After a week of unseasonably wintry weather, the sudden change back to a summer forecast came as quite a shock. Damien and I originally planned on semi- mix climb of the center section of the Tatoosh Range. However, we watched the webcams in surprise as every day the snow retreated significantly. The once completely white mountain range only had snow patches in the upper basins by Friday night! Thus we decided to still bring our crampons, ice axes and snowshoes, but threw in our rock shoes as well.

We pulled into the Reflection Lake Parking area at 9:45 after securing our permit in Longmire. Damien and I examined the mountains trying to decide what gear to ditch. It felt like June! After some contemplation we left behind our snowshoes, avalanche gear and extra layers in the car. The ice axes and crampons would go with us as we could not get a good view of the climbing routes and we didn’t want to take a chance. We knew that we were probably just taking them along for a walk though.

The well-maintained trail to the Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle in mostly melted out with several patches of snow on the upper switchbacks. Snowshoes were definitely not needed! Damien and I weren’t 100% certain where we were going to camp. We planned on going to see what conditions and sites presented themselves along the way.

Mt Adams and Mt St Helens greeted us as we crested the saddle and peered over at the mountains on the South side. There was an obvious climbers trail that traversed left beneath Pinnacle and Castle. To the right an unofficial trail climbed the East Ridge of Plummer. Damien and I followed the trail up Plummer since it was a quick ascent from the saddle. The route scrambled up class 2 rock on the South side of the mountain for about 250 feet before reaching the top of the ridge and a small basin. It didn’t take long for Damien and I to decide that the basin would make the perfect basecamp. With an enormous view of Mountain Rainer and the Tatoosh Range, the basin was just too inviting to pass up. We found a wonderful campsite protected by some trees just on the edge of the basin with Mt Rainier in the backdrop. Swiftly we set up our tent and stashed our overnight gear inside. As we worked we discussed our evolving plan. Damien and I decided that the best course of action was to backtrack and climb the technical route up Pinnacle’s East Ridge first and then have dinner at the summit of Plummer that evening.

Damien and I shouldered our now lighter packs and descended back down to the Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle. From there we traversed beneath Pinnacle on a mostly scree climbers trail with a few class 3 rock moves. Damien made note of the turn off for the South Gully, our descent route as we passed beneath it. When the climbers trail crossed beneath the edge of the East Ridge beneath an obvious notch we turned off the trail and climbed directly up a scree gully, keeping right on more solid rock. The notch is the start of Pitch 1 of the East Ridge. Damien and I saw no reason to rope up for this section as it seemed to have no protection and was easy class 4/low 5. We scrambled up along the ridge to a small platform with a belay tree beneath a much steeper section of rock and pillar. This is where the real climbing began.

Damien and I roped up and I began to lead the pitch. It was class 4 up until the base of the pillar where I had to traverse around right of the formation on a ramp. This weas about 5.4 and very exposed. Such conditions normally didn’t give me much pause, but thus far my only protection was a single sling wrapped around a horn. Therefore, I moved much more deliberately than normal. In fact, I didn’t find any other protection until reaching a small bush about 30 feet short of regaining the ridge. I stopped here and built an anchor as the single piece of protection around the corner was giving me lot of rope drag. Damien led the final 30 feet to the ridge which was mostly low class 5 with a few 5.6 moves. He placed 2 mid-sized cams. From the ridge crest we un-roped and hiked (class 1) the broad ridge the final few yards  to the large summit block. The entire climb took about 1 hour, much faster than expected.

After lingering to enjoy 360-degree views of Rainier, Adams, Helens, Hood and countless other summits we began the descent. Damien and I found a trail on the South side of the summit that followed the Ridge East to the South Gully. The south gully is rated class 4, but the rock was so solid and blocky it felt much more like class 3. It is long, vertical and exposed though. We had to climb facing inward for a large portion of it until reaching the lower talus and scree near the climbers trail.

Damien and I made our way back to camp with plenty of time to make it to Plummer for sunset. We dropped off our climbing gear and filtered some water before heading up the snow slopes to the East Ridge of Plummer. We followed heather, grass and snow slopes up just right of the proper ridge near some trees. The ascent was quick, and the summit block appeared rather suddenly when we popped over the ridge proper. Gaining the top of the summit block required some maneuvering through trees, but nothing problematic.

Damien and I settled on the long rock ledge on the summit in the shadow of massive Rainier looming to the North. We finished our meals just as the sun turned radiant yellow on the horizon sinking toward the purple mountains. A soft orange hue illuminated the rocks of the summit and the pink shade radiated off the snowy volcanoes in the distance. The once blue sky turned a soft lavender, slowly transforming to deep tones of violet, orange and red. Then all at once the alpenglow vanished as the golden sphere melted behind the mountains. All that was left was a radiant red, orange and yellow sky. We packed up our gear and began to descend under the swiftly dimming sky. It never got truly dark as the half-moon glowing white in the darkened sky illuminated the mountains so vividly we could even see the glaciers on Mt Rainier. We had difficulty going  to sleep that night. It was warm enough to leave the tent fly and door open and we kept glancing outside to gaze up at the starry sky.

Darkness still enveloped the mountains when our alarm went off at 5:45am. We still haven’t gotten used to the extended night! We prepared our climbing gear while Damien drank his customary morning coffee and I munched on a bobo bar. When we departed for Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle the sky still didn’t show any sign of dawn.

We traversed on the same trail we had followed the previous day beneath Pinnacle Peak. By the time we were beneath the notch the sky was finally beginning to show signs of morning as tones of yellow appeared in the horizon. We continued on the trail beneath the swiftly brightening sky, traversing on scree below The Castle. Upon reaching the far side of Castle the tread begins to descend along a cliff. The trail thins near an obvious flat ledge on the headwall. Here we were easily able to scramble (class 3) up about 25 feet to some dense evergreens where we found a small path leading to the east side of The Castle. Once on the other side of the ridge, we turned left and followed a good trail to the talus base of The Castle. Damien and I half scrambled, half followed a broken trail to bottom the East Ridge route, which is a small white gully/ramp system just right of the summit block.

We geared up just as the sun’s rays touched the craggy rock of the Castle giving it an amber radiance. Leading up the first 30 feet to the small ledge was simple class 4 rock. However when I traversed right to access the gully/chimney system to the ridgeline, I discovered some delicate class 5 moves (5.6?) and, once again, a single piece of protection (one red cam that I wasn’t too thrilled about). At the ridge crest I built an anchor on a sturdy shrub and belayed Damien up. The few yards along the ridge to reach the summit were class 3and 4 with high exposure on a knife edge. Since the summit block is small we took turns belaying each other out to tag the top. I saw no protection on the ridge.

Back at the belay tree we studied the terrain for a wrap anchor. The shrub was a bit far from the lip of the ridge and not large enough to pass our personal rap requirements. There were two large horns that looked promising. After some inspection, Damien and I chose the horn closest to the summit and set up an anchor with two cordelettes. Note that the other horn has some questionable cracks in it and might not be fully attached to the mountain. A 60-meter rope was more than ample to get us back down to the base.

After removing our technical gear, Damien and I shouldered our packs and began the journey to our subsequent objective, Foss Peak. Foss Peak in the next summit along the ridge in the Tatoosh Range. However, unlike the previous summits we climbed that weekend, it is not as close and requires about a 1 mile walk to the base. We easily followed patchy snow fields along the ridge for about .5 miles (trending on the right side). Terrain and trees funneled us to the left side of the surprisingly windy ridge for the final stretch of the approach where there was a good climbers trail just beside the trees. The wind was forecasted to be 5-10 mph on the summits, but this was easily 20 mph with 35 mph gusts. We hoped our tent would stay put!

The trail peters out just above the unnamed lake at the foot of Foss Peak. I have climbed this summit before. On that trip the entire mountain was snow covered and Eric and I had climbed straight up the West Face. However, now it is only partially covered by fresh, unconsolidated snow revealing a rather gnarly talus and a cliffy surface. In these conditions we opted to walk right around the lake and climb just right of the rock face up the grass slopes near some trees.

The scramble presented little difficulty. Mostly we simply walked up steep grass and heather interspaced with snow patches and some talus. It was best to stay out of the snow when possible as there were some unexpected, deep sinkholes. Upon reaching the North-West ridge crest we were greeted with an exposed snow ramp with a sketchy runout. We tempered the risk by staying on the right side of the ramp as close to the trees as possible and walking in such a way to create a trench in the deep snow. It worked well, and we easily walked the final few yards to the class 2 summit block. Yikes! It was crazy gusty up there!

Damien and I descended easily and retraced our steps along the ridge toward Plummer. Finding the trail through the trees leading back to the South side of Castle was a bit challenging. There is a carin, but it is several yards away from the foliage concealed path. After some trial and error, we found the trail and scrambled down the headwall back to the south side.

The walk from the base of Foss to our camp on the slopes of Plummer took about 1.5 hours. And, yes, the tent managed to remain in place. Some of the stakes were beginning to dislodge though! Since it was only early afternoon, Damien and I took a rare nap and basked in the beauty of the regal volcano looming just north of us. With much difficulty we rallied to pack up our gear about an hour later and began the quick trek back down to the parking lot. Another perfect fall weekend!

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