Monday, August 2, 2010

Little Tahoma (11,138')

What better way to celebrate Independence Day? On the 4th of July I stepped off for Rainier National Park to climb Little Tahoma, the 3rd largest peak in Washington State in what turned out to be an enjoyable and fun trek through subalpine meadows and forests on the way to a technical and challenging climb. Little Tahoma has always seemed quite daunting. While summiting Mt Rainier via the standard route, it takes up a significant portion of the eastern skyline with sheer, crumbly volcanic rock cliffs that rise close to 2,000 feet in a straight spire from the craggy and crevasse-riddled glaciers below. As “Little T” looks to be somewhat attached to Rainier and is overshadowed by it’s more popular and more famous neighbor, there is a definite misperception surrounding this mountain- it is actually a separate peak. Several hundred thousand years ago, Little T was a massive volcano all to it’s own. Then the hot spot shifted, and the birth of Mt Rainier simultaneously caused the extinction of Little T. What is left of Little T is essentially the rotten, crumbling and unstable core of what was a volcanic center that still manages to rise 11,138’ into the sky in what resembles an almost vertical pyramid.

A few of my Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) teammates have climbed Little T already and through their experiences, I have been studying Little Tahoma for a potential climb for close to seven years. So this year, another Marine and climbing buddy named Peter Leonard and I decided to set out and tackle the standard route via the east over a ~30 hour trip. We both subscribe to teams that select a “lighter-is-faster” philosophy to climbing in the Pacific Northwest when weather is stable and this experience was no different. 18 miles round trip, the Fryingpan/ Whitman Glacier Route ascends 7,338’ from the trailhead, so bringing along a bunch of excess equipment that would never be used just didn’t seem all that attractive to either of us. This type of travel can have limitations though. In 2005, our team of five Marines/Sailors tackled a speed ascent of Mt Olympus and were roughly 20 miles into a 47 mile trip when it started raining heavily at 2am. We all curled up into fetal positions on a flat rock to wait out the night, and Leonard whipped out a bivvy bag that he had somehow snuck along. Wiping wet faces with dirty, grubby hands and staring in envy through sideways blowing rain that was twinkling thanks to glowing headlamps, we looked on longingly as he crawled into his bag. “I’ll give you a million dollars for that bivvy bag..” “Nope.” We shivered for the next three hours. He slept like a baby. Short of it- there can be drawbacks to traveling light.

Fryingpan Creek: (3,800’) Stepping off to chirping birds, pine trees, wild flowers and the burbling sounds of Fryingpan Creek, we wound our way from the trailhead through scenes right out of the movies. Massive trees stretching to the sky provide God Rays that filter down to the pine needled and red dirt forest floor. Briefly, cool breezes lift the spirits as glacial meltwater rolling down the creek drop the temperature, providing a brief respite from the warm air. 4.2 miles later, the Wonderland Trail has zig-zagged over side brooks, through smallish meadows teeming with butterflies and awash in wildflowers brimming in color. We continue to tack on elevation and the trail soon turns to snow as we cross over a large log that has been chipped into a bridge that allows us to cross over Fryingpan Creek almost at it’s source and arrive at Summerland- a campground at 5,800’ that is popular later in the season and provides breathtaking views of the east face of Mt Rainier.

From Summerland, we continue straight up a steep, snow-covered ramp that rises 1,800’ to Meany Crest. It takes us close to two hours to pick our way up what is generally not climbable in August when snow melts off and vertical chutes, cliff bands and crumbly rock provide way too much exposure to go straight up safely. For now though, steep ramps of snow allow us to dial in on Meany Crest easily while fuzzy, 30lb, teddy bear-looking Marmots stare on and squeak out their alarms to friends up the route.

Meany Crest (7,500’): Four hours after stepping off, we arrive at Meany Crest. A flat, large rock formation that juts out at the end of a topographical finger, there are plenty of spots to set up camp. Leonard and I found 11 other climbers at Meany Crest- the only other climbers on Little T while we were there, and among them was Gretchen Lentz- one of my SMR teammates who happened to be there assisting with a climbing course. They had taken an area among the large rocks, but as we were traveling light it didn’t matter. We located a scrub pine that was growing alongside a boulder and built ourselves a handy wind break by taking advantage of this opportunity. Leonard scraped snow off the gravel while I moved over basketball-sized rocks. After 30 minutes, our wind shelter was built and we spent a few hours eating, relaxing and preparing or technical climbing gear. Leonard had hauled along three slices of pizza from the night before, and after climbing into our bags, devoured that while watching the sun slowly slip behind Rainier as the sky transitioned over to a wide array of orange, red and purple hues. Leonard managed to piss off a Marmot in what quickly became one of my favorite moments of the trip.

At 2am, my alarm went off and I crawled out of my bag. When you are cold in a sleeping bag, several things go through your mind. You want to believe that you can out-will yourself and just sleep through it. You want to figure out what you can do to get warmer. You curse yourself for not spending those ten short minutes that you debated on before bed to boil water and make yourself a hot water bottle. You wish it was time to get moving. You are glad you have more time before you need to get moving. Wow are those stars bright! Why am I looking at stars when I could be sleeping? Why am I even thinking anything at all? If I just let my mind go blank, I could drift back to sleep. Why is Leonard snoring? I really need to let my mind go blank. I’m hungry. Why isn’t my mind blank? Argh!” And then after endless hours of this, it is time.

Headlamp on, harness on, crampons on. Grab some quick food and pack up gear we would need for the summit. We slipped out of camp quickly and were well past Whitman Crest before sunrise.

As dawn approached, we noticed that we were just above the cloud line. This is such a fun place to be when climbing, especially when at 9,000’. Clouds zip by at 20 miles an hour and you catch faint glimpses of the oncoming sun, mountain before you, trail and surrounding terrain. Then the clouds come back and all that you were enjoying disappears back into a sea of endless white mist. On and off until you gain enough altitude to clear the clouds and see them lazily roll by under your boots. Crampons crunching in the frosty early morning snow, skies lighting up in Alpenglow and the summit seemingly within reach, we began our push up the 60 degree slopes of Little Tahoma on the Whitman Glacier. The good news with steep slopes is that you gain altitude- quickly. The bad news is that it can be slow going at times, can require protection, and is extremely steep. The higher you go, the more attentive you are to footing and ropework. As the sun rises higher in the morning sky, snow gets soft quickly- evermoreso thanks to an east facing slope with no shade to break the warming rays from making what was once hard crust into mush. Communicating regularly and routinely as a team allows for general understanding of what to expect as we climb higher and higher. Step after steep step results in the snow eventually giving way to rock gullies that require rock protection, not the aluminum pickets that anchor ropes to snow. From here, the route snakes its way up and around large rock buttresses caked in ice, now gleaming in the bright morning air. Partially snow, partially rock the route finally switches over to loose, crumbly volcanic tuff about 50 vertical feet below the summit.

And then, we were there. At the top of Little T you have a very different view than what unfolds on major peaks. Instead of being able to see in every direction, the whole west side of view is blocked by Mt Rainier. Looking over the north face, you are immediately filled with vertigo when looking several thousand feet to the glacier floor while updrafts of wind buffet and blast anything exposed. Truly, only the east and south views are available to take in the splendor of this unique mountain and it’s surroundings. Glaciers spread in all directions, clouds lazily roll by. Vivid greens of forest canopies are closer here that from other peaks, offering a unique view not often available of these remote forests riddled with rivers cascading off cliffs into valleys below. We spent close to 20 minutes at the summit- enough time to enjoy the view, take some pictures and swig down some Gatorade before preparing gear for our trip back home.

From the summit, it took us close to seven hours to carefully make our way back down off of the steep scree field, through the rock gullies and down a variety of snowfields. As soon as we hit Whitman Crest, we landed in a fairly solid whiteout that remained the entire route back to Meany Crest. Once there though, we grabbed a quick catnap and were ready to go within the hour. Down, down, down we went- at one point glissading in a volley of wet snow that went so fast that we covered 1,600’ in less than four minutes. Finally regaining the trail, we moved nonstop over the remaining four miles until arriving at the car where we could finally let our guard down and relieve shoulders that had been aching heavily since the day before. Big smiles and all in all, a truly fun trip.

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