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 and with the heater on I had trouble warming up. I had depleted all the easily available calories in my body and did not have enough left to generate heat. Morten reported loosing a belt size over the weekend.
I was highly motivated to get back to Paradise because nature was calling. One of the rarely discussed and unpleasant features of mountaineering is that the dictum "pack it in, pack it out" also covers bowel movements. At the climbing office we were all issue with "blue bags" along with our climbing permits. These are the double-layered plastic bags secured with twist ties that you are expected to "pack out" your solid waste with. It is distasteful, but necessary. Thousands of people climb Rainier annually so if it was not for the blue bags it would only be a few years before turds and toilet paper would cover the whole mountain. Not one of my favorite climbing activities and considering the weather I did not want to drop my drawers in that bitter wind-chill. Even though I was totally exhausted it was a powerful incentive to speed up and finish the climb. The last fifteen hundred feet of elevation back to Paradise my number one priority was number two.
When we eventually returned to Paradise Tim signed us back in and reported the lone guy we encountered on the Cowlitz. The ranger had good news; the guy and his girlfriend had already been found. A couple of commercial climbing guides had run into the girlfriend wandering around Camp Muir. Gusts at Muir were recorded between fifty and seventy miles per hour and she had been out exposed in those conditions. She was already suffering from hypothermia when they found her. With a couple climbing rangers the guides formed a rescue party and went out to look for the guy. When they found him he was delirious. They took him back to Camp Muir where he and his girlfriend would spend the night in the rangers' cabin because the rangers judged the conditions too severe for the journey back to Paradise. It was very lucky they had been found. Without shelter in that kind of weather it's unlikely that either of them would have survived the night.
After the climb student Jason joked that you could draw a graph of the number of photos taken versus the weather. Sunny Saturday everyone was taking dozens of photos, but every hour the weather got worse the number of photos steadily dropped to zero. At the parking lot there was no post-climb group photo everyone was too weary to think about that. The team always went to dinner after climbs but two instructors and one of the students felt so sick and exhausted that they begged off because just wanted to skip dinner and go home. The instructor that three of us car pooled with was feeling very sick and we offered to drive, but they just wanted to go home. After dinner in Eatonville when we were all getting ready to drive back to Seattle we got a call. The instructor who I carpooled with had fallen asleep behind the wheel just outside of the town of Elbe and totaled their car when they ran off the road and hit a tree. Miraculously they were unharmed and were able to walk away from the accident (way to go Subaru Foresters!). We drove back to Elbe and picked up the instructor at the tiny town's volunteer fire department.
Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. I joked about this on Saturday when the weather was good, but looks like we got some experience on Sunday. I am a fair-weather climber and will never climb in bad weather if I can help it. Both our Lead and Head instructors concluded that Little T was the worst weather either had experienced climbing. Senior Instructor John who has participated in two Denali (Alaska's Mount McKinley) expeditions stated that the weather we encountered on Sunday would be considered a bad weather day even on Denali. Little T was only my second worst climb ever. The first being a when I took a short mountaineering class in college as a student at Western Washington University in the mid-1990s. Our graduation climb was Mount Shuksan and it was a very similar story. The weather was good on Saturday, but turned foul on Sunday. The instructors decided to push on to the summit despite the conditions and after summiting we had a long, brutal hike out. At least on Little T we hiked out in daylight and got back to our cars at 6pm, only an hour later than we planned. On Shuksan in the Nineties we got back so late to Bellingham that the University was just about to call Search and Rescue.
Instructing the Basic Climbing Class was a great twelve weeks and I was glad I did it, but I was ready for a break. The BCC takes over your life and I was ready to do some of the other things I had been putting on hold for months. For the duration of the class my living room was littered with climbing gear. After it dried out I just piled it in a corner. There was no point putting it away, I was just going to use it again the next weekend. The weekend after the class I finally stowed all my climbing gear. I was going to take a month off from climbing and recharge my batteries for summer. For the record, the student who swore she would never climb again quickly recanted and is still planning on climbing Rainier this summer. At the time she thought she was having Type 3 Fun, but it turned out to be Type 2 Fun after all.
BCC Graduation Climb 2002By the time I took the BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class in 2002 I had already climbed a few peaks and thought I knew what I was doing. In the mid-Nineties I took a short mountaineering class. Over the following few years I climbed Mount Shuksan, Mount Adams, Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, Mount Hood, and Mount Rainier. So by 2001 I thought I was an experienced mountaineer, but during a European vacation that year a friend and I attempted Mont Blanc. The weather was bad, we did not summit, and I realized I was way beyond my comfort zone. So, as a direct result of my failed Mont Blanc attempt, I took the BCC in 2002. After the class I was appalled to discover how little about climbing I had actually known. My climbs previous to the BCC had been with experienced climber friends, but if anything had happened to them we would have been in serious trouble. I was amazed how much I learned in the BCC. I consider it one of the best things I have done in the last fifteen years that I have lived in Seattle. BOEALPS is an all-volunteer organization. It is common after the BCC for students to return the following year as volunteer instructors. I always intended to, but it took me ten years to finally get around to it.
BCC 2012 Graduation Night T-shirts & VideoEvery BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class Team is initially assigned a team number and is given a generic logo. It is expected that before graduation night each team will pick a name and design a logo for team t-shirts. I was on Team 3 and our name was The Morteneers (in honor of our team lead Morten
The eight BCC 2012 teams and their names were:
Team 1: Honey Badgers, Team 2: The Udder Rudders, Team 3: The Morteneers, Team 4: Bergsteiger, Team 5: The Post-hole Service, Team 6: Objective Hazards, Team 7: SPAM, and Team 8: Ridge Wreckers
One of the BCC Instructors from The Post-hole Service put together an awesome twenty-minute video about this year’s class: 2012 Boealps BCC slide show
EpilogueIn August I had a chance to return to Little T. This time around was a very different experience. I was climbing under clear skies during the hottest weekend of the summer: Type 1 Fun: Little T, Round Two
ReferencesLoewen, Bree. Pickets and Dead Men. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2009.
Figge, John. An Introduction to the Historical Geology of Washington State and Southern British Columbia. N.p.: www.northwestgeology.com, 2009.
Beckey, Fred. Cascade Alpine Guide : Climbing and High Routes. Vol. 1, Columbia River to Stevens Pass. 3rd ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2000. 4th printing, 2011. Pgs. 124-126.
Smoot, Jeff. Climbing Washington's Mountains : summit hikes, scrambles, and climbs in Washington's Cascade and Olympic Mountain Range. Guilford Conn.: Falcon, 2002. Pgs. 306-310.
Muir, John; Ehrlich, Gretel (introduction). My First Summer in the Sierra. New York: Penguin Books, 1997; Originally published: 1911.
LinksMount Rainier National Park
Kendall Peak with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (1 of 5)
Devils Thumb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (2 of 5)
Sun and Fun with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (3 of 5)
Crevasse Rescue Training and Trail Work with the with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (4 of 5)
Little T Graduation Climb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (5 of 5)