Remember when I was talking about the Tatoosh Range? That highest peak, in the center in the photo, is Pinnacle Peak. Going down to the right, to the low point, you see a notch, called the saddle. So taking the trail to Pinnacle Peak means first taking the trail to the saddle, then going off behind those rocks to the left of it and up that steep ridge…it’s a couple of miles up from Reflection Lakes.
I’ve heard about people in my family going up to Pinnacle Peak my whole life, but I’d never climbed it. My aunt and uncle climbed it every single time they came to the mountain, even when they were in their nineties. Heck, they even climbed it at night, just to watch the sun rise on the mountain. I figured if two old people could climb up there, there wasn’t any reason why I couldn’t do it. I’ve thought about it for years, but there has either been too much snow or not enough time.
Here’s a photo of my grandfather and my aunt at the top. I so much wanted to see this particular view of the mountain.Here’s my dad. To the right of his feet are the buildings at Paradise. I’m guessing these photos are from the 1930’s. I’ve heard that this was a hard climb, and my cousin Bruce, who has actually summited Mt. Rainier, has never been very encouraging when I asked about it in the past. However, this time I emphasized the fact that everyone else had done it, and I never had, so he promised to think it over. I didn’t want to go by myself, because I wasn’t sure I’d know the way. Cheryl, his sister, said that they had done this hike many times when they were kids. (That’s their mom in the photo with my grandpa.) Bruce calculated at least a dozen times for himself, most recently a few years ago. He said that the last time he found it wasn’t fun anymore, and that he had decided that he didn’t need to do that one again. Cheryl said she would NEVER do it again, as she had memories of climbing down backwards and not being able to see where she put her feet. Bruce’s wife, Andrea, said she would never do it again either, although she was willing to hike to the saddle. There was talk about a “chimney” where you have to climb straight up a rock configuration that is closed in on three sides.
Anyhow, the next morning, Bruce said he was up for it and Andrea joined us (as far as the saddle). We agreed that we would just go as far as we felt like, no pressure on anyone.
It didn’t take long to get some stupendous views. I hope you’ll click each photo to enlarge them, to get a better idea of just how massive this mountain is.
The trail up to the saddle wasn’t terrible. It was a strenuous climb, but part of it was in woods with shade. In spite of the scree and a couple of short snowfields, it was not nearly as treacherous as going to Panorama Point had been the previous day.
There were some switchbacks (“switchbacks” … I hate that word!) but there were hardly any other hikers at all, even on the weekend. They were probably all over at Paradise.
The switchbacks were tedious, but the views made them less annoying. I had to rest a lot, but generally, Bruce, Andrea, and I were well-matched hiking.
The trail here is clearly visible from Paradise. If you go back to that very first photo, this is the area of snow directly under the saddle.
And…. here we are at the saddle!
Looking over the notch, here’s Mt. Adams!
And looking back, Mt. Rainier!
And looking left… the trail to Pinnacle Peak. Actually, that trail only lasts about five minutes, but I didn’t know that at the time.
So we took a break, ate some granola bars, and had a drink. We’d been on the trail about two hours.
Here’s a 20 second video that I took of the view:
Bruce and I decided to proceed. He chose not to take his backpack or a water bottle, saying they would be in the way. This should have been a heads-up for me, but instead I was quietly mystified, and wore my backpack and took my water bottle. And wore my hat, and my (by then broken) sunglasses. Shortly after we started out, we were able to see Mt. St. Helens.
Then, to quote my journal, “It got really bad.”
Before long, the trail disappeared and we headed straight up. Very shortly after that, I realized that my entire family was insane. Some extremely colorful language started coming out of my mouth, to Bruce’s surprise. This was real rock climbing, using both legs and arms. Bruce stopped every so often to look around and analyze the rocks for the best way to proceed. My short stature sometimes forced me to go on my knees before I could get up to the next ledge for a foothold. I needed strength in my legs to lift my entire body up to the next edge.
A couple of people were scrambling down, like it was easy. Note their narrow backpacks. My regular-sized pack was definitely in my way, even on my back, and I never was able to get a drink of water because the bottle was in the pack and I couldn’t let go of anything to get it out.
