Jim Wickwire Shares Stories of Climbing Mount Rainier's Willis Wall


Massive ice cliffs, deep snow, unpredictable avalanches and steep pitches keep all but the most fearless climbers away from Mount Rainier's famous Willis Wall.

Through awe-inspiring photos and harrowing stories, Jim Wickwire explained his passion for Willis Wall to a sold-out crowd at the Yakima Valley Museum's Speaker Series Wednesday night. The 82-year-old said those daring ambitions came from the early mentors who shaped his approach to climbing — Ellensburg brothers Bill and Gene Prater and the Yakima Valley's Dave Mahre.

"For them it wasn't about getting up the mountain by the easiest way, but by taking routes more difficult and challenging," Wickwire said. "If it was an unclimbed route, all the better."

He would end up seeking those challenges around the globe, including on Denali and K2, where he became the first American to climb the world's second-tallest and perhaps most dangerous peak in 1978. Wickwire also made four attempts on Mount Everest's north side and detailed many of his exploits in a 1998 memoir.

But Wickwire never went in-depth regarding his four climbs on the Willis Wall, one of the first places he demonstrated the skill and audacity required to go beyond the known limits of mountain climbing. When author and Central Washington lecturer W.D. Frank invited Wickwire to share his stories as part of the museum's focus on climbing, the Ephrata native decided it would be a great opportunity to briefly come out of retirement.


A New Challenge

The Willis Wall remained virtually untouched prior to Wickwire's first ascent, although a relatively unknown climber named Charlie Bell claimed to have completed unauthorized solo climbs in 1961 and 1962.

Wickwire said that effort wouldn't be proven definitively in his mind for another 11 years, when he spoke with Bell to compare notes and photos, finding sufficient evidence to support the claims. But it still left plenty of uncharted terrain on the most daunting obstacle of Rainier's north face.

Mahre began scouting the area as early as 1955, and Wickwire recalled learning about it in 1961. Clear avalanche danger below imposing ice cliffs left three "ribs" as the safest route, so named because of how they didn't extend far from the mountain's face.

In 1963, Mahre chose the East rib as the most viable route, inviting Don Anderson, Wickwire and his longtime friend, Fred Dunham, to join in the attempt to reach Liberty Cap. Wickwire and Dunham set out two days early to assess the route, giving them their first in-person look at Willis Wall.

"I must tell you, it is really impressive to be standing under something like this," Wickwire told the rapt audience. "The ice cliffs at the top are just incredible."

He acknowledged photos could only do so much to show the true scale of the climb, which began at 10:30 p.m. from the base camp to reach the base of the wall by dawn. From there the group began a grueling climb on less-than-ideal rock, and they would eventually see the pending arrival of bad weather.

Of course, at that time satellite weather reports didn't exist, and Wickwire said most storms arrived from the other side of the mountain with little warning. They still managed to reach Liberty Cap, but a difficult journey down still loomed.

Despite some challenges with Anderson so exhausted he began lying down in the snow, the group successfully descended down the same Mowich Face route the other three had climbed a week before. Wickwire said their unprecedented climb drew significant acclaim locally and even received some national publicity.


Fight for Survival

More bad weather and precarious shelters nearly spelled disaster for Wickwire on his next two adventures on Willis Wall.

The first came in early February 1970, when he joined Seattle architect Alex Bertulis for the first known winter ascent. This time they chose to climb the West rib and initially scouted it from the air, only to find the perspective on the ground looked considerably different.

They focused on speed to try to avoid rockfalls and avalanches, hoping to find another complete route without needing to go to Liberty Ridge on the right. A small avalanche just in front of Bertulis motivated them to move even faster, and they eventually carved out a small platform on which to spend the night 60 feet below the base of an ice cliff.

After hearing massive avalanches nearby during a sleepless night, they changed course to belay across a tricky traverse with five different pitches and rappel about 75 feet down an ice cliff. A complete whiteout from another storm prevented them from reaching Liberty Cap, but they successfully made their way down Liberty Ridge to safety.

Another good weather report turned unexpectedly bad in May 1971, when Wickwire joined his friend, Ed Boulton, for another ascent of Willis Wall. On the way up Boulton navigated them to a safe spot on the East rib just before a massive avalanche of ice tumbled down the gully where they'd just been climbing, and Wickwire said they narrowly avoided a fall of about 3,500 feet when he nearly slipped while on an unreliable belay.

It turned out the danger would become even worse.

The storm forced them to take refuge for the night in a small cavern before climbing through waist deep snow up to Liberty Cap. Then they built a snow cave that collapsed after they left, leaving much of Boulton's gear — including his glasses — inaccessible.

Wickwire admitted a busy spring left him not in the best climbing shape, and he collapsed when the weather finally cleared enough for them to descend. Boulton returned to support his friend while leading the way down and avoiding deadly crevasses on the Emmons Glacier by watching snowballs he kicked down the mountain.

"I've never been closer to death in the mountains than that night up there," Wickwire said, an astonishing statement from the man who survived one of the most notorious solo bivouacs in climbing history, more than 27,000 feet above sea level on K2.

They spent three days in Schurman Hut waiting out gale-force winds and then a few hours at the White River Campground's ranger station before finally walking out to Highway 410.

They flagged down a snowplow driver who brought them to safety, eight days after their journey began.


Final Ascent

Wickwire's speech drew to a close with a brief description of his last climb up the Willis Wall in 1974, a roundabout route accomplished alongside his friend, Dusan Jagersky.

Photos of renowned climber and author Fred Beckey's maps showed the many routes taken up the wall, which remains too formidable and intimidating for most climbers today.

Wickwire noted no one's ever died on the wall, in no small part because the few brave enough to climb it know to treat it with respect.

He's aware of only six people who have climbed it since 2010, all in one day. But even though some of the Willis Wall's mystique may be gone thanks to Wickwire's exploits, he shared some thoughts after his speech about how the inspiration it provided for him can still apply to future generations.

"You start thinking, 'gee, it's too late to make any kind of mark on this world,'" Wickwire said.

"Everybody's done everything, is how you feel as a kid. It turns out there's always a lot more than you figure."