Colorado College students are not known for stereotypical Spring Break shenanigans, and two weeks ago, a group of five students exemplified the outdoorsy spirit of CC by spending ten days evaluating avalanche conditions, skiing 16 miles up a road decked out in full mountaineering gear, and summiting a volcano before skiing down untracked powder.
With 26 major glaciers, Mount Rainier, located near Seattle, Wash., is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states. Making it to the top of the mountain, which is actually a tall,layered type of volcano called a stratovolcano, was the main goal of Spring Break for sophomores Zach Keskinen, Dan Butler, Nick Bernstein, Edward Crawford, and Chris Van Dusen.
Keskinen, Butler, and Bernstein applied for a Ritt Kellogg Grant as a group to summit Mount Denali in Alaska this coming summer and hoped that attempting a summit of Mount Rainier would provide them with good practice. Although Keskinen is an ice climbing guide in his native Alaska, and Butler only began ice climbing this year, both students have not had much experience in mountaineering.
The group of boys spent their first week in Seattle waiting as it rained and rained, in true Northwestern style. As they hoped for a window of good weather, they passed time doing day trips to backcountry ski in the North Cascades and Snoqualmie. Snow fell in the mountains after days of rain, creating very unstable avalanche conditions.
About 0.02 percent of climbers who attempt a summit bid of Mount Rainier die each year during their ascent or descent. As far as mountaineering goes, that makes Mount Rainier a relatively safe mountain to practice on; roughly four percent of climbers die on Mount Everest, and 1.7 percent die on Mount Denali, the mountain that Keskinen, Butler, and Bernstein hoped to climb this summer.
“The low point was a roundtrip 16 miles of skinning on a road in an attempt to get to a trailhead in the North Cascades only to wake up in the morning and decide the avalanche danger was too high,” Bernstein, a neuroscience major, said. “We decided to not do Mount Rainier because we never got the weather window we wanted, and seeing as how none of us knew the terrain even with topos and being able to shoot a bearing we didn’t want to get whited out.”
The decision to turn around after skinning – using sticky bases on alpine skis to ski uphill – for 16 miles and looking forward to reaching the top of this mountain for months was a difficult one. However, because none of the group had been on the mountain and they only had topographic maps, a whiteout was a risk they weren’t willing to take.
Mount Rainier takes two to three days to summit for an average group, and a brief window of good weather on the last Friday and Saturday of the trip probably wouldn’t have been sufficient, especially if the weather changed quickly and trapped them on the mountain for the beginning of seventh block.
A few days after their thwarted attempt at Mount Rainier, the group woke at 2:15 a.m. and drove three hours to the base of Mount Saint Helens, a smaller sister of Mount Rainier. After breakfast, the group started skiing up, reaching the top around 1 p.m. and turning around to see its one-mile-wide caldera smoking through all the snowpack before getting the privilege of skiing down 5,800 feet of untracked powder.
Keskinen, a geology-chemistry double major, said, “We had pretty good routefinding until we traversed over too far and hit very hard wind slab for around a quarter mile or so. We had one section of 70-80 degree windslabbed snow, but that was the most extreme we encountered.”
Although the group did not complete their original goal of summitting Mount Rainier, Butler pointed out that the really high-energy and positive group was a lot of fun regardless, and his first time on the big terrain of Mount Saint Helens was a great experience as well.