liberty cap - 14112' - Ptarmigan Ridge Class 4 AI3
I finally was able to get up Liberty Cap (not a real peak!) by climbing a classic route when conditions, weather, and good partners were all aligned. My friends John and Stephaie both from Colorado came up to the PNW to enjoy the summer out these parts and the timing was just right to give Ptarmigan Ridge a try, and to finally, after 4 years since finishing the Bulgers, get my butt back on Rainier to summit Liberty Cap (again...NOT a real peak). If you couldn't tell by now, it is of my strongest opinion that Liberty Cap is not a real peak haha.
John and I both drove out south towards Rainier, with Stephanie riding with me to the White River ranger station a bit earlier to get our permits. We waited at the ranger station and organized our gear which included numerous items like ice tools, crampons, cams, rope overnight gear etc. After a few hours waiting for John to get through Seattle traffic, he arrived, and we both drove to the White River trailhead where we left my car. We then drove around all the way back to Enumclaw in Johns car, grabbed a huge dinner then proceeded to drive up the Mowich Lake Road up until its closure point shortly past the Spray Park Trailhead nearly 5 miles from Mowich Lake. We ended up just car camping for the night at the OHV parking area a couple miles before the closure gate.
We woke to a large convoy of OHV guys parking and preparing for a day of off roading. We quickly packed up and parked at the closure gate, and under cloudy skies we started walking up the roads. I had my mountain boots in hand with about a 50 pound pack on. Thankfully there is a shortcut trail that bypasses all the long switchbacks in the road and cuts the 5 miles down to about 3.5, so it was barely an hour by the time we reached the lake. We took a quick snack and bathroom break and then started down the WOnderland/Spray Park Trail which to our surprise was quite snow free all the way to about 5500 feet before we started hitting more continuous snowfields. The trail was in good shape and we were really the only ones on it since it was still very early summer. As the trail worked us southward, we reached Eagle Cliff, but had just entered the clouds at this point so did not see any views over the cliff. We continued ascending east, then back northward until about 6000 feet elevation at which point we left the trail and stared cross country walking over firm continuous snow southward towards the base of Ptarmigan Ridge. We walked mellow snow covered slopes for over a mile in a whiteout until we had a couple peak-a-boo views open up and give us a glimpse of the starting slope to Ptarmigan Ridge.
We started ascending steeper slopes from 6000 feet, thankfully the snow was still firm and supportive. Between 7200-7400 feet the slope steepened to about 45 degrees, which was the steepest section of the approach, right before mellowing out as we neared Observation Rock. At this point we passed a weather station, and began to slowly get larger clearings in the whiteout clouds we had been in all morning. We slowly continued up past 8000 feet, then 9000, took a small break on a nice sandy flat spot at 9200 feet, then at aout 9600 feet, we emerged completely above the clouds and saw the final 800 foot slope we needed to ascend to reach our camp. Finally, after a tiring 12 hour day of snow slogging carring 50+ pounds, we reached the flat section of ridge at 10,400 feet where we found a spectacular bivy spot in soft sand. The view of the Seattle/Tacoma metro area was amazing, since we were not under clear skies as we eventually climbed above the clouds. We began excavating the camp spot we found to make it larger to fit all 3 of us. I did not have a tent so I set up my tarp and my sleeping pad right next to the tent John and Stephanie shared and we got started melting snow right away. With the breezy conditions and quickly cooling temperatures, my low efficiency ultralight stove took a long time to melt and boil water. I was also getting sandblasted by the wind which got my sleeping bag and gear all gritty throughout the evening. Eventually, we got about 5 liters of water melted and a couple more boiled for dinner for all of us. About 1000 feet below us, we could see the clouds swiftly flowing over the lower Ptarmigan Ridge which was a cool sight to behold! By dark, we were ready to fall asleep.
That night the glow of lights from the Seattle/Tacoma area was bright, and the clouds completely cleared out. At dawn the following morning we began packing up to a chilly wind and wasted no time starting up. We walked acrss the flat section of the ridge and passed by a more established campsite with large rock walls, but in a windier location right at the col where we left the ridge proper and made a descending traverse to the west. The route makes this long jog west to avoid the Ptarmigan icefall. We crossed over a serious debris field from avalanches that have come off the icefall throughout the year, and ensured we went at a very brisk pace across this. e reached the start of the steep 45-50 degree snow slopes that mark the start of more serious climbing at about 8am. Very faint ski tracks were visible from a skier who ski the Ptarmigan Ridge route likely a month prior.
We crossed the bergschrund on a good snow bridge and began ascending the 45 degree snow. It was fairly easy to switchback with side stepping initially from the 10,200 - 10,600 foot levels, but above 10,600 feet the steepness increased and we all began front-pointing up the very firm and somewhat icy snow. A conditions report we got from the weekend before our climb said the entire route was 2000 feet of bomber ice so we were stoked. We started simul climbing as a team of 3, but were not moving very fast due to our heavy packs which we had to carry along since we were going to descend the Emmons Route. I led up and made a single cam anchor at a small rock outcrop and belayed Stephanie and John up for a quick break. Then I led up a short AI3 ice step and continue up more snow above. John took the next simul lead and continued up more 50 degree snow/neve all the way up to another small rock outcrop just below the steep leftward traverse. The route we took is the normal Ptarmigan Ridge route marked by the red line in the following photo. Route Topo
The steep traverse is labelled in this photo. I started up again on lead, breaking trail on this wild traverse on 55 degree snow. A huge cliff dropped off shortly below us on the traverse and this was probably the ost heads up part of the route. Luckily I was able to get one good cam and a few good ice screws in as I made my way left, and to the base of the next snow chute we needed to climb. I made a two screw anchor and belayed them in. By this point the wind had started really picking up, and looking up on the upper mountain there was intense spindrift whipping all over the place. We were not looking forward to the 2000 foot slog to reach the summit of Liberty Cap.
John took the next lead and went up more 45-50 degree slopes towards a large cliff we could see looking straight up from the end of the leftward traverse. This section had a few inches of fresh snow covering ice though, so it was slower going. At the base of the large cliff there was a nice cave to escape the wind for a bit to eat and drink and recover some energy. Our packs were starting to slow us down quite a bit. After a nice break, I started up the next section, which began with a short step right and up a 6 foot vertical ice step, then up deeper snow in a shaded gully to reach a prominent rib with sunshine once again. It was slow going breaking trail up this 300 foot section though and the winds were howling through this funnel. I did manage to get a few good ice screws in though and once back in the sun on the rib I made a good anchor to belay up. The final section of the route was now in view, and it looked like the mixed rock step was completely covered in fat ice! John took this last lead and we slowly made our way up the final gully. To our amazement, a fast moving party of two caught up with us just as John was leading the ice step. I offered to let them pass and we were able to more or less climb the final ice step adjacent to one another.
Once atop the ice step, we emerged onto wide open slopes on the Liberty Cap glacier. The winds really were strong now. I started breaking trail up this but we quickly determined the final 2000 feet were going to be miserable. The team of two eventually caught up and passed us, which made it easier to move upwards in the deep snow. I ended up in the lead the entire way up the slopes to the summit of Liberty Cap. It ended up getting very bad though, with winds nearly 60 mph and I did not have quite enough layers to deal with that. I was pushing to continue moving quickly against the desire of my climbing partners as I was getting cold. It took about 4 hours to reach Liberty Cap from the top of the technical climbing...only 500 feet per hour. High clouds were whipping over the summit of Columbia Crest and we climbed into the occational whiteout as we neared the summit. At the time we stood on Liberty Cap though, we had clear visibility however we did not even bother stopping at the top. We walked right over and began the descent down to the broad saddle between Liberty Cap and Clumbia Crest. My second to last P400 highest 100 in WA was very anti-climactic with no celebration whatsoever. We also couldn't capture much of any photos from this section of the day as I didn't want to take my gloves off.
After that photo I took of John starting the final gully to the mixed/ice step at the top of the technical section of the route, we didn't get a single photo until most of the way down the Emmons. It was certainly a relief when we started walking downhill, however we still had difficulties to surmount. A long horizontal traverse to the east was required to meetup with the flagged path for the Emmons, and a few large crevasses required crossing. Since the Emmons was east facing, it was cold and shady in the late afternoon, and the wind was still whipping down the slopes. It wasn't until we got about 3000 feet down that the winds died off and I warmed up. I was felling pretty ill though from being battered all afternoon and being cold.
We reached Camp Schruman in the late evening and decided we would just stay another night there. I slept on the wooden latform of a new storage shed the rangers were building adjacent to the bathroom while Stephanie and John put the tent up in an unused platform on the snow. It ended up still being a windy night and I didn't get too much sleep. We were slow to get ready the next morning and didn't start walking down the Interglacier until about 11am, but we made very fast time getting back to my car at the trailhead. We were thrilled to be back and had a relaxing dinner in Enumclaw at a nice pizza place and also grabbed ice cream and beer. The views of the NW face of Rainier on the drive back up the Mowich Lake road was incredible, as we could not see this on our first day due to clouds.
This was a difficult but rewarding trip and I am happy to only have Castle Peal left to finally finish off the P400s. Hopefully I'll have Castle done within the next week!