100 Peaks #26: The Ways I Have Loved Tahoma (Mt. Rainier)

When I first visited Seattle, I hiked up to Panorama Point, just a couple miles up a paved trail, in jean shorts and a hoodie, marveling at the snow on the ground and struggling to walk across it in sandals. I saw some people come down the hill, heavy boots making tons of noise, stuff strapped all over their huge packs, with dirty hair and wild eyes. This was even before my thru-hike. How wonderful it would be to be that dirty, that tired, I thought.

Later, one winter, I hiked with Wade up to Camp Muir (camp for the most popular route) in a whiteout, and hung out with some people talking about training for high altitude climbs elsewhere. Half of me respected them, half of me wondered why fly so far away when there were so many mountains here? Altitude (even 14k feet) seemed scary and undesirable. On the way down, the clouds lowered and we could see the large, gentle snow slopes. Coming down from 10,000 feet was like coming down from the moon. I was smitten.

Meanwhile, I climbed other mountains. I met people who had climbed Tahoma. I returned to Camp Muir many times. Many of the people I met there came from very far away and paid guides. They didn’t seem to be having much fun. I wasn’t very interested in being them anymore. When I was on the Appalachian Trail and told people I was from Seattle, they’d sometimes ask, “have you climbed Rainier yet?” I’d tell them there were other mountains, annoyed at the question.

But as much as I hated the obsession with getting to the highest point in Washington, I loved the mountain. Sychronized with other Seattle drivers, I gasped audibly at views I had from the highway. I showed it to my visiting friends. I spent many afternoons kayaking and watching the sun set on the impossibly large wall of intricately-featured snow in the distance. I ran my first 30+ mile run, by myself on the smokiest day of the year, right next to Tahoma. As I wheezed and wondered about whether I’d ever run that far again or if I had poisoned myself irreparably, Tahoma looked out on me wordlessly. I’d see it, start running downhill again, smile. “You idiot,” it was probably telling me. “Why did you do this in wildfire season?”

Last year, I spent three days worshipping Tahoma, thinking I’d “run” the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the base, but instead picking dates too early in the season and hiking through snowfields for 32 mile days. It was one of my favorite solo trips ever. I watched the sunrise and sunset alpenglow when Tahoma peeked out at intervals, felt hail in my hair while looking at the toes of glaciers, and laid in my bivy sack feeling that weird feeling of rain patters that aren’t wet.

The mountain judged me once again on that trip as I encountered a washed out bridge over an overflowing glacier-fed river. All that remained was one log, angled so the flattest part was about 45 degrees with horizontal and with one end in the river, the handrails having been swept away entirely. The only way to maintain my balance going up it was probably to run. I tried for around an hour looking for another way across rocks. I tried to ford the river using the log as a handrail, but found myself in up to my waist and unable to resist the current. I felt so alone, and I cried. For some reason, I ran across the log. I really could have died. A few weeks later, someone did, doing the same thing.

I wasn’t good enough to climb Tahoma, I thought. No one really is. To pick my way up the D.C. route with flags placed by guides would be dishonest and disrespectful to the biggest pile of ice I’d seen. Still, I tried once, late in the season and with a weather window and time constraints that I didn’t think would be successful. It felt right that we weren’t, and we all had a good trip anyway as we drank tea and reverently looked out at the glaciers.

The next year, I climbed the small peak on big T’s shoulder, Little Tahoma. This peak too is visible from Seattle, and Wade would always point out how it got dark before the big mountain at sunset. “Little T has an earlier bedtime than Big T!” We went with our friend Eva for one of the most pleasant outings in history, a bluebird day of simple glacier crossings and a short, exposed scramble. The impossibly huge, folded and crumbly mass of Tahoma was right in front of us as we perched on the rocky summit, which is much lower but still the second-tallest peak in the state. So close, Tahoma looked like it contained an impossible volume of earth. It took up way more than a whole frame if I tried to photograph it. Once again, it felt like a foolish and egotistical thing to try to climb!

Still, when Eva invited me to climb the Kautz Glacier route, a route near the standard one but far less popular and significantly more technical, I thought maybe it was time. I still felt some sense of foreboding. Wasn’t it stupid to try a sort of technical ice route with no ice experience? (Critically, my partners did have experience.) Wasn’t the altitude going to make the trip just inherently not fun?

At less than 15 miles and less than 10k feet of elevation gain, I shouldn’t have been daunted by climbing Tahoma in a day. I like long days, and this one wouldn’t really be an outlier for me. But it’s A Thing That People Do to Be Impressive, so I felt weird about it. But still, the way I feel happy and free in the mountains is not by carrying a tent, it’s by hiking for a long time in relative solitude. So it seemed like climbing the Kautz in one push was the right way to climb the big mountain if I was ever going to do it at all. I don’t think I even realized it at the time, but I never allowed myself to truly be excited for the trip, uncharacteristically buying into the narrative of Mountaineering as Suffering that I tend to normally be extremely skeptical of.

But when we got to the visitors center, I saw kids excitedly talking about walking on snow in July. I’ll get to walk on snow in July, I thought, despite the fact that of course, I do that all the time. The wholesome national park vibe put me beside myself with excitement. I started filling out a junior ranger book as the real ranger entered our party in the walk-up permit system.

It also helped to climb with some of my favorite people. The next “morning” just before midnight, we started up the trail. Bouyed by bizarre dad jokes and Eva and Westy’s sarcastic humor (captured in this way more entertaining trip report), the day honestly flew by. We climbed snow in the dark, we climbed a wholly surreal ice chute just after sunrise. We saw the other volcanoes in the distance, from which I had gazed at Tahoma before. We saw only one other party. This wasn’t a sufferfest, this was the best hike ever!

Toward the top, Westy and Eva seemed to be feeling the altitude a bit more. We slowed down a lot, but it was impossible for the day to feel tedious given how beautiful it was! I worried a bit about Eva and made sure to encourage her to turn around if she needed to. She didn’t get much worse, so we crested the summit (still alone) in dramatic winds and sunshine, and hurried down.

We saw the other climbers soon. We descended the standard route, and everyone was nice enough to let us pass. It was surrounded by super cool crevasses as well. At Camp Muir, we took a break. Instead of (or maybe among) agitated tourists, I actually saw some people I knew!

When we got to the base 17 hours after waking up, I finished getting my junior ranger badge and pinned it to my jacket, glowing. True, I wasn’t good enough to “conquer” Tahoma; neither are the tourists; and neither is anyone else. That shouldn’t stop us from enjoying our national park. Still, I felt happy to have climbed one of the most important mountains to me in a way that felt light-hearted, enjoyable, and free, rather than rushing to check it off my ticklist. Now there are so many other routes to try!

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