Mount Rainier Climb - Kautz Route (by Andrew Gorohoff)

On July 27, 2010 Martin Volken led me to my first summit of Mount Rainier by way of the Kautz route. In the group was Tom Smith, Allen Sjogren, and Tony Ohrazda. We spent four amazing days on Mount Rainier, and here are my recollections of that trip.

The trip began with us meeting at Whitaker’s Coffee shop in Ashford where split up the group gear and watched two bus loads of climbers head off to the mountain. After looking at Martins 50 Liter, 35 pound pack sitting next to my 67 Liter, 50 pound pack and Tom’s 65 + 15 Liter, 55 pound pack. Tom and I both hastily removed a large amount of food and clothes from our packs Clearly Tom and I had a lot to learn about packing. We loaded up our cars and headed up to Paradise to begin the climb.

The first day was fairly casual as we started up the mountain from the Paradise parking lot under perfect blue skies and a warm sun at around 11 AM. I was quickly feeling the pounds of unnecessary weight on my back despite the short 4 hour climb up to Glacier Vista, down across the Nisqually Glacier, then up to our first camp just below 9,000’ on the Wilson Glacier. 

At camp we began pulling the gear out of our packs and setting up camp. Martin would just shake his head each time I pulled out some unnecessary piece of gear out of my pack such as UV light water purifier (which, not surprisingly, is much larger and heavier than iodine tablets). With camp set up, the process of collecting water began. Allen tried to collect enough water to fill a single water bottle from the melting snow water dripping along the rocks. With Allen making very slow progress, Martin showed us his mountaineering Moses ways and pulled out a ziplock bag, placed it against the hillside, and suddenly was capturing multiple drips into a single waterbottle changing a 20 minunte per water bottle job into a 3 minute per water bottle job.

With camp set up, and water collected, I watched Tony pull out of his pack (which also appeared to be much smaller and lighter than my pack) a very comfortable looking chair. Tony proceeded to take off his shirt and kick back in his chair under the warm sun at 9,000’. I was almost expecting him to pull a Margarita out of his pack to complete the image. As we sat around, we compared and discussed the different gear we had just hauled up the mountain, telling each other that we had got a great deal on that item at RE.... (glance over at Martin) ...I don’t recall where I bought that item. With Tony in his seat and the rest of us each finding the most comfortable rock we could, we watched show as the sun set, lighting up Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood, and Mount Jefferson in an orange glow, and sending the shadow of Mount Rainier grow off into the horizon. 

Between the anxiety of the coming days activities and the loud snores of two tent mates, I hardly slept, but instead sat comfortably warm in my 30F sleeping bag and considered that I should have followed Martin’s gear list and brought ear plugs. The next morning we had a fairly casual start at around 8 AM and headed up a short ways to our next camp site just below 11,000’ and below the aptly named Camp Hazard. 

At around 1 PM with camp set up, and everyone hydrated and fed, Martin started educating us for the following days activities from our 11,000’ class room. We reviewed proper travel with crampons, crevasse rescue, and self arrest ,with each of us throwing ourselves down the hill time and time again. Then back to camp to prepare our packs for the next day’s climb and finally an early bed time.

At 3:30 AM the wake-up call from Tony came seemingly way too early. In the cold dark morning we all struggled to get ourselves ready for the 4:30 AM start time. It was a short hike out of camp, but the climb really began as we put on our crampons at Camp Hazard, and made our way around a gully below the Kautz ice cliffs and onto the ice shoot. Although the ice shoot was probably only a 40 degree slope, and covered with well frozen over sun cup steps, Martin climbed ahead, set up an anchor and belayed the four of us up the slope. It took two pitches, but the climb provided us a chance to get some great pictures before the long slog on to the summit.

Shortly after we reached the top of the shoot, I asked Martin about the weather. With thunderstorms looming the previous day there was the very real possibility that we were not going to make it to the summit for fear of being caught on the side of the mountain in the middle of a storm. Martin said that the thunderstorms would miss us we were definitely going for the summit.

A ways above the ice shoot on the Kautz Glacier at around 6:30 AM we stopping for breakfast. We ate our breakfast in the cold shade of the mountain. I was surprisingly hungry and thirsty which Martin said was a good sign that I was not having problems with the altitude. As we started off again I was surprised at how cold my gloved hands quickly became from just sitting still for 5 or 10 minutes. I found myself travelling up for the next 30 minutes with one hand in my jacket and the other hand on the ice axe, switching off as we traversed up the mountain with Martin navigating us across giant crevasses that would easily swallow most cars.

We continued up towards ever new false summit ridges, until at last we crested the crater, crossed it and found ourselves on top of the mountain at around 8:30 AM. At the summit we all congratulated each other, took pictures, and Martin pulled out his satellite phone and called his daughter to wish her a happy birthday. After twenty minutes on the cold summit, we were more than ready to began our decent, this time working our way around the summit ridge, and past the USGS marker summit marker.

Tony, being the strongest member of the party led us down the precarious path amongst the glaciers, following Martins careful route finding instructions. As we worked our way down I found my tired legs failing me, leading me to trip over my own feet several times. As we headed down Martin warned me a couple times to carefully watch my steps. Eventually we reached the ice shoot again. Martin gave us all a brief break and then instructed us that we would all need to be completely focused for the next section. Martin anchored us all in then belayed our group down the ice shoot again. We started down climbing the shoot, with Tony leading, followed by Allen, then Tom and finally me. Not wanting to take anything for granted, I found myself asking Tom several times for the best foot holds while carefully trying not to step down on his gloved hands with my crampons.

As we reached the end of the rope on the first pitch, we all inserted our ice screws to anchor ourselves to the ice as Martin climbed down setting up another anchor to belay us down one more pitch. All the while, a couple of women were working their way up the ice shoot. Concerned about their late start, Martin asked them what their goal was for the day, to which they surprisingly responded “the summit”. Martin expressed his concern to them about their late start, and then returned his complete focus to getting his party of four down the shoot.

Before long we had worked our way down the shoot and over the gully back to camp hazard, where at last we could remove ourselves from the rope and take off our crampons for the final distance down to our high campsite. I recall that as I rested at our high camp for a few hours before heading to a lower camp, that I was completely exhausted to the point of tears, and I turned to Tom and said something along the limes of, “That was one of the most difficult things I have ever done”. With a few hours rest we headed down to our lower camp to spend our final night on the mountain.

Our final day on the mountain began with crampons on, blue bags packed, and a casual start of 7:30 AM. We headed down to the Wilson Glacier where we spotted the tent that belonged to the ladies we had seen the day before headed up the Kautz Ice shoot. Martin checked their tent to find they had not returned. A quick satellite phone call to the ranger station revealed that the ladies had come down to Camp Muir and stayed the night there. I thought to myself that I did not envy the fact that they would need to climb down nearly to Paradise, then climb back up to the Wilson Glacier to retrieve their gear, then back down to Paradise again. Another hour of roped travel down the Wilson Glacier and across the crevasses of the Nisqually Glacier and we were back on the trails above paradise, and soon down enjoying burgers in Ashford.

Now more than 48 hours away from that moment I can’t remember why I thought it was so hard, all I can think about was how amazing the trip was. The only thing that reminds me of the difficulty are my sore stiff legs, and two quarter sized blisters on my heels. I don’t fully understand why, but with every hour I get further away from the actual summit day the more I want to go back. Maybe it’s because only a few short hours after coming back from the mountain I found myself in the unbelievably surreal setting of sitting in stop and go traffic on I-90 wishing for the quiet view from the mountain.