A little past six on Friday, Sara arrives at my apartment, and my cats charm her into petting them while I shove the last few things into my pack. Lindsay shows up soon afterwards, and we swing by J’s place to pick him up, then hit the road, due north, away from Portland’s triple-digit forecast and towards Mount Rainier. We’re meeting more Pikas in Mount Rainier National Park tomorrow morning, where we’ll all climb Unicorn Peak, and then, the next day, Castle and Pinnacle.
It’s dark when we reach the first campground on the short list Josh sent us, and we drive the loop slowly, looking for an empty spot. Every site has a “reserved” tag, but the host is still up and points us towards a site reserved by a no-show. We set up our tents, sip some homemade pineapple rum courtesy of Sara’s generous boyfriend, and hit the hay. It’s warm enough all night that I never zip up my sleeping bag. In the morning we repack our packs for the umpteenth time—mine has too much food and not enough water—and then get lost on our way to the trailhead.
We hit the trail a few minutes past nine o’clock. It’ll be just past seven by the time we get back to the cars. Ten hours to cover just five miles! At first the trail is well-built and easy, meandering past a pretty lake, with sweet views of huge Mount Rainier and tons of wildflowers everywhere. Soon enough, the maintained trail ends, spitting us out at the beginning of a big ol’ boulder field, which we pick our way across and up.
For the next couple of hours, we alternate between talus scrambles and short stretches of something resembling trail, with a little bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. Then there’s a fourth-class scramble that we carefully follow each other up. The holds are big and easy, but there’s loose rock everywhere and some real exposure. It’s exhilarating and a little scary, and I’m relieved to top out at a pretty spot covered in greenery.
Then it’s onward and upwards, just a bit more hiking and scrambling to the bottom of the summit block!
Sharon leads the fifth-class pitch up to the top and sets up a fixed line. We follow, tied in with prusiks. The route isn’t hard, but there are a couple of spots where I struggle a little to find secure footing in my hiking boots. I top out and Sharon’s lounging behind a bleached tree at the rappel station. We gather at the high point and celebrate our summit. The view, of course, is incredible.
We rappel twice on the way down. The first rappel, down from the summit block, is a little tricky at the end. I pendulum to the left away from the little saddle I’m trying to hit, and have to walk my feet along the rock back to where I want to go. I’m learning today that down is harder for me than up—and I’ll have a lot more to learn about that before the day is up.
The second rappel lets us skip downclimbing the fourth-class scramble we climbed up, thank goodness. We land next to a small, steep snowfield and start across it, intending to zigzag our way down. Halfway across our first traverse, I slip and nearly fall, but I’ve planted my ice axe effectively and I’m able to hold onto it. After that, though, we move off of the snow.
The next bit quickly becomes a sort of choose-your-own-adventure as we all find our own way down and across the steep scree. Sara ends up stuck in limbo, not sure how to move further down the slope without falling, and I work my way over to her, pointing out a potential route over towards where Sharon and a few others crossed. There’s a steep gully in our way that we’re trying to cross when Josh suggests we head down instead, and gives us a few pointers. “Expect the rock to move,” he says. Just last weekend at the Mount Hood Scramble, I’d taught my mom how to “plunge step” down sandy slopes, and I try to follow my own advice in this steep scree, concentrating on trusting my feet even as the rocks slide beneath them. We surf our way down slowly, putting our hands on the ground as necessary, until we reach another patch of snow. Then Josh shows us how to ski down in our boots—a standing glissade. By the time we reach the rocks again, we’ve almost gotten the hang of it.
I’m slow and not entirely steady as we continue picking our way downhill. We take a long break at the top of the last big boulder field / talus slope, at the bottom of which we’ll finally be back on maintained trail. The scene at the top is idyllic—a stream runs down, with plant life and wildflowers in abundance, rocky peaks on either side of us and Mount Rainier above. We filter water and re-up our bug spray, then head down.
I’m slow. These rocky descents are hard for me. I stay low to the ground, keeping my knees bent and my quads engaged. They’re tight and achy and I’m slow, slow, slow. Sharon and Celia very kindly walk with me, but everyone else fades quickly in the distance below. They wait for me twice. I’m embarrassed, and I want to be done. When Josh ask if I need a break, I say no and we move on.
We reach the trail and walk out. On trail, it’s easier for me to trust my legs. At the cars, Sharon gives me a box of coconut water, which has never tasted so good. We eat an absurd quantity of chips and salsa, then gather ourselves and caravan to our campsite for the night. The park’s campgrounds are full up—it’s a beautiful summer weekend—as is the campground where we spent last night, so we drive to a pullout Josh knows about and set up there, cooking our dinners around a small LED lantern in lieu of a campfire.
castle & pinnacle
In the morning we drive into the park again, stopping one trailhead before the one we parked at yesterday. We walk steadily up the 1.3-mile section of maintained trail, and my sore quads warm up and release a little bit, thankfully.
We head to Castle, first, to scale the Castle wall (har har). There’s a Mazamas group ahead of us, and one of the climbers is our friend Brian, a.k.a. Pocket Waffle, who joined the Flaming Pikas at Horsethief Butte for our BCEP outdoor climbing session! They’re on their way down, and while they finish up their rappel, we head up. Anne leads—her first trad lead. There’s much less room at the top than there was at Unicorn. We stay prusiked to the line or clipped in at an anchor and wiggle around each other as we traverse along the rope to the highest point and then back to the rappel station.
We rappel off and hike over to Pinnacle. The Mazamas group is still ascending their fixed line when we get there, so we chill out at the bottom and eat lunch, crowded into a small amount of shade. They generously offer to let us ascend their line, which we do. It’s a fourth-class scramble, in theory, but with enough loose rock and exposure that I’m glad for my prusik and harness. A young foolhardy couple with less fear of heights than me follows us up without either.
We feel a couple of raindrops, but they’re few and far between so far. We scramble up to the highest point of the large summit block to enjoy the 360-degree view. After a little while, the bugs are buggin’ me a bit, and I’m surprised to find that despite the solid, horizontal-ish ground I’m sitting on, I’m getting a bit nervous about being up so high. I scramble back down to the spot where we topped out, and watch the Mazamas group begin their slow downclimb on their fixed line. A little while later, the rest of the group comes down, too. Sara felt her hair get staticky and everyone’s a little nervous about the storm that seems to be brewing. But we can’t throw down our rope or start our rappel until the Mazamas group has finished descending. The rain never really gets going, but the longer we sit there, the more nervous I get. I’m surprised by my own anxiety level, and I concentrate on breathing evenly and fakin’ it in hopes of makin’ it.
Josh strings everyone’s belay devices on the rope, ready for rappelling, and we all wait for the Mazamas below to reach safety, listening quietly for their leader to shout up to the last climber, waiting at the top to clean the anchors on his way down. Finally, they finish, and one by one we complete the long, single-rope rappel down. We wolf down some snacks and put on layers—rain is threatening again—while Josh coils the rope and carefully downclimbs, and then we all grab our packs and hike out.
The rocky bits are hard, again, and again the group has to wait for me. I guess I know what I need to practice. Finding sure footing! Trusting my legs! Once we hit smoother trail, I stay right on the group’s tail despite my sore quads. By the time we reach the trailhead, the sky is gorgeously blue and sunny again. There are eight of us and eight cans of Rainier left in Josh’s cooler. Perfect. Cheers.
a couple bonus photos from J
on top of Unicorn: