Climbing is an activity filled with little things that can, and often do, go wrong. Forgotten fuel bottles, wayward weather forecasts, untimely rock fall, minor injuries, and interpersonal discourse are just a few of the myriad events that derail well-planned trips.
This trip, however, is neither well-planned nor plagued with any of those things. It is perhaps the rarest of trips, where two people who’ve never climbed together before and are both known for letting details go untouched, go adventuring in the mountains and the only storyline at the end is one of fun-filled success. So if you’re hoping for a tale of woe, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Mike did forget to bring a hat though…
We make a plan: Let’s go exploring around Little Tahoma Sunday afternoon and Monday. Sunday being Mother’s Day, and me being married to a Mother, of my children, it seems wise to me to, you know, be present. My wife, aforesaid mother of my children, is impossibly tolerant of my frequent forays into the Cascades, and so I feel happy to oblige her desire to, for the first time since we moved to Seattle in 1992, go canoeing…on Mother’s Day.
For me, the most difficult part of every climbing trip is packing. I don’t enjoy it, a lot. Once I’m packed, the most difficult part is not leaving immediately; I have a very itchy trigger finger. I am packed and ready as we pile into the car and head to Enatai Beach to meet up with our rental canoes. We paddle along the shore of Lake Washington and almost to the end of the navigable Mercer Slough, around the loop of Bellefield Office Park, and back. It’s a superior day and I enjoy the sunshine, the water, my family, and the exercise in my head of being present, in the now, instead of in the future, on the mountain.
Canoeing is followed up with lunch at Chipotle, where I proceed to entirely consume a burrito half the size of my skull. And chips.
Soon enough I’m in the car headed south. I text Mike that I’m on my way, about an hour later than the 3:00 PM I’d previously said was the earliest possible. Mike texts back that he’s still in Ashford and I reply asking if we’ll meet there or Paradise. I don’t hear back. And it doesn’t matter. As I drive along on the sunny and unseasonably warm day, I muse to myself that there is no need for a tent. After a goodly amount of time spent driving behind a ’25 in the 35 zone’ tourist inside Mount Rainier National Park, I arrive at the designated overnight Paradise parking area and quickly find Mike.
It’s over 60 degrees at Paradise when I get out of the car at Paradise. Among the first things Mike says to me is, “Hey, I don’t think we need to take a tent, do you?” This is sign of things to come. Having recently consumed the planetary-sized burrito, I also evict a freeze-dried dinner from my pack. We divide up the remaining group gear: Rope, rack, two pickets, and MSR Reactor stove and fuel. Mike completes our registration form to make us official, and at the less-than-alpine-start time of 6:20 PM, we strike out from the parking lot, Mike on snowshoes (or ‘slowshoes’ as I’m known to derisively call them), and me on skis.
We are without a firm agenda for the evening or the trip, so we mosey along. At the top of Pan Face I stop to take in the setting sun and add a layer of clothing over my shorts and tshirt. The setting sun throws my shadow long, and it dances about frantically as I slide up the mountain. It finally drops below the horizon and the crazed shadow melts into glorious evening alpenglow and warm-hued clouds.
It’s still light as we arrive at 8600’, where the route to Little Tahoma diverges from the route to Camp Muir. The snow is setting up and my ski crampons are taking the trip off, sitting at home in my gear room where I inadvertently left them. We can camp anywhere. The farther we go this eve, the less we have to do in the morning, but we’re carrying overnight gear, so continuing also means carrying heavier packs farther this evening and again on the return trip Monday. I have no preference despite my ever-present urge to keep going, and after a brief discussion of our options we turn back west and find a nice bivy spot in the rocks.
Mike inquires about my snoring and I report, honestly, that I once chased a climbing partner from a warm hotel room in Bozeman to the car in the middle of a -22F night. Mike picks up his sleeping bag and wisely chooses a location further away and behind a wind break. I can’t say enough about the MSR Reactor stove. It’s stunningly efficient and in minutes every bottle is full. With no dinners to prepare, the only remaining detail is to select a time for the alarm. We arrive at 4:00 AM, and with that I zip myself into my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep.
