Flett & Russell Glaciers, MRNP, July 18, 2006
Monika and I both had Tuesday off, and thinking that with this winter's snowfall there should still be ample snow on the northeast flank of Rainier, we decided on a day trip to the Flett and Russell Glaciers.
I pulled up to her house a little before 7:00 AM after a whopping three hours of sleep and we loaded the gear into her Jetta TDI wagon, freshly filled with biodiesel from Dr. Dan's Fuelwerks. We bombed I-5, SR 18, and the 410 into Enumclaw and on to Wilkeson. The gravel road up to Mowich Lake had been freshly graded this year, and the washboard sections were quite a bit smoother than I remembered.
After a bit of hemming and hawing about what gear to take and which pack to use, we decided on no avy gear, a light 30 meter rope, harnesses, pickets and axes. Neither of us had seen much in the way of crevasses on this route in the past, but we hadn't been here this late in the season either.
We arrived at the Mowich Lake trailhead around 9:30 and loaded up, with Monika having to choose between several options in her quiver of skis and packs and eventually going with the lightest and smallest setups. She suggested the Knapsack Pass shortcut as a means of cutting off a couple of miles of approach time and I agreed to check it out, not having been up that way.
The way up from the little ranger station was a steep and sometimes slippery trail, with a couple of passes and a bit of bushwhacking required to get to the Flett Glacier. Once on the "glacier" we were disappointed and surprised to find significantly less snow than at approximately the same time last year - there was snow in the basin below the Observation Rock headwall, but it didn't connect to the snow above, and the valley leading to the Russell Glacier was almost completely melted out.
We put on the ski crampons and took an extremely high line to access the Russell - several of the traverses were down to glacial ice with running water flowing over it, and we would have made better time by just booting up the rock. On the way down, we were able to connect to an adjacent chute and avoid the ugly pumice-impregnated ice.
Once on continuous snow we made good time - following Monika in any sort of uphill mode is kind of like latching onto Lance Armstrong's wheel on a bike ride, just put your head down and follow the skin track!
We decided not to climb to the highest possible point as the top was devoid of snow and the skiing underneath it did not look too inviting - in fact the snow on the penultimate face was full of large, dirty and still hard suncups as well. We hydrated and had a snack, then got ready for the "fun" part.
The skiing on the upper portion of the Russell was pretty questionable, especially with Monika's skinny 150 cm race skis and TLT 4 Race boots - essentially a hop turn and traverse situation, then look for a place without huge holes to make another direction change.
Lower down, the snow surface was smoother and some reasonable turns could be made, though it was pretty low-angle skiing. We were able to avoid the glacial ice sections entirely and made it over to the lower section of the O-Rock headwall with just a short carry. Found the shoes without a problem just as the cloud deck set in. Strangely enough, in contrast to last year, there was ample clean running water from a variety of sources, and the ponds at the bases of the glaciers were clear rather than the color of a double short latté, so we filled up a few Nalgenes for the trip down.
The way out proved to be a long slog, as we chose the regular trail (not as steep) in an attempt to save Monika's knees . . . highpoint of the day was perhaps the dip in Mowich Lake (though Monika's fingers were still numb an hour later) . . . low point was definitely the state trooper clocking the Jetta at 76 mph "on video" in a 60 mph zone on the 167.
Lots of nice hiking, with a little skiing thrown in!