Skiing The Fuhrer Finger on Mount Rainier in Washington
Location: The Fuhrer Finger, Mount Rainier, Washington
Starting Point: Lower Paradise Parking Lot (5380′)
Distance: 14.6 miles
Time: 1-2 Days
Summit Elevation: 14,416′ | 4392 m
Guidebook: Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Washington – Martin Volken
USGS Maps: Mount Rainier East, Mount Rainier West
After a weather day spent experiencing city life in Seattle, it was time to get back into the mountains. This time our plan was to ski the Fuhrer Finger on Mount Rainier – a classic ski descent of over 10000′ from the summit of Mount Rainier (14416′).
According to AlpenGlow.org the first ski descent of the Fuhrer’s Finger is credited to Dan Davis, Tom Janisch and Jeff Haley, on May 3, 1980. It was listed as one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. With massive relief, complex and glaciated terrain, and a stunning couloir it’s easy to see why skiing the Fuhrer Finger is one to add to the bucket list.
Jeremy Wood and I met our friend and RMI guide Chris Ebeling in Ashford and carpooled into Mount Rainier National Park to the Paradise area. On the way up, we scouted the snow line at Nisqually Bridge (3800′) to see if we could ski all the way there. It wasn’t possible, so we continued on up to Paradise.
First things first: we dealt with permits. To camp, climb, and ski Mount Rainier we needed:
- National Park Pass or Interagency Pass – Provides access to National Park and ability to park the car
- Climbing Permit – Required if going above 10000′.
- Wilderness Camping Permit – Required for all backcountry overnight stays Limited number available. Can book in advance or when you arrive
In late April, the permits were obtained via self registration at the Paradise Climbers Information Center. It cost $46 per person for a climbing permit that is good for the year. We then parked the car in the lower parking lot at 5380′ and geared up for an overnight ski mountaineering mission in complex glaciated terrain on Mount Rainier.
My Mammut Trion Pro pack was stuffed to the brim with overnight gear, food, glacier kit, rope, warm clothes, and group gear. It was heavy compared to my normal pack for single day missions. The Fuhrer Finger can be skied in one massive day, but we figured it would be better to split it in to two days.
After double checking that we had everything we needed we walked back to the Paradise visitor center and toured from the parking lot. It was busy as we worked out way up toward Glacier Vista (6400′) to the west of Panorama Point. Here we ripped skins and skied down to the lower Nisqually Glacier at 6150′.
We transitioned to uphill mode and worked our way diagonally across the Nisqually and on to the Wilson Glacier. Then we pushed onwards to a mellow and safe ridge (7400′) between the Wilson Glacier and the Van Trump Snowfield. Due to the early morning heat, we were glad to be in a safe spot on a big mountain.
From here it was easy skinning toward our camp at upper Castle (9400′) below the Turtle. It took 4.5 hours, 4270′ up and 295′ down to reach camp. We found a great campsite on the upper gendarme. We dug in and build a highly protected campsite with a impressive snow wall. Our campsite was about 200′ higher than necessary, but it was by far the best site around.
We got busy melting snow, drying skins, and enjoying the excellent views of the Fuhrer Finger, the Fuhrer Thumb, Wilson Headwall, Kautz Glacier, the Nisqually, and other terrain features of Mount Rainier. Towering almost a mile above our head was the summit of Rainier. The scale on this mountain is unreal.
Other skiers and climbers were trickling into camp, as we enjoyed a tasty Mountain House meal before our 6 PM bed time. Our plan was to wake at 3 AM to start our ascent. We hope that we would time it right – frozen snow in the couloir, timely summit, and hit soft snow on the way out.
Unfortunately none of us slept well due to a consistent howling East wind that hammered our tent all night long. It was strong enough to open the debate about whether the climb would even be possible. Despite the unrelenting wind, we decided to go for it anyway.
Fueled by a liter of water and a banana bread bagel, my BD headlamp shined the way as we climbed down to the Wilson Glacier from our campsite. We clicked into our pre-rigged skis with skins and crampons, roped up, and started crossing the highly crevassed Wilson Glacier. At the base of the Fuhrer Finger we transitioned to crampons and started the long walk uphill.
At the top of the couloir (11500′) we had to choose whether to skin out on to the Upper Nisqually Glacier or climb the upper Wapowety Cleaver between the Nisqually and Kautz glaciers. Due to some insider information and an obvious massive crevasse that seemed to stretch across the entire width of the Nisqually we opted for the Cleaver in the morning light.
Accessing the Wapowety Cleaver was challening due to thin snow bridges, steep slopes, and large crevasses. With a bit of luck and good route finding we gained the Cleaver and climbed this perennial snow to about 13500′. Here we exited the Cleaver and regain the upper Nisqually.
All roped up we climbed over one last steep headwall and then went back to skis for the final summit blast. After end running several large crevasses, we finally summited the Columbia Crest (14,416’| 4392 m) seven hours after we left camp. This was the highest I had ever been. Despite the constant wind, we had made it. Now we had the biggest ski line of my life to ski down.
We switched to downhill mode and skied at turtle speed through the highly crevassed upper glaciers on Rainier. Basically we retraced our ascent route back down. We found all sorts of snow conditions – ice, sastrugi, sun cups, corn, frozen salsa, the works. But this is to be expected in a descent of this magnitude.
The entire line was a no fall zone due to large cracks and holes littered around the terrain. There were certainly some steep 45 degree plus turns, but overall the slope was about 40 degrees consistently.
We had to down climb off of the Cleaver, but besides that we had constant skiing. The timing lined up perfectly to get softer snow in the Fuhrer Finger. After a 4750′ descent we reached the bottom of the Fuhrer Finger and hot dogged it across the Wilson Glacier back to camp (9400′).
Breaking down camp, drinking water, eating snacks, and packing backpacks took a little bit of time. When we were ready we followed our ascent route from the other day back down the flanks of Mount Rainier. As we reached the lower Wilson Glacier, the isothermic snow was becoming unsupportable. Combine that with heavy packs and it definitely made for tough skiing.
One last skin up to Glacier Vista and it was all downhill from there. Hot pow, mushy snow, and dodging climbers and pedestrians we were soon back to car.
According to my Suunto Ambit3 Peak, over two days, our climb up Mount Rainier and our ski of the Fuhrer Finger covered 10.1 miles and 11500′ vertical. Car to car we were gone 29 hours.
Skiing the Fuhrer Finger is an awesome line. Glad to have ticked this one off of the list – although I might be back. Wow.
See our route for skiing the Fuhrer Finger On Mount Rainier:
Here are additional photos from skiing the Fuhrer Finger on Mount Rainier:
This trip report for skiing the Fuhrer Finger on Mount Rainier is from April 30 to May 1, 2016.