Trip Report"The greatest skill I ever had, though, was the one I started with: being able to suffer for long periods of time and not die. In exchange, I got to see some amazing things."
― Bree Loewen, Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier
"I'm never going to climb again!" shouted one of our students after we reached the relative safety of the Muir snowfield. It was the BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class graduation climb. We were heading back from Little Tahoma after severe weather forced us to turn around dozens of feet from the summit. The Little T grad climb was a learning experience, but not in the way we intended. It ended up being about how to survive in terrible weather. It was some of the worst conditions I have experienced in sixteen years of climbing. Little T took so much out of us that one of our instructors was so tired they fell asleep driving home, ran off the road, and crashed their car into a tree.
According to the Urban Dictionary Type 2 Fun is defined as: An activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it—a pretty accurate description of our Little T climb. Over the course of the weekend the trip transmogrified from heaven to hell as the weather steadily deteriorated. It was truly a graduation climb as we were all tested by the mountain.
The BCC grad climbs are intended to be the culmination of the previous twelve weeks of class, tying together all the lessons learned. Over the three months of instruction a group of strangers, most of whom had no previous mountaineering experience, are transformed into a climbing team capable of scaling mountains that require glacier travel and protected rock scrambling. The three other summits selected for 2012's graduation climbs were: Eldorado Peak, Mount Shuksan, and Mount Baker. The eight BCC teams (we were Team 3) attempt the graduation climbs on alternate weekends.
Little Tahoma (Little T as it is popularly known) is overshadowed by its proximity to Mount Rainier, but is in fact the third highest peak in Washington State (after Rainier and Mount Adams). If you are in Seattle looking south at Rainier it is the jagged peak on the eastern flank of the mountain. I have climbed Rainier twice, but have never attempted Little T. It has long been on my climbing "To-Do" list so I was stoked when it was announced that Little T would our team's grad climb.
The weekend started Friday night when I carpooled with members of my BCC team down to Mount Rainier. The team wanted to get an early start Saturday morning so we rented a cabin outside of Ashford near the park's Nisqually entrance. On the drive down we had a good view of Rainier and Little T. Both were wreathed in wispy lenticular clouds. The clouds were pretty, all peach and pink in the sunset like a Maxfield Parrish painting. However for those of us planning on climbing the next day the sight was ominous rather than beautiful.
We did not have a lot of time to enjoy the cabin as we had to manufacture climbing wands and then go to sleep. Wands are made from bamboo garden stakes with brightly colored duct or surveyors tape fastened to one end. During our Little T trip planning we estimated that we would need seventy-five wands, the number that would allow us to mark our trail from the beginning of the Cowlitz glacier to the base of Little T. Wands are placed in the snow to mark your trail and are spaced a ropes-length apart. The climber in the front of the rope team places a wand and when the person at the back of the team reaches the wand they shout "Wand!" to let the person in front know to place another one. With six people working assembly line style we quickly assembled seventy-five wands. We would end up being thankful for our wand trail during our retreat from the summit of Little T in near whiteout conditions on Sunday.
The next morning we left the cabin at 5:45am and headed up to Rainier where we met the remainder of our team. Since we were down three students (one dropped the class from an injury and two dropped from fear of heights) and Senior instructor François was helping with the Intermediate Climbing Class we had room on our team and were joined by Senior Instructor John and BCC Head Instructor Tim. One team member drove up from Seattle in the morning and we were meeting Tim on the mountain (he spent the night camping below Anvil Rock). We started the climb from Paradise because the White River road to the more popular Summerland Trail / Frying Pan glacier approach was closed. When I signed the team in at the Paradise Climbing Information Center the climbing rangers on duty said conditions looked OK for Sunday; they predicted we would get the summit, but we might not get a view. The forecast was thirty percent chance of rain and the weather was not supposed to arrive until Sunday evening. Not ideal, but good enough for a successful climb.
