Tahoma is the original name for Washington's biggest mountain (More commonly known as Mount Rainier). I don't need to explain this any further, as most people reading this know the history here. Mount Rainier has a satellite peak called Little Tahoma. I love Tahoma/Rainier, it is my favorite mountain the world. I met my wife on the mountain and we also married at Panorama point, so it holds a very special place in my heart... it is truly a paradise. The mountain has been a great place to test my limits (within a safe margin). I didn't think it would be possible to top a January ascent of Rainier, but I still had a few big outings planned.
Many volcanoes have various sattellite peaks, but I think Little Tahoma is the most well known satellite. Anyone who has climbed the Emmons or Disappointment Cleaver route can attest to the beauty of Little T during an epic Rainier sunrise. Our goal was to climb and ski both Little Tahoma and Big Tahoma (Rainier) in a single push. This adventure turned out to be a massive 21 hour challenge.
To climb both little Tahoma and Rainier in a single push has been a lofty goal swirling around in my head for a long time. My partners and I have brought the idea up countless times, but it has always been shut down due to the logistical challenges, snowpack and overall difficulty of linking up both summits. It requires a fat snowpack to make the glacier crossings straightforward. The linkup is also a HUGE day, considering how tough even just Rainier in a day push can be. We finally had a window of opportunity due to the delayed spring and deep snowpack. It was not difficult to convince my friend Kyle McCrohan to join, as he loves to push the limits with unique adventures. He already planned to ski the Emmons with our friend Logan, who also agreed to add on Little Tahoma as a 'bonus'. Our faithful token splitboarder, Will, also jumped on the Tahoma train last minute. Once we had decided on our team and route, the wheels started spinning and Kyle did what he does best: Planning and gathering beta. I think he may be one of the most knowledgeable alpinist in the North Cascades, so it's always great to have him on a team. I should also mention that he is wicked strong and has a great attitude.
Our planned route was to climb Little Tahoma via the Frying Pan Glacier, skiiing back down through the unknown route of 'K-spire gully', crossing the Emmons glacier rather low to Camp Schurman and then up the Emmons and back down to the trailhead at White River. Our buddy Sam had skied Little Tahoma the day before, so we knew conditions were quite good. He gave us some crucial information for the first leg of our adventure. The unknowns were skiing the chute below K Spire, to access the emmons glacier, and the Emmons glacier crossing to Camp Schurman.
We started at 1:45AM after a very warm night, hoping to be on the summit on Little Tahoma by at least 9AM at the latest. Too early and we would be booting down the steep Frying Pan glacier, too late and we would be triggering wet avalanches and skiing mush. We assumed it would be impossible to time good snow on both Little Tahoma and Rainier, so it was decided that we would at least try to get good skiing on the first leg.
The snow was patchy and we walked for several miles until just below Meany Crest. From there, we put on our climbing skins to ascend the snow slopes above. It was pleasant skinning, until the angle of the climb changed and we decided to boot up to Whitman crest. The surface was firm and icy, until the sun decided to work it's magic. It wouldn't be a Rainier climb without a Volcano Sunrise :)
From Whitman crest, it was steady & straightforward travel up the Frying Pan glacier to the summit ridge of Little T. The Frying Pan glacier lived up to it's name, it's Southeast aspect began baking in the sun. I am typically very anxious climbing on steep faces below volcanic rock.... I probably caused my teammates unnecessary stress trying to get them to hurry up (sorry team!).
Despite my anxiety attacks, we reached the summit of Little T at 8:30, ahead of schedule and timing the snow conditions perfectly. We found the scrambling to be easy and no rope was needed. I do not believe the 5th class rating is warranted. It felt like low 4th class to reach the summit from the ridge. From the summit, we could see the 'K-spire' sneak route onto the Emmons Glacier.... It did not look promising, destroyed by a massive rockslide and an avalanche. We were hoping something would magically materialize when we peered down the route.
