Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!
Ski Touring in the Tatoosh
November 24, 2001
This day turned out to be an exercise in being flexible, improvising, making the best of less than ideal situations, and, in the end, a graphic example of why it is important to appreciate every day, even if it didn't live up to my expectations.
The month of November had been bleak for me in the way of climbing. It usually is, but this November seemed worse. I was elated when the first big snow of the season came during Thanksgiving week. I called Jens and we made plans to ski in and climb Unicorn Peak, in the Tatoosh Range just south of Mt. Rainier.
We arrived passed through the gate at 7:40 AM and found out that the gate at Longmire, ten minutes ahead, had just opened. Good timing, we commented.
I started to get concerned as we gained elevation and there was little snow. At the Narada Falls parking lot I could see that the snow cover on the boulder-slope was sparse. We'd be bootpacking to the closed road above. Then Jens discovered that his skins were at home in his garage. We decided to start out anyway, and see what happened. We hoped we might be able to boot pack the whole way, given the dearth of snow in the parking lot.
The snow accumulation in the boulders was that magic amount where it is a minefield for walking and brutal on skis. Halfway up I switched to skis, while Jens continued on foot. Near the road I broke one of my BD Flicklock poles in half. It is the third time I've bent or broken a lower shaft on those poles. Maybe that Easton 7075 is a little thin?
At the road Jens first tried to schuss along without skins. Then he tried bootpacking. Neither worked very well. I offered him a skin, which he took, and we made steady, if slow progress toward Reflection Lake. Once there we had a reality check and realized that there was little chance of us making it to Unicorn. We changed plans and headed up the snow-covered Pinnacle Peak trail. It was impossible to travel up the steeper terrain with one skin, so Jens gave me the one he was using. That didn't work at all; the snow was much deeper that it looked and he sunk to his waist every step.
Faced with the choice of giving up and heading for the car or improvising, we got creative. While Jens rifled his pack for cord and webbing, I collected a few dead branches. We then used the cord and webbing to secure the branches to the bottom of his skis. I tried to take a picture, but my camera decided it was not going to work. We continued up.
It was hard work for Jens. It was more like snowshoeing than skinning. Just below the entrance to the bowl below Castle Peak, Jens called a halt to the uphill portion of our day. I was just glad to be outside: The cloud layer was pretty high, we could see up to about 13,000' on Rainier. We could see the Muir Hut, but there was a notable absence of people on the Muir Snowfield. I suspected that the wind, which was blowing hard even in the trees, was discouraging most people from venturing onto the broad, exposed snowslope.
So we switched gears from uphill to downhill. Jens gladly discarded the branch-skins and we headed down. The snow was clumpy and unconsolidated. The skiing was interesting: Me with one pole, Jens in climbing boots, and only marginal coverage. But we made it back to the lake with only a few endos.
At the lake we each put on one skin and headed back up the road. At the boulders we packed up skis and clambered down to the car. We took our time packing up. We each sipped a beer and looked at Narada Falls, drooling over the possibility of a rare early-season deep-freeze making it into a frozen playground.
After twenty minutes of goofing around we departed. At Kautz Creek an ambulance screamed past us. We both assumed that it was carrying an injured person from the Paradise snow-play (sledding) area. They keep an ambulance stationed there on weekends because so many people get hurt.
But just 1.5 miles from the park boundary traffic was stopped. We got out and walked toward the ambulance, past the dozen or so cars also waiting.
I'll never forget what we saw. A large, live fir, perhaps 3.5 feet in diameter at the base and maybe 200 feet tall had simply snapped off halfway up and fallen. Directly onto what had been a Ford Explorer with two people inside. It hit the top of the windshield and the car was basically broken in half; completely crushed in the middle with the frame bent and touching the ground. The huge tree section was stuck in the car. It looked like an empty beer can that had been stepped on.
The word from the first people on the scene was grim: The two people had been alive, but barely. It had apparently happed about twenty minutes before we got there.
We watched them cut the branches off the tree and then pull it away with a truck. The firemen on the scene then quickly and proficiently cut the roof off. At that point a Ranger who was clearly upset and had little to do shooed us all away and announced that the road would be closed for at least an hour.
We headed back to Longmire, planning to eat. In the restaurant was Jens' sister. Normally this would be a surprise, but with all the weirdness on this day it didn't strike me as odd.
Eventually the road reopened and we left. I couldn't help but think about the two people in that car. But for a couple beers at the Narada Falls parking lot it could have been us. Life is short and precious. Though my day didn't go as planned, I was in the mountains with a friend on a decent day. And at the end of the day I came home to my wife and kids. And for those things, and each day that I get, I am truly grateful.
This page was last edited on
Tuesday, August 30, 2005