Trip Report    

Basic Alpine Climb - Unicorn Peak

Very fun, short climb with a spirited group. Perfect as first alpine one-pitch rock climb for newer students. Challenging afternoon storms on descent did not dampen our enthusiasm. Summit views for days (you, know, before the black clouds rolled in).

  • Road suitable for all vehicles
    • Bench Lake Trail is snow-free until snow gully #1 at 5160’.
    • Helmets and axes but no crampons up snow gully #1.
    • Crampons for steeper snow gully #2 due to slightly harder and slicker snow.
    • The moat problem at 6600’ at the top of gully #2 looks scary, but the snow bridge was crossable - aim for the notch on the ridge above the short Class 4 scramble. Rope leader set a protected hand line and rest of team followed straight up the finger to the anchor without issue. Hand line not absolutely necessary but helpful.
    • Rock climb itself was bone-dry and over before you know it at 50’. We chose the 5.0 route, which everyone agreed felt a little spicier than its rating. Three pieces of pro was plenty. A 40m rope was sufficient and a 37m rope was just enough. Two slings around a sturdy rock horn form the anchor and rappel. Plenty of room at the summit with amazing views. Rappel set-up has a nice ledge and is straightforward.
    • Encountered rain and thunderstorms on the way out so snow on descent did not melt out as much as hoped – still, we plunge-stepped 75% of the way back down to snow gully #1 then the long boulder field.
    • Splits: Total time 8:30 hrs. 5 hours to summit, 2 ½ back to TH. Boots on trail: 9:06 am. Snow Lake: 9:35 am. Start of snow gully #1: 10:15 am (helmet, axe). Past the moat problem: 12:50 pm. At base of climb: 1:15 pm. First team at summit: 2 pm. Depart base of climb: 3:00 pm (total climb time = 1:45). Re-arrived at moat rappel: 3:15 pm (storms begin). Back at TH: 5:35 pm.
    • Mileage per Gaia GPS: 5 miles total, 8:30 hrs (several short breaks on ascent due respiratory condition of one participant, moat hand line and rappel took time, etc.), ~2600’ gain.
    • Details below.

On Thursday, a Mountaineers group of four planned a rock climb for Unicorn Peak and perhaps other peaks if time allowed. All week, leaders closely observed finicky June weather trends in the Tatoosh Range. Forecasts that were promising into Wednesday evening turned ominous, but we decided to proceed since threats were poised for late afternoon and expected rain was less than 1mm. We established a good turnaround plan in case of inclement weather. On the drive in, a MRNP ranger casually told us of a “low chance of thunderstorms, typical mountain weather” which was reassuring - at the time.

We gathered and headed out on a completely snow-free Bench Lake Trail toward Snow Lake in glorious sunlight, Unicorn well in view: climb leader, rope leader, 2022 Basic grad, and a current Basic student. After reaching Snow Lake in 30 mins, we soon encountered our first boulder field, and at 5160’ feet, we hit what trip reports commonly refer to as snow gully #1.

snow gully 1.jpg

Moats were plentiful, snow was soft enough, and there was water running under the snowpack so we went with helmets and ice axe but not crampons. We went left, ascended, took turns breaking trail, and arrived at a second talus field then a wide snow expanse with steep snow and gully #2 in view. We made radio contact with a Mountaineers scramble team who were on the summit of Foss Peak and making their way over to us then Boundary Peak. We donned crampons and ascended the steeper gully #2.

snow gully 2.jpg

At the top of the gully is the “moat problem” at 6600’ mentioned by many trip reports at this time of year.

moat 1.jpg

While this was not technically the most difficult section, based on previous trip reports, we erred on the side of caution and had the rope leader scout the edge of the snow bridge, cross the moat safely, scramble a Class 4 rock section, then set a hand line at a secure tree anchor in the visible notch just above the snow bridge. (The tree securing the anchor is deep inside brush and branches - have fun crawling in to confirm!) The remaining three team members successfully scrambled straight up from the top of the snow finger to the anchor at the notch protected by the hand line.

moat 2.jpg

At that point, we started to note distant rain and darker clouds so became more efficient in our intentions as we pushed to the base of Unicorn 15 mins away. 

A short ascent on a climber’s trail leads to a ridge and yet another moat. (Oh, we love spring climbs in the PNW.) We opted no on crampons but yes on axes for this short but very run-out snow section to the base of the climb (pictured below from the summit). 

final push.jpg

We arrived at the base of Unicorn – gorgeous looking rock! – paired up, partner-checked, and made quick work of the 50 foot climb. We opted for the 5.0 route, which everyone agreed after seemed to have a couple of moves above the grade and a wee bit of exposure, but nothing too bad. (See Mountain Project and other sources for route beta.)

One leader placed three cams - a 2, .3, and a .5 - plenty. We used a 40m rope and 37m rope for the two teams - just enough for this single pitch. A big rock horn slung with two fresh-looking, secure slings indicates the rappel – the ring was on the other side of the horn from our top-out. First group took summit selfies then set up the rappel while the other pair climbed, then we were rapping down to our packs around 3 pm.

on rappel.jpg

We were chatting about whether to proceed to Foss or to head back to the cars when we heard the first clap of thunder. Okay, cars then. The Boundary party informed us from its summit via radio that serious storms were raging on Rainier (just out of our view) and that their team was getting the hell out of Dodge. We glanced at the darkening skies, packed up, and beat our own retreat down the ridge and back to the bad-boy moat. Thunder now boomed as we set a rappel on the hand line tree, and we each went the distance of the 40m rope double-strand nearly to the bottom of the snow bridge, put on crampons and rain shells, and proceeded as safely but as quickly as possible as heavy rains began. 


Snow was not as mushy as hoped since the afternoon sun never got a chance to work its magic, but it was soft enough for decent plunge-stepping, which we did as the thunder echoed. We took extra care to be safe in these conditions - avoiding a SAR rescue call at all costs - and made it back to gully 1, then the endless boulder field, now with a sheen of rain. 

The rain continued as we made it back to the trailhead with one final flash of lightning welcoming us back to the cars. We were completely soaked and totally stoked with the day. We’d successfully summited Unicorn and safely made it back to the cars. Really good spirits and energy in the party, everyone was safety conscious and took the weather and terrain conditions seriously. 

A mere fifteen minutes after driving away from the trailhead and out of the park, the sun was so bright I needed sunglasses from the glare off the dry pavement. June in the PNW.

Unicorn is a lovely little rock climb with incredible views of Rainier, Foss, Stevens, MSH, and more. Though it doesn’t count for Basic Rock credit because it is not multi-pitch, the approach has serious but not too serious elevation and might make an ideal spring climb for first-timers or students before doing their required multi-pitch climbs. This was the official first Mountaineers rock climb for the current student in the party, and she announced that she was officially hooked on alpine climbing. Success.

In the debrief, we agreed we could have cut some transition time during breaks on ascent but overall thought we did well and made solid decisions and communicated well all day in adverse conditions.