Rainier—The Unforgiving Mountain

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"Feriunt summos fulmina montes."
(Lightning bolts strike the highest mountains.) Latin, from Horace Odes

Why has the Land Surveyors Association of Washington (LSAW) mounted repeated expedi tions to measure and remeasure Mount Rainier? Along with some very practical reasons–serving geosciences, geodesy, gravimetry, and public safety–this is no ordinary mountain. Thus is an ongoing challenge to all who seek to climb it. The Rainier 2010 surveying expedition is an eventful tale of storms, extreme climbing, vandalized monuments, sheer tenacity, and surveying "on the edge".

The internationally-recognizable profile of Mount Rainier dominates the landscape of the central Puget Sound region of Washington. While not the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Rainier is certainly one of the toughest and unforgiving to climb, and an omnipresent risk of potential volcanic catastrophe. Beautiful but brutal, just ask anyone who has tried to scale the peak, measure it, rescue someone from its crevassed slopes, or study its geophysical hazards.

There are other peaks in the continental U.S. that exceed the 14,411 foot Mount Rainier, but among mountaineers this glacial mountain of treacherous crevasses and wildly unpredictable weather is a prized notch on their ice axes. Thousands attempt every year, many succeed, including some fit children and seniors, but the mountain may randomly choose to defeat even experienced mountaineers, sometimes tragically. it claims lives nearly every year. in 1960, the first U.S. team to scale Mount Everest trained on Mount Rainier. Many teams since have tested their skills on this major peak conveniently accessible from the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Known by indigenous first nations as Talol, Tahoma, or Tacoma, the mountain was likely first viewed by outsiders in the form of Russian fur traders or Spanish explorers. Captain George Vancouver is arguably the first European to sight and compute a rough elevation on the mountain in 1792 (naming it Rainier in honor of another British mariner). explorers of that era mapped coastal regions, including major peaks, using a combination of celestial references and by simply triangulating features from shipboard baselines. Typically they’d place two vessels several miles apart and measure the time between the flash of a cannon and its report for distance. The measurement was rough at best.

By 1842, utilizing a baseline at a nearby military post, Lt. C. Wilkes came up with 12,330 ft. Coast & Geodetic Survey triangulation derived a more precise 14,440 ft in 1856. each of these methods were made all the more difficult by the lack of a distinct promontory visible on the peak. it was not until the first ascents began in 1870 that markers and heliographs could be sighted from lowland references. To complicate matters, the highest point on the mountain is a rounded ice cap, without a well defined "peak" slightly higher than the exposed rock and survey markers on the crater rim hundreds of feet in the distance. it is generally accepted that the truest repeatable measure of the mountain is to the crater rim, with offsets to the ice cap as the "official" height. in 1956 the USGS set a monument in the crater rim, measuring its elevation by heliograph and simultaneous reciprocal angles, then established an elevation of 14,410 ft on the ice cap by hand level; this elevation has stood as the official height until GPS campaigns by the LSAW in 1988, 1999, and 2010.

Why Does the Height Matter?
Apart from the obvious human desire to place ever-more-precise numerical values on such features, there is a pressing need to know if the volcanic activity is changing the shape of the mountain. Locals remember well the blast that took several thousand feet off Mount St. Helens in 1980 in southwestern Washington, leveling forests, choking the state in ash, and devastating river basins with deadly walls of mud. it is the latter hazard that mostly concerns the millions who live in the shadow of Mount Rainier. Volcanic activity could release frozen water and mud creating deadly lahar (pronounced La- har) mudslides. Cities and towns immediately down slope of the mountain have lahar warning systems–sirens, drills, shelters–and very nervous residents. Carol Finn, Senior Research analyst with the USGS in Boulder, CO has been studying the lahar hazards of Rainier, utilizing gravity observations to gauge the volume and types of potential lahar materials. The desire to support this research played a key role in the decision to mount another expedition. However it was a perhaps misguided and misunderstood fear of another sort that ironically first sparked interest in the 2010 climb.

In the summer of 2009, a climber said he found a survey marker sticking up about two feet above the ice on the peak. He said it looked like the ice had melted away that much. a photo even ended up on an environmental group’s website touting evidence of climate change. But several things did not add up. First of all, the USGS never set monuments in the ice, and there had been a "missing" monument from a previous expedition, long searched for by subsequent surveyors. it is likely someone stumbled across the missing marker that many suspect had fallen down a ravine, pounded it into the ice, and photos went viral. it did not take long for the local surveyors and a reporter to debunk the story. This almost comical event did raise the questions: has the mountain shrunk due to melting? Or has the mountain swollen due to volcanic activity? Within a few months surveyors were planning a new expedition.

