Unicorn Peak (attempt) 6971'
Mt Rainier National Park
February 19, 2005
Greg, Jake and I made a valiant attempt of Unicorn Peak today, turning around a mere 400 feet short of the summit. We were close to the summit in elevation but not in time. Considering that the last few hundred feet to the summit is a 4th class rock scramble and it was 4:00pm, the decision wasn't really that hard. Did I mention that it was cold and windy too?
Jake and I met Greg at the Tacoma REI at 7am hoping to get a shot at their garage sale going on that weekend. There were already about 10 cold bargain shoppers lined up outside the door in sleeping bags and down jackets when we arrived. Unfortunately for us, the doors weren't scheduled to open until 9am so we just piled into Greg's truck and headed up to Mt Rainier National Park.
At the entrance to the Park the Ranger in the booth informed us that the gate at Longmire opened a little after 7am, and "there were climbers already heading up to Muir". Climbing conditions were excellent today with beautiful clear and sunny weather after several days of the same-- although driving in we had seen clouds howling off Mt Rainier's summit. A bit windy up there, to be sure. But we were heading to the lower Tatoosh Range, due south of Mt Rainier.
It was chilly in the Narada Falls parking lot. There were a handful of cars there already. Probably overnight snowshoers and skiers. We donned our backs and headed up the boot track that climbed the steep boulder field leading up to the road. There wasn't much snow on the slope, and it certainly wasn't new so we didn't have to worry about anything sliding. Once on the road we found a well packed boot track and were able to keep our snowshoes on our packs.
Soon we were passing Reflection Lake and making our way along the front of the Tatoosh Range towards Unicorn Peak. The boot back ended just as we were nearing Bench Lake, so we struck out on our own breaking trail. The road started descending here so the going was pretty easy. Looking up We took a few bearings to make sure we didn't miss our trail. After a few curves in the road, wefound the sign marking the trail up towards Unicorn.
It appeared that we were the first people that had been in this area since the last snowfall. Since the snow pack was so low this year, we could easily follow the summer trail which was still bare in places. At one such bare spot, we took lunch in the sun. It was a little after noon. Twenty minutes later we were back on the trail heading up a ridge towards the upper basins. We came upon a small stream valley and made an ascending traverse along it's right hand side. This lead up to a larger cirque with a steep gulley leading out of it. We made our way up the steep gulley and finally pulled over the top. Here we found a larger basin which we followed up and to the left where we had a good view of the horn of Unicorn Peak.
It appeared that once we climbed up this last steep snow gulley, we would be on the 6500' southwest shoulder of Unicorn Peak and the real climbing would begin. The snow gulley had a surprise for us and did not allow easy passage. The middle of the gulley contained sugary unconsolidated snow while the left side was a very loose scree field. Jake and Greg made their way up the left hand side while I slowly made my way up the middle. Neither route afforded good purchase but after a few tenuous moments we all made it up to the windy shoulder and were able to look down the other side of the range.
Our altimeters read 6500' but our clocks read 4:30pm. We would already be hiking out in the dark so we decided to call it a day and head back down the way we came up. Continuing on to the summit would require us to break out the rope, harnesses, and protection. And the descent from the top would most likely include a rappel, so we decided that we didn't want to take that much time. Strong winds were picking up and my feet were getting a bit cold so I had no problem turning around. We snapped a few 'highpoint' photos, and then made some fun glissades back down the steep gulley. Near the small valley with the stream we spied a tent and visited with a man who was planning to climb Unicorn the next morning with his partner. We shared with him the information we had and he was appreciative of it. After a few minutes visiting we said farewell and continued our descent.
We hit the road just as it was getting dark. The waxing moon was three quarters full so we were able to snowshoe back without even turning on our headlamps. About a mile past Reflection Lake, my hips started feeling the awkwardness of snowshoeing all day, and I slowed down. Greg seemed to get a burst of energy so he offered to continue on to the parking lot and drive the truck up to where we could meet him. Jake and I continued along the road as Greg sped ahead.
We continued past the steep slope above the Narada Falls parking lot and made our way to where the Stevens Canyon road met up with the main road up to Paradise. A few minutes after we arrived, Greg came driving up and we were soon enjoying the warmth of the cab. There was just one more obstacle left: the Longmire gate. We knew it was locked by the park rangers at night but we weren't sure of the specific time. It was about 8pm when we pulled up to it and found it locked. I got out and walked down to the National Park Inn and asked the man at the front desk if he had the combination to the lock. He told me he did, but he needed a drivers license and the vehicle description and license plate number. Since it wasn't my truck and I didn't have the vehicle information I offered to leave my drivers license with him to be picked up when we drove past the gate and stop in to give him the vehicle information. "Sorry, Park rules say I have to have the information before I can give the combination."
Needless to say I wasn't happy having to walk back up to the truck to get Greg. We all walked back down to the Inn and Greg got the combination and we were on our way.
I might have been dehydrated, or exhausted and hungry, or frustrated with the Park 'service', or a combination of all the above but somewhere along highway 512, I started feeling very sick. The windy road didn't help much either. We finally made it into Tacoma and stopped in at the Wagon Wheel on highway 7 for some dinner. I was envious of Greg and Jake's burgers but after a cup of chowder and a glass of milk I was feeling much better.
We arrived back at the Tacoma REI a little before 11pm and wondered what deals were had at their Garage Sale earlier. But after a full day in the mountains all we really cared about was a safe drive home to our families. Thanks guys for fun trip!