Ascent of Little Tahoma on 2020-09-05

Climber: Brad Hefta-Gaub

Date:Saturday, September 5, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Little Tahoma
    Elevation:11138 ft / 3394 m

Ascent Trip Report

Little Tahoma did not disappoint. Late season summit made for a very long and complicated glacier traverse, a maze of crevasses and ice fall. I also had a hard day, dragging and under fueled, thankfully Westy and Rebecca put up with my slow poke self. The choss was real. But the airy traverse and exposed scramble to the summit were tame. Weirdly I had 3 bars it cell service most of the climb and on the summit. So we had to do a live stream. #peakbagging #bulgers #adventure #climbing #wedidathing

The late season attempt on a heavily glaciated peak like Little Tahoma is a great opportunity for skill building, suffering, and tons of adventure. We got it all. Beta that might be useful to other folks attempting a late season summit of Little T is...

The Fryingpan Glacier can be thought of in three parts...

The lower section which by late season will likely be bare ice with water running over it. We called this the Fryingpan Water Park. Fresh glacier water was abundant! The ice wasn't too hard for us as the weather has been quite warm. Crampons in trail runners were the order of the day and they were just fun on this section. We were not roped up yet at this point.

The middle section of Fryingpan got serious quickly. We quickly realized we were entering real glacier conditions with actual cracks to navigate. We didn't rope up immediately, but we put on our harnesses, split up our two ropes and stayed a good distance apart so if we got a surprise we wouldn't all go in. This strategy worked for a little while and then we decided these cracks were just too big, especially when we got to the steeper convexities that form seracs and icefall. We had some complicated navigating including some committed jumps across big gaps and end running and weaving around gappers that could swallow busses.

The upper section of Fryingpan was mellow snow with runnels and suncups the size of bathtubs. We stayed roped up, only to not waste time on transitions.

We crossed Whitman Crest at the standard location. There was a fast running stream between the chossy Whitman Crest crossing and the Whitman Glacier. Easy water access, but crossing could be treacherous, and certainly we got our feet and hands wet on the crossings.

The Whitman Glacier was a total mess. Looking out at it, it almost seemed like it wouldn't go. But we were determined and we knew we had the time and skills to find a route. At first we approached along the more standard route climbers right. But the crevasses were massive and we didn't see a clean route through, not to mention the rock fall hazard. We decided to do an end run climbers left because it looked like it might go, and the angle looked lower.

The end run was a pretty good idea, and we made good progress around the lower crevasse system. But then we got to the upper crevasse system/icefall on the steeper slopes. We thought we saw a route back climbers right again, so we gingerly made our way over. We found a way, but it was definitely intense. As we were standing in a particularly exposed section discussing our route options we heard the glacier move. Westy had just been talking about this a few minutes earlier "have you ever been on a glacier when it moves"... I said at the time that I voted for not having that experience today... but the mountain wants what the mountain wants. We took as a sign to move along and managed to get through and out of the icefall. This got us to some lower angle snow and then onto the rocks, and I use that term "loosely".

Most beta will tell you to take the left snow finger. If you are coming late season, don't expect to see two snow fingers... there was a small patch of steep angle snow and ice that we determined was the traditional "left snow finger". We stayed on the chossy rocks to reach the top of the snow finger and had a short albeit pucker worthy crossing to get to the true final scramble. More choss, a couple of gullies of rock and choss, more chossy boulders, then the final scramble to the summit.

This was my first time on Little T, so I was curious to see the "airy ridge walk" and the "extreme exposure", and test my own perception of these rather subjective terms. Certainly looking down into the Emmons glacier will give you a real sense of exposure. As Westy mentioned, it almost seems overhanging. But you're not forced to stare this exposure in the eye if that's not your thing, and the most narrow section ridge is actually pretty short. I would compare it to the short sections of narrow ridge on the traverse between Sahale and Boston. The scramble to the summit is certainly a no fall zone, but again, that exposure didn't bother me.

