Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Castle! 7/26/08

Liz and I were anxious to get another trip in before she headed back to work for the school year, so we planned an outing to Mount Rainier National Park. This is a place we had passed through on a previous vacation and were anxious to explore further. Our friends Jacob and Lindsey decided to join us for the adventure.

Since we planned the trip on short notice and weren’t exactly sure when we were going, we decided not to make camping reservations and just wing it. There are several large campgrounds in and near the park, so we didn’t really anticipate this being a problem (foreshadowing alert!).

We left after work on Friday. Upon reaching the park entrance after dark we were greeted by a sign that read, "All Campgrounds Full". We drove to scope out some campgrounds just outside the park, which were also full. Kept driving. Resort cabins--also full. Drove some more. Hotels--also full. "How about a spot on that church lawn? Churches like to help homeless people!" We deep sixed the church plan after pulling into the parking lot and realizing there was some type of all-night youth part going on that we decided we probably shouldn’t crash.

Out came the atlas as we debated which forest roads were likely to have flat spots for tents. As we headed down the first road to explore we ran across a sign for a Christian camp. We stopped in to ask if they had any place we could put up a couple tents and they turned us away because they had a family camp going on, but they did give us a couple of suggestions. The first was a teen party spot and garbage-dumping area in the woods. Not exactly the scenic National Park experience we came for, but we were getting desperate so we checked it out. It wasn’t as bad as I had pictured, but the only viable tent spots had been covered with piles of concrete.

The next place they suggested was this red-neck campground at the lake run by the Lion’s club. By this time we weren’t really excited about driving around in the dark on Forest Service land, so we headed for the lake. What we found was an open gravel parking lot with pit toilets, no water, no picnic tables, and no designated spots. As far as we could tell you put $10 in a box and put your tent/RV/boat trailer/motorcycle/4x4 anywhere you darn well pleased. So that’s what we did.

We put our tents next to an RV and parked our cars on the other side to protect us from getting run over by drunk red necks burning through the gravel parking lot at 3 a.m. We went to sleep under the glow of neon lights from the local tavern and drunken campers telling crude (and LOUD!) jokes into the wee-hours of the morning. Good times!

The view from our "campsite"

Despite our late night we woke up early, anxious to get out of there as fast as possible. We went to the park and set up to cook our breakfast in one of the day use areas. After breakfast we checked in at the park campgrounds to see if there might be an opening for that night. No luck, all booked up.

By now it was about noon so we decided to abandon our efforts at securing a place to stay for the night and go on the climbing trip we’d come for so the weekend wouldn’t be a total waste.

About 1:30 p.m. we left the trail at Reflection Lakes for the saddle between Pinnacle and Plummer peaks. The original plan was to climb Pinnacle, Plummer, and The Castle. Due to our late start, we opted to head straight for the most ambitious of the three peaks, The Castle.

Rainier on the approach

After reaching the saddle we traversed across the talus slope under Pinnacle towards The Castle. From my past experience on this climb I knew there was a hidden 4th class gully that makes a nice shortcut to the base of the summit block and eliminates some of the looser rock we would otherwise have to negotiate.

I sensed some trepidation amongst my companions when I pointed out the gully we would be ascending and they replied, "Really? Are you sure we’re supposed to go up that?"

I assured them it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but I had everyone don climbing harnesses in case someone decided they needed the added psychological confidence boost that a rope can provide.

4th class gully

Jacob bravely volunteered to go first. About ¾ of the way up he reached the crux, which required an exposed but easy step around a bulge in the rock. This obstacle seemed a bit overwhelming so I offered the added security of a rope, which he gladly accepted. I free-soloed to the top of the gully and set up a top rope, then rappelled back down to tie him in, then headed back up to the top to belay. Since I had the rope out, I used it to belay up Lindsey and my lovely assistant Liz, who helped at the bottom by making sure everyone was tied in correctly before heading up.

Once we were on top of the ridge we only needed to traverse 100 yards or so to the base of the summit block. From there I led the short pitch to the summit ridge and rappelled back down so that I could belay people up one at a time on top rope. We used this method to get everyone on top of the knife-edged ridge that forms the summit of The Castle.

It’s hard to get a feel for this alpine climbing stuff without actually being there, but I’ll do my best to describe it. Being on top of this ridge provides an airy feeling, with a few hundred feet of exposure above the valley separating us from the looming mass of Mt. Rainier. Once we were all gathered safely on the summit ridge I announced that they were going to have the opportunity to go to the top. "Aren’t we already on top?" they asked. "No, I mean the Tippy Top," I replied as I pointed toward the washing machine-sized block that marks the high point of this particular ridge.

From here I set out to secure a fixed line across the top of the ridge that we could use to run back and forth to the summit and back. Everyone was pretty content to stay put and take in the views from where we were, but with some encouragement I persuaded Liz and Jacob to make the final traverse to the true summit.

Liz on top!

After tagging the summit and taking some photos it was time to get down. Since nobody but me knew how to rappel, this involved tying in and lowering one person at a time, which took a while, but got everyone down safely. It took a lot of courage to sit back on the rope and trust the system and the belayer (yours truly), but everyone stepped up to the challenge.

We all made it down!

We turned on our headlamps about half way back to the car and spent some time laying in the empty parking lot next to Reflection Lakes and enjoying the warm summer night. Since we didn’t have anywhere to stay we opted to drive all the way home that night, which made for a pretty long day.

I must say I was quite impressed at the fortitude displayed by my group of alpine newbies. This was quite an ambitious trip for those with no previous climbing experience. Despite our disastrous camping experience, the climb went wonderfully, and everyone had smiles on their faces by the time we got back to the cars. I think they’ll be back for more. : )

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