Observation Rock, North Face - September 8, 2001
Anxious to get onto a little bit of alpine ice, but without the gumption to plan a trip to one of the more remote of the few ice faces in the Cascades, I decided to head up to the nice, accessible, non-committing north face of Observation Rock. I had been up there the previous year, first alone, when I didn't feel up to soloing the face, and then with Dave and Greg, when we simulclimbed it.
I prudently checked the Mountaineer's climb schedule to see if they'd be on it too - yup! Every weekend day in September had an "intermediate ice" trip there. Oh well.
I left the Mowich Lake parking lot at about 8:25am, about 5 minutes behind a group of 7 ice tool-wielding people, no doubt the group of Mountaineers. They kept up a decent pace it seems, because I didn't start passing them until the trail veers up towards Spray Park.
I continued up through the meadows leading to the peak. It looked exceptionally dirty and melted out compared to mid-October of last year. The ice looked brown.
At the snowfield, I popped on the crampons and hiked up to the base of the face. It had taken two and a half hours from Mowich Lake. With no rope, and minimal gear and clothing (warm day), I was able to take a pretty light pack.
This time, several cracks spanned the ice face - also different from last year. The strong breeze was causing a decent amount of rockfall along the edges of the climb, and small ice chunks were coming down the middle. This added a bit to my nervousness.
I wore my harness, and carried a single ice screw with me, incase I needed to anchor myself in an emergency (e.g. crampon popped off). I also checked my altimeter before heading up, intending to get an accurate measure of the height of the face.
Somewhat nervously, I start going up. The ice was nice and hard - no snow here! The crevasses on the face were actually a nice addition, because their lips provided nice resting stances. They were also easy to walk across and not very deep.
This ice was decent and the climbing felt secure. The last hundred feet steepen significantly, but only to about 50 degrees it seemed. Finally, I pulled over the lip, onto the flat snowfield on top. It had taken about 25 minutes. I took a look at my altimeter. Exactly 400ft high, which agrees with the topo map.
I decided against continuing up the loose scree to the true summit, and just headed off to the right. I hadn't been down this way before, so I decided to check it out - it looked like I would get a view of the Mowich glacier. However, I didn't really. But the amazing views of the north side of Rainier made up for it.
I slid down some extremely loose steep scree onto an arm of the Flett glacier. Normally, I don't think this thing is very crevassed, but this year, there were some big ones! I figured the crossing would be safe though, since the snow was so firm. I walked along the uphill side of the first one, until I saw it continued all the way to a cliff wall. No way across on this side. I walked the other direction until it pinched off in a snow bridge. I carefully moved across, jumping over the potentially thinnest part. Once below the crevasse, I was suprised at how big it was! Probably 60 or 80 feet deep, and maybe 6 to 10 feet wide, overhung in spots on the uphill side by 5 feet! Eeek! This was a stupid way to come down.
I had another one to cross, this time only about 2 feet wide, but very deep, and with no snowbridge. I hopped across and landed safely on the 35 degree slope on the downhill side, a short distance above another crevasse. This was feeling a bit sketchy. Luckily, from here it was straightforward back to the base of the face.
Here I encountered the Mountaineers group again, just getting to the climb. I chatted with one of the leaders briefly then headed down. Baseball sized rocks were coming down the sides of the climb, onto the approach snowfield, with astonishing speed. You had to keep an eye on the face. The guys up near the face would yell "ROCK" quite vigorously, but the final few students slogging up the snowfield didn't seem to bother looking up. Hmm. Once at the base of the face though, you were safe from rockfall.
I hurried down to Spray Park, and made it back to the trailhead at 2:15pm. It was exceedingly crowded, with cars parked all the way past the first switchback on the road.
On the way out on the Mowich Lake road, I saw the results of a pretty horrific accident: One car off on the side of the road, with a person lying on the ground, being tended to by some people. And another 4x4 truck, on the other side of the road, completely on its side, with its front axle completely detached, lying on the road. I was about to stop and ask if I could do anything, but there seemed to be a plethora of people hanging around, and a ranger with a radio, so I figured all was under control. As I drove through, I was horrified to see the entire front end of the 4x4 was smashed or missing.
Shortly there after, 2 ambulances, 1 fire truck, and 3 ranger trucks, all with lights and sirens blazing, passed by me, heading up to the accident site. Seems like there's always bad stuff happening when coming home from Observation Rock. Last year it was a spill at a gas station in Buckley, and a large building burning just down the road.