As is typical for me in the mountains, I am awake a couple times during the night to pee. On this night, the bright side is, quite literally, taking in the stars, which are bright enough on a moonless night that I can clearly make out the Milky Way. Years ago during my trips to the Trinity Alps Thomy and I would sit up all night attempting to comprehend the magnitude of the stars in the night sky and debating whether the fact that the some of the stars we could ‘see’ were long since gone, having collapsed into red dwarfs during the millions of years it took their light to reach our eyes, constituted a form of time travel.
The alarm goes off as planned and I’m awake and stoked. The air is calm and the temp is moderate. I start the stove to make some coffee, then realize I’ve forgotten to bring any Via packets. Mike has Via but no cup. How’s that for inadvertently packing light? Coffee swilled and a few bars consumed, we tie in and head out across the glacier. The route from camp to Little Tahoma is basically a traverse, following the 8600’ contour line across the Cowlitz and Ingraham glaciers to the southeast corner of Little T.
We find an unexpected well-established boot path with skin tracks over the top on our route, and this makes the going generally easier; the area outside the track has frozen into breakable crust overnight and even though I’m not a fan of crowded places in the mountains, I like breakable crust even less, so I happily walk along the track on the back end of the rope.
As we loop over the ridge at the northern edge of the Cowlitz glacier and cross onto the Ingraham glacier, all of Little Tahoma comes into view. I can see the track we are following breaking east and climbing up a dirty slope to a notch on the ridge above. Past that notch is the Whitman glacier, and the standard route up Little Tahoma. Going up that way is not on the agenda for today, and this reminds me that our stated agenda of going ‘adventuring around Little Tahoma’ is going to soon need to become more specific. Hmmm.
Mike’s still in front when we break off the boot track near the south face. The going becomes more difficult and annoying on what I’ll describe as sometimes-breakable crust. Meaning that sometimes I step onto the frozen snow and it holds my weight, and sometimes I step and as I weight my foot the surface breaks and my foot drops 6-12” into softer snow. This kind of snow makes for tiring and tedious travel. Meanwhile, away from snow-haterville, I keep gazing up and the small, linked snowfields on the south face of Little Tahoma and a scheme starts to form in my head, and it’s one that involves ending our travel on the breakable crust much earlier than would be so if we continued up to the West Ridge, or past that the to the North Face. The former of those routes has only been climbed once and the latter not in a couple decades. The South Face, however, has NEVER been climbed. And the more I look up at it, the more I wonder why. Mike stops and reels me in. Though his exact words now elude me, it turns out that we’re once again on the same wavelength: Climbing an entirely new route, which we are now conveniently standing directly under, is more appealing to him than continuing our upward slog to repeat a route.
We mentally follow the route up the face. It’s 3000 vertical feet from where we stand to the summit. From our vantage, three steep, linked snowfields appear to cover about 2/3 of that. They end in a headwall through which passes the dreaded gray band of Little Tahoma. While nearly all the rock on Little T is poor, this gray band is made of marginally bonded ash that is best climbed with ice tools and is not protectable. Not my cup of tea. A tower guards the right side of the last snowfield, but as I look it appears that there could be a ramp behind it. That ramp, should it exist, would lead to easier mixed terrain and the summit. We talk this through. We have a good rock rack (since the West Ridge was a possible objective) and ice tools (since the North Face was on the list as well). We’re well equipped. And the terrain doesn’t look that hard…except that short section…
We coil the rope and start up, simul-soloing. We choose a snowfield right of the first of the three to avoid two rock steps, and are soon on the second snowfield. It, too goes quickly and we find ourselves climbing side by side up a short AI2+ step on the third snowfield, which is decidedly steeper. The view back down the route and across the lower Ingraham glacier is sublime and I stop to take pictures several times. The third snowfield ends in short, easy mixed step that leads to a wide snow finger and the headwall. At this point it seems clear to me that the headwall is not an option, unless we have no choice other than to try to get to the upper west ridge; climbing it directly would be slow and dangerous. In the lead now, I angle up the snow finger and stop at an unexpected flat rib of rock. I sit for the first time since we left camp, catch my breath, then eat and drink. We’ve covered about 2000 of the 3000 vertical feet quickly, and the next section is going to be the crux because it’s clear from where I’m sitting that the hoped-for ramp doesn’t exist.
