Am I wearing enough sunscreen? It was the first weekend in August and I was climbing under clear blue skies on the sunbaked slopes of Little Tahoma heading for the summit. It would turn out to be the hottest weekend of the summer, but worrying that I was sweating off my sunscreen was the kind of problem I was glad to have. This Little Tahoma climb was a far cry from my experience two-and-a-half months before. I spent the spring volunteering as an instructor with the BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class. I was a 1st year instructor assigned to Team 3, "The Morteneers". Our team’s graduation climb in May was Little Tahoma ("Little T" as it’s popularly known) where we were driven off the mountain fifty feet from the summit by some of the worst weather I have ever experienced climbing.
I chronicled my first Little T attempt in a SummitPost Trip Report. In that report I described our team's graduation climb as Type 2 Fun
. That is, a supposedly fun activity that is not fun at the time, but only when you look back on it afterwards. In contrast Type 1 Fun
is a supposedly fun activity that is fun at the time and
when you reflect back on it. The combination of perfect weather and reaching the summit made my summer Little T climb Type 1 Fun
. However, the thing about Type 2 Fun
is that it sucks at the time, but it's usually great material for a trip report. I like writing up trip reports after my climbs and since I was having Type 1 Fun
I was worried that I would have nothing to write about.
Right away our climb got off on the right foot. We left Seattle at 7am Saturday morning and stopped for breakfast at the Sun Break Cafe in Auburn. It's a great breakfast spot that I'm going to remember for ski days at Crystal Mountain in the winter. All spring during the BOEALPS BCC I woke up at ungodly hours for the day's outings. In the BCC you start
hiking at 7am, which meant arriving at the trailhead at 6:30am so I often met my carpool as early as 4am. After I first took the class in 2002, BOEALPS became a metaphor for un-godly early starts. If some weekend adventure required leaving town crazy early I would describe our departure time as "...like BOEALPS-early!" It was necessary for the class, those early starts were the only way to fit in a full day of instruction, but I was glad to be back on summer-fun time.
For the second weekend in row I found myself registering for a climb at the White River Wilderness Information Center. Just the weekend before I was in the same spot filling out paperwork for a Rainier climb via Camp Schurman. It was a little chaotic in the WIC office and when we arrived we discovered that our campsite reservation had been given away. If the rangers don't hear from you by 11am they will give away your reservations. Since we stopped for breakfast and were running late we called in from the road to confirm, but the rangers forgot and gave away our campsite reservations anyways. Luckily not many people were climbing Little T so we had no trouble re-registering. I don't know whom they gave our reservation to because we did not see any other climbers on Little T on Sunday.
There were several medical emergencies happening at the WIC office, but the harried young ranger on duty seemed more concerned about running out of forms than a woman in the parking lot who might need a defibrillator. Exasperated he asked if anyone in the room was an EMT and could deal with her. I'm guessing this is a common problem. The woman was just up walking around, taking in the views at the Sunrise Visitor Center when she collapsed. Her friend threw her in their car rushed her to the WIC office. Also in the office was a group of climbing guides there to report that a climber who had twisted their knee on Little T had been successfully evacuated by helicopter. The woman in the parking lot did receive immediate attention because the ambulance called in for the evacuated climber had arrived.
The hike up to Summerland via the Wonderland trail was beautiful, the meadows flanking the trail were full of white sitka valerian and purple lupine flowers in full bloom. In places the air was so thick with the scent of flowers it felt like you were walking through a wall of perfume. It's a popular hike and we shared the trail with a steady stream of hikers all morning long. The view of Little T from the approach to Summerland is spectacular and the foreground perspective makes it look as tall as Rainier. From the Wonderland trail Little T looks Matterhorn-like and it reminded me of hiking in the Alps, real "The hills are alive with music" kinda stuff.
Summerland is a gorgeous area of expansive alpine meadows with a shelter, campsites, and a composting toilet. It's a spot that really lived up to its name; the alpine meadows were a lush vibrant green dappled with yellow flowers, the hum of insects filled the air, and it was drowsy-warm. It felt like the distilled essence of summer and could have been the subject of a Ray Bradbury novel. Our destination on Saturday was the campsite at Meany Crest. The Wonderland trail is a very well maintained National Park trail, so we were all a little surprised that there was no trail from Summerland to Meany Crest, not even a climbers' path. We met a Park Ranger who admitted that there was no trail, which is surprising since Summerland is the standard summer approach to Little T. The ranger asked us not to let anyone see us crossing the meadows to Meany Crest since the Park is trying to discourage people from tramping across the meadows and damaging the fragile mountain flora.
We walked as gingerly as possible across the meadows and did our best to route find our way up to Meany Crest. The path was not immediately obvious, so we had to trust our maps and compasses and try not to second-guess ourselves. Once we found our campsite we were all very pleased with the location. It was on top of a snow-free plateau with stunning views of Little T and Rainier. The tent sites are dramatically situated at the edge of a cliff with sweeping views of the valley below. That afternoon in camp it was so balmy we lounged barefoot while melting snow for water and making dinner. A pair of flip-flops for camp would have been great, but when I was packing for the weekend it never occurred to me that the weather would be so amazing.
In the oh-dark-hundred we roped up and marched out of camp across the Fryingpan glacier towards the "notch". The notch is where we had to cross from the Fryingpan to the Whitman glaciers and was the only significant obstacle before the summit. We got confused in the dark and wasted a good two hours trying to negotiate the crossing. The snow had melted out a lot so in the dark the path over the notch looked a lot more treacherous than it really was in daylight.
Little T looks very different from the angle we approached it by. The version of Little T I was familiar with are the views from the Muir Snowfield approach or from Camp Schurman where Little T presents broad sheer cliff faces. From our route it was a cinematically dramatic jagged needle of rock. It looked like something out of a Sword & Sorcery novel. Little T could easily be cast in the role of Lonely Mountain, the place in Tolkien's novel The Hobbit
where the dragon Smaug lived.
Once across the notch and on the Whitman glacier it was a straightforward slog to the base of the summit. Little T is the badly eroded remnant of what was once a much higher Mount Rainier and up close it looks like a giant slagheap. The summit was totally melted out and covered with a thick layer of scree. It was tricky navigating through all that loose rock. You had to watch every step; if you were careless it would be very easy to twist an ankle. On the scrambles up and down we had to proceed one at a time so that there was no danger of kicking rock down on someone below. The final approach to the summit Eddie (who had just finished the BOEALPS Basic Rock class) set pro for a fixed line while I belayed him. It is a good idea to bring a few pieces of pro and slings to set protection to the summit. The final approach is very exposed with drops of a thousand feet to either side. Getting to the summit on a beautiful day was a great feeling. We had a commanding view of Rainer from which we could clearly see climbers on the Muir/DC Rainier route and climbers' tents at the Ingraham Flats campsites.
As I said before it was the hottest weekend of the summer and the hike out was a long hot slog. We only had one incident where Leigh scrapped up her elbows bad on a glissade from Meany Crest. Other than that the worst thing to happen was the biblical-plague worthy swarms of mosquitos that tormented us on the Wonderland trail. It has been over a decade since I have experienced mosquitos that bad in the Cascades. Our waitress Saturday morning at the Sun Break Cafe even warned us about the mosquitos, but we did not take her seriously. Other than flip-flops for Meany Crest my only other missing-gear regret was mosquito repellant.
6:30 am Meet Carpool
7:00 am Leave Seattle
8:00 am Breakfast at Sun Break Café in Auburn
11:30 am Trailhead 3885ft
2:30 pm Leave Summerland Camp, 5978ft
4:07 pm Top of Meany Crest, 7010ft
Scout higher camp
4:49 pm Leave Meany Crest
5:23 pm Arrive Camp, 7566ft
2:25 am Leave Camp
4:00 am Arrive bottom of notch, 8980 ft
6:20 am Finally arrive at notch, 9110 ft
9:02 am Drop packs, 10,830 ft
9:25 am Continue to summit
10:06 am Arrive base of summit block, 11,090 ft
10:50 am Summit! 11,120 ft
11:30 am Depart base of summit block, 11,090 ft
2:47 pm Arrive at notch
3:56 pm Arrive at camp
5:21 pm Depart camp
8:30 pm Arrive Car
Nelson, Jim; Peter Potterfield. Selected Climbs in the Cascades
. Vol 1. 2nd ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2003. Pgs. 48-51.
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.
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.
LinksMount Rainier Climbing (climbing rangers' blog)
Little T Graduation Climb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class
The Mountain and me: Three Rainier climbs via Camp Schurman—1999, 2010, and 2012
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