Willis Wall Analysis

Then along came a (much bigger) Spider..

So I recently returned to my volcanic climbing roots with another ascent of the Black Spider (2010, Center Drip) and a new variation on Mt Adams (2011, Ice Extension). Slag heaps they are, but they can offer  good long seasonal ice due to their altitude.

Looking to take the next step, I have started looking at a much more tempestuous project.  When I say project, I am talking about a long time frame to possibly align the many issues with a massive and dangerous climb. I dont think the climbs themselves are very difficult, it is the rock and icefall I am most concerned with. Which leads me to think the face has a short conditions window to mitigate that and the many other barriers to getting to the top of the Willis Wall. We saw a monster bergsrund at the base. It is the largest on I have ever seen in the lower states. Here is a close up of it:

We did not get close enough to find a way through it, but it looked very daunting. In the line of the fire, and it would not be a place to wander around in the dark. The dead of winter or early spring would tame it out, but then one would be concerned about snow avalanches then.

Of course it would need to be cold as well as stable weather in store. When we were there last week it did not get below 45 degrees at night (7500′). Game over for now.

There are people that think it would go in late fall. I see this as a bony, black ice sketchathon. It would need to be a heavy snow pack in the prior winter to help with that. Though in the 80s I had success with the Eliot Glacier  Headwall on mt Hood one October day, climate change has left more scree and ancient hard ice these days in the fall.

Each of the 3 ribs have their particular issues too. I think the center is the most dangerous due to the amount of rock I saw at the base. All save the left rib has very high serac fall danger too. Here is Jens’ short trip report from the most recent rip I know of. He found an interesting way around the shrund. Lorens Trip Report

1989 ascent.

Which brings me to the final issue, is it all worth it as a route to spend so much energy on?  I prefer technical difficulty combined with aesthetics when looking for a route to pursue. Is this what I will find there? I am not sure, but I will have to have another look at it for sure, Be safe, and I would love to hear any input on this subject, Wayne

Update, thanks, there are some good ideas in the comments now.


  1. says

    Wayne, for the easiest and fastest ascent (as well the safest), I would think late Spring, after a prolonged dry spell, in cool weather, would be the best time . Maximum cover would mean you spend no time weaving back and forth around and through rock bands. Falling rock would be minmal. And seracs? I don’t have any information suggesting they are more likely to fall in Spring.

    I was once interested in this. It is certainly a “prize” in NW climbing. Deservedly or no – as you allude to in your queery.

  2. Anastasia_B says

    You can always push your technical limits, but why to push objective danger? Is the game worth it?

    The last weekend on Rainier was on a warmer side and even the upper Ptarmigan ridge (11-13K) was shedding so I would assume the Willis wall was a total wreck if that helps.

      • Ben Heavner says

        I thought steep ice on volcanoes was your style these days! 🙂 I’d want to look from another angle, but it looks like there might be a weakness/ramp exiting on the rock to the left of the snowfield just below that band… But seems like a long shot.

  3. Matt Christensen says

    Wayne, I climbed the East Rib to below the Traverse of the Gods then cut out to the top of Curtis Ridge in on March 19th and 20th 1979. Cold, no rockfall, bad windslab that fractured on me for over 100 yards across the slope but did not take off as I crested Curtis Ridge. I think winter and cold eliminates rock fall but I beleive the serac falls are more a function of pressure cycles in the glaciers. We sat paralyzed for two perfect climbing days on the Carbon below Liberty Ridge watching Serac Falls coming down Liberty Wall. Every two or there hours a couple of box cars would come screeming down filling schrunds and crevases at the base of the wall. The mental impact of that almost kept us off Willis Wall and did keep us from finishing out the Traverse of the Gods. However, in six days at the base of Willis Wall we never wittnessed a single Serac Fall or avalanche come down Willis. An interesting observation was that the sun hit the very crest of the east rib for the first time during winter on March 21st the day after our climb as we packed up for the trip out.

    Another climb Id be interested in seeing some of todays exceptional talent get on is the West Ridge of Little Tahoma. January 31 this winter will be the 31st aniversary of out first ascent. I visited with Eric Simonson at the AAC meeting last year and he said it had never had a second ascent. It is far more technical than Willis Wall and the setting is exceptional with the hulk of Rainier as the backdrop for the entire length of the climb. There should be a few really rotted slings and rusted out pins up there.

    Jim Mathews mentioned that he met you in the Tieton this last summer and was surprised that we had never met as our ages experiences are somewhat similar. Perhaps we will meet up sometime in the near future. All the best with your endevours. Matt Christensen

  4. Tom Boley says

    Hey Wayne….a friend of mine and I did a direct FA finish to the West Rib back in late 70’s. It was during a cold clear stretch of weather in February. We watched the wall for a few days before climbing it with no ice fall activity during that time. The day we climbed there was some ice fall that swept down between the West and Central Ribs. This was a long time ago. I have no idea what conditions are like now, altho it seems we have generally heard about more icefall problems on Rainier in the past 10 yrs.

    The route itself was moderately interesting, but asthetically amazing. A classic intimidating north face! Steep snow faces along the lower rib, with mixed rock/ice in the upper “salt and pepper” section before the ice on the cliff at the top. Previous route info described an exposed traverse over to Liberty Ridge that seemed more dangerous than climbing the ice cliff itself. We had no issues and did 2 pitches of 50-60 degree ice to finish the direct route. No idea how that cliff has changed since then!!

    Enjoy your adventures! Tom Boley, Sun Valley, Idaho

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