Mike doesn’t sit. He grabs a quick drink and snack and we hear it at the same time: That distinctive sound of falling rock and ice. A mix of both cascades over a lip on the headwall and plummets down the snowfields we’d ascended. “Yikes”, one of us utters. Mike then moves out and up, toward an obvious notch, which appears to be the only viable option. At the notch we see that we’re not in the clear; a fast tick this route is not going to be. We rope up and get the rack out. I’d done a quick survey, so I’m in front and lead out across a loose ledge. It ends in a short step, but the spot where I need to put my right hand to pull up is occupied by a two-foot diameter loose rock. “Uh, Mike, I know it’s bad form, but I’m going to trundle a big rock here.”
“Go for it.”
“Okay, watch me here.”
I have no gear between me and the belay, there just isn’t any amidst the crumbly choss. I pull the rock off the ledge above me, being careful to stay out of the way and trying to direct it away from me. It comes loose alarmingly easily and goes crashing down the south face of the mountain, a sullen reminder of my fate if should also ‘come loose alarmingly easily’.
I gingerly pull up onto the ledge and follow it eastward. Around the corner from the belay it comes to an abrupt end, but I also find a great placement for a #3 Camalot; after half a pitch of no gear, I’m comforted by picture-perfect cam placement. I survey the situation. From here there are two apparent choices: Climb up on less-than-vertical terrain through the dreaded gray band, or somehow descend. I holler back to Mike, but this is a make or break decision, so I quickly decide the best thing, especially since I have a good piece of gear, is to have him come over and take a look. I girth-hitch into the cam then call off-belay. I pull the slack rope over, then put him on belay. He arrives in short order and we survey the situation. It looks like we will hit easier terrain if we climb up the gray band for a pitch, but the belayer will be directly under the climber, and there is clearly no gear. The angle appears to be 70-80 degrees. The other option is to rappel onto a snowfield below us, which appears to lead to the upper, easier slopes. The rock doesn’t look that hard, but such things can be very deceiving from the comfort of a secure belay, and it’s that damnable gray ash shit.
We decide to rappel. I find a half-decent Lost Arrow piton placement. It doesn’t sing, but seems good. I equalize the load between the cam and the piton and prepare to rappel. The typical procedure in this situation is for the first person to rappel from the piton with the cam as a backup in case it fails, and then, presuming it doesn’t, for the second person to remove the cam and rap just from the single piton. We discuss this. I look at the piton and the cam. I don’t like leaving garbage in the mountains, but I like dying in them even less. A cam isn’t cheap at $80, but neither is a helicopter ride off a mountain with shattered femurs. “Hey Mike, I’d just as soon leave the cam and be safe, if that’s okay with you.”
Once again we’re on the same wavelengt: “I was thinking the same thing.”
I rap first. There is a gap in the rock below the ledge, so I lower into free air briefly, then onto lower-angled rock. At the snow I call off-belay and pull the rope from my device. My job is now to get out of the way, which I gladly do. Mike rigs the pack to lower, but it gets hung up on the rock one of our poles falls off it, bounces off the rock a couple times, does two cartwheels on the snowfield, and then miraculously stops. We can’t manage to lower the pack down the lower angle rock, so Mike raps down to it, puts it on, then continues to the snow.
While he pulls and coils the rope I go across and up the snowfield and peek around the next rock rib. I’m stoked to see the upper, easier slopes at hand, and less stoked to see another climber 150 yards away, standing in a notch on the edge of the Whitman glacier.
How about a little video of that?
I go back around the corner and take some pics of Mike coming across. Together we cross the rib and scramble up a short slope to some larger rocks where we sit down for some food and water and to discuss options.
At this point we can either traverse another 150 yards to where I saw the now-absent climber and finish on the standard Whitman glacier route, or continue up as directly as possible on what we think is unclimbed terrain. We both prefer the latter, to keep the adventure in the unknown going and to keep the new line as unique and possible.
So after our rest we continue up slopes alternating between rock and snow, up onto the upper reaches of Little Tahoma, where one of the obstacles is determining which of the several prominent points is actually the summit.
