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Adventure Guide: Kautz Glacier Route Mount Rainier

Alex Gauthier Alex Gauthier
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Mount Rainier’s Kautz Glacier Route, A How To

Mount Rainier. The critical test piece for would be American climbers of the greater ranges. Climbers of all stripes seem to end up plying their will, fitness and skill on the flanks of the crown jewel of Pacific Northwest volcanos. There are good reasons for this. At a ‘mere’ 14,411 feet it doesn’t seem at first to rival many peaks in the Rocky Mountains. However, there are big differences between this Northwestern 14’er and an actual 14’er. Chief amongst these differences are that unlike many climbs one might find in the Rockies, one must gain a lot more elevation. Mount Rainier trailheads are between three and five thousand feet. The other big difference – It’s covered in glaciers. Rainier offers many routes from a technical walk-up to the airy exposure offered by Liberty Ridge.

But which route should you do? Might I suggest you consider the Kautz Glacier route? Here’s the thing: many of us gravitate towards mountains requiring technical skill AND fitness. The Kautz Glacier route offers both without being too much of a stretch for a moderately skilled climber.

Here’s what you need to know, before you book your flight to Seattle.

Skill Set

Though the Kautz Glacier route lacks steep ice or rock, it does offer modest crevasse terrain and some easy ice climbing on grade II alpine ice. It’s essential that you’re well versed in rope team travel, hasty belay techniques using your ice axe or a hip belay. You’ll need to be comfortable climbing easy ice and you’re leader will need critical skills in building good anchors in ice or snow. There are no chances to use rock protection so leave your rock gear at home.

Also important will be your mountain sense. The route-finding is somewhat straight-forwarded, provided that you do your research ahead of time, but conditions can change quickly so you need to understand the object hazards presented by crevasses, ice falls and avalanche prone terrain. Your decision-making should take into account the capabilities of your team and must override your ambition. In short, you’ll want to brush up on your glacier travel skills.

Be sure you’re up to snuff on your crevasse rescue skills.

Roped travel and knowing how to deal with crevassed terrain are important on Rainier

Gear

You'll probably need to melt snow for water so be sure you carefully calculate fuel needs for your group.

You’ll probably need to melt snow for water so be sure you carefully calculate fuel needs for your group.

Mount Rainier can seem pretty gear intensive much like any mountain of this nature. Mandatory items are crampons, ice ax and other typical climbing gear. Your list may vary a bit but I would encourage you to go as light as possible. I filled a 50 Liter pack with 30lbs before adding group gear to my load. I estimate that my pack was just short of 40lbs with all food, water and group gear. I’m providing a complete list for you to use as a starting point for your own packing list. Fine tune it according to your needs and don’t forget to use a resource like Lighter Pack to calculate your load in advance of actually packing your gear. It’s very useful to bring a second tool for use in the ice chute. I found a Petzl Sumtec and Quark with hammer to be the perfect combo.

Timeline

The time you’ll need to budget for your summit attempt will depend greatly upon your team’s fitness and altitude adaptation. For the super fit, this is a viable single push objective. Taking only a light pack without bivvy gear one could start at Paradise, summit via the Kautz Glacier route and descend via the Disappointment Cleaver route in order to avoid the need for rappelling the Kautz Ice Chute on the return trip. Moving quickly with a light load, I could see knocking this out in 12 to 16 hours car to car.

If your fitness isn’t up to elite levels, don’t despair. Most take between two and four days to do this route. The typical method is to use two days to reach high camp around 11,000 feet, summit on the morning of day three and descend on day four. You can dream up any variation on this you like but do keep in mind that you’ll want to time your summit push to begin in the dead of night. This is due to the hazards of the Kautz Ice Chute and the need to tackle it when the snow is firm and the route less likely to see debris falling.

Fitness

Do not ignore the importance of cardio training. You'll be doing a lot of uphill slogging.

Do not ignore the importance of cardio training. You’ll be doing a lot of uphill slogging.

I recommend taking this very seriously. The Kautz is not the Disappointment Cleaver and it’s not a walk in the park. If you get out in the mountains every weekend and you do some work in the gym a couple times a week you’ll probably manage a summit. If you step your game up and go the extra mile, you’ll have much more fun on this route. Consider following a training program (readily available on the web), or better yet, design a REAL training program using Scott Johnston and Steve House’s book Training for the New Alpinism. If you apply yourself to a training program designed specifically for you, you’ll not only be floored by how strong you become but you’ll also gain a valuable new skill in the process. You’ll learn all about how training is MUCH different than simply going to the gym or hiking around a bunch.

