As John Krueger and I rappelled into the Ouray Ice Park on a weekend Veterans Expeditions trip in February of 2016, John said “We should go for the Liberty Ridge on Rainier; it’s totally within our ability.” I muttered something along the lines of “Yeah sounds awesome, let’s do it”—not thinking that it would actually happen.
Two years prior, in February of 2014, I had met John on my first Veterans Expeditions (VetEx) trip, another ice climbing trip to Ouray. We quickly became friends and climbing partners going to popular climbing areas around Colorado like 11-Mile Canyon, Eldorado Canyon, Clear Creek Canyon, and the Poudre Canyon. Nick Watson, Executive Director and co-founder of VetEx, started this nonprofit organization to do exactly this—bring together veterans with similar backgrounds and similar interests— to help create a community to get outside with each other—but more importantly, to create friendships to help support each other in times of need. John and I quickly became volunteer leaders for the organization, helping Nick and VetEx set ropes, cook meals, and plan logistics to make these trips happen.
As I was checking my email one day in January of 2015, I had an email from Army Ranger Medic, Brendan Drapeau, who was interested in attending the Ouray ice climbing trip in a few weeks’ time. Around the same time, by chance, former Special Forces officer Josh Oakley also expressed interest in attending the same Ouray ice climbing trip—with a friendly nudge from his wife, Jayme. The two of them quickly joined the Veterans Expeditions leadership team alongside John and me.
During that February weekend in Ouray in 2016, Josh and Brendan joined the Liberty Ridge conversation and seemed interested in the climb as well. Realistically, the four of us made a great team; we were all friends, climbing partners—and each brought important skills, abilities, and characteristics to the table.
Over the next month the only progress we made on planning this climb was determining there was a small window in which all four of us could make the climb happen. Between school, family, and work our window was less than a week. A week later in early April, on a small VetEx trip to backcountry ski/split board the Cristo Couloir on Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Josh and I had another conversation about the Liberty Ridge. During that conversation we determined we were going to actually purchase our plane tickets to Seattle, which began our first real steps toward making the climb materialize. The group became committed.
By the end of May the group was poised to make the climb happen. The only thing that stood in our way was school finals or graduating from college. After a whirlwind of family, study, and work—each member left the world behind, hoping to find some peace outdoors. Upon the arrival of the whole team in Seattle, we finished gear and grocery shopping for the climb and headed to the White River Ranger station to get our climbing permits. While checking in, the rangers told us that multiple groups had been forced to turn around while climbing and a Polish team was the only team ahead of us. No one so far this year had been above Thumb Rock— the beginning of the technical part of the route. This was a foreshadowing of the seriousness the climb demanded—and the solitude one feels while on such a route.
Early in the morning on Sunday May 29th we drove from Enumclaw, Washington to the White River Trailhead and began the approach over St. Elmo’s pass, onto the Winthrop Glacier, and around to Curtis Ridge Camp.
(Making our way up St. Elmo’s Pass. Photo: Brendan Drapeau)
We had agreed that crossing the Winthrop and Carbon Glaciers we would tie our two 30-meter ropes together in case someone did fall into a crevasse, we would have three people to help arrest the fall, whereas above Thumb Rock we determined a two-man split rope team— Josh/ Brendan and John/myself—would allow the teams to move swiftly and safely on the most dangerous portions of the climb. After spending a peaceful night at Curtis Ridge Camp we made our way onto the Carbon Glacier. From Curtis Camp onto the Carbon Glacier we began weaving in and around several crevasses, jumping over several, and crossing several snow bridges. At one point, half way through the Carbon Glacier, we stopped for a few minutes to talk, eat, and hydrate.
(Entrance onto the Carbon Glacier, Liberty Ridge in the upper left hand of photo. Photo: Brendan Drapeau)
While looking up the glacier, no more than a few hundred feet above us a serac, a piece of ice the size of a one-story building, broke from its perch and made its way downhill towards us. The mere sight of the failing ice sent chills up our spines as we prepared to scramble out of the way of what we thought would be the path of the accompanying snow and ice—but lucky for us, the serac was contained by several adjacent crevasses. We all jumped but remained in place hoping that nothing additional broke and fell directly above us. Once the glacier stopped shaking, creaking, and moaning we were able take a sigh of relief knowing we were safe. This was our first reminder of the gravity of the situation and how we needed to remain vigilant at all times. After a brief moment to collect our thoughts, our four man team continued to move up the glacier.
(The team crossing the Carbon Glacier on day 2. Photo: Nathan Perrault)
We eventually made it to a narrow snow bridge that brought us to a 40-degree snow slope, rising 1,000 feet to Thumb Rock camp, the true beginning of the Liberty Ridge. By the time we began the steep snow climb, it was late afternoon, causing warming in the snow and the crumbly volcanic rock above us began to rocket softball sized rocks directly towards us. One rock hit me in the thigh by surprise; I kept calm, and continued up towards Thumb Rock. The team continued to climb and dodge rocks along the way. When we arrived at Thumb Rock we quickly dug out platforms in the snow for our tents, melted snow for water and got to bed as early as we could knowing that tomorrow was going to be a big day—the true test would begin soon.
By 4:15 AM on day three, we were roped up and moving up and left, out towards the very intimidating Willis Wall. The climbing was not out of our ability, but the exposure of a potential several thousand foot fall to the Carbon Glacier was a constant reminder of what one false move would undoubtedly mean. Still, we suppressed the thoughts and pushed through the steep snow climbing. We eventually worked our way around to a slight ledge around 11,500 feet in elevation and began to swap leads to help preserve our energy.
(Josh Oakley taking lead over a crevasse. Photo: Nathan Perrault)
Around 12,300 feet, above the Black Pyramid, we came to a 50-degree ice sheet where I took the lead, placed a few ice screws, and then John and I began to simul-climb (a technique where all climbers move at the same time while tied into the same rope. Josh and Brendan followed suit and we gathered together in the first actually flat area all day to take a decent break.
(The rest of the crew relaxing under a serac as I catch up to them. Photo: Nathan Perrault)
Once we got to around 13,200 feet we began to navigate several route options. At one point we went up a manageable ice pitch and some snow and it turned out to be a dead end because of a very large crevasse.
(Josh Oakley leading up a heart breaking dead end on Mt. Rainier’s Liberty Ridge. Photo: Brendan Drapeau)
We talked about jumping it, but Josh’s reason and my worry the anchor wouldn’t hold won out over John and Brendan’s vote to jump the 6-foot crevasse. We were disheartened knowing we were so close to reaching the bergschrund of the Liberty Cap. So we down climbed and had to traverse an ice pitch to then go around an exposed corner, another snow and ice pitch and then built an anchor for us to get comfortable to navigate the 40-foot vertical bergschrund pitch.
(John Krueger taking lead on the crux of the route, getting over the bergschrund, climbing vertical ice at around 13,700 feet. Photo: Brendan Drapeau)
John made the first attempt at the pitch, but because of some difficultly in route finding, he had to down climb. During the down climb John took a fall while trying to make his way around a small ice serac. After regaining his composure he continued the climb up to the top of the bergschrund. Over the radio, John indicated there wasn’t really a way to make an anchor, the snow was rotten and the ice was thin so building an anchor was going to be difficult. Eventually he found a decent spot to build an anchor and Brendan went up second and backed up the anchor with screws that he had cleaned. Between losing a radio—backpacks getting stuck on the ice on the way up—and the plummeting temperatures, we were ready for the difficult part of the climb to be over.
(Nathan Perrault USMC veteran and the author of this blog belaying John Krueger just below the crux. Photo: Brendan Drapeau)
From the time Johnny started leading the ice pitch until the time Josh was up at the anchor, two hours passed and we had to switch back to using our headlamps to continue climbing up. Unbeknownst to us, our GPS tracking device had been malfunctioning for the last several hours, sending incorrect tracks to our loved ones back in Colorado, further complicating our journey, and unfairly burdening those following us.
Once we were all at the anchor, we then tied back into the appropriate teams, drained but over the crux. Four hundred vertical feet above us, the summit of the Liberty Cap awaited our arrival. We began the slog up the hard packed snow, arriving 45 minutes later at 11pm, to a flat spot we would call home for the night. Exhausted we quickly melted snow,ate dinner, and we all crawled into our tents with barely enough energy to blow up our Therm-a-rest sleeping pads. The following morning we slept in until 6 am and casually made breakfast as the wind started to pick up on the saddle between the Liberty Cap and the Columbia Crest of the summit of Mt. Rainier. We slowly broke down camp, packed our bags and headed over to tag the true summit of Mt. Rainier. After the summit we made quick work of getting down to the Inner Glacier below Camp Sherman. Here we ran into another climbing team consisting of another Veterans Expeditions leader, Daniel Pond. We exchanged a cheerful greeting and hiked together out to the White River Trailhead where we promptly enjoyed some cold drinks and trading our mountaineering boots for sandals.
It was a trip of adventure and self-awareness, pushing us all physically and mentally. People often ask about the purpose of such a trip, which involves a palpable level of risk. After leaving the military a void often needs to be filled. This void isn’t one that is always in need of danger and adrenaline. On the contrary, it is more about finding long-lasting and meaningful relationships—something lost after leaving the military. And the very reason why each one of the team members continues to see the true healing power of the outdoors and of Veterans Expeditions.
This is the first of two trips to Rainier this summer plus a whole compliment of Pacific Northwest volcanoes to include Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta. Thanks Therm-a-rest for the sleeping bags and pads that helped us rest better on our summer mountaineering series of climbs. More on these other climbs soon.
John, Nathan, and Brendan all serve as Team Leaders for Veterans Expeditions located in the Front Range of Colorado while Josh serves on the Veterans Expeditions Board of Directors.
(On top of the Columbia Crest. Left to right: John Krueger, Brendan Drapeau, Nathan Perrault, Josh Oakley. Photo: Random stranger on the summit via Brendan’s iPhone)