over slush.

Found avalanche debris at the bottom of the paradise glacier today. I'm assuming triggered by cornice failures.




Great photos Amar. It was a great day to be out even on sticky snow and new kicks!

Reply to this TR

8609
may-10-2011-mt-rainier-cowlitz-glacier-via-muir
Amar Andalkar
2011-05-12 12:08:28