Saturday morning greeted us with blue skies and sunshine. Everyone was in high spirits for the approach hike. It was an exceptionally clear day and in addition to stunning views of the nearby Tatoosh range and the more distant Mount Adams and the Crater of St Helens we could even see Mount Hood down in Oregon. The hike up Muir snowfield was uneventful. The only incident was when Head Instructor Tim accidentally discovered that most of his energy snacks were between two to five years past their expiration dates. While downing an energy gel a hilarious (to us, not to him) procession of expressions played across Tim's face as it dawned on him what he was eating. Confusion, disgust, and finally horror were Tim's reactions to the gel shot, which he discovered was four years past its expiration date, and had turned rancid.
At a rocky ridge known as Little Africa around 8600 feet we left the snowfield for the glacier crossing. We strapped on the steel spikes known as crampons to our boots, donned harnesses, and tied ourselves into rope teams of three to four each. This was all necessary to safely travel across the glaciers. The traverse hike across the Cowlitz and Ingraham glaciers took us across a landscape of snow and ice populated with huge wave walls of blue ice and gaping eddy crevasses that plunged down hundreds of feet. All the features were the responses of the river of ice that a glacier is to the terrain it passed over like a raging frozen whitewater river that flows at a pace measured in centuries. Ahead of us, always, was our final destination, the snow free jagged rock summit of Little T. The hours passed quickly, we were still having Type 1 Fun (which is fun that's fun at the time you are experiencing it). Type 3 fun is a supposedly fun activity that is not fun at the time or even afterwards when you look back.
Our first real challenge was crossing over to the Whitman glacier from the Ingraham. The snow was just low enough that we had a short rock scramble up a chute to get up to the Whitman. The two obvious routes were covered with heaps of loose rocks, like someone deposited a dump truck full of flat, pancake-like rocks all over the tops of the routes. I had never seen anything quite like it before. One of the guest lecturers at the Wednesday night BCC classes was climber and geology instructor at North Seattle Community College John Figge who when describing the rock on Cascade volcanoes in general and Little T in particular used phrases like "It's nothing to write home about," "It's pretty crummy," and "It's nothing you want to hang your life off of." The climbing rangers at Paradise described it as a "slag heap". Senior Instructor John (not the geologist) managed to scrambled up a badly eroded chute and set a fixed line for the rest of the team to ascend up. When John and then every team member climbed the chute there were many cries of "Rock!" It was just impossible on Little T not to knock down loose rock. When climbing if you knock loose a rock, chunk of ice, or whatever you shout "Rock" loudly and repeatedly to warn whoever is below. On Little T I shouted "Rock" more than I had for the entire class combined and even more than I have over the last few years of climbing.
On the ridge just next to the Whitman glacier we made our camp. We setup our tents quickly, ate dinner early, and everyone went to bed around 7pm. I was the last one up, enjoying the scenery while sipping peppermint tea in the dramatic mountain fastness. Towards evening clouds rolled in and obscured our view of Rainier and Little T. It was a windy night and the tent was pelted with snow all evening, but I was warm. We had several of the club's sturdy four-season four-person tents and I had thrown a one-liter Nalgene bottle full of hot water in my sleeping bag. When my alarm chimed at 1am the weather had improved. The sky had cleared and the dark moon-less night was filled with stars. When we started hiking at 2:30am the Big Dipper constellation was directly ahead of us, slowly setting over Little Tahoma. So like seafaring mariners we were able to navigate by the stars. Unfortunately the crystal clear night was not destined to last. Even before sunrise I could see darkness smothering the stars behind us—it was weather moving in. By sunrise the skies were cloudy, dawn breaking in vivid reds and oranges. I was reminded of the old sailors' adage, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailor's warning."
Near the summit we had one more rock scramble. Not that tough, but the rocks were covered in ice. Lead Instructor Morten wanted to set up a fixed line for the rest of the team, but we struggled to find a place to set an anchor. We would also use this on the way out to rappel off of (it was too icy to safely down-climb). I ended up setting two pickets in the snow because the rock was crumbly crap; there were no good horns to throw loops of webbing over or good cracks to set pro into. We were now only a few hundred feet below the summit, but the weather had turned foul. It was snowing, the wind was blowing hard, and visibility had dropped to a hundred feet. We probably should have turned around then, but I know I had summit fever and was all for pushing on. Only five of us made it and not even the true summit, we were fifty feet below. The final approach to the summit was across very exposed icy rock with drop-offs of hundreds of feet to either side. Tim and Morten concluded it would have taken too long to set a fixed line to the summit and with the weather we needed to get off Little T quickly.
We had a long miserable hike out. We were in a mountain storm, it was snowing and we were constantly lashed by gale-force gusts. I did not have the best gear for the conditions. I had sent my good Gore-Tex shell jacket in for a warranty repair, but there had been a snafu and it was delayed so I was wearing my light summer climbing shell jacket. I was also testing out a new pair of soft-shell pants, which are nowhere near as waterproof as my Gore-Tex shell pants. By the time we returned to Paradise water was sloshing around in both my boots. The boots were new, I had bought them for the class, and they had kept my feet dry on every previous outing. However, my soft shell pants were soaked and the water ran into my socks, which ended up filling my boots with water.
By this point the climb had passed firmly into Type 2 Fun territory. I felt wretched and I was ready for it to be over, but we were still hours away from Paradise and the cars. For all of that I was not worried. That was the benefit of experience. I knew from years of climbing that we were still OK, no alarms were going off in my head. I had confidence that our team would make it back safely. It was interesting being able to return to the BCC and see the class with a different perspective. As a student it was so much new information that I had no context for. It was bewildering and my memories of class climbs were selective and lacked many details that I saw clearly this time around. In a conversation with one the students who dropped the class out of fear of heights, she concluded that she had no context by which to evaluate the degree of danger she was experiencing so her fear went to the maximum.
When I thought about writing the trip report for Little T before the climb I wanted to use one of my favorite John Muir quotes: "Who wouldn't be a mountaineer! Up here all the world's prizes seem nothing." Climbing can be like that. BCC Team 5 climbed Little T the weekend before us and had amazing weather. At the Wednesday night class before our Little T attempt we grilled Team 5 for details of their climb. They all still glowed with suntans and the euphoria of a great summit day…it had been like the Muir quote for them. Their only complaint was "Too much sunshine!"—I shed crocodile tears of sympathy for them. During our miserable retreat from Little T my heart shriveled up Grinch-like into a little ball as small and sour as a crab apple and I jealously cursed those lucky bastards in Team 5.
The winds picked up dramatically. The gusts were so strong they would knock you off balance. I often had to turn my back to the wind because it was driving the falling snow and spindrift so hard it would hurt where it hit the exposed skin on my face. Halfway back across the Cowlitz glacier we were surprised to see a lone figure wandering in circles around the glacier. As the visibility waxed and waned he would appear and disappear in the clouds. We were able to speak to him. He said he was camping up at Camp Muir with his girlfriend, but their tent along with all their equipment in it had blown away. That is why he was down on the Cowlitz; he was searching for his tent. As one person with no backpack or even an ice axe it was suicidally dangerous for him to be wandering around alone on the glacier and we told him so. He said he would return to Muir (fifteen hundred feet of elevation above us and at least two hours of hiking), which we thought was a terrible idea, but he was insistent. As he disappeared into the clouds heading back towards Muir we all wondered if we were going to be the last people to see him alive.
We made it back to the Muir snowfield without serious incident. There were a few close calls where a couple of our team members punched through up to their waists above snow covered crevasses, but thankfully no one fell in. The weather was so unpleasant that no one wanted to stop for very long whenever we took a break. I was not eating enough, I could only wolf down a handful of trail mix or a couple bites of trail bar during our very brief stops. By the time we reached the Muir snowfield I could tell I was getting drained. When people spoke to me they sounded distant. Even my own voice sounded remote. If we were not already on the Muir snowfield I would have found this alarming, but I knew we were in the home stretch. By the time we reached the parking lot I was shivering. Even in the car in a change of dry clothes