We hoped to make an earlier start than last week to allow plenty of daylight for The Castle and maybe a few minor peaks, but alas, the gate at Longmire was to remain locked until 9 am. We left the Narada Falls lot 9:45 and climbed icy talus up to Stevens Canyon Road with a pair who said they were heading for Unicorn Peak. Tahoma was fully lit up by late morning sun when we reached Reflection Lakes and began up the trail. Near the saddle we crossed a few short-but-steep snowfields with substantial exposure. About a foot of workable snow obscured most of the trail on the shady side of the ridge.
As indicated by fast-moving clouds above, the wind was pretty intense at the saddle and for most of our stay on the sunny south face. Trekking poles were exchanged for ice axes as we began the mixed scramble above the saddle. Closer to the top most of the rock was poking out of the snow, but there was still enough ice for crampons to remain necessary. For the second time in as many weeks I was in position to view Mount Hood sitting in the distance between Adams and St Helens. I would say that our route was always within class 3 territory, however a fall could have potentially resulted in a 2000' tumble into the valley below.
Near the top we reached a small pillar at the edge of an overhang to the north, a potential BASE exit point? From there the going only got easier. The summit had plenty of room for the group, but heavy wind pushed us down a few feet to a sunny spot for lunch. The Castle and Unicorn Peak emerged from the clouds as we ate.
Time was getting short, so we canceled plans for the traverse to The Castle and began our descent, hoping to be able to hit Plumber Peak on the way out. We rappelled from near the pillar and made it back to the saddle with an hour and a half left until the park gate would be closed. As much as I would have loved to get in another summit, the wise choice was to play it safe. We followed Paradise Road back to the cars to avoid the still icy talus above Narada Falls.
We started out from the Eagle Peak trailhead behind Longmire at 7:30. Both vehicles managed to miss the small sign on the way in, which is less than 100 yards West of the bridge. The trail was in great shape with only one downed tree just before the meadow. Snow appeared on the trail around 4500', and ranged from 6 inches deep in the meadow to a few feet near the top. We left the trail at the right spot but ascended too early through steep terrain and often thick vegetation, emerging from the trees in the upper meadow below the south face of Eagle and Chutlah.
We donned crampons and made a high traverse to the saddle across bear grass and scree covered with a few inches of snow. From the saddle the mostly open north slopes looked navigable but we opted to travel via ridge-top. There was just enough snow cover to provide a route-finding challenge, but a few more feet would have been nice. Tahoma dominated the sky to the north while the southern horizon provided a rare view of both Mount Adams, Hood and St. Helens. Dozens of people could be seen working their way up (or down) the Muir snowfield in the distance.
A short exposed scramble over icy rock brought us to the false summit. Cliffs on the north side dropped quickly off to the slopes below. Getting to the true summit required crawling under and around a few burly trees and dropping down to the right (south), followed by a couple of exposed moves. At this point I was glad that James had suggested we bring rope, as we likely would have turned back without it. I made a quick search for a register with no luck, and looked around for a less exposed descent route. Lenticular clouds descended onto Tahoma as we lunched.
After a snack and pictures we decided to rappel down a tight gully to the west with a BFT for an anchor. We made it quickly back to the saddle, but without enough daylight left to attempt Eagle Peak or Chutlah. We dropped further down into the meadow before heading back into the trees, which made for a much easier return to the trail. We just barely made it back to the cars without headlamps. Despite perfect climbing weather, we did not see another soul all day.