The Route

The Kautz Glacier Route begins in the parking lot at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park. You can off-load gear on the sidewalk before parking your car in overnight parking just down the road from the visitor center. Hike up the trail tending to the left (West) make your way towards the point where Pebble Creek empties onto the Nisqually Glacier. Here you’ll need to decide if you want to rope up and don crampons. The condition of the glacier is highly variable depending on snowfall and temps.

Pick your way across the Nisqually Glacier, aiming for the obvious slope at the Northwest end of the glacier where it meets the toe of the Wilson Glacier.

You’ll then ascend a steep slope leading more to the West which should allow you to gain the Wilson Cleaver. Follow the Wapowety Cleaver to around 8000 feet or so and look for a good camp spot. You’ll end up digging a tent platform if you opt to camp at this elevation.

rainier_-1-2The route to high camp just shy of Camp Hazard is pretty obvious. Continue up the West edge of the Wilson Glacier past The Castle to around 11,000 feet. There are many camp spots already created amongst the rocks beneath the Kautz Ice Fall. Though it’s called a camp, you probably shouldn’t plan to camp right at Camp Hazard as this places you uncomfortably close to the Kautz Ice Fall which you’ll notice dumps ice and rock onto the surrounding terrain with regular frequency.

For your summit bid, find a small rock step with a fixed line and down climb from the Wapowety Cleaver and traverse further West into the Ice Chute. Don’t be fooled by the first depression you come to in the dark because if you climb this you’ll end up in pretty dangerous terrain prone to avalanche and rock fall.

The condition of Kautz Ice Chute varies greatly. Late in the season or in warmer years it can be up to six pitches of hard glacier ice. More likely, you’ll find a pitch or two of ice and perhaps some belayed snow climbing.

Once you gain the top of the ice chute, you’ll swing around towards the East flank of the upper mountain back onto the upper reaches of the Nisqually Glacier. Be mindful above the Ice chute  on the upper mountain as you may find that the largest crevasse hazards are on this portion of the route.

Once on the Nisqually Glacier, follow it up to the crater rim and drop your packs there. Cross the crater to reach the true summit in about ten minutes.

To descend, simply reverse your route or follow the Disappointment Cleaver route down to Paradise if you plan to carry over the top of the summit and not return to your high camp.

When descending the Kautz Ice Chute, you’ll likely need to make a couple rappels so bring v-thread building materials.

One final note about the route: it’s very likely that a good boot pack will be in for much of this route but don’t bank on it. The boot pack is quickly destroyed by storm cycles and you should be prepared with a good understanding of the route but understand that the exact route isn’t as critical as knowing where you are and being watchful of object hazards.

Red Tape

rainier_-9You’ll need to purchase a 7 day entry or use your annual pass to enter Mount Rainier National Park and you’ll also need to obtain your climbing pass for the park. You’ll get your entry pass as you drive in but you’ll need to have either reserved your climbing passes online or visit the climbing ranger’s office at Paradise to obtain it. Each person in the group will need a climbing pass. Be prepared to tell rangers which route you want to do, personal details for those in your group. The form asks you to notate what gear you are taking as a way for rangers to suss out those who have no business on the route. The last time I did the route, I watched a few people get turned away for lack of basic mountaineering equipment like crampons and ice tools. If you choose to forgo what most would consider important gear, be prepared to explain why you can do without it.

Getting There

From the Seattle airport, head South on I-5 to exit 127 and then follow 512 E. Take the Spanaway Loop Road South to WA-704 E. Follow WA-7 South to WA-706 into Elbe. From Elbe continue on WA-706 straight into the Park. Once you pay your vehicle fee and enter the gates, just stay on the main paved road all the way to Paradise where you will find ample parking as long as you arrive reasonably early. You can unload your gear by the visitor center and then re-park at the lower lot where overnight parking is permitted.

Alex Gauthier
Alex Gauthier
Alex Gauthier is the head adventure junky for Subaru Adventure Team and part time outdoor adventure photographer. His first love is climbing of any kind but can also be spotted on mountain bike trails or working on building sea kayaks which he may or may not ever get to paddle.
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