I had cell service at many points along the route, and so I check at the summit and sure enough 3 LTE bars, so we jokingly fired up an Instagram Live Feed, and a friend actually watched it live so we chatted with him about the view. Summit shenanigans for sure.

The climb down from the summit was straightforward. "Make sure you have good hand holds, and you'll be fine." was Westy's mantra, and it seemed to work. More chossy rock, some butt schootching, some down climbing, and we were back down to the "snow finger".

This time across Westy didn't want to take chances, so Rebecca belayed him as he set running ice screws, and then belayed Rebecca across, then me across cleaning the ice screws. The 2x 30m ropes made this process much easier as Westy lead out with both ropes, and then Rebecca and I each had a rope to follow on.

More choss, and a water stop at 10,200 ft. Yes, there's running water at 10k if you go late season. I guess this is one advantage of late season glacier travel.

The return trip down Whitman Glacier went better than the climb. We decided to stay hard skiers right, hoping we would be able to endrun the bergschrund on snow. By now the snow had firmed up to a nice styrofoam consistency and it was easy to securely walk unroped. We got around the schrund, and started entering the more complex lower system of crevasses so we roped up again and gingerly made it through the maze. Once on the lower angle slopes we had an easy walk to the Whitman Crest, another wet stream crossing and back onto the choss.

Couple side notes: On the descent around 10,200 I started getting a headache. I was pretty sure it was not AMS, but instead likely bad nutrition, lots of sun, and mild dehydration. I was on the struggle bus and having a hard time getting calories down most of the second half of the day. I let Westy and Rebecca know that I had a headache, and we all agreed it was good we were on the descent. My headache didn't really clear up until about 7000ft, after a couple hours, and getting more food in me. So maybe it was altitude related, or maybe it was just food. But I'm glad I was with a crew that can be honest with each other about what we're feeling on the mountain. I can't say enough about what great mountain partners Westy and Rebecca were.

Second random note: Gear... I've been having problems with my Petzl Leopard Crampons on my trail runners. Westy volunteered to let me try out his Kathoola KTS crampons. Those also didn't work well, which meant several stops to readjust them. But Westy figured out a better way to strap on the Petzl Leopards, and when we switched back and I used his technique the Leapods worked GREAT.

Back to the beta... We didn't get back onto the Fryingpan glacier until the sun was setting. This made our trip down even more exciting. My headlamp was weak, fortunately I was in the middle of the rope. I was definitely the weakest link in the crew. And my gear was a hot mess. Lessons learned.

The complex crevasse systems of the middle Fryingpan were challenging to navigate in the dark. We mostly could follow our own footsteps, but at points we lost our trail and it always seemed to be in the complex crevasses. We had multiple starts and stops and retracing of our steps, checking our GPS track. I've never used wands before, and none of my regular mountain adventure buddies seem to be wand advocates, and in fact the park service discourages their use on Mount Rainier. But I think this might have been a trip where wands would have come in handy.

We had several crevasse crossing where we weren't sure if the best way we found in the dark was the same way we came, was the snow plug solid enough to cross on the sections too wide to jump? We worked great as a team and prepared for the worst. One particularly wide and unknown stability crossing we actually had me go down into a belay position as Westy crossed just in case. It turned out it was solid, but we were prepared as a team for the alternative. We had one other crossing that was a jumpable gap with a likely weak snow plug. Westy made the jump fine, but I didn't quite clear the gap and my leg plunged thigh deep into the crevasse. I had my ice axe ready and dug into the lip, and looked up to see that Westy and Rebecca both had me securely on belay dug in deep with their ice axes. That was our closest call, and again, a good team, with good communication, situational awareness, skills, and teamwork made the best of the situation.

We were all relieved when we reached the Fryingpan Water Park and eventually dry land. More choss, some route finding, bushwhacking to get around a cliff, and finally back on the Wonderland Trail which apparently grew by a couple miles while we were out on the glaciers.

Back to the car after 18+ hours. A grand adventure.
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Stream Ford, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Headlamp, Ski Poles

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