Yes, it’s cliche’, but also a pretty catchy title, don’t you think? Sure, maybe it has nothing to do with eagles or flying, other than a peak in Mount Rainier National Park named Eagle Peak which is a bit over 5,000′ elevation and has great views. Well, I wouldn’t technically know what the views are like because our crew had to turn around before the summit due to avalanche risk.
It all starts with a Plan
A fellow Mountaineer and Mountaineer scramble leader planned a club trip to Eagle, Chutla, and Wahpenavo Peaks, which are accessed out of Longmire. The original plan for the leader and co-leader was to do a day trip to camp Muir from Paradise, but with the weather and uncertainty of the gate opening, there just was not going to be enough time to do the trip, and a risk the gate opening being delayed or not open too. So the trip was changed a few days prior. A great call because it snowed the night before and the Longmire gate to Paradise didn’t open until 11:00AM.
It was a bit of a strange start to the trip. We were to meet at Longmire at 7:00AM. That meant we were getting out of bed about 3:45AM, leaving the house by 5:00AM. The drive was not bad until around Alder Lake to the park entrance where they were a bit icy and slick. But sneaky icy, not obvious. I could tell that every now and then the Honda Pilot felt slippery. I learned later that one of the participants had her Toyota Forerunner sideways at one point. But pulled out of it. Whew!
So back to the meet up. Two leaders and nine or ten participants. One cancelled because they got sick. Then two who arrived in a Sprinter Van, had noticed what they thought or believed to be a stray dog on the drive to the trailhead, and picked it up. The dog was near a bunch of RVs in a grassy lot on highway 7. Who knows if the dog was abandoned or maybe just not treated well. Possibly they took someone’s dog. Either way, it will hopefully end up with a better life. So those two turned back to Olympia.
Before Sprint Van folks left, the co-leader realized he forgot his snowshoes. No problem, he borrowed a pair from Sprinter Van person. Only he didn’t check to make sure they’d fit with his mountaineering boots. He later learned, on the trail, they didn’t fit.
We got ourselves sorted out and walked a quarter mile or so to the trailhead across the river. Here, we had our pretrip meeting. The leader did an awesome job of laying out our goal for the day, and making sure everyone knew they held a veto card if they didn’t feel safe in the conditions.
The mountain had received 20″ of new snow in the past week and a few of those the night before. The trail heads up a single track a moderately steep slope. Ultimately, we gained 2,600′ in 3.75 miles up. We were prepared for winter snow scrambling, which meant the basic 10 essentials, ice ax, micro-spikes or crampons, and for this trip, snow shoes. This trip was open to both scrambling students and past graduates. It was a mix of both. We are both students this year. It was decided that we’d “boot” up until we needed traction. We made it up somewhere between a mile and a half to two miles before adding snow shoes. It was once we started post holing that we put on snowshoes. Plus we had been using extra energy with the mildly slippery steps in mountaineering boots. This is when the co-leader discovered his snow shoes didn’t fit. Ultimately, another participant gave up his snow shoes and decided to “boot” it up. He ended up post-holing the entire day, sometimes thigh deep. I’m not sure how he did it. That’s a lot of energy.
We had one avalanche slope to cross before we made it fully out of the trees. We made a group decision that it was safe (green to go) based on the visible signs, or lackthereof, and a quick psuedo test pit made with a trekking pole to look at the snow layers and find out if the layer was holding. It took a fair force. We ended up following the previous track and left what would have been the summer trail. Once we hit the more open terrain, we stopped to have another meeting and discuss risk.
Slopes in the 30 to 40 degree range, with knee deep snow!
We began heading up, taking turns breaking snow. It had turned out to be a blue bird day. Which is amazing considering the stormy weather the week and day previous. And the day after! But the sunshine and southern facing slopes also meant the snow warming and added risk. At first there was only minimal sign of tiny roller balls. As we progressed, it was still feeling okay. This is where trips can get wonky. Everyone had a veto card, and I believe didn’t feel the need to use it. We got spread out some, which is okay. We also had two handheld radios that were always in the hands of the first and last person in the group. As we were making our way up the slope to the saddle between Eagle and Chutla, we witnessed a snow bomb drop from a tree uphill in the distance, which started a small point release slide. It only took seeing this when one person said, we are turning around now. The decision was unanimous. We retreated back to safety just in the trees, had lunch, and then walked out way back out. We were back at the cars around 2:00PM.
Every trip is a lesson
It’s true. Each trip offers something to learn. Experiencing certain conditions helps reinforce the academic learning. Of course, no one ever wants to experience too much, as in seeing a point release is one thing, seeing a slab avalanche is not the experience one wants.