Skiing Mt. Rainier
Freeskiing World Tour champ Drew Tabke joins Greg Hill for a 14,411-foot ski
Mt. Rainier in Pictures
Check out photos from Hill and Tabke's ski descent of Mt. Rainier. Gallery
When my friend Garrett Grove called me up and asked me if I wanted to ski the biggest mountain in the lower 48 (Mt. Rainier) with one of the world's strongest ski mountaineers (Greg Hill), I told him, "Hell yeah! I'm unemployed and this is exactly why."
Our crew would include six people: Garrett Grove, photographer; Greg "2 mil" Hill, ski mountaineer; Fitz Cahall, director; Bryan Smith, cinematographer; Shane Robinson, assistant; and myself. If all went according to plan, the trip would produce a segment featuring Hill for one of next year's episodes of The Season 2, which Cahall and Smith are producing. This year's series, The Season, is one of many webisodes, podcasts, and films the two have produced in recent years such as Dirt Bag Diaries and 49 Megawatts.
On a recent Friday, our group of skiers parked our cars at Paradise, the national park's main starting point, and before starting the climb, we went to the ranger's office to register. This year the fee for an individual annual climbing pass increased from $30 to $43, a change that reflects the growing demand on the park infrastructure and rangers as a result of higher visitor numbers. The park has seen a steady increase in climber visits, from about 1,000 per year in the 1950s to around 11,000 per year in the last decade, according to National Park Service records. The Park Service does not distinguish between climbers and skiers in their data, but according to Cascades ski historian Amar Andalkar, "There has been a huge increase in the amount of people skiing from the summit in the last 10 years."
After registering, we finally started our climb around 6 p.m. We climbed up and across the Nisqually Glacier and set our camp for the next two nights at around 9,200 feet on the Wapowty Cleaver. The first day was spent skiing the Fuhrer Thumb, a large couloir splitting the south side of the mountain. On Sunday, we woke at 3:30 a.m. to start our bid for the summit. Our group climbed up to the base of the Kautz Glacier ice cliff to reach an immaculate snow ramp ascending through walls of broken seracs and tumbling glaciers. Despite being beset by nausea and flu-like symptoms, the superhuman Hill led the way, placing a stair-stepper of boot prints up the thousands of feet of glacier. Soon we reached the upper section and crossed to the right onto the Nisqually glacier where a long diagonally-trending track led us to the east rim of the summit crater.
The clouds had threatened all day and visibility changed each second from isolating whiteout to being able to see the entire, quarter mile-wide crater. We finally climbed past steam vents and out of the far side of the crater and stood on Colombia Crest, the highest point on Mt. Rainier.
The summit was a nasty place to be in whiteout conditions and a fierce wind, so after a few summit pictures we changed quickly to ski mode and dropped back into the relatively sheltered crater. We reversed our climbing route in its entirety and were soon back above the slopes of the Kautz glacier. The snow was soft and we all skied confidently down the snow ramp of the glacier.
We continued the run down the Turtle and back to our camp, where we packed up and had a celebratory whiskey toast before heading farther down the mountain. We descended all the way to the Nisqually Creek bridge, which normally isn't possible this late in the season, but thanks to a huge snow year at Mt. Rainier National Park, we were able to pull it off, finally arriving at the bridge 10,500 feet below the summit at 6 p.m. We lay down in the grass on the side of the parking lot, kicked our boots off and relaxed, content in what we had accomplished in 48 hours.