Ascent of The Sugarloaf on 2016-06-18

Climber: Jeremy Benezra

Date:Saturday, June 18, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:The Sugarloaf
    Elevation:7789 ft / 2374 m

Ascent Trip Report

Training hike for my September Rainier climb. Packed pretty heavy for a day hike with my tent, thermarest, stove, a book... My plan was to set up my tent at Muir, spend a few hours up there, maybe even do a small workout, pushups and stuff, read a bit, cook a nicer than average lunch for hiking, acclimatize awhile, and head back down.

Well things didn't go as planned. It was raining at the Paradise parking lot. I knew the forecast was for some snow and wind, and it turned to snow not long into the hike, then surprisingly there were sporadic patches of sun. Which quickly turned into a full on white out with falling snow and super hard winds. The forecast said 25-30 mph but this had to be higher than that.

I was following the wands above the Sugarloaf. Visibility had been nil for awhile, wind was high, snow was blowing. I came to a point where I couldn't see the next wand and I couldn't see the wand behind me. Hadn't seen another person in easily over an hour. I knelt in the snow and ate half an apple and decided that if the whiteout didn't stop in a few minutes I'd head down. Checked my GPS - 8100 feet elevation. I was ascending at better than 1000 feet an hour.

I waited a 5 minutes and it didn't get better so I started heading down. Blindly. Worst whiteout I've ever been in. I somehow hit the next 2 wands but by then my tracks were filled in with blowing snow. No idea which way to go. I started straight down the fall line but remembered that the slope pushes descending hikers too far west, not enough east. Started heading more east. No visibility. Started to think that I really screwed myself over. Stood in place for a few minutes trying to get my bearings. Nada. Wind was super intense, with blowing snow/ice crystals.

I decided to hide behind some rocks and hope/pray for a break in the whiteout. If the break doesn't come, what was my plan? Pull my snowpants over my soft shell pants, try to erect my tent (slim chance in that wind)...wait it out, get in my non-erected tent, wait even til morning if I had to? Not ideal. Couldn't believe I was in this predicament in June at only 8000 feet.

Was kicking myself for continuing to hike so far into a whiteout. Kept hiding from the storm behind the rocks. Drank some water, got out some snacks, started putting on all my warm layers. Just waited there awhile and finally the whiteout parted at the right moment for me to faintly see a group of 6 or so climbers heading uphill. They were just about at my same elevation but about 100 feet east of me. I must have missed a wand and headed too far west, following the slope of the hill. I was 100 feet off the trail in the snow field and in that whiteout would never have found it. I packed my loose items super quick and sprinted over to them. They were a guided group and had few qualms about heading up into the storm. I was solo and was ecstatic to have such a large group leave footprints for me to follow downhill. I decided to race downhill as fast as I could following their steps before they filled in.

A couple hundred feet downhill ran into a guy. He asked me how conditions were further up hill and I said way worse. He asked if I wanted to hike down together and I didn't hesitate at the chance to buddy up in a white out. Descended for awhile, barely able to spot each of the next several flags/wands. Maybe 1000 feet down hill the trail became obvious and just an easy jog down to the car. The guy I met is also climbing Rainier this year so we exchanged info so we could train again.

Only drank 1 liter of water. Not enough.

Lessons - I've been in whiteouts before, but never at this altitude. There was some fury in the wind and I was a bit overconfident. My GPS is new and wasn't tracking as I wanted, just giving stats like altitude. I had a compass and map in my pocket but only glanced at it a few times and wasn't following closely enough to know exactly where I was. I am confident that I could have overnighted with the gear I had without incident but it would have been a cold crappy night and my wife would have been pretty worried.

Another idea - Instead of continuing to hike downhill in the whiteout which I tried and ended up losing the trail, maybe once I lost track of the wands I should have just sat down where I was and waited. I could wait for a break in the whiteout, or being so close to the trail I could wait and hope someone else passes me by going either up or down. But it was about 3pm and if no one passed me by, then what? Also it was super windy and unpleasant where I was, and if I had to hunker down and wait awhile, I would be better off hiding behind the rocks as I did. I could probably have hiked back uphill in my footprints until I found the most recent wand and sat on my pack there. Overall, not sure what would have happened if I didn't spot those other climbers in the distance. There was a period of time where I was a bit fearful, unlike I've ever felt before even while multi-pitch rockclimbing, or even when I went skydiving. My prior time hiking to Muir was a nice sunny day. This day, on the other hand, was no joke.
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Very Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Start Trailhead:Paradise  
Descent Statistics

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