Back in 1988, with the Mount St. Helens’ blast fresh in the memory of many, the LSAW set out to perform the first official GPS measurement of a major mountain. armed with some of the earliest Trimble 4000 series receivers, Trimble loaned equipment and provided training by Ron Hyatt. LSAW assembled a team of more than 150 volunteers for the task. This huge team ferried gear to staging points up the mountain (the GPS units alone weighed more than 55 pounds, with 30-pound batteries) and hauled gear for teams that would have to spend multiple nights on the mountain. Ham radio operators provided the team communications, and static teams set up on lowland reference marks. High winds on the peak necessitated volunteers to lay prone and hold in place the short tripod (specially built by SECO) during many hours of observations. The team measured not only new permanent marks they set on the crater rim, but numerous marks on the ice cap to determine the highest point. The post-processed results brought the height in at the current official 14,411.1 ft, barely a foot over the 1956 figure.

Washington State celebrated its centennial in 1999. To mark the event (and to keep an eye on the shape of the volcano) the LSAW mounted another expedition, this time requiring only a few dozen volunteers. Trimble again supplied equipment and support, this time the much lighter Trimble 4800 series units. The results came in at only 0.1 ft from the 1988 results, a testament to the surveying skills of the parties involved and the capabilities of the equipment under such harsh conditions.

By 2010 a new set of observations could actually be performed by a single surveyor in a matter of minutes, armed with a lightweight rover and Network RTK (several surveyors volunteered to do just that). But for safety reasons LSAW determined a full team should be formed and trained. Helicopters were out of the question, strictly prohibited except for search and rescue. Other scientific observations would be added to benefit not only the volcanic haz
ards research, but also geodetic resources utilized by surveyors, such as gravity and geoid models.

Surveyors worldwide have been relying increasingly on GNSS and the use of Geoid difference models. The advent of Real-Time networks (RTNs) like the statewide cooperative Washington State Reference network (WSRN) has accelerated this usage. GNSS and Gravity have also become cornerstones of the national Spatial Reference Framework, which has by financial necessity become very CORS centric. a current program of the national Geodetic Survey (NGS) is GRAV-D, which is a new, improved geoid model for the whole country, and there is even a proposed gravity centric datum to supersede naVD88 within a decade. GRAV-D will utilize not only terrestrial gravity observations (and mountain tops are difficult, much sought-after gravity data), but also airborne gravity and even elements of satellite gravity data. But frankly, national geodetic initiatives are terribly underfunded, buried to obscurity within parent agencies and departments. With the tenuousness of budgetary cycles and moods, Washington surveyors are well aware that potential shortfalls might leave their state on the short end of the stick, historically on the "end of the list" on national geodetic initiatives (GRAV-D will take 10 years to complete and will have yearly budget review). it was felt that adding gravity would have not only direct scientific and geodetic value, but also that the media presence of such an undertaking can (and did) serve to heighten awareness of such geodetic issues.

Key folks from the 1988 and 1999 teams helped LSAW form new climbing and geodetic teams. Larry Signani, formerly Corps of engineers, served as geodesist for the first two expeditions and agreed to as well for 2010. Bob Anderson, surveyor and internationally experienced mountaineer agreed to train and lead the climbers. Trimble partnered again by loaning its new R8 GNSS units and sundry equipment, as well as sending Phil Woodcock of their survey division to assist Steven Reding of the local Trimble dealer Geoline inc. in forming Sherpa teams to ferry gear up to the higher camps. Steven and Bob also worked tirelessly in presenting to and lobbying LSAW chapters for donations and climbers.

A Mountain of Supplies
With the climb teams formed (including students from the Survey program at Renton Technical College), training climbs were organized on other peaks such as Mount Baker, another volcano at 10,778 ft, and then a run up to Camp Muir on Rainier at 10,188 ft. This helped determine who would be on summit or support teams. Carol Finn of the USGS was contacted and offered to provide gravity meters; one of her researchers, Sarah Polster joined the climb team. Survey equipment gathered by Mike Lynch of Seattle Public Utilities included the Trimble R8 GNSS’s and Trimble TSC2® Controllers, as well as solar chargers, portable meteorological units, cheat sheets, broadband modems, etc. another goal was to test some high altitude Trimble VRS™ and RTK observations as well as the standard static. a mountain of dehydrated food, fuel, jackets and helmets grew even larger as donations poured in from Columbia Sportswear and others sparked by a timely front-page piece in the Seattle Times that promoted the upcoming climb.

On July 21, 2010, trained, provisioned and supported by the sherpa team, a main team of seven–Bob anderson, Mike Lynch, Sarah Polster, Bob Maconie, Chad Ridgeway, Jim Guilland, and erynn Sullivan–set out from the main park camp at Paradise for the first camp at Pebble Creek. a second team of Gil Laas, Erick Johnson, and Doru Fordean set out on a much less traveled route for the "Sunset amphitheater" region on the northwest side of the mountain to do gravity work desired by the USGS and to eventually meet the main team on the peak. This first leg was marked by a clear and mild day and night for both teams and their observation sessions.

On the 22nd, the Sherpa team of Steven Reding, Phil Woodcock, Robert Horton, Lynee Forsyth, Devin Goddard, andy Campbell, and Matt Dobbs made the run up to Camp Muir to meet the main team with the bulk of the provisions and gear. With night came a major wind storm. Climbers dug out depressions in the snow for the tents. The gravity team on the more exposed northwest side of the mountain took the brunt of the winds; their tent completely blew apart. The three dug a snow cave to ride out the storm, and headed down in the morning forgoing some of the planned observations.

The main team decided to spend the 23rd recovering and performing observations. They left Camp Muir in two rope teams at 10:00 p.m. on the 23rd for the final push to the summit through the treacherous ice fields. Once on the peak, the team had the whole of the 24th to search for monuments and perform observations. Much to the surprise of the main team, Erick and Gil from the other team arrived. They had descended the northwest side, driven around the mountain, and climbed 10 hours straight to the summit. "an amazing feat of climbing skill," said Bob Anderson; Mike Lynch quipped "These guys are climbing animals!" Four members of the main team descended that afternoon, but the remaining five prepared camp for the night to perform redundant observations in the morning.

Only one monument could be found and it had been heavily vandalized: it appears that someone had tried to yank it out of the rock, another had been completely removed. Willful destruction of a monument in Washington State is classified as a misdemeanor that can be punishable by as much as a $5,000 fine or six months in jail. The team also recalled that on the 1988 climb, rebar and hammers staged at the peak on a preliminary climb had been stolen. Mike hammered the edges down on the vandalized monument and proceeded with the observations. To deal with the wind, the Trimble R8-GNSS was placed with the antenna reference point directly contacting the top of the monument; then rocks were placed around to bracing it from the wind.

The surveying observations were in stark contrast to the previous two expeditions; GNSS gear was lighter, and there were more satellites and permanent CORS around the mountain. no need to coordinate with other static teams and no need to wait for adequate constellation; the team could observe at will and for less time. While the mainstay for the height determinations would be the static work, real-time would also be performed. The main limitation to the planned real-time observations was the inadequate cellular service to connect to the WSRN. Cellular boosters tested before the climb underperformed at the peak. While an adequate connection was achieved at Camp Muir and real-time observations logged, the spotty cellular at the peak yielded barely enough real-time observations to test the capabilities. no single-base RTK due to long baselines; as it turned out the nearest CORS to the peak had dropped offline. The next nearest CORS beyond that one was a full 10,000 feet below the peak. This type of scenario, working at a dramatically different elevation than the CORS, was exactly what aspect we wanted to test of the RTN. as expected, the tropospheric modeling component of the network solution was substantial but manageable.

The support team also performed more gravity work on their way down. With redundant observations complete, the team on the summit began their descent at 8:00 a.m. on July 25th, arriving at the Paradise parking lot by mid afternoon. Overall a successful expedition–all returned safe and sound. Data was post-processed and compared to the real-time and previous expedition’s results. Results for lower monuments hit those of previous expeditions within 0.1 ft, but the one remaining monument on the peak was high by 0.3 ft–exactly the amount the monument had been pried up. The press release read: "The new elevation came in at only a few inches different than the previous observations," said Larry
Signani, team geodesist for all three expeditions. "The published value will remain at 14,411 feet."

Some journalists seemed almost disappointed that there was no dramatic change that might spell some kind of impending doom. Still there were about a dozen pieces in newsprint, as well as mentions on local radio and TV; with emphasis on monument vandalism, gravity science, and support for geodetic initiatives like GRAV-D. The phone rang off the hook. it is rare for the survey association to get front page coverage, and the right folks read these pieces: The national Parks Service has since offered to ferry monument materials to the peak, and do more observations via their early season helicopter training jaunts (now they tell us). The Cascade Volcano Office (CVO) of the USGS is now working out details for live streaming observations from a station at nearly 11,100 ft to the RTN (WSRN). academia is adding the gravity to a national database for open use, and the WSRN got to work out high-altitude RTN procedures. Then someone from a U.S. senator’s office called and asked, "What is this gravity and RTN stuff?" Briefings for staffers and committee members resulted in the senator bringing up the subjects of geodetic initiatives in the science and technology and budget committees. While not just a publicity stunt, a bit of PR can certainly raise awareness about geodesy and the surveying industry.

This time, the unforgiving mountain fought back, but ultimately, it yielded.

Gavin Schrock is a surveyor in Washington State where he is the administrator of the regional cooperative real-time network, the Washington State Reference Station Network. He has been in surveying and mapping for more than 30 years and is a regular contributor to this publication.

A 2.661Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE