Observation Rock - North Face, October 2002
Scott and I departed for Observation Rock early on a Monday morning. With a persistent high pressure system prevailing over the Northwest, there was no better time than the present. In store for us, was a fun day of hiking on the northwestern side of Mount Rainier, and more importantly, a couple pitches of ice climbing without the commitment of a serious alpine ice outing. We arrived at the Mowich Lake Trailhead around 10am. There was a thin dusting of snow and ice on the ground in the parking area. The temperatures had clearly dipped well below freezing the night before and we hoped the cold temps would bode well for the ice conditions on the North Face. We started hiking towards Spray Park under sunny skies on a crisp but comfortable October morning.
After about 3 miles we reached Spray Park and were treated to some nice views of Mount Rainier. From this vantage point it is possible to see the North Face route. The trail meanders along the ridge top and disappeared under fresh snow. We traversed just right of the ridge on alternating heather, talus, and snow until reaching a large snowfield, at which point we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we geared up and traversed underneath the face until we were standing at the base of the climb. We heard voices and saw another party two thirds of the way up the face. Moments later, a couple baseball sized rocks whizzed by us from above. This was no place to hang out!
We simulclimbed the first 100 feet of 40 degree ice. The ice was solid, somewhat like water ice. Large dinner plates and ice chunks pelted Scott as he climbed below me. He decided to wait and put me on belay. Placing a screw in the ice, Scott belayed me until I reached a comfortable belay spot. With only two screws shared between us and nothing in the ice above the screw Scott placed, a fall would most definitely result a painful side down the portion of the face that we had just climbed. I placed a screw above a large boulder lodged in the ice, set up a belay and brought up Scott. His joy was short lived when I told him that it was now his turn to lead. Scott rested briefly and headed up. The ice steepened and Scott tired after only half a rope length. He placed a screw, set up a belay, and brought me up. I led out the final pitch to the top, which steepened to about 60 degrees.
In the interest of conserving the now limited daylight hours for the descent, we decided to forego the final scramble to the true summit of Observation Rock. From the top of the ice wall, we headed skier's-left and down along a ridge towards the Flett Glacier. We had to down-climb some unpleasant loose rock and scree to get on the glacier and then navigated around some minor crevasses to get back to the base of the climb. From here we headed straight down into the basin following tracks in the snow that we hoped would get us back on the trail. The sun was going down fast and we quickened our pace, anxious to locate the main trail before dark.
We located the main trail just before dark, and watched the sunset briefly while consuming the last of our food and drink. I freaked out momentarily when I saw what I thought was a UFO rising above the summit of Mount Rainier. To our disappointment it was just the moon. However, the rate by which the moon was rising in the sky was unlike anything I have ever seen before. We jogged most of the way back to the car but as always the trail seemed to drag on for eternity. We finally reached the parking lot, trudged over to Scott's truck and devoured what little beverage we could find. The drive out was largely uneventful, save for the drunk ahead of us that was swerving back and forth across the road. This is apparently a common occurrence in and around the town of Carbonado.
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