Rainier – The Unforgiving Mountain (Long version)

Note: This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the magazine. Also, a 25-minute YouTube slideshow/video of the project is available HERE.

Rainier – The Unforgiving Mountain

Gavin Schrock, LS – 2010

"Feriunt summos fulmina montes" –  Lat. Horace – "High winds blow on the high mountains”; the higher the goal the more formidable the challenges.

Land Surveyors Association of Washington ropes teams prepare to cross the treacherous ice fields and crevasses on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, July 23rd 2010. Photo by Mike Lynch

A Beautiful yet Brutal Mountain

Why has the Land Surveyors Association of Washington (LSAW) mounted repeated expeditions to measure and re-measure Mt. Rainier? Along with some very practical reasons— serving geosciences, geodesy, gravimetry, and public safety—this is no ordinary mountain and thus 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”…

While not the highest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Rainier is certainly one of the most brutal and unforgiving to climb, and an omnipresent risk of potential volcanic catastrophe. The internationally recognizable profile of Mount Rainier dominates the landscape of the central Puget Sound region of Washington State. Visible from nearly every vantage point in Seattle and Tacoma, the distinctive “scoop-of-vanilla” year-round snowcapped shape belies the potential dangers. Beautiful but brutal: 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 Mt. Rainier, but among mountaineers this glacial mountain of treacherous crevasses and wildly unpredictable weather is a prized notch on their ice axe. Thousands attempt every year, many succeed, including some children and fit seniors, but the mountain may randomly choose to defeat even experienced mountaineers, sometimes tragically—the mountain claims lives nearly every year. In 1960, the first U.S. team to scale Mt. Everest trained on Mt. Rainier. Many teams since have tested their skills on this major peak conveniently accessible from the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Peoples of the indigenous First Nations of the region have revered the mountain far before written history. The Puyallup called the peak “Talol,” which is widely interpreted as meaning “mother of waters.” Others have used the names “Tahoma” or “Tacoma.” The mountain has been dubbed internationally as “Seattle’s Fuji,” ranking not far behind that famous peak as one of the most recognizable volcanoes in the world. You’ll find Rainier’s image poised behind Seattle’s famous Space Needle all over the world, even on such things as a popular coffee beverage of the same name in Japan. Indeed the substantial local Asian community has revered the mountain for over a century in an almost “Fuji-like” way–but also as a hunting ground for rare Matsutake mushrooms.

A Rendering of Mt. Rainier from the 1792 expedition of Captain George Vancouver. From the archives of the University of Washington

Likely first viewed by outsiders in the form of Russian fir traders and Spanish explorers, Captain George Vancouver is arguably the first European to sight and compute a rough elevation on the mountain in 1792 (and placed the moniker of “Rainier” on it 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 placing two vessels several miles apart and measuring the time between the flash of a cannon it’s report for distance—rough at best

Excerpt from the map produced by the 1792 expedition of Capt. George Vancouver. Library of Congress

Excerpt from the 1883 Territorial Map of Washington and Oregon. Library of Congress

By 1842, utilizing a baseline at a nearby military post, Lt. C. Wilkes came up with 12,330 ft; in 1956 the Coast & Geodetic Survey triangulation set a more precise 14,440 ft—each of these methods 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,” and 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, but that offsets to the ice cap are the “official” height. In 1956 the USGS  set a monument in the crater rim, measuring it’s 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 subsequent GPS campaigns by LSAW in 1988, 1999, and 2010.

In 1956 the USGS set a monument in the crater rim, and established the elevation of 14,410’ by heliograph and simultaneous reciprocal angles.

Why does the height matter?

Apart from the obvious human desire to place ever-more-precise numerical values on such features there is a more 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 Mt. 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 concerns the millions who live in the shadow of Mount Rainier; volcanic activity could release frozen water and mud creating deadly “Lahar” 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 by the survey association to mount another expedition. However, it was a perhaps misguided and misunderstood fear of another kind that ironically first sparked interest in mounting another expedition for 2010…

In the summer of 2009, a climber said he found a survey marker sticking up about 2 ft above the ice on the peak—and 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; those controversies aside, it soon became very clear that this monument was not evidence as such, as a few things did not add up. Firstly the USGS never set a monument in the ice, and, there had been a “missing” monument an earlier expedition long searched for by subsequent surveyors. The likely scenario is t
hat someone stumbled across the missing marker that many suspect had fallen down a ravine, pounded it into the ice—and the photos went viral. No one knows who found the monument or why they placed it on the ice for a photo. It did not take long for the local surveyors and a reporter to effectively 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 the surveyors were planning a new expedition for the summer of 2010.

An airborne view of Mount Rainier looking south, Mt. St. Helens in the distance. The mountain is so massive it forms its own weather system.  Photo by Philip Woodcock, Trimble

Previous LSAW Expeditions

In 1988, with the memory of the Mt. St. Helens blast fresh in the memory of many, LSAW set out to perform the first 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—the LSAW assembled a team of over 150 for the task. This huge team of volunteers ferried gear to staging points up the mountain (the GPS units alone weighed over 55 lbs, with 30 lb batteries), as well as hauled gear for teams that would have to spend multiple nights on the mountain, amateur 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 the 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, and to mark this (and 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.

Rainier 2010 Survey Expedition Logo

Planning, Training, and Coordinating

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 (and several surveyors volunteered to do just that), but LSAW felt that if a new expedition were to be mounted, for safety reasons a full team should be formed and trained. Helicopters were out of the question as they were strictly prohibited on the mountain, except for search and rescue. Additional scientific observations would be added to benefit not only the volcanic hazards research mentioned, but also geodetic resources utilized by surveyors, such as gravity and geoid models…

Similar to surveyors worldwide, those in Washington have been relying increasingly on GNSS, and the use of Geoid difference models. The advent of Real-Time Networks (RTN) 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 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 (mountain tops are difficult, much sought-after gravity data), but also substantial airborne gravity and even elements of satellite gravity data.  But frankly, the national geodetic initiatives are buried into obscurity within federal agencies and departments. With the tenuousness of budgetary cycles and moods, Washington surveyors are well aware that any potential shortfalls might leave their state on the short end of the stick as the northwestern states are invariably on the “end of the list” of such geodetic initiatives (GRAV-D will take 10 years to complete and will have to survive yearly budget consideration). So 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 might serve to heighten awareness of such geodetic issues—and in fact did, as we’ll see later.

Several key folks from the 1988 and 1999 teams were contacted by WSRN and LSAW to form new climbing and geodetic teams. Larry Signani, formerly Corps of Engineers and now with WH Pacific, served as geodesist for the first two expeditions and agreed to as well for 2010. Bob Anderson, who is a surveyor in the scenic San Juan Islands between Washington and Canada as well as an internationally experienced mountaineer, had a leadership role not only in the previous expeditions but on many other Rainier ascents. Bob agreed to train and lead the climb teams. Trimble partnered again by loaning its new Trimble R8 GNSS Systems 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 notable tale from the 1988 climb involving the “Sherpa” teams was when the climb team began its ascent they joked that they needed pizza and beer; Steven mobilized and had both requested items at the high camp waiting for them a few hours later.

Staging gear in the parking lot of the main park lodge at Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park. Lighter equipment and smaller teams were a stark contrast to the 1988 and 1999 surveys. Photo by Philip Woodcock, Trimble

With the climb teams formed (including students from the Survey program at Renton Technical College), training climbs were organized on other peaks such as Mt. Baker, another volcano at 10,778’, and then a run up to Camp Muir on Rainier at 10,188’. The training climbs saw many interested parties realize their own climbing limitations; it was very important to have very capable rope teams, so many graciously stepped back to join the “Sherpa” team. Carol Finn of the USGS was contacted and offered to provide gravity meters and one of her researchers, Sarah Polster, to join the climb team. Survey equipment gathered by Mike Lynch of Seattle Public Utilities included the Trimble R8 GNSS units and Trimble TSC2® Controllers, as well as solar chargers, portable meteorological units, cheat sheets, broadband modems, and cellular boosters—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.

Main climb team departs Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park; July 21st 2010. From left to right: Mike Lynch, Erynn Sullivan, Bob Maconie, Bob Anderson, Chad Ridgeway, Jim Guilland, and Sarah Polster. Photo by Philip Woodcock, Trimble

Tackling the Mountain

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-travelled route for the “Sunset Amphitheatre” 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 saw 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.

Second day –the weather starts to turn. Erynn Sullivan (foreground) and Sarah Polster, USGS (background).  Photo by Mike Lynch

The night of the 22nd saw a major wind storm. Climbers dug out deep depressions in the snow to set the tents in, but it was still a rocky night. The gravity team on the even more exposed northwest side of the mountain took the brunt of the winds; the tent completely blew apart and the three dug a small 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.

Snow berms built in anticipation of the high winds at Camp Muir. Even this could not protect the tent of the team on the northwest face. Photo by Mike Lynch

Sunrise at Camp Muir, looking towards Mt. Adams Photo by Bob Maconie

Wake up call, Camp Muir. Photo by Bob Maconie

The main team left Camp Muir in two rope teams at 10:00 pm on the 23rd for the final push to the summit through the treacherous ice fields.  Arriving at the summit early on the 24th, the team had a whole day to search for the remaining two 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, and Mike Lynch quipped, “these guys are climbing animals!”

Erick Johnson taking gravity readings in the calm before the storm. Photo by Doru Fordean

Gravity team Gil Laas and Erick Johnson (Doru Fordean taking photo) recover from the storm damage on the northwest face.

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. This rare chance to camp on the peak on a spectacular moonlit night was only possible with the special science permit.

Looking south-southeast from the monument at the summit. A chain of volcanoes stretch from British Columbia to Northern California. Mt. Adams in the distance. Photo by Mike Lynch

Only one of the marks could be found, and the one that could be found had been heavily vandalized: it appears that someone had tried to yank it out of the rock. Another had been removed completely. 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 6 months in jail. What possible motivation could someone have for removing and vandalizing monuments in such an inaccessible location?  The team recalled that on the 1988 climb, rebar and hammers staged at the peak on a preliminary climb had also been stolen.

The last remaining monument on the crater rim. Monument materials were stolen from the 1988 team, another monument was lost down a ravine, yet another pulled out of the rocks and stolen, and this last one was vandalized and pried out several inches. Photo by Mike Lynch

The only remaining monument was intact, but with the edges of the cap were bent and pulled up a few inches out of the rock. Mike hammered the edges down and proceeded with the observations. To deal with the wind, the Trimble R8 GNSS was placed on the monument with the antenna reference point directly contacting the top of the monument; then rocks were placed around it, bracing it from the wind.

Receiver directly set on monument with rocks placed to protect from the high winds. Trimble R8 GNSS observed in static and VRS modes. Photo by Mike Lynch

The surveying observations were performed in stark contrast to the previous two expeditions: not only was the GNSS gear lighter, but there are more satellites and an array of 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 only a few epochs of real-time observations logged at the peak; but enough to test the capabilities. Single-base RTK would not work due to a long baseline to the nearest active station; as it turned out the nearest CORS to the peak at Charles Pack Experimental Forest (CPXF) had dropped offline and the next nearest CORS was a full 10,000 ft below the peak. This type of scenario, working at a dramatically different elevation than the CORS`, was exactly what we wanted to test for RTN. As expected, the tropospheric modeling component of the network solution was substantial but manageable—this provides an insight into how to mitigate for such extreme conditions.

Trimble R8 GNSS at Camp Muir. High winds prohibited the use of tripods or bipods on the summit. Photo by Andy Campbell

The support team performed more gravity work on their way down as well. With redundant observations complete, the team on the summit began their descent at 8:00 am on July 25th, arriving at the Paradise parking lot by mid afternoon. Overall a successful expedition—most importantly all returned safe and sound. Yes, there were setbacks, but major goals were achieved. The data was post-processed and compared to the real-time and previous expedition’s results. The results for the lower monuments hit those from 1988 and 1999 within a tenth of a foot.  The results for the remaining monument on the summit were high by about three tenths of a foot—exactly the amount the monument had been pulled out of the ground. 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."

Gravity Meter utilized by the teams. Testing on the steps in front of the shelter at Camp Muir. Photo by Andy Campbell

Chad Ridgeway geared up. The team documented the climb
with a helmet mounted ‘extreme-sports’ style video camera. Photo by Mike Lynch

Good Results, Good Press, and Future Plans

For many in the press, the news of ”no change in elevation” was a hot item, though a few journalists seemed almost disappointed that there was no dramatic change that might be seen as spelling some kind of impending doom. There were about a dozen pieces in newsprint, as well as mentions on local radio and TV; the LSAW emphasized the topics of monument vandalism, the science, and support for geodetic initiatives like GRAV-D. The phone rang off the hook following the news items—it is rare for the survey association to get front-page coverage. The news reached the ears of some influential people: The National Parks Service has since offered to ferry up materials for new monuments on the peak, and even do some more observations on some of their early season helicopter training jaunts (now they tell us). The Cascade Volcano Office (CVO) of the USGS (that runs various static GPS stations on the mountain) is now working out details of how to live stream observations from a station at nearly 11,100 ft to the real-time network (WSRN). Academia is also putting the gravity into a national database for open use, and the WSRN got to work out some high-altitude RTN procedures. Another surprise was that a U.S. senator’s office called asking, “what is this gravity and RTN stuff?” Several briefings for staffers and committee members resulted in the senator bringing up the subjects of geodetic initiatives like GRAV-D in the science and technology and budget committees. While not just a publicity stunt, sometimes a bit of a publicity stunt is needed to grab certain folk’s attention and raise awareness about geodesy and the surveying industry.

Mike Lynch and Chad Ridgeway pose with the climb log. Photo by Bob Maconie

Hearty congratulations and many thanks to an outstanding team, leaders, trainers, support from Trimble, Columbia Sportswear, donations from the association chapters, the press, friends and family. This time, the unforgiving mountain fought back, but ultimately yielded…

“…the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” – John Muir, conservationist, 1889 – Inscription on the steps of the trail entrance at Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park