Looking up from where Bruce was resting (see his hand on the left?) That rock is brittle and sharp. I tried to document where I was, because at that point, I knew I could never get down again. Bruce offered me the option to quit, but I figured I might as well continue up for a while, since I couldn’t get down anyway. It was all about finding a place to put each hand and foot, and pulling myself up to get a bit higher. All that biking around Olathe, Kansas could never have prepared me for this. Keep in mind I also have a weaker left wrist from that surgery last year when I broke my arm. Since it’s functional for most purposes, it had never occurred to me that I should have been weight lifting with that arm or trying to strengthen my grip so I could hold on to the side of a mountain.
Fortunately, I didn’t freeze up in fear of the height and the steep drop. The only thing that seriously bothered me was that I knew, without a doubt, that I would never get back down again. There was just no way! I didn’t think I could hold on going backwards and down at the same time!
Hmm…someone coming down with a rope. This person, whose picture I didn’t take because I was hanging on to some rock for dear life, was in a harness, and had climbed up the other side with a group, and she was leading the way down, backwards, like a professional. I was jealous of her harness and rope. Not only was she going backwards at a good pace, but she made it look easy-peasy.
At one point I saw a ledge, and decided I’d better get my picture taken because, of course, I would never get down, so I might as well show everyone how far I got. That expression is what you call a “forced smile.” I was not in any mood to smile.
We went a bit higher, and then I looked at my options for where to put my hands and feet and didn’t find any. It was too straight up. I looked at Bruce, and he said, “It’s only another 50 feet or so. But just because they all did it doesn’t mean you have to do it.” And for some reason, all of a sudden I thought about my kids and my granddaughter, mostly my granddaughter, and decided I didn’t want to die. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought about it much. But I couldn’t find a way to get any higher, and my legs were exhausted, and that was the end of it. I knew I was in the middle of the most dangerous thing I’d ever done in my life, without being afraid of it, but I didn’t have enough energy to do any more. I said, “That’s it, I’m done.” I took pictures all around and looked back. Then I realized I could get down…. on my butt!
So I scooted down on my butt almost the entire way, and it was all of a sudden easy. Sharp rocks, dangerous, exhausting, but not at all impossible. Tore a good sized hole in my jeans, which was totally worth it. I was completely worn out, but it went well. When we got back to the saddle I found out we’d been rock climbing for two hours.
So I didn’t make it, but I lived, and I don’t think I could have made it even if my legs were stronger because I had run out of places to put my feet. Bruce asked afterwards if I had known how easy it would be to get down, would I have gone ahead and tried for the top, or would I try it again? And I said, “No way in hell will I try that again.” I wrote in my journal that it was insanely dangerous and that I will never go up there again, although the saddle is certainly a doable hike.
The only other time I’ve ever been in a situation that dangerous was also on Mt. Rainier, climbing up to Panorama Point years ago, when I was unprepared and didn’t have a good walking stick or the right boots to cross a snowfield that had a sharp drop on one side. I had to turn back. The mountain is an unforgiving place.
So we went down. Here I am in the very center of the picture at the first curve down from the saddle. I don’t know how long it took to get down, but it took a couple of hours to the saddle, two more rock climbing, and probably more than another hour to get down again. The elevation at the top of Pinnacle Peak is 7200 feet and the elevation gain from the trail head is 1150 feet.
After I recovered (yes, with blackberry pie and ice cream again) I started feeling pretty uppity about what I’d accomplished. Bruce was impressed with how far I got and started talking about “next time” bringing rope and harnesses, which still sounded insane, but really, that is the only way to do it. I just don’t know if I will do it.
I may have done something completely crazy, but my self-esteem absolutely sky-rocketed, and that uppity feeling lasted about three weeks. I wish I still had it. I was obnoxiously proud of myself for doing something extremely tough. Maybe that’s what rock-climbers feel like all the time. If that’s how it makes you feel, I can understand those kinds of risks. I felt like I could have kicked anybody’s butt and nobody better try messing with ME.
After I got home, I found this photo, which I’d seen before, but didn’t know where it was. And all of a sudden it looked familiar.
The Park Service says “From the saddle to the top of Pinnacle Peak is a precipitous scramble on loose, unstable rock. Hikers wishing to get to the top should use extreme caution and have proper equipment.”
Now I know they weren’t kidding, in spite of how my family’s done it.
Here are two links, the first one has a gorgeous photo, and the second has a couple photos that show the range from Mt. Rainier and a topo map. Both pages are worth a look: