Unicorn Peak
May 28, 2000

The weather was less than optimal for a climb, with low clouds and moderate to strong winds. The route finding for Unicorn Peak, however, is simple, so lack of visibility only meant that we would be out the fabulous summit views of Mt. Rainier that I'm sure exist, not that we'd have any problem finding our route and staying on it. The pull out to park at is just on the right side of the "Avalanche Zone - No Stopping or Parking" sign along the Stevens Canyon road, and at 4500' it was just below the predicted snow level. That portion of the prediction turned out to be spot on, with snow starting to come down on us almost as soon as we left the cars, but no rain. The snow cover was still 100%, so the traveling was very easy - walk up and down the ridges and benches that create the boundaries of Bench Lake, then head for the small notch in the ridge that forms the northern boundary of Snow Lake. If you don't find the notch, and end up walking around the eastern edge of the ridge, it's no big deal - just a few hundred yards extra distance. Snow Lake is still almost entirely frozen, with a few areas around the shoreline starting to turn glacial blue. The area around the stream inflow has melted out, and the crystal clear snowmelt is flowing into the lake at an impressive speed. Heading to the first notch
Heading to the first notch

Avalanche debris leading to first gully
Avalanche debris leading to first gully
If the cloud cover had been a little higher, we would have been able to see our objective from here, but as it was we had to wait until the descent to see where we had been, instead of being able to look up and see where we were going. We trudged towards the west end of the valley formed by Snow Lake, and headed up the steep gully, still completely snow filled. Avalanche debris, rock and dirt dustings, and the occasional large piece of tree in the snow warned us of the gravitational well we were in, but also showed us that at least some of the sliding activity had already taken place. The snow was quite firm going up the gully, and soon we broke out into the pretty little bowl above, with our limited visibility allowing us to almost see across it. Continuing up and to our left we were soon at the base of the second gully, and climbing towards its top. The snow here was a little less consolidated, but we didn't kick anything off or start any sloughs on our way up. Once at the top of this gully, we were no longer protected from the winds blowing up from the south, and the weather turned decidedly more nippy. Zipping jackets, and disappearing into hoods to protect our faces from the wind and the blowing snow pellets, we headed up the final slope to the ridge line that leads to the summit rocks. We crossed over to the east side of the ridge, and walked the remaining few hundred yards to the base of the summit pyramid, only really being able to see the rocks when we were within 100 feet or so of them.

We dropped out packs here, pulled on all our extra clothing and harnesses, and started flaking out rope and building a belay anchor. Whether it was the cold and wind, or the fact that this was the first technical climb of the season for most of us, we futzed around trying to build a satisfactory belay anchor for a good 30 minutes! Eventually, Aggie grabbed the rack and started up the wet rock, promising a good top anchor for the rope in just a few minutes. True to his word, after only one break where we could hear him trying to rewarm frozen fingers, Aggie was soon on the top and had fixed the rope, allowing the rest of us to throw a prusik loop onto the rope and climb up secured to the rope in this manner. Although the Beckey guide indicates that this route is third class, there's about 10 or 12 feet of very vertical climbing involved that I wouldn't want to do without a rope, at least not in cold, wet conditions like we were in. It was easy, but I thought it was definitely 5th class - maybe 5.2 or 5.3. Third class, to me, just doesn't have anything quite that vertical on it. Today the climbing was made more difficult by the fact that your fingers were pretty numb by the time you got to the steepest climbing. The holds are huge, and there's plenty of big ledges and shelves for your feet, but if your hands can't feel what they're grabbing, it makes everything just a little less secure feeling! No matter, I was soon at the top of the scrambling bit, and after warming my hands in my armpits, I took the short stroll to the summit cairn while Aggie coached the next climber up through the rock. Lori put both Aggie and I in our place when she pulled up to the belay, saying the rock had been much easier than Aggie or I had made it sound! I guess we were being whiners! Prash and Tom follow Lori up, and I belayed Janet up the left hand face instead of the standard "scramble" route. She successfully found the old piton in the rock, and managed the route pretty easily, also once stopping to try and rewarm numb fingers. "Easy 5th, 5.4 or 5.5" was Janet's verdict on that line to the summit. Summit pyramid of Unicron peak, shrouded in blowing snow
Summit pyramid of Unicron peak, shrouded in blowing snow

With no sign of a break in the weather, and with the wind still gusting strongly enough to knock you a bit off balance now and then, we eschewed the long summit hang, and started rapping back down to our packs. After getting everyone back on the snow, we helped Lori lighten her load a bit by finishing off the fabulous brownies she brought along for treats. Thus fortified, we repacked all the technical gear, and started retracing our steps, now with a quarter to a half inch of new snow over top of them, back to the top of the first snow gully. Aggie was determined to save the soles of his feet as much as possible and plopped down into the snow starting a nice glissade chute. Most of the others followed his lead, while I opted to plunge step since the climbing pants I was wearing didn't seem to me to have enough material to provide an adequate pad to keep my buns from freezing! The temperature had risen enough during the day that numerous small sloughs were set off by the glissaders, and I descended accompanied by the serpentine hiss of loose snow working its way downhill with me. We rolled along through the alpine bowl above the last snow chute, and Prash put in the next glissade trough, this time kicking up a fairly sizable slough in front of him. I again opted to plunge step, and again was accompanied by the hissing of hundreds of snakes as more and more snow released. Once we were all down and out of the snow gully we stopped to remove some layers of clothing for the final stroll back to the cars, and were rewarded with some peek-a-boo views of the summit we'd been on less than an hour before. The cloud level seemed to be hovering right at the base of the rock pyramid as we could see it from Snow Lake, but we tried taking some pictures of the misty summit anyway.

Once we'd reshouldered our packs, we made good time retracing our steps back towards Bench Lake. We tromped up to the top of a local high spot to take a quick peek at Bench Lake (90% frozen, but some of the northeastern shoreline was just starting to melt out), then headed due north for the road and cars. We blew the timing by probably just 10 minutes, and ended up changing at the cars in a soaking shower, although our walk out had been almost completely dry.

This is a great little climb, and, at only 2500' of elevation, not a particularly strenuous day. I'd love to come back and do it again when the sun was out, and the rock was warm and dry!


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