Unicorn Peak, June 2016
“I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. I was nothing to them and they were everything to me.”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
The Summit of Unicorn Peak
, June 25th, 2016
Five sweaty hikers entered the door to a dive bar in Elbe, Washington, approximately 40 minutes west of Mt. Rainer National Park just after 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday in late June. The sun was still high in the bright blue post solstice sky but the heat of the day was quickly lifting. The group slithered quickly into a booth, eager to sit back down and see the menu. We had only two requests each, a burger basket and a tall glass of cold water. The burgers arrived about 10 minutes later, and each of us dove in as if we hadn’t eaten in days. The burger, which according to a sign in the bathroom was the best burger around, was indeed amazing, built with a homemade fluffy sweet bun, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Conversation was limited to, “Oh, this is so good…” as each of us devoured our food and drifted into salty homemade fries. It may have not been the best burger in the world, but, after an exhilarating and exhausting day climbing a mountain, nothing else could have tasted better.
Two weeks prior, I had been out rock climbing in Eugene with Kelly, a friend I had met in climb school (with the Chemeketans out of Salem, Oregon). She was talking about a climb she had signed up for called “Unicorn Peak”, saying that, with a name like Unicorn, how could she not sign up for it? Kelly said there were only 4 people signed up and that I should look at it and think about doing it. I considered the idea and agreed I would take a look at it on Monday. As far as mountain summits go, it was relatively easy. It was only a 6 mile round trip hike, 6973 feet, with a 2400 ft. elevation gain, but would include snow and rock. I was eager for an adventure, so, on that Tuesday, I decided to sign up for the climb to Unicorn Peak less than 2 weeks before the summit. Mason, the trip leader, responded quickly to my e-mail inquiry, and sent the prospectus along with a gear list that he had sent to the rest of the group a month ago, saying if you haven’t started training, you should.
I had been on a few longer hikes and continued to bike to work and go to the gym, but I definitely didn’t feel prepared for a long steep summit, but I told myself that at least it would be a short one. As that week progressed into the following week, I started to consider excuses not to go. But then, as the carpool situation got worked out, as I rented crampons at the outdoor adventure desk at OSU, and dropped off my dog, Millie at the kennel, the car was packed, and I had nothing else to do but drive to the Salem Motor Pool. Once there, I met our trip leader, Mason and two other climbers who would carpool up to Mt. Rainier National Park together. Shonee was an attorney from Salem who had a wife and 4 kids and had decided to take off the entire summer from work, and as a result, decided to start doing mountaineering. This would be his first summit. Joanna was a young professional working in the legislation office in Salem, and this would be her first summit as well.
We drove the 3 ½ hours to a spot just outside of Mt. Rainier where we would camp for the night at Big Creek Campground. The traffic from Portland was forgotten as we entered into a world filled with trees that seemed to reach for the sky, dense, green and dark filled with underbrush of leaves and ferns. The day had been cool and overcast, and we hoped for clear weather the next day. After a night of sleeping, with roosters rudely waking us before we needed to rise, we packed our gear and prepared for the day. We drove into the park and I was amazed at how vast, varied, and impressive Mt. Rainier National Park is. There were multitudes of trails, waterfalls, and mountain peaks, as we drove towards Paradise, Washington, near the Western entrance of the park. After about 40 minutes, we were at the trailhead to Snow Lake, putting on our gaiters over our hiking boots, deciding how many layers to put on, and strapping our ice axes to the sides of our packs. There, we met the other two members of our climbing team, Chris, a young climber who had done several peaks before, and Kelly, who had been in the park for a few days with friends camping.
It was a chilly 44 degrees outside, but as soon as we started the 1.25 mile trail to Snow Lake, we were eager to shed layers. The sky alternated between clear blue skies, clouds, and fog. Ahead of us, rose Unicorn Peak, in a long peak with a sharp point at the end. Before we could get there, however, there were rocks, snow, trees, and a pile of boulders to get through. We kept a quick pace, as we walked along the dirt, somewhat muddy trail, past 2 alpine mountain lakes to the boulder field. We scrambled our way through the rocks, as they shifted unsteadily beneath our boots. Then, we were at the snow line. There was a group climbing with a team of 7 out of Portland, with 4 adults, 2 young teenagers and a 7 year old boy.
We took out water and snacks before strapping our sharp crampons to our boots. I had to ask for help putting them on correctly, since I had never worn them before (and a sharp object is not something you want flying off of your boot). The group from Portland went ahead, the 7 year old blazing up the trail without worry. We followed their steps, and fell into a rhythm of putting the end of the ice ax into the snow, stepping with each foot, replacing the ice ax into the snow ahead, and stepping again as we switch backed up the steep slope. We went ahead of the 7 person group while they took a break, and we continued in for several miles up steep snow. The sun came out and we were all wishing we were in shorts and a t-shirt, sweating as we traveled up towards the “moat”. The moat was where the snow met the rock, and had started to recede as the snow melted with the warm season of summer. Luckily, we were still able to step down from the snow onto the rock, without too much difficulty, and the decision was made to setup a top rope climb over the rock. By the time we had decided, we had to wait for the other group to finish their climb over the rock, as the 7 year old eagerly climbed up the rocks in his crampons and boots. The climb was easy and once at the top, we were grateful to be back in the sunshine.
We went up the next section of snow without crampons since the snow was very wet and it wouldn’t have been very helpful. Once to the top of the 40 degree slope, we traversed over to the summit block. We were almost at the top. We had to wait for a team of two to finish their climb before Mason led up the route we would take. He fixed a rope at the top and we all went up one by one, climbing the rock that was an easy climb, but had a fair amount of exposure. To our right, as we climbed, was a steep overhang to the rest of the valley floor. I was the 2nd one to get to the top, and it felt amazing. The sky cleared again and Mt. Rainier loomed in the distance, as another huge 7,000 feet snow filled summit. It was massive and beautiful. Below, we could see the small round “pond” of Snow Lake, the boulder field of tiny pebbles, and tiny toy trees. The world was small below and so huge around us.
The atmosphere was celebratory on the summit. The group from Portland was on the summit block as well and we took turned posing for photos. The Portland group began their rappel one by one down the rock, off of a dead tree that was lodged in the rock. This meant that we ended up spending well over an hour on the summit, but patience is part of the game. Once the other group was done, it was finally our turn and one by one, we did an interesting rappel down, over some overhangs. Then it was time to go back down and we all retrieved our packs back on and went back along the snow traverse.
For me, this is where I felt challenged and unsure, as we began walking downhill on the steep snowy slope. I tried to do the “plunge” step into the snow with my heel, but felt unbalanced. In most places, the snow was wet so the ice ax didn’t really dig in enough to be much of safety measure. At the end of slope, was a short portion of trees and rock, and beyond that….was only the other side of the mountain. A fall would not end well. The rest of the team seemed to move quickly with ease down the slope, as I was the last one to make it down, not wanting to do that any longer. Mason setup our rappel and I was glad to have a task to do that I felt more comfortable with.
The rappel was not an easy one, as it was at a strange angle off of a tree and went down to where the rock ended and the snow began, all with a wet rope. However, it was fine, and then, as we were all off the rock, the decision was made for us to glissade down the slope. Glissading means, basically, sliding on your butt with your pack on, using the ice ax as a rudder in case you need to turn or slow down.
I was afraid of glissading and sliding out of control, but I was also afraid of trying to walk down the steep snow and falling and sliding out of control. Those were the only two real decisions I had. So, with Mt. Adams peaking in the distance behind me, I took off my harness and put on my rain coat. At least if I was already sliding, I didn’t have to worry about the shock of falling down and having to self-arrest with the ice ax.
The others were excited to glissade and took off in front of me, while I went slowly, using my feet and ice ax to stay in control. Once past the steep section, I actually lifted my feet and started to enjoy the slide. Straight ahead of me was blue sky and Mt. Rainier, and I smiled, thinking, this is a pretty fantastic place to be spending a Saturday.
We all met up further down the slope, and walked the remaining distance on snow, since the boulder field wasn’t too far down. I fell several times, slipping on the snow, but was able to use my ice ax to prevent me from sliding down faster and longer than I would have wanted to go. Once we reached the boulder field, we were all tired and eager to be back at the cars and we hiked out quickly. Back on the trail, it seemed longer and steeper with more stairs than we remembered on the way in, but I still felt energized. We passed several groups of day hikers and stopped to quickly take a few good shots of the peak we had just climbed before we finally got back at the trailhead by 5:45. We had been gone for about 10 ½ hours and felt sweaty and tired, but content. Kelly stayed that night with her friends in the park, and the rest of us, talked eagerly about the possibility of burgers. We drove out of the park, through the tall trees and the patches of sunlight between the mountains. I had completed my first mixed climb, made some new friends, pushed myself mentally and physically and gained so much experience and knowledge. It feels like the start of many splendid adventures ahead.