Three of us had a most memorable and pleasant experience on this less frequently climbed side of Mount Rainier. We all agree that the Tahoma Glacier is a recommended route in good weather, if adequate time is allowed for the trip.
The Tahoma Glacier was first climbed on August 11, 1891 by Philemon Beecher Van Trump, Warren Riley, Alfred Drewry and Riley's deerhound. After a tent camp was established at Paradise in 1914 the Tahoma saw little traffic. Recently the closure of the Westside Road at 2,880 feet elevation at Fish Creek has added to the length of this route.
From Fish Creek there are four approach choices. Shorter road and trail walking can be done by going up the old Tahoma Creek Trail which leaves the road near a sharp turn. An early season approach would be to take the trail to Emerald Ridge and to continue off trail uphill to gain the glacier via a snow finger. Julie Smith did this approach in July 1999, a season that followed a record snow year. Guidebooks suggest crossing Tahoma Creek before reaching Emerald Ridge and going up the gully dividing Glacier Island, which is south of Tahoma Creek. From map review it appears possible to approach through Indian Henry's, crossing the South Tahoma Glacier and reaching the Tahoma Glacier at the 8,400 foot level. The original route was here, although entering the Tahoma closer to 9,000 feet. Because the lower Tahoma Glacier is very broken up all these routes would involve significant route finding especially following a low snowfall season.
We choose the Puyallup Cleaver approach; the more common approach for the Tahoma. This involves taking the trail from Round Pass, joining the South Puyallup Trail proper, going beyond the South Puyallup Camp, joining the Wonderland Trail traveling north, crossing the South Puyallup River bridge, and going uphill to where the trail attains a ridge which becomes Puyallup Cleaver.
The upper glacier choices include either the main glacier or the Sickle variant. The Sickle is a late season route, and appears to involve a tradeoff between crevasse avoidance and acceptance of icefall risk. From our Emerald Ridge scouting trips, the weekend prior to our climb, we could see ice cliffs along the south side of the Sickle and we could see a route up the central glacier that appeared to go.
Here is a description of our trip:
Manny got held up in traffic getting out of Seattle so we did not leave until 7:15 p.m. on July 3 from the Westside Road gate at 2,880 feet. We made two cuts of road switchbacks, going through the woods, to save road walking. Darkness set in on the South Puyallup trail. At 5,800 feet the trail attained a ridge and we saw the lights of Seattle. We hiked up farther to be well beyond the point were the Wonderland Trail turns off the ridge and set up a camp at 11:45 p.m.
On awakening the next morning we talked to a party that was descending after having turned around at the 13,600 foot level. They had apparently left high camp at 10,200 feet at 10:30 p.m. and turned around at 8 a.m., a planned turn around time due to concerns about weakening snow bridges. We had met this party as they departed four days earlier during our Emerald Ridge scouting trip. From our camp on the ridge, we followed a way trail which joins the cleaver. Along the way we passed Andrews Rock which we passed on the south side. At 7,850 feet we crossed to the left side of the ridge dropping on to the Puyallup Glacier. Our travel from here and above was roped. The snow was softening and our lead climber Manny was tiring. Mark took over briefly to hike to the ridge to find a camp. At 9,200 there was not a suitable ridge camp, but just off the cleaver was a large flat protected area which is where camp was made. We did not see a camp with a view of the glacier at this elevation although camping was possible lower down as well as higher up. Fireworks shooting up from the south sound could be seen that night. Compared to many of the common Rainier routes we could see many of the features of Puget Sound as we watched the fireworks from as far away as Seattle.
We headed out Thursday morning on the Puyallup glacier and at 9,950 feet descended to the Tahoma Glacier on a large moderately steep snowfield, the perception of steepness being enhanced by the knowledge and partial view of a crevasse at the bottom edge of the snowfield. There was a deceiving shrund at the glacier edge where a rock had taken a roll parallel to the opposite side of the crevasse. The depression that appeared to be a crevasse was solid and the smooth snow just before this depression was a soft snow bridge. Teresa went down to her thighs here. Route finding was required, but the up and down travel was minimal. We protected two bridge crossings. The first with boot ax belays and the second with pickets and belays. The second one involved a small soft bridge over a large crevasse with the upper lip of the crevasse three feet higher than the bridge. Mark placed a picket in solid snow before the bridge and while on the bridge placed another picket in the snow above the crevasse while Manny belayed and Teresa photographed. After this crossing the crevasse negotiation became straight forward and we gave our attention to looking for a campsite. We had marked a spot at 10,900 on the map were a moderation of the slope made a camp possible. Our travel line was taking us north of this area and there was a tendency for snow debris to go though our marked area. At 11,200 the slope appeared reasonable for camping and the map showed an increasing slope angle above. Here we dug camp half a rope length above a crevasse, quite safe in the afternoon's soft snow, but we took caution and dug short trails which could be used safely for nature visits at night on frozen snow. Camp was sizzling hot that afternoon and we were amazed at the complete lack of climbers above or below us. After considering the length of the route, the number of snow bridges which would be soft on decent, the temperatures, altitude sickness risks, and the possibility of adverse summit camping conditions, we changed our plan from doing an up and down on the same route to a plan of giving ourselves the option of a carryover with a camp on the summit. The ability to sleep in was also a factor in this choice.
From our high camp we left about 6:00 a.m. toward the summit. Although a late departure by usual Rainier summer standards, due to the position of the Tahoma we did not experience sunrise until we reached the 13,200 foot level. We started off making excellent progress on straight forward snow but in an hour came to a serac which involved a short 45 degree ice pitch lead by Teresa. She placed an ice screw on this pitch and Manny found a screw left on descend by the party we had met the previous day. Once clearing this we were back on snow which gradually became packed powder at approximately the 13,400 foot level. We had considered the option of a camp at 13,600 feet, but while we were tiring we all felt we had the energy to get to the summit with our full packs. As we approached summit area we passed over a rock exposed area with steam vents just below the southwest side of the West Crater. We dug out a tentative camp here while Manny went up and explored. He encouraged us to the rim where we dug camp five minutes from the actual summit via a walk across the West Crater. At various times we explored, including the West Crater rim, an area we have ignored during previous summits. We summitted together that afternoon with no one else in site. It was the most pleasant summit experience. The air had clarity, the wind was light, and the temperature was moderate. Manny called his parents and talked them into picking us up at Paradise the next day. Bedtime was around 8:00 p.m. due to the wind and cold which were stirring.
On Saturday we packed up and left about 6:30 a.m. and did our five minute trek to again reach the summit. This time with people there to take our picture. We left the crater rim at 7:45 a.m. descending the trail also known as the standard route or the "dog route" according to Manny. Teresa dropped her glasses but was fortunate they stopped 300 feet downhill. Disappointment Cleaver appeared intimidating as we thought about avalanches and falls off cliffs, but we soon realized the snow was safe and the ice ax placements solid. A fixed rope was in place for the final traverse off the cleaver. The snow bridges between the Ingraham Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver had us wondering as to when they might fail as the season progressed. At 10:45 a.m. we were at Camp Muir. Fortunately the Muir Snowfield was relatively solid to Pebble Creek, but the actual physical beating part of the trip started as we began slamming our toes in our plastic boots on the hard trail surface of the Skyline Trail. We met Manny's parents, Carol and Dave, at Paradise and got a ride back to our cars at the Westside Road. They were proud to be part of the support team for our expedition and we were ever so grateful we did not need to hitch a ride to the Westside Road. We also realized that had we descended the Tahoma Glacier rather than taken the Disappointment Cleaver route down, we would still be on route thinking about the choice of a long day out or another camp. We had lunch at the Highlander in Ashford where there was some confusion involving the difference between a Gardenburger and beef, but the correction was gracious.