Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.

Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.

Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.

Coffin and Bachelor Mountains

February 28, 2015.

Coffin and Bachelor Mtn Trails | 9.4 miles | 2225′ ele. gain

Photos from the trip on Google+

icy beargrass.JPG

It’s been a strange winter. The weather has been drier and milder than the past several winters here, and snowfall has been much below average. Instead of lament the lack of snow, we decided to take advantage of the early season access to summer trailheads. Today, we set our sights on Bachelor and Coffin Mountains.

Our hike began at the Coffin Mountain trailhead. There was a light dusting of snow there, at an elevation of 4750′. We left the snowshoes in the car and began hiking up the trail.

Coffin Mountain is a short, steep affair, and begins climbing immediately. This is one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck hikes I’ve found in Oregon, though. There are views of expansive meadows and the surrounding Cascades right from the start. In spring, the meadows blossom with fragrant beargrass. Today, we walked through last year’s beargrass stalks, which were coated in a layer of ice. It was a very unique landscape.


In just a mile and a half, we reached the summit. A Forest Service lookout building sat there, adjacent to a helicopter landing pad. Both were blanketed with gleaming, white snow. The lookout is staffed in summertime, but was abandoned when we arrived today. It was a good place for a snack and some photo ops. Mt. Jefferson was bathed in sunlight and was practically right in our faces. Mt. Bachelor stood out like a tall person in a movie theater, just big enough to be noticeable but not take too much away from the view.

We glided back down to the trailhead and began the 1.2 mile roadwalk to the Bachelor Mountain trailhead. I’d never hiked up to Bachelor, so this would be a fun new adventure. The road walk was quick and offered up several views back to the steep cliffs on the east side of Coffn Mountain.


The trail up to Bachelor mountain was a bit more snowy and forested. It provided a charm all of its own. We enjoyed the occasional break in the forest canopy that let some of the bright sunshine hit our faces. It sure was a beautiful weather day.

In just a few places, the snowbanks deepened and the trail became a little obscured, but navigation was pretty straightforward. The view from the top of Bachelor mountain was even better than that from the summit of Coffin. We sat here and had an extended lunch break while exploring the best place to take panoramic photos. We could see the Three Sisters, Mt Hood, and the faint tops of other snow-capped Cascades from our magnificent perch.

 jeff pano2.JPG

Wandering back to the parking area, we soaked up the remaining afternoon sunlight and had entertaining conversations. The hard work was over, and it was time to just put one foot after the other all the way back to the car.

I was glad to have the chance to experience both mountains in spring-like conditions. The meadows are certainly gorgeous in peak wildflower bloom, but they had a very different kind of beauty covered in ice and snow. I’d recommend visiting this place any time the trail head is accessible, whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or as we experienced this year, even winter.

Sixth annual woodsy Thanksgiving retreat

November 26-29, 2014.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Cabin > Maiden Peak summit

Photos from the trip on Google+


The night hike

Six years ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a trip, and I have been returning every year on Thanksgiving weekend. I rarely hike the same hike twice, but this journey has been something really meaningful to me. I was excited to come out with Aaron for his second trip to the Maiden Peak cabin.

The day before Thanksgiving, we left the deserted parking lot around 10:30 pm and walked up a dark and slushy Gold Lake Road to the three-sided shelter. At the time I looked at the tiny accumulation of snow and sincerely thought it was a terribly low snow year; but as I re-read the last 3 trip reports, I noticed that I said the same thing from 2011-2013. So I guess the snow levels were indicative of a normal snow season.

At the shelter, we made a fire and set up our sleeping bags for the night. It wasn’t all that cold, so we slept comfortably until sunrise the next morning.


It was dreary, cool and rainy the next morning. We were in no hurry to pack up and move out. Raindrops drizzled down from the shelter’s roof.

On to the cabin


Decked out in rain gear, we left the shelter for the three mile uphill walk to the cabin. The trail was mostly bare ground, with occasional patches of snow, all the way up to the PCT. That hill climb to the trail junction was brutal with a 50 pound pack on. But I knew the value of the weight on my back, so I trudged ahead.

As we approached the cabin, the snow finally began to fill in the trail. But we made it all the way without needing the snowshoes tied to our packs. At the cabin, Aaron split firewood and I got our gear organized.

maiden peak shelter.JPG

After a long afternoon of reading, solving word puzzles, and counting down the minutes, we decided it was time to celebrate Thanksgiving. I used the one cooking pot I had to heat up all the menu items we had. We feasted, as usual, on roasted turkey and all the fixins. I washed it all down with a can of beer. And just as we finished our meal, we saw a couple of headlamps marching towards the cabin.

The visitors

The door creaked open and a dog poked its nose inside. Oh, great, I thought, that’s the worst possible addition to the cabin. My dog allergies would ensure a miserable remainder of the trip. Then another dog entered, followed by their two human companions. I went from happy to grumpy in the course of 5 seconds.

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I scrambled to make some space for the newcomers and plopped back down in front of the fire. Aaron, a stickler for tradition and lover of dessert, excitedly asked if we could make ice cream. We did that, and served it up with a couple of slices of pie. Then, we went off to bed.

Summit or bust

The weather was awful all night, damp and rainy. The same was predicted for today. Initially I thought maybe we’d save our summit trip for the nighttime and catch the sunrise the next day. But the thought of being holed up in a cabin with two dogs all day was discouraging. We had to do our Maiden Peak hike today, despite the weather. I hoped that the rain would turn to snow as we hiked up.

We left the cabin during a little break in the weather, dutifully following blue diamonds up the Maiden Loop Trail. Shortly we reached the junction with Maiden Peak trail. Although this junction gives me trouble every year, Aaron was quick to find the first couple of diamonds and we were on our way.

The trail from this point marched pretty much uphill to the summit. I’ve never been able to follow the trail all the way to the top. Each year I find a new variation on the same theme. Anyways, going up is the easy part. Just keep walking til you can’t go up anymore.


As the trees began to thin and dwindle in size, we lost our buffer from the wind. We stopped to layer up before the final push. My route, arguably more interesting than the actual trail, leads up to a pile of rocks, then follows a softly undulating ridge to the false summit and then the true summit. Here we passed small trees exposed to all sorts of weather. Each needle and branch was covered in layers of wind-sculpted ice. The frozen arboretum provided spruced up the otherwise gray, drab and windy surroundings.

We spent just enough time up there to scarf down our leftover turkey sandwiches before retreating along our  tracks, back into the forest. With zero visibility, there wasn’t much for us to see up there anyways.

The weather had warmed a bit since we’d left the cabin in the morning. It rained on us during the last quarter of a mile to the cabin. We were happy to be able to dry off by the warm fire once we got inside.

Waking up to winter

The next morning I sat up hacking and coughing and gasping for air. My dog allergies had caught up to me. I bundled up and stepped outside to catch my breath. But the scenery quickly took it away. Overnight, several inches of snow had fallen. The vista before me was more like the picture perfect winter postcard of years past.

I couldn’t have gotten out of there too soon. There’s nothing like hauling a heavy pack around when you’re wheezing and trying to breathe. The less time I spent in the cabin, the better. So we ate breakfast, assembled all our things, and hit the trail.

pretty stream.JPG

The new snow made the walking a little more strenuous, but the added beauty more than made up for the extra effort. Aaron and I enjoyed the crisp, dry, and cold air as we plowed through fluffy snow and admired the spectacular place we were in. I quickly forgot about the breathing; I figured the slowness of my pace was due to the frequent stops to photograph nature and do silly things. We had some great conversations about nature and life and risk, inspired by all that surrounded us.

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Even the road into Gold Lake looked pristine with its fresh coat of snow. Numerous animal tracks zigzagged across the road, leaving fleeting evidence of last night’s activities. Being in the forest made me appreciate the opportunity to be out in the woods, even if it didn’t completely go the way I’d planned.

Will we return next year? I haven’t decided. It was miserable to be around the dogs. To be fair, they looked miserable too. I felt bad for them. At least I made the choice to be there, they didn’t. Maybe it’s time for me to look for a new adventure and begin a new chapter in my Thanksgiving hiking tradition. Who knows, I have a year to figure it out.

Five years of Thanksgiving Maidens: 201320122011 | 2010 | 2009

Fuji Mountain

November 2, 2014.

Fuji Mountain Trail from Rd. > summit and back

12.2 miles | 2100′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours | Photos


I found an opportunity to get out for a solo adventure so I grabbed it. Daylight Savings Time even gave me an extra hour of sleep so I could take off even earlier than I normally would. Early starts make me happy.

When I pulled off highway 58 onto the road that would lead me to the trailhead, I drove straight out of fall and right into winter. The ground was coated in a thin layer of snow that must have recently fallen. The air was justifiably cold, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of gray clouds.


The Fuji Mountain trail took off uphill from the get-go. It was an excellent way to help raise my body temperature on this chilly day. The forest felt exceptionally quiet, minus the crunching and sliding noises coming from my feet. Even the birds were still asleep; they must have missed the memo about the time shift.

I walked through one picturesque scene after the next. Tree limbs bowed under the weight of new snow. There were no human footprints anywhere, as expected. I’d have this amazing day all to myself. As the trail began a long, arcing traverse of the mountain on its way to the summit, the sun began to poke through the cloak of clouds. New light reflected off the snow. The trees became shorter, the trail rockier, and I knew I had to be close.


Atop Fuji Mountain, there was a gallery of rime sculpture. Knobby ice jutted out from every surface of every tree, shrub and rock. It was suddenly breezy, as the exposed area did not have as much tree cover as the forested trail. I layered up and hunkered down for a quick lunch.

diamond peak.JPG

The clouds hiding Diamond Peak split for a brief moment, then engulfed the craggy summit once again. Then, they settled in for good. I waited several more minutes to see if the weather would change for the better, but it was clear that the best part of the day was now behind me. I packed up and headed down.

Soon after I saw two men walking up the trail in my direction. I was surprised to see them, and they were surprised to have seen my tracks! They were hiking in from the upper trailhead about a mile away, and were planning to hang out on top for a while. Sounded like a cold and disappointing plan. It was novel to see so many footprints in the snow, but they quickly disappeared and I was back to retracing my own tracks back to the car.


The air temperature was rising, sending pellets of melting snow down the back of my jacket. What was once a lovely winter wonderland was becoming a sloppy, muddy mess. The forest turned from white to brown the closer I got to the road. But the melting snow revealed a variety of plants, fungi and lichen that I didn’t notice just a few hours before. It’s amazing how much the character of a trail can change in the course of a day.

All day I’d passed junctions with other trails marked for winter travel with blue diamonds and signs. This area will  make a delightful snowshoe getaway in just a few weeks. While I’ve had lots of experience snowshoeing a couple of miles away, this is all new territory for me. I know now  that Fuji Mountain and the surrounding areas have lots more adventures in store.

McNeil Point

October 3, 2014.

Top Spur TH >  Timberline Trail/ Bald Mtn South > Timberline Trail > scramble to McNeil Pt Shelter 

9 miles | 2200′ ele. gain | 6:15 hours | Photos


 I was fortunate to end up with a glorious weather day on this autumn Mazama hike. See, you have to plan these things out way in advance to get a hike on the Mazama schedule so I was rolling the dice. And with a full roster of sign ups I was really hoping for decent weather. Well, I must have made the right sacrifice to the weather gods.

It was chilly when we began, but the steady uphill walk helped to warm us up. Soon, we reached a confusing 4-way junction and chose the section of Timberline Trail that traverses around the south side of Bald Mountain. This way, we had the opportunity to stop and rest at a couple of stunning viewpoints of Mt. Hood. There were several nice cameras among our group, so we took every chance we got to take pictures in the bright sunlight.

After that, we found the shortcut back to the other portion of Timberline Trail that would take us up to McNeil Point. For the next few miles, we gradually gained elevation as we followed the forested trail through the wilderness. Our group was friendly, chatty and very diverse. Among us were visiting students from Chicago, longtime Oregonians and some newcomers to the Portland area.


The group decided they wanted to take the short but steep scramble route instead of the official, meandering route to the shelter. It wasn’t so bad, and it added some interest to the walk in the woods. We followed rock talus and dirt through ever-shortening trees as we trudged up to the shelter. Once out of the woods, we popped up onto a beautiful overlook above the Muddy Fork canyon. Above us, Mt. Hood rose up majestically, her glaciers gleaming and sparkling in the sunlight. The group split in two, with half of us hanging out right there and the other half adventuring up to the point. I enjoyed a lazy rest near the shelter, eating my lunch, taking pictures and stretching my legs.


As we rose to head for home, I thought the best part was behind us. We took the long way down instead of retracing our steps on the scramble path. This route switchbacked through one meadow after another, where the red leaves of huckleberry bushes looked like fire. Behind us, the views of Mt. Hood never subsided. It was a picturesque walk; it was hard not to stop and take it all in every few steps. But we were on a mission to return to the trailhead.

On the way down we passed several cheerful groups and families on their way up to enjoy this special place. I felt lucky to be up there on a Friday in the fall, when crowds were surely at their lowest, and our group was able to take over the viewpoint without disturbing any other visitors.

This was a great way to kick off my fall hiking schedule. I can only hope that subsequent hikes can live up to the quality of this one.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.


Skip to the photo album

It had been about 2 years since I’d even attempted to lead any outdoor rock, and I’d only been to the rock gym a handful of times in that period. So when my pal Rick recruited me to take him up a 5th class route on Mt. Thomson, of course I said SURE!

To be fair, the climbing on Thomson is pretty easy by climbing standards. The hardest moves are rated 5.6, but most of the climbing is 4th class scrambling and easy rock climbing. But the lack of practice with ropework, reading routes and dealing with exposure made me a little nervous about the climb. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could rally and make the climb work for our little team.

Mt. Thomson looked impressive from the photos I’d seen on the Internet. It lay tucked away, buried deep in the woods (by climbers’ standards) 7 miles from Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT. Rick and I rolled into the trailhead at about 5 pm on a Saturday evening, hoping to make camp by sunset.


With hardly a few words of conversation, we busted out the 7 miles to camp above Ridge Lake in about 3 hours, barely pausing to admire the famed Kendall Katwalk (shown above) on our way. The lakes below us were overrun with campers, so we were happy to have our own little hideaway just a couple hundred feet up the trail.

We awoke the next morning to a view obscured by fog. We lazily ate breakfast and got our things together to head up the PCT in search of our climber’s trail.

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In about a half mile, we turned straight uphill in a steep drainage to reach Bumblebee Pass. The view from here looked just as cloudy as our view from the tent. We dropped down into the basin from the pass and traversed west across heather meadows and meandering mountain streams to the base of a large talus field. From there, we should have had a striking view of the south face of Mt. Thomson. Instead, we saw the talus rise into a low-hanging, gray cloud. I took out my photo of the route and tried to match up features on the base of the mountain with the view in front of me. We sat and waited for the clouds to rise.

thin clouds.JPG

In the meantime, a couple trotted down from the pass and told us they were also headed up to the West Ridge. We waved them good luck as we continued to wait for a little clearing.

The curtain of clouds slowly began to rise. We ascended the jumbled talus up to the low point of the west ridge. Once there, we attempted to scout the route. After much futzing around, we made one dicey move to get to the belay ledge for pitch one.

And now, the climbing begins

Here’s where the gears in my brain began whirring at a mile a minute. We methodically got rigged up for the first pitch and triple checked everything. I looked up at the chimney, and over at the sloping traverse to get there, noting one very important thing. I’d need a 0.5 cam to protect the bottom of the route and I decided to leave all my small cams at home. Brilliant.

I looked behind me at the other team, waiting in the batter’s box for the two of us to get going. I noticed the leader’s bright, shiny, well-equipped rack. Luckily, he let me borrow his 0.5 and I was on my way. On. My. Way. Well, I’m not sure how long it took me to make that first move, but once I got up a ways and put that cam in, I slowly plodded my way up pitch one.

looking up p2.JPG

The first belay ledge was nice and roomy, with a big tree for an anchor. Yay. Now I was feeling back in the groove again. Pitch two felt a little more challenging for me, with a couple of bulges, not a lot of great pro (I needed those damn tiny cams again) and a lot of zig-zagging, causing too much rope drag. I called it good about halfway up and rigged up a belay station there. Once Rick joined me on the tiny and awkward belay ledge I started up pitch 2.5. I was sure glad I broke up this pitch because soon I was stopped in my tracks by a vertical wall with seemingly nowhere else to go. It looked harder than 5.6, I thought, but maybe that was just my rusty leading skills talking. I located every hand and foot placement I needed to tackle that wall, then all at once worked my way up to the next ledge. Rick told me afterwards that he made some pretty sick Chris Sharma moves to follow me up there. I pictured him gripping the rock tenaciously with one hand, swinging his hips powerfully to one side to plant a toe perfectly on the next rock nubbin, where he’d regain his balance and glide effortlessly to the next hold.

traverse p4.JPG

Pitch three: the slab. Certainly, I was excited to float up an easy slab after all that stressful vertical. Pitch four: more slab and blocky climbing. One account described it as a “5.4 staircase,” although this was not evident from the get-go. The exposure and not super obvious routefinding occupied my brain. I’d forgotten how much rock climbing can dial in your focus and allow you to remain entirely present. That’s the part I love.

top of final pitch.JPG

At the top of the false summit, we scrambled down a steep gully along a trail that led to the base of the final pitch. There was one last pitch of easy climbing to reach the summit. Thank goodness. Rick patiently dealt with a serious rope tangle, since I had absentmindedly forgotten to re-flake the rope, while I perched on a nice ledge. I knew a huge notch lay below me, but I couldn’t see the depth of it since it was filled with cloud.

Nearing the end of my rope (literally) I had to stop short of the summit, build a belay with the loosely piled rocks on the ridge and bring Rick up. From there, we untied and meandered over to the summit, reaching the top about 8 hours after we left camp in the morning.

Up until this point I had subsisted on about a half liter of water and an energy bar. I figured it was time to eat some food. We didn’t bring much water, since neither of us wanted to carry it up there, so we’d have to wait for a resupply down in the meadow. Good thing it wasn’t warm today.

Down the East Ridge

Again, our goal was to make it to camp before dark, so we headed into the unknown yet again to descend the east ridge.

We dropped down to the first rappel station, made a quick rap, then saw another tree wrapped with slings and rapped a second time. From there, it was not obvious where to go. We followed a faint path for a short while, then it seemed to disappear. Stupidly, I went to scout the rocky ledges and Rick split off to wander around in the trees. After much yelling back and forth, it was decided that Rick had the route that would work. We found a trail through the heather meadows that followed the east ridge down. My first thought was that the East Ridge as a climb would be boring as hell, switchbacking up a trail 95% of the way to the summit, so I was extra glad that we’d fumbled up the West Ridge.

more trail.JPG

Eventually the trail led us to a notch that dropped down into the basin beneath Mt. Thomson. From there we traversed across talus and meadows, refilling our water bottles with stream water, then headed straight up to Bumblebee Pass.

We were both thrilled to catch sight of the PCT once we descended from the pass. That meant we were nearly done. At 7 pm, we crashed back into a soggy camp and quickly began refueling and rehydrating.

The retreat

The next morning, the clouds had released their grip on the valley and a beautiful sunrise brought us out of the tent. It was going to be a bluebird day.

We took our time on the return trek, taking the opportunity to actually see the area we’d just spent a day and a half in. There were beautiful peaks, glassy lakes, and stunning vistas. The Kendall Katwalk, which had been mired in fog just two days before, looked a bit more like the pictures I’d seen (albeit still a little disappointing).

rick heading to catwalk.JPG

While we didn’t set any speed records on this trip, I’m glad we made it happen. I felt great getting back onto alpine rock and facing head on all the challenges it brings. It’s not always glamorous; in fact I find it so rare that people actually write about the hard stuff. Everyone’s always ready to inflate their ego retelling the epic awesomeness that they achieve on exotic and aesthetic climbs. But even the “easy” climbs present problems that need to be overcome. I appreciate the opportunity to be challenged, to be humbled and to be forced to think on the fly. Alpine climbing is truly an opportunity to apply everything you’ve learned and practiced, recognizing that the textbook placements you studied and easy as pie sequences are not always realistic.

I hope that Rick will again entertain the thought of spearheading another alpine adventure and force me to get out of my comfort zone again.

Glacier Peak Wilderness Backpacking

July 27-30, 2014.

N. Fork Sauk Trail > PCT > Kennedy Creek and back, plus a side trip to Portal Peak

37 miles | ~8500′ ele. gain | Hike photos

lousewort glacier.JPG

Backpacking. It’s one of those activities on par with cleaning the basement, doing my taxes, and going to the dentist. It is not one of the things I prefer to do with my precious time off. However, this was supposed to be a mountain climb, and I was invited to go by two people I was really interested in meeting. So I blocked off some time and met up with my shiny new hiking partners in preparation for a 4-day climb of Glacier Peak.

Day 1: the approach


Day one was hot and long. We set off along the North Fork Sauk River, gaining roughly 1000′ in the first 5.5 miles to the Mackinaw Shelter. This was the easy part. In the next four miles, the trail rocketed up 3500′ in a series of switchbacks leading to Red Pass. The lower portion of the trail kept us relatively protected in the shade of the forest, but as we climbed higher, we entered longer and longer stretches of wide open meadows. The meadows were green, lush, and dotted with colorful wildflowers. But the sun felt extra hot here. I was overjoyed when we hit the PCT. The grade mellowed, and we were on the home stretch.

up through the meadows.JPG

When we crested Red Pass, we dropped our packs and took a deep breath in. The scenery was magnificent in all directions. Behind us, Sloan Peak stood out from the numerous snow-capped ridges and hills stretching in all directions.  Over the