2021-05-30 Little Tahoma Trip Report
Two fellow climbers and I decided to brave the traditionally (and notoriously) rainy Memorial Day weekend and tackle the Mount Rainier massif. Joining me on the climb were Morgan Weaver and Auggie Perea. Morgan was the least experienced of our team, having graduated from her basic mountaineering class in 2019. Auggie and I have a few years under our belts, and our experience includes teaching basic mountaineering as volunteer instructors. Our team was small, but well-trained and equipped for the challenges we’d set.
Our expedition planned three progressively higher goals. Our primary objective was the summit of Little Tahoma, #3 on the Bulger List at 11,138 feet. Assuming that the weather cooperated and our first summit went well, we then intended to attempt both of Mount Rainier’s “officially” recognized summits, Liberty Cap (14,112 feet) and Columbia Crest (14,411 feet). “Officially” – as used here – means recognized by those climbers who adopt the simple standard of 400 or more feet of prominence.
Park rules are always changing, but climbing in Mount Rainier National Park in 2021 above 10,000 feet or onto its glaciers requires both a backcountry permit and payment of the Mount Rainier National Park Annual Climbing Fee (sometimes referred to as the recovery fee). My fellow climbers and I paid our fees in advance, and I presented all three receipts at the Wilderness Information Center at Paradise when I arrived on Thursday. You can also wait and pay your fee at the WIC, but I wouldn’t recommend it, lest you end up like the unfortunate soul I bumped into who’d accidentally left his credit card at home.
I chose to show up at Paradise on Thursday, the day before the scheduled start of our climb, in order to maximize my chances of securing our permit, a decidedly limited natural resource. Climbing permits can be hard to get during the summer season, and while the Memorial Day weekend technically falls into the spring, I wasn’t taking any chances with this climb.
The crowds I feared never materialized, but my anxiety did not prove entirely unfounded. Twelve inches of snow fell on the upper slopes of Mount Rainier on Wednesday night, huge drifts were reported, and climber-triggered avalanches were turning climbers back above 13,000 feet. More snow was expected on Thursday and into Friday morning before the system cleared. Avalanche danger is generally not your biggest concern over the Memorial Day weekend on Mount Rainier, but this year the massif was determined to be difficult.
My teammates and I huddled around our mobile phones at 7:00 Thursday evening to discuss the impacts of the snowfall and the fate of our climb. Our itinerary called for three days of climbing, with a fourth day set aside for weather. We decided to take our weather day pre-emptively, and pushed our start date out to Saturday. We hoped the delay might give the fresh snow time to consolidate before we reached the higher elevations.
On Friday morning I drove up to Paradise for some additional beta. There were two inches of fresh snow on the ground, and reports coming down the mountain indicated that conditions above Camp Muir had not improved. I drove back to my home north of Seattle to spend the night in my own bed.
Saturday morning found the three of us in the parking lot on Paradise (5,400 feet). The lot was mostly empty, quite uncharacteristic of a holiday weekend. We weighed our packs, which were burdened with all of the recommended gear for glacier travel as well as enough food and fuel for three days on the mountain. Morgan’s pack weighed in at 50 pounds, mine at 56 pounds, and Auggie’s at a staggering 67. We urged Auggie to lighten his pack, but he would not be parted from any of his gear. By 9:15 a.m. we’d left the parking lot behind.
The weather was mostly clear. The three-mile long and 3,400 feet ascent to our first base camp at an elevation of 8,800 feet took four hours. The low ridge that separates the Muir and Paradise Snowfields pokes through the snow roughly 600 feet east of the Camp Muir Route, south and just a little west of Anvil Rock. Here we found a flat and sandy spot on the moraine large enough for our four-man tent and set up camp for the night. We carried with us all of the gear necessary for camping in reasonable comfort on the snow, but the unexpected fortune of camping on relatively warm ground still boosted our spirits.
The rest of the day was spent under mostly clear skies, leisurely melting snow, preparing our meals, and readying gear for our attempt on Little Tahoma, the summit of which beckoned to us behind the shoulder of Anvil Rock. As the afternoon and evening progressed, Morgan and I began to understand why Auggie’s pack was so heavy; while we were rehydrating our MRE’s , he was pulling real food – freshly prepared– as well as fresh fruit out of his pack. As the sun dropped low in the west, we made our plans for a 4 a.m. start and set our alarms for 3 a.m.
Sunday, our planned first summit day, dawned with mostly clear skies and a promising forecast. A half moon, bright in the sky, hung over Mount Adams. We didn’t quite make our 4:00 a.m. planned departure time, but by 4:50 we were roped up and traversing Paradise Snowfield. Shortly after 5:00, we got our first good look at Cowlitz Glacier. It is a huge field of ice and snow, crisscrossed by crevasses and teeming with towering seracs. There was no obvious route for our intrepid team, but trusting our fate to training and luck we set out none-the-less.
Our route – in accordance with our climb plan – was essentially the 8,700 feet contour line, and we managed to hold this elevation consistently despite the obstacles Cowlitz Glacier put in our path. Soon the lower slopes of the ridge known as Cathedral Rocks loomed up before us. This ridge separates Cowlitz Glacier and Ingraham Glacier. My research told me that expeditions in May usually ascended a snow-filled couloir then scrambled up scree slopes to a notch in the ridge at an elevation of roughly 8,800 feet. Alternatively, some expeditions descended the glacier to an elevation of 8,600 feet, where the cliffs dip suddenly and no scrambling is required. We spent the best part of an hour attempting the scramble at 8,800 feet, battling mixed snow and ice as well as crumbling scree, before thinking better of it, descending 200 feet, and simply walking across the low ridge. In retrospect, I can’t think of any conditions under which the 8,800-foot shortcut would be my preferred route.
Ingraham Glacier is much like Cowlitz Glacier, fractured with crevasses and teeming with seracs. However, our view of Ingraham Glacier from Cathedral rocks was informative, and we picked out a likely route that ultimately proved successful. Initially losing a little elevation, we soon regained the 8,600-foot contour line. This brought us to our exit, a 200-foot-tall saddle in the ridge separating Ingraham and Whitman Glaciers, beginning with a steep snow-covered couloir, and topped off with a 40-foot scramble up loose but manageable rock, with one or two Class 4 moves thrown in for fun. We found two obvious routes up the Class 4 section, taking the south route on the ascent, and the north route on the return. There is an old belay anchor set up on the south scramble (which we did not use) and an old rappel anchor set up on the north (which would prove useful). Above the 40-foot scramble it was smooth sailing over the ridge.
Whitman Glacier is essentially free of seracs, and in May 2021 its crevasses slumbered peacefully under the snow. When we finally turned upslope for the final leg of our route, we were still at 8,700 feet, roughly the same elevation as our base camp. The summit of our objective now towered 2,400 feet before us, glorious in the morning light. Whitman Glacier was our highway to the summit, and we plotted a path of least resistance. I made one route-finding error on the ascent, exiting the glacier to the left a bit prematurely, but soon we were back on track. The glacier guided us up to above 10,200 feet, at which point it transitioned to an unnamed snowfield that continued another 600 feet. It was near the top of this unnamed snowfield that we encountered mixed rock, snow, and ice, but fortunately for our summit aspirations, the mixed conditions quickly gave way to the melted-out summit block. Ditching our packs, we finished the Class 3 scramble unencumbered. I reached the summit just before 1:00 p.m., just over eight hours out of base camp. Morgan – alpine efficiency on display – was already there, relaxing and soaking in the rays of the sun. Auggie soon joined us.
The summit of Little Tahoma is … surprising. Its north face plummets – and I mean plummets – 1,500 feet from the summit to the Emmons Glacier below. This face is rarely seen up close by the public, there are few places in the park where its stark character can be fully appreciated, and none better than from its summit. Most think of Little Tahoma as the pointy bump on the eastern shoulder of Mount Rainier. This perception is unjust to the truly rugged scale and beauty of the ancient volcano.
The summit block is crowned with two highly-exposed horns of rock separated by a shallow gully, the western horn slightly taller than the northern. I’ve read that the scramble across the gully to the true high point is low Class 5, but I would have graded it low Class 4, despite the extreme exposure. Were I leading a climbing class – or even a larger group of climbers – I would certainly set up a fixed line to mitigate the consequences of an untimely slip. Under the conditions the three of us encountered – and given the quantity of goat DNA in our genes – each of us felt reasonably comfortable negotiating the final scramble unroped.
We snapped our summit selfies – Mount Rainier towering behind us – and hung out briefly, but before long we were heading back down. Our original budget for the round trip from base camp to the summit was nine hours, and we burned through all of that on the ascent. The descent to the bottom of the Whitman Glacier burned another four hours. This was quite unexpected, as that was nearly the same amount of time required for the ascent. This slower than expected descent was primarily the consequence of both Auggie and I feeling the need to self-belay down significant sections. Morgan outperformed both of us on this descent – other than one fall and self-arrest – and had plenty of time to hang out at the lower elevations while we caught up. I made one final route-finding error as we traversed the lower Whitman Glacier, but it added less than 15 minutes to our day and was soon behind us.
When we reached the saddle that separated Whitman Glacier from Ingraham Glacier, we faced our last significant challenge. By now the tracks we left in the snow that morning had vanished, and none of us were entirely sure of the route. Had we paid more attention and marked the ridge as we crossed, we would have better navigated our return. As it was, we fumbled around a bit, until Auggie recognized the belay and rappel anchors we passed that morning. The Class 4 scramble looked a bit more daunting than it had on our ascent, so both Auggie and I opted for a quick rappel over the tricky bit. Morgan, who’d already demonstrated her mad scrambling skills more than once, opted to downclimb unroped.
Navigating Ingraham and Cowlitz Glaciers east to west turned out to be a bit more challenging than west to east, due to a somewhat occluded view of the terrain. Morgan bore the brunt of the challenge of pathfinding across the glaciers. She led the rope team all day, both ascending and descending, with Auggie in the middle and myself bringing up the rear. The arrangement was by general consensus; as I felt confident with my zee-pulley rescue skills, I did not want to be the climber dangling uselessly in the crevasse should that skill be required. As Morgan led us across, she sometimes encountered crevasses unexpectedly – an experience that can chill the blood. In some places she would thrust her ice axe through the snow and into a void, recognizing in an instant that only a few inches of snow separated her from the cold and icy depths. That said, it all worked out for the best, as Morgan successfully navigated both Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers in both directions, without the need to backtrack even once.
It was 9:15 p.m. when we rolled back into base camp, more than 16 hours since our departure, and more than 18 hours since our alarms rang. Per our original itinerary, it was now time to pack up camp, ascend another 1400 feet to Camp Muir, and pit ourselves against the two highest summits in the state.
We did some quick calculations. It would take about an hour to melt water and bolt our meals, about two hours to pack up camp in the dark, and another two hours to ascend to Camp Muir, putting it after 2:00 a.m. before we arrived. Summit attempts from Camp Muir commonly leave at or before midnight, mostly to avoid the brutal daylight sun and its nastier effects on the snow. There would be no opportunity for sleep before we set out. It could be done, but it would be brutal.
After a brief discussion of our options, we unanimously decided against pushing on. The decision put our aspirations for three summits in four days at an end, as the extra day we’d reserved for contingencies was already spent. It was disappointing, but it was also a relief. We melted snow, ate our meals, and turned in for our second night on the massif. No one set an alarm.
Our third day on Rainier dawned crisp and clear, the best skies yet. Not only were Mount Adams and Mount Hood standing bold in the morning light, even Mount Jefferson (70 miles into Oregon and 150 miles distant) poked its snowcapped summit over the horizon. By 9:15 a.m., our base camp was packed up and we were headed down.
The descent to Paradise took just over an hour and a half, a fraction of the four-hours required for the ascent. We enjoyed a number of sitting glissades, though I felt a bit deprived, as my hiking pants – with their higher coefficient of friction – were no match for the speed of my fellow climbers’ slick rain pants. We reached the Paradise Visitor Center at 10:50 a.m., and found the parking lot packed. We then stopped by the WIC to check out with the climbing rangers. There we learned two things: 1) that no one had summited Rainier all weekend following the prior week’s snowstorm and 2) that our successful summit of Little Tahoma was the first on record for the 2021 season.
We found our car where we left it and availed ourselves both of cold drinks from the cooler and of fresh clothes from our happy bags. Shortly after noon we were seated at Wild Berry Restaurant in Ashford, my favorite Nepalese restaurant outside of Nepal, enjoying thali and mango lassi. For dessert we stopped by Copper Creek Inn. There we nabbed a whole blackberry pie each, cooked fresh on the premises.
The climbing life is good.