We trend slightly back to the west as we ascend, until we arrive at the end of the snow, in a small amphitheater. Here we can traverse back to our right onto the standard route, but we again choose the road less traveled. I scramble up onto a ridge where I find myself looking down a sheer face and over to the upper West Ridge. Just below and west of the ridge crest is a ledge system that leads appears to lead to the West Ridge. I remove my crampons, as the rock is dry and snow-free, and start across. The rock on the crest of the ridge is loose and the exposure is significant, so after a few feet I retreat to the notch and call for a belay. Mike joins me and flakes the rope. I’m a bit afraid of the traverse and also sense that we’re close; I feel ansty. With the mental support of a belay, I scramble across and down the ledge into a small notch. The rock above me is steep, but of the best quality we’ve encountered all day.
“Mike, if you’re okay with it, I’m just going to keep going.”
“Go for it!”.
Still uncertain of our location relative to the summit, I continue up on solid, fun rock. I keep aim for the what appears to be the highest point, pausing to remind myself to breathe and enjoy the views and the climbing. I weave between two rock fingers, up a few more feet and pull over a little prow…and find myself staring at the USGS marker that denotes the summit of Little Tahoma. An involuntary hoot of joy escapes me, and Mike calls out to make sure I’m okay.
“I’m better than okay, dude, I’m on the summit…standing on the USGS marker!”
I rig a belay and Mike quickly joins me.
It’s a stellar day: Blue skies, a light breeze to keep bugs down and evaporate perspiration. We wander around the small summit area taking turns as photographer, writing in the summit register, and consuming most of our remaining food. We both remark on the fortune of the day.
My experience of time on the summit of a mountain is bizarre and consistently accelerated: What feels like ten minutes to me is usually an hour, and so it is this day: All too soon it’s time to start down. Having not come up the standard route, I now rely on dusty memories from my only other climb of Little Tahoma: A one-day trip with Jens ten years earlier (holy crap, talk about time passing quickly!). The initial directly downclimb is as I remember: A bit spicy, but manageable on decent rock. Then we are adrift in a sea of choss.
Mike trends further east than me, and it’s a better choice. He waits five minutes for me at the notch in the rock at the upper terminus of the Whitman glacier. We scramble down and into knee-deep glop on the glacier. It’s too sticky for glissading except for the steepest sections. And the afterglow of a successful first ascent buoys my spirits. In a flat area safe from any avalanche run-out we drop our packs, drink, and peel off layers. Shorts and tshirts will be just the ticket on the long traverse in the heat of the day.
At the notch we’d seen in the early morning from the lower Ingraham, we find the remains of a large camp: The group from whose boot track we’d benefited. We cross the notch and descend scree and talus, past two or three inexplicable rap stations, down to the Ingraham glacier. The long traverse back to camp begins. At the point where our morning tracks diverged from the boot track, I stop and take pictures of the route, still marveling that the huge south face of Little Tahoma hadn’t ever seen a recorded ascent, despite the presence of a route of only moderate technical difficulty. How did this plum go for so long unpicked?
And then it’s back to traversing. And traversing. And traversing. There are some approaches that always feel much longer on the way out: Colchuck Lake, Glacier Basin to White River, and now, the traverse from Little T back to the Muir Snowfield.
I am, however, more grateful for the bootpack now than I was in the morning. Every time I step or slide off it, I plunge knee-deep into sun-softened snow. I know this get-back would be considerably more work without a tromped-in track.
We eventually arrive back at our bivy site. I take off my soaking-wet boots and socks and put on my dry socks and ski boots. There isn’t much to pack, so that job is short. I drink my fill, then pour out the remaining water. I’m down to a bar and some Clif Shots. Even when I’m on skis and my partner is not, I make a habit of staying in sight of each other on decents. The weather is clear and Mike insists that I enjoy the ski run. It seems nigh unto impossible that Mike could get lost on the Muir Snowfield and the beer is the car is calling me.
The compromise is that I take as much of the group gear as I can, so I load the rope and rack in my pack, put on my skis, and take off. Twenty short minutes later I’m drinking a beer in the upper Paradise parking lot. A remarkably short time later, Mike joins me. We loll about in the lot on the warm, sunny afternoon chatting up the tourists who ask what we’ve been up to. Their faces tend to drop a bit when we tell them that we did not, in fact, climb Mt. Rainier, but instead put up a new route on an unclimbed face on Little Tahoma. Our faces, however, tell only a tale of adventure successfully realized.