After downclimbing the ridge, we strapped on our skis and enjoyed some beautiful corn skiing. Skiing down the Frying Pan was excellent, the steepest part of the glacier tops out around 40degrees, a perfect angle when the snow is ripe :)
After skiing the upper glacier, Kyle had pointed out a potential water source. In order to save weight, we assumed we could find water off the rocks so we only carried about one liter each. In order to make this linkup work, we would need at least another liter or two. This is where our good luck started to turn sour: We booted up to a crumbly mass of seeping rocks. Logan was the first to arrive at the water source. While we were impatiently filling up our flasks he accidently knocked his pack off the steep snow ledge. Oops. It tumbled down the glacier and the contents exploded as his pack tomahawked downhill. It was a sad site, gear splattered all over the slope. As he began to pick up the pieces, I found a sneak route that went directly to the K-spire. We could not take this direct route, because Logan needed to retrieve his gear that tumbled at least 500' downslope. This added about 30 minutes to our day, which turned out to be critical. After the mishap, we retraced our steps and took a slightly longer detour to the K-spire. I went to investigate the route onto the lower Emmons, and looked bad. Really bad. A rockslide had demolished the snowpack, filling it with bowling ball boulders and mud. Yuck :(
At this point, Will and Logan had enough and were content on the day thus far. They decided to turn back from here and head home. I think they may have been the smart ones. From the K-spire, it would just be Kyle and myself attempting to reach the summit of Rainier. If we had known what was ahead of us, we probably would have went back with Will & Logan. Kyle and I had a summit fever and we weren't going to quit yet!! We were sad about our friends turning around, but we quickly found a route down the 'poop chute'.
After uneventful mud walking down to the Emmons Glacier, we roped up and switched to skinning to reach Camp Schurman. It was an easy crossing, but the thought of ascending Rainier after an already eventful day was intimidating. At this point, we started showing our first signs of fatigue.
Just below Camp Schurman, we were SMOKED. We still had about 5000' to ascend and could barely muster an ascent rate of 1500ft/hour. It was 12PM at this point. As we climbed the Emmons, our pace became slower and the travel became more complicated. The route was also in much worse shape than what was anticipated.
We watched in horror as several skiers nearly launched themselves into crevasses, after slipping on ice. I typically ski very cautiously on glaciers and I couldn't believe the reckless skiing we witnessed on Rainier. It seems like people were so set on 'skiing' the route, they refused to remove their skis and walk. One guy launched off a serac and landed with a thud, falling foward over his skis. I tried yelling to him and his partner to watch out for the crevasse, but they were not paying attention. The skier started sliding downhill towards a minefield of crevasses below a steep slope. As he was sliding on his back, he started LAUGHING(!!!)... completely unaware of the danger. Kyle and I started screaming at him to get himself under control, which he did, about 10 feet before going over the edge. Yikes.
If we wanted to ski the Emmons, we needed to be on the summit by 4:45PM, as the sun would be gone from the face after 5PM. Once the sun's energy leaves the face, the snow will begin to refreeze, which makes dangerous skiing. As we reached 12,000', our ascent rate climbed to 900ft/hour and we were on the verge of giving up. Fortunately, a lone skier arrived out of nowhere and gave us some caffeine pills and food... My hero!! This helped, and we managed to crawl to the summit at 5:30PM. We were late for skiing and very very tired, but we knew we could simply walk down the emmons, as awful as it sounded in the moment.
We spent 5 minutes on the summit, refueling ourselves with quick snacks before the descent. Our legs were zapped after 14,000' of climbing and I was worried about the skiing. Since I had chosen fatter skis, it was very difficult to hold an edge. I gave up after a few sketchy turns and submitted to walking down the Emmons :( Kyle had skinnier skis and he managed to ski the middle & lower route down to camp Schurman. He waited for me for about 30 minutes and we both claimed the 'worst skiing of our lives'... Thinking it could only get better from there, we were wrong! Skiing down the interglacier was the equivalent to skiing mashed potatoes with too much butter. Our skis sank to our shins, making the turns funky and exhausting. We also missed the creek crossing and ended up fording a log to reach the trail. Once we FINALLY reached the trail, it was just a slog out to White River Campground. I would like to say this slog was uneventful, but it wasn't, as I was experiencing hallucinations when the light faded. I wasn't really concerned, but when trees turn into cars and animals, it means it is time to go to sleep :)
Our predicted time of 15 hours had morphed into nearly 21 hours! The errors we made earlier in the day had 'snowballed'. Despite the miscalculation and small errors, we had an incredible day and really pushed ourselves. Our total stats were 25 miles and 14,500' of elevation gain! It was a proud achievement for us both, and we were humbled. Rainier has a way of doing that. Reflecting on our day, Kyle and I usually have smooth adventures together but both agreed that an 'epic' was bound to happen someday. We never felt like we were in any objective danger, but it was certainly more suffering than we both would have liked. Oh well, that's just part of the game we play. As one of Kyle's friends stated afterward: 'When you wanna fly that close to the sun, making it through the problems is just as much a part of the craft as avoiding them in the first place'. Thanks for reading!
Check out Kyle's side of the story on his blog: