July 4-6, 1997
Many years ago, I was returning from some weekend trip that hadn’t gone very smoothly, in the company of my stepson, Will. He was about 11 or 12 at the time. After driving for sometime in silence, reflecting on the weekend, Will said: “I think I know the definition of an adventure. An adventure is something that isn’t too much fun when you are doing it, but it makes for great stories after it is over”. By this definition, ten of us had quite an adventure over the 4th of July holiday on Little Tahoma. Little Tahoma is a pointed, rocky side peak to the east of Mount Rainier. At 11,117 ft., it is the third highest peak in Washington — higher than Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak. With a trailhead at 3,800 ft. elevation, it is a significant undertaking to climb.
Eight of us - Ken Ball, Julian Peñaloza, Seth Defoe, Sally Grosscup, Josh Ladau, John Pegg, Deb Carver and Susan Sullivan (leader) left Eugene the afternoon of July 3 and car camped on a logging road near Morton. In the morning, at the White River Ranger Station, we met up with the remaining two members of our group, Benjamin Donner and Chris Miller, and paid the National Park climbing fee ($15 per person). We then began a five-mile hike along scenic Fryingpan Creek to our high camp near the Fryingpan Glacier at the top of Meany Crest, at 7,000 ft.
On Saturday at 3:00 a.m., we arose to a mix of stars and clouds and unusually warm temperatures (56° according to Chris Miller’s thermometer!) We began the trek to the summit at 4:00. We could see the headlamps of the folks climbing the Emmons Glacier on Rainier as we traveled roped across the Fryingpan. The climb continued scenic and uneventful to about 10,500 ft., where we made the transition to crumbly, but not difficult, rock scrambling (Josh’s comment: “This is like Three Fingered Jack with glaciers!”). About 500 ft. of scrambling took us to the base of the relatively solid rock summit. John Pegg led the last 80-ft. pitch, and reached the top at about 12:15. Ken Ball followed him up, and then Josh took his turn heading up while the rest of us lazed at the base, waiting our turns. This idyllic climbing scene was suddenly transformed into a chaotic descent when a bolt of lightning and accompanying thunder broke our reverie. A thunderstorm about three or four miles away was moving in our direction. Josh hurriedly downclimbed; the group already on the ground headed downhill as quickly as safety would allow. Once Josh was off the rope, Ken and John rappelled off the summit and pulled the rope down. By the time the last members of the group had started down, the storm had moved in. Ice axes and pack stays were humming, and we could hear the electricity making a crackling sound in the rocks. We continued down post haste. Eventually, the worst of the storm passed, and the electrical phenomena stopped. Just as it seemed we had made it through that hazardous situation, we had another crisis. The fearless leader was struck in the hand by a falling rock. The smashing blow damaged my index finger and thumb, cutting tendons and exposing bone. John put his firstaid kit to use; once the injured parts were bandaged, he immobilized the hand with good old duct tape. I was able to downclimb the remaining easy rock on belay, then made it down the glacier in one of the middle positions on a four-person rope. We descended into a 9,000-ft. cloud layer that persisted into camp; we had no trouble locating camp, having placed wands on the ascent. At camp, Benjamin and I hurriedly packed up and headed for the trailhead. I left about half my equipment behind for others to carry out, in order to make the trip out a bit easier. We made it to the trailhead by 7:30 p.m., and made it to the Kent Hospital by 9:00. I was in surgery by 11:00, about nine hours after the accident occurred.
On Sunday morning, we were able to make it back to the trailhead before the rest of the group had hiked out, so I was able to return to Eugene with the rest of the crew. In retrospect, I am grateful that we were not all on the summit when the lightning storm struck. The injury should heal just fine, and I think we all learned some lessons about how to handle similar situations. I am grateful to the whole group for keeping composure under difficult circumstances, and helping to get me down safely. It was Benjamin’s first climb. He tells me that he still wants to climb again!