Trip Report: Success on Rainier via the Fuhrer Finger
Published: February 10, 2023
This climb took place from February 11-12, 2022
I’m writing this near the one year anniversary of the climb. The details are hopefully mostly accurate.
Background and Planning
Last year I joined Anson, Nick, Andreea, Ben, and Yev for a trip on Rainier to ski “the finger”. We’d all had our eye on the line for a long time, and amidst a period of desperation for snow Andreea threw out the plan and asked who would join.
The Fuhrer Finger is an interesting line for mountaineers, but particularly so for ski-mountaineers. It is one of the most direct lines on the mountain, gaining a bit over 9000 feet of elevation in only about 5 miles. It is one of the 50 classic ski descents of North America.
The name is a bit eyebrow raising - but it’s named after the first ascensionist, Hans Fuhrer, who climbed it in 1920.
The line is normally approached in spring through early summer, as the snow pack is still deep enough to support a ski descent but the days are longer, avalanche conditions are favorable, and the weather is generally better.
Rainier in winter is a more involved undertaking than in the summer - largely due to no established guide routes, shorter days, and worse weather and avalanche conditions. However, we were experiencing a weeks-long high pressure ridge over the PNW and it was resulting in weather that was much more spring-like than typical. Winter provides several advantages as well, most notably that glacier travel is dramatically simpler when the glaciers are well covered and a party can take direct lines up them instead of end-running a maze of crevasses.
With good conditions, and stoke all around, we made the decision to go. With an overall group of six, we decided to climb as two mostly-independent teams (Anson/Nick/Me + Andreea/Yev/Ben).
We drove up from Seattle Friday the 12th. We arrived at Paradise and sorted out our gear, permits (you self-register in the winter). Luckily, Yev had a spare set of poles in his roofbox as one had been forgotten in the carpooling chaos.
On the road up to Paradise Anson, Nick and I pulled over to scout the line from the road. Binoculars were very helpful here - as most of the upper portion of the route was visible and we were confident we’d be able to ascend the upper Nisqually glacier instead of ascending the rock cleaver next to it.
An interesting aside is that this climb wouldn’t have been possible this winter. Mount Rainier National Park has closed weekday access to Paradise to the public and severely curtailed any overnight outings in winter departing from Paradise as a result. Hopefully this changes in future winters, it has been a deep blow to the winter recreation community in the PNW.
We left Paradise on Friday around 11AM establishing a camp at about 9200’ below castle rock. It was a bit breezy low on the mountain Friday but by the evening had totally cleared up.
The lower portion of this route is relatively straightforward, crossing low on the Wilson glacier to get to camp. From there you strike up through the finger (a relatively forgiving couloir) and onto the upper mountain.
We dug in a quick camp, and started scheming for the next day. After an early dinner and amazing sunset, we turned in at about 6PM with alarms set for 2AM. This was my first alpine use of a bivy, and I really enjoyed it for this trip. I left it open to the stars most of the night, and the weight is impossible to beat.
Saturday we woke up at 2, strapped on crampons and A-framed skis, and started up the finger. Inside of the choke of the finger, we found hard blue ice over top of the snow - a consequence of a south facing line that had refrozen after some melting the days prior. This was the most mentally taxing portion for me, having brought 10 point aluminum crampons instead of burlier steel crampons. I certainly would have preferred the security, but dug in and pushed upwards. Above the choke things stay steep for a while, and it always feels steeper in the dark. This was pretty easy climbing as the snow was softer above the choke.
We were greeted by a truly unbelievable sunrise around the time we topped out of the finger. From here the angle mellows a bit and parties are forced either up some looser rock (the Wapowety cleaver) or out onto the Nisqually glacier. The Nisqually is generally considered the more classic line, but is often not in great condition to climb.
This picture is of Nick, Anson and I preparing to rope up for the glacier. Adams and Hood are visible in the background. Rare views for February. Thanks for taking it, Yev!
An attention-grabbing transition around a bergschrund brought us onto the Nisqually glacier. We were impressed, and surprised, to find the boot pack of a party that appeared to have climbed straight up the lower Nisqually icefall. I’ve watched massive avalanches come crashing down that icefall during warm afternoons in the spring, it’s a deadly serious undertaking to climb. We found the upper Nisqually in great shape, with no major crevasse problems to negotiate beyond some simple end runs and step overs.
As we crossed onto the glacier Anson, myself and Nick upped the pace a bit hoping to have enough time to summit and ski down while things were soft. At this point we were firmly onto the upper dome of Rainier. It’s a deceptively long part of the day - it doesn’t look as far as it is, and the gentle rolling nature of it means the horizon line is always lulling you into believing the summit is just a bit further. The upper mountain went smoothly, just slowly as we were all gassed coming from sea level and climbing in ski boots with skis A-framed on our backpacks. We considered skinning at points, but decided against it as we knew it was icy enough that we’d have to do it all in ski crampons. Anson was also breaking in a new pack, and it wasn’t going great but he pushed onward.
The three of us summited at about 1:30 and couldn’t believe it wasn’t July. with still air and near-freezing temperatures. All of us were in light layers, and spirits were high. We saw a party of three skiers who had ascended Gib ledges, casually lounging out on top of their skis taking in the view. It was also Nick’s birthday, and first Rainier summit - what a way to crack in a new lap around the sun.
The descent started icy, with our first turns from the summit crater mostly being survival side slipping and cursing. It turned into chalky more skiable snow on the glacier. We followed Ben/Yev/Andreea’s ski tracks once we got back to where they’d turned, essentially following our ascent route down the glaciers. Glacier skiing spooks me a bit due to the exposure, and lack of a rope, but crevasse crossing on skis went smoothly and easily. We caught up to the three of them at the top of the finger as they were coming up on a party of two who had just ice climbed the Kautz headwall and were preparing to boot down the finger behind us.
One of the main hazards on this line is that the overhead exposure through the entire couloir is pretty significant - there’s a rock/ice cliff band directly above it that likes to shed debris when it’s warm. On the climb this wasn’t an issue - things froze quite solidly overnight. On skis we were out of the line of fire quite quickly. However, our new friends coming down on foot didn’t get as lucky. We connected online later and they shared that they’d had a lot of natural rock/ice come down later on and one of them had been hit and injured moderately from it.
Avalanches were not a concern with the state of the snowpack, so we opted to party ski down into the couloir. These turns were fantastic with soft corn snow in the late afternoon. The choke got a little skied out, but myself and Ben went around the side of it and had some great wide open turns above our camp. A few tiny crevasse jumps later and we were back at our camp.
We rushed pretty hard at this point to get camp packed up and down further, as we were worried about the Paradise gate closing and being out after dark. By the time got back to cars it was about 6, but luckily the downhill gate from paradise was still open and the rangers waved us through.
This was a fantastic route and trip!