Josh started it. Or rather-- like most of our outdoor adventures-- it was his plan. Josh serves not only as a great friend but with excellent attention to detail in planning, patience, and tolerance for pain, he doubles as an outstanding personal guide and summit coach. The fact that he puts up with my running mouth and cheesy jokes for days on trail is just an added bonus.
So when he developed the plan to summit six of the Tatoosh peaks in two days, I was fully on board without much thought or struggle. At just under 7,000 feet in elevation, Unicorn Peak is the tallest summit in the range and requires only a single pitch of low Class V climbing. The challenge is in the slog over boulder fields and shale en route to the summit and surviving the hoards of mosquitos who are gleeful for your arrival.
Unicorn Peak, a fairly popular climb, is often combined with Boundary Peak, as the two share an easily traversable ridge between them. Boundary is the easier summit, and it requires only basic hand over foot scrambling to access tip-top views. The creative twist in Josh’s itinerary was to add Stevens Peak to our Day 1 itinerary, requiring a descent down Unicorn Peak’s back side to reach the saddle between the two mountains. This would simply mean we’d move fast and light from Unicorn Peak to Stevens Peak and work our way back to Boundary Peak as the third and final summit of our day.
Per usual, we got on trail early to avoid the heat as much as possible, yet we still found ourselves dripping with sweat as we crossed the boulder field near Snow Lake. It’s only a few miles from the trailhead to the final summit climb on Unicorn, but there is plenty of elevation gain along the way.
Reaching the summit block about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, we geared up for our push to the top. I snapped pictures of the lush green valleys below as Josh adorned his climbing rack, that familiar clinking of metal on metal fulfilling the alpine experience. Our climb was quick, and with aided protection it was easy to access to one of the more astonishing views in the northwest: Mount Rainier looms at 14,411 feet over its surroundings, a mass of glacial ice and rock compacted into an iconic mountain dome. From the Unicorn Peak summit there is a clear view of Little Tahoma and the Nisqually Glacier, and it’s impossible not to sit silently for a moment to take in the mountain’s grandeur.
After a few minutes absorbing our surroundings we began setting up our rappel from the peak. It is a short descent, but worth protecting nonetheless. The best rappel station is the remnant stump of a tree that once grew on from the crumbling rocks at the summit. Descending with rope in hand, I stopped for just a moment to enjoy the view down the backside of Unicorn Peak, our next path of travel.
The backside of Unicorn Peak doesn’t have an apparent trail down, so we made use of snow fields and short boulder patches to reduce our tread on the local vegetation. The saddle between Unicorn and Stevens Peaks was devoid of snow, revealing an explosion of lush color. Purple lupuline, vibrant red Indian paintbrush, and golden wildflower burst from pockets of grasses and rocks.
The access to Stevens Peak includes about a half-mile of tiresome side-hilling to access the best approach scramble. The mountain itself isn’t terribly steep, but it is covered in loose shale and iconic Cascade choss. Making your way up it’s flanks, it's important to check each step to avoid a slip that will send you vaulting down a slide of sharp rock edges. As Josh climbed ahead of me, rocks occasionally dislodged themselves from their long-tenured ledges and came tumbling toward me. With some light dodging I was able to avoid any rocks-to-the-face during the ascent, but by the time we reached the summit, the rock-dodging had taken it’s toll on me. Tired, we both gazed back down the valley below and studied our final summit destination. After a few moments catching our breath, we started back down toward our third and final peak.
As we made our way back through the flower-filled saddle between the mountains, we could see the sun low on the ridge we intended to climb to, and we came up with a daunting conclusion:
Perhaps we had been sitting too long…perhaps my legs just weren't carrying me quite fast enough that day…but upon seeing how low the sun sat in the sky, we realized we were very behind schedule and would need a new solution to reach Boundary Peak before sunset.
Looking up the large masses of dark rock, we speculated how we could best make up time, and we made the best conclusion we could: Rather than hike back up to the ridgeline, we’d attempt a scramble/climb up a slab cliff adjacent the peak. From there, we should have quick access to the summit.
I watched as Josh started ahead, his eyes carefully reading the route as he climbed slowly upward. His hands tested the loose rock, careful to distribute his weight in order to avoid relying on any one handhold or foothold. I gave him some time to get ahead of me before starting on the route myself. With the added challenge of a heavy pack and mountaineering boots, I focused on weight distribution… seeking solid footholds before continuing upward. As my hands moved over the rock, I could only seem to find loose fixtures. Nothing seemed solid enough to hold my weight…and I was quick to pick up and discard any chunks I didn’t want my feet to step on. The first time my toe kicked a rock out from under me, my hands gripped tight on the crumbling cliff as I steadied myself.
What had seemed like an easy scramble from below had quickly turned into Class V climbing. The route didn’t appear visually difficult, but the loose rock threatened to send us for an unintentional tumble. Without a rope to protect us, we were now at the mercy of our decision to climb, and we would need to finish out the route with hands and feet only. Already 35 feet up, I was only about a third of the way to the top. My heartbeat quickened and I could feel my palms beginning to sweat. Finding my feet again, I paused to wipe one hand, then the other on my shirt. Looking up, I squinted into the sun at Josh’s progress. "He’s nearing the top now," I thought. "If he can do this… so can I."
My brain shift in this moment is worth noting because it’s something I’ve sought to experience since. Typically, we humans enjoy creating comfortable situations for ourselves…most people don’t seek life-threatening situations. I certainly wasn’t intentionally seeking this feeling either. But in the moment, I had no choice but to focus on my skills, on my surroundings, and to calm myself. I could feel the air entering my lungs and the oxygen flowing through my veins. There was a clarity to every movement I made. My fingertips were extra sensitive to every bump and granule on the rock.
The rock, though, was fighting against my best intentions to focus. Shifting weight, my toe kicked out again, and a cascade of loose rocks tumbled down the cliff as my muscles locked into place. My right hand swung to the next solid hold, and I began to hoist myself up before I felt my hand shift. The rock split, pulling the entire right side of my body down. My left hand held still, my toe shook on the edge of a small crack, and I smeared my body against the rock as best I could. Every muscle felt locked in place, as if the smallest movement would send me flying off to the rocks below.
"Slow. Be slow," I thought. All my muscles felt locked into place. But I didn’t have the energy to just stay here. I lifted my right hand again, feeling with fingertips for any kind of grip. Finding where the previous handhold had been, I pressed my fingers flat against the new surface where the rock had previously been. Not a particularly great hand-hold, but it was the best I could hope for. Hand flat on the rock, I lifted my body weight cautiously and splayed my leg out for the next available step. I continued like this for the last half of the climb, my process a combination of cautious movement pressed against the rock, breathing slowly, and an effort to place my best grip onto the rock as the surfaces continued to kick out and break off under my weight.
Approaching the summit, I could see Josh sitting near the top ledge of the cliff. I reached for a solid crack at the top and braced my weight. My other hand found the crack, and I distinctly remember his incredulous smile as we made eye contact. The rock holding my weight shifted, and panic overtook my body.
Over a hundred feet up, I could feel my body sliding backward. My hands shot from the crack of the rock, and I flat-palmed the surfaces to my sides. Kicking my feet wide, I watched, horrified, as the rock tumbled between my legs, smashing its way down the mountain.
"Holy shit." I don’t know if he said it or I did. My hands held steady as Josh reached a hand out to help. Climbing onto the top of the ledge, I finally felt secure, and I rolled onto my back to look down where we’d climbed.
My legs were quaking as I stood, but I wanted to finish out the climb. The sun had continued its descent in the sky as we climbed, and it was approaching the horizon. We dropped our packs at this ledge and moved to the Boundary Peak summit. A short scramble, this rock has been climbed often and has less risk involved. We sauntered the peak, and paused only briefly on the summit.
This time the view looked different. My tired eyes saw both the daunting and beautifully jagged peaks, but I also felt the sense of accomplishment sitting on our third peak of the day. The sun cast its warm orange rays onto our faces. Standing again on tired legs, we made our way back to our packs and along our ridge down the mountain.
Moving among short brush and through dense tree limbs, I could feel the weakness mounting in my legs. We’d had a big day already, a combo of vertical hiking, climbing, and moving across loose boulders. Not to mention the exhaustion caused by my unwitting muscle stress during my climb. As we approached the steepest stage of our descent, Josh paused, pointing at the small tree to his left.
"There’s a rap(pel) station here," he said, "that’ll be faster than down climbing."
I brought my camera up and snapped a photo of him in the moment, with Mount Rainier looming in the distance. The late sun cast vibrantly colored light on the rocky mountainsides, juxtaposed against dark shadows. The clouds hovered horizontally around the base of the mountain in the distance. Even though my legs screamed in pain, I felt a surreal heavenly calm in this moment.
I was the first down the rappel, using my feet to guide me down the sheer rock face. My hands controlling my pace on the way down, I was able to quickly descent to the snowfield below. I unclipped from the rope and yelled up to Josh that I was off belay. I took a few steps to move out of his way and stumbled slightly, catching myself by my hands on the snow.
Oh no. My legs aren’t working.
By the time Josh had descended, I had a combination of frustration and fear in my eyes. The sun was setting as I informed him, "I can’t walk… my legs don’t work." He laughed and said he was tired too. "No," I said standing before him, "I can stand, but I can’t lift my legs anymore…the muscles just aren’t working."
I looked down at the miles of remaining scramble, boulder field and forested dirt trail. Not much of an option here except to keep moving. We hadn’t packed for an overnight, and I knew it would be getting colder soon. Without muscles to lift my legs, however, I used all I could: lifting my pant legs with my hands, shifting my feet into place, then gently placing my weight on them. In steep situations, sliding on my butt was a better option to keep from falling. I would drag one leg, then the other, and slide across rocks, adding plenty of wear to the fabric of my pants. I’d stop on occasion to make attempts to stretch and hydrate. Surely some muscle strength should return if I could stay focused.
Hours passed. Approaching the bottom of the boulder field, my confidence began to soar. We’re nearing the home stretch… I could feel solid earth beneath my feet, and I decided to stand again. Like a newborn deer, I stood, wobbly with the weight of my pack, arms splayed out to counterbalance my movement. Success.
The final mileage out on the trail was short, but it seemingly lasted days. My focus was on each step, finding the will to continue to put one foot in front of the other. Much like the summit fever that settles in as climbers approach a high altitude peak, my brain entered a primal state, allowing me to focus solely on taking each step. Turning the last corner of trees, I could see the reflection of my headlamp on metal and glass: the car at the trailhead. And pure internal bliss.
Looking back, this was one of the tougher hiking outings I’ve experienced. It wasn’t the most technical or longest trip…I’ve accomplished it again in years since. This was more about my ability at the time and the decisions we made (including climbing loose rock) that led to the physical breakdown of my muscles that day.
But the pain and struggle isn't all I remember from that day. More importantly, for each challenge I encountered, I had found the internal will, will that I didn’t know I had, to continue on.
I remember loose rocks and my feet slipping out from me, and I remember keeping my focus to climb to the top.
I remember my legs aching and unmoveable, and I remember the determination to finish.
And I remember that Zen-like moment before the rappel with Josh silhouetted against the backdrop of Mount Rainier, the clouds and sun perfectly framing Mount Rainier National Park before me.
This photo was eventually published by Outdoor Project, an online resource for outdoor adventure. Since that climb, I’ve continued to elevate my mountaineering experience and my photography, and both have become a large part of how I spent my time and energy. The photo I took this trip got me integrated as a contributing member of the Outdoor Project. Since then, my relationships with the staff and Contributors have continued to develop as I aim to share adventures, facilitate outdoor community-building, and support groups and organizations that share my core outdoor values.
We often look at beautiful photos for their inspiration. The yearning to experience the moment in which the photo was framed. Vibrant colors, stunning vistas, and the celebration of wildlife. Our brains inherently take the still beauty and fill in the story, creating an often surreal experience that is relatable to our own.
Looking through the lens at someone else's photograph, we often forget the work, pain, and struggle that goes into taking these shots. Like anything in life that is beautiful, it's not easy. The photographer shares a story with the world, and the world is inspired. But don't forget the struggle the photographer endured to share the story with you.
The more I struggle, the more I learn about how capable I am, how capable others can be, and hpw to appreciate the process of the struggle in and of itself. Enduring and embracing struggle changes the lens through which you see the world. I learned this without functioning leg muscles in the Tatoosh Range.