30 years ago, a group of Spokane climbers circumnavigated Mount Rainier 'for fun'

By Rich Landers, Outdoors editor
Reprinted from the Spokesman-Review, Nov. 29, 1998

    Next year's Mount Rainier National Park centennial celebration is likely to conjure up stories larger than the mountain itself.

    New books are coming off the presses. Memories are being piqued. Everyone who's "been there, done that" has a tale to tell.

    Especially the climbers.

    Even before the mountain became the nation's fifth national park, climbers were answering the challenge to stand on its 14,411-foot summit.

    In the late 1890s, members of the Longmire family were charging $1 to guide clients to the top. Nowadays, a three-day guided climb costs $500. Or mountaineers can join the other thousands who form their own groups for the ordeal that has claimed 71 lives since the peak was first climbed in 1870.

    Bagging Mount Rainier is a rite of passage for anyone in the Northwest who wants to call himself a mountaineer. But it wasn't the summit that lured a group from the Spokane Mountaineers club into a remarkable adventure 30 years ago.

    Dee Molenaar, one of the first serious Rainier climbers and author of "The challenge of Rainier," was visiting Spokane that summer. As would be expected of any climber passing through, he dropped into Bill Boulton's climbing shop, Selkirk Bergsport, which was this area's original climber's den.

    Despite his pioneering climbs and experience as a park ranger and climbing guide, Molenaar said his glacier trip during that spring of 1968, which nearly circumnavigated the mountain, was perhaps his most prized adventure on Rainier.

    "Dee was crowing about the trip," said Will Murray, a Spokane Mountaineer and partner in Selkirk Bergsport. "Boulton looked at me and said, 'We can do that."'

    Molenaar had presented the type of challenge that inspires mountaineers. Only two circumnavigations over the mountain's glaciers had been recorded, and neither of them had crossed the dangerous Emmons Glacier.

    In other words, there was still a "first" to be had.

    Boulton, who is now 75, canceled a scheduled Spokane Mountaineers climb of Mount Cooper in Canada and talked those who had signed up for the Fourth of July weekend trip into orbiting the massive volcano.

    "I had just finished (the club's) mountain school," said Jim Spearman of Spokane, who was then a college student. "Who was I to disagree."

    No other mountain in the lower 48 states can compare to Rainier as a glacier travel experience.

    Rainier is the tallest and largest of the Cascade volcanoes, with a footprint of more than 100 square miles. Snowfall ranging from 40 to 90 feet a year dumps on the mountain's upper slopes, feeding a summit ice cap and a network of glaciers totaling 34 square miles.

    That's more ice than all of the other Cascade volcanoes combined, according to "Washington's Mount Rainier National Park: A Centennial Celebration," the park's official book for the anniversary.

    Unlike the previous two circumnavigation trips on record, the Boulton party included no park rangers or Rainier climbing legends.

    The seven members who started the trip were Boulton, Murray and Spearman, plus Rick Ferral, Dave Smith, Deyrol Anderson and Boulton's 13-year-old son, Henry. "Henry had already climbed Rainier the year before," Murray said. "We knew he could do it."

    Here's a brief description of the 26-mile glacier trek.

Day l

    Starting from Paradise, the party headed around the mountain counterclockwise to cross the Nisqually, Wilson, Van Trump, Kautz and Pyramid glaciers. They camped that evening at 7,300 feet on Success Cleaver.

Day 2

    The group crossed the South Tahoma Glacier before running into difficulty finding a route over the Tahoma glacier and Puyallup Cleaver. They ascended to 10,000 feet and descended the South Mowich Glacier. Camp was near the snout of the Edmunds Glacier.

Day 3

    Beginning with a traverse of the Edmunds and North Mowich glaciers, they crossed Ptarmigan Ridge at a notch below the icefall at 10,000 feet. Then they made a steep and harrowing 1,600-foot descent, marked with many self arrests in the slushy snow. For hours they wandered to solve the maze through the Carbon Glacier before camping above Mystic Lake.

Day 4

    Ferral and Henry Boulton abandoned the trip, hiking out to Sunrise, where they would hitchhike back to Paradise. The remaining five climbed the Winthrop Glacier to Camp Schurman, made a difficult crossing of the Emmons Glacier, and then romped across the relatively easy terrain on the Ingraham and Cowlitz glaciers. They had Camp Muir all to themselves that night, a luxury almost unheard of 30 years later.

Day 5

    The trip concluded with an easy hike down the Muir snowfield to Paradise.

    The trip was phenomenal in many ways, but it didn't get the big newspaper photo spreads devoted to Rainier milestones, such an ascent of the Willis Wall in 1961, or even lesser testimonials of summit climbs.

    Instead, the group came merely told friends it was a great trip, but be careful if you do it.

    "The whole point is to have some fun and not kill yourself," Murray, who has recounted the trip for a new map guide that chronicles three glacier circumnavigation routes completed between 1968 and 1997.

    Beginning last year, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., is offering a guided six-day ski trek for experienced mountaineers that somewhat follows the Boulton group's route.

    Even Rainier Mountain guide George Dunn, who has climbed the peak a record 390 times, said the circumnavigation is among his most memorable trips on Rainier.

    "You have to be a mountaineer to do the glacier travel," said Murray, "but the experience is different than that of simply making a climb."

    "Mount Rainier is so big that it stands alone. From the top, you feel more like you're in an airplane than on a summit."

    Even the North Cascades seem to flatten out below you from the top, he explains, "so all you see is a big haze in the distance. But from the glaciers, the landscape has more depth and the scenery up and down is tremendous."

    So is the danger.

    Once on their trek, the Boulton group eventually learned why the previous trips had not crossed the Emmons Glacier.

    "It was the riskiest exposure of the trip, and very scary," Murray said, noting that the group had no radios to call for help should the party plunge into a crevasse.

    He recalled having to break into a run on the Carbon Glacier to avoid ice rumbling down from above.

    "The South Tahoma Glacier sticks in my mind," Spearman said. "I felt like I was caught on maze, and I wasn't sure there was a solution. There were some really scary snow bridge crossings there as well as on the Carbon and Emmons glaciers."

    He remembers hearing glaciers groaning and seracs - huge, towering blocks of ice - breaking and exploding.

    "I thought the trip was over several times, but we'd always seem to find a way," Spearman said.

    The group's most most serious decision was to complete a route that required plunge-stepping off Ptarmigan Ridge.

    "I wouldn't recommend that again to anybody," Murray said, noting that it's prone to avalanche and relentlessly steep for 1,600 feet.

    There's also a risk of slipping and falling into a bergschrund-the crevasse that forms where ice pulls way from the rock at the head of a glacier.

    Last year, Murray went back to look at the route he'd done 30 years ago and realized the bergschrund has become much wider over the years. "Several people had misgivings about that slope then," he said. "It might be impossible now."

    Murray recalls the afternoon at a camp on the lower Curtis Ridge, when the Boulton gang watched a small airplane fly over the Carbon Glacier and across the Willis Wall. Against that backdrop, the plane appeared the size of a bird, he said, and suddenly they realized the overwhelming immensity of the mountain.

    Steve Winslow, Park Service climbing ranger at Paradise, said the new map chronicling the Boulton party route is excellent, although he said the presentation of the text around the edges of the map is awkward to use.

    "But I might display the map here at Paradise because the map is definitely accurate," he said.

    Winslow said he's not worried about a surge of people coming to try circumnavigations on the glaciers.

    "It takes a real dedicated group to bite off a major trip like this," he said. "They have to be really serious, and prepared to dig in and wait out a storm."

    Murray takes a slightly different angle.

    "Willingness was a main ingredient. for the trip, other than knowing the prospects for avalanche hazard and being prepared to fall into crevasses and hope your partners can haul you out," he said.

    "The biggest factor, though was our weather. It was a miracle. Five days of perfect weather on Mount Rainier is hard to order up. Weather defeats more Rainier climbers than anything else."

    Skilled climbers with time to wait out Rainier's nastier moods are bounded only by their imaginations, he said.

    "The reason a lot of people haven't seen the best scenery on Mount Rainier isn't because they wouldn't like to see it, but rather because the thought never entered their heads that it's possible."

The following notes and comments are by Bill Boulton, who was not interviewed
for the article and wants to get in his two cents worth.

    This was not the first time that members of the Spokane Mountaineers had made a traverse on Mount Rainier. In 1964 a party composed of Bill Boulton, Will Murray, Dave Smith, Val Pate and Henry Boulton travelled on skis from Paradise to Camp Schurman (crossing the Emmons Glacier), from which they climbed to the summit, after that descending to White River camp. That trip was inspired by a 16 mm movie produced by Fisher Flouring Mills, called "Skiing Above The Clouds", which depicted the same trip. We called our trip the "Zoom Traverse" to honor Fisher, the maker of Zoom breakfast cereal, which we ate every morning while we were on the trip. Henry was 12 years old at that time, and was 16 when we did the Orbit.

    It was Hal Foss, not Dee Molenaar, who told me about his trip. That gave me the idea of doing the Orbit complete, crossing the Emmons Glacier, which Hal's party had not done.

    On Day 3 we ate lunch on Ptarmigan Ridge before descending to the Carbon Glacier. I didn't like the idea of descending that steep snow slope leading to the glacier, but as I looked down the slope, I saw a line of tracks crossing the snow, far below. I said "that looks like a set of tracks made by a party of climbers. Anywhere the Seattle Mountaineers can go, we can go." So we started down the steep slope, but when we got to the tracks, we saw that they were goat tracks, not people tracks!

    For more information and photographs of Mount Rainier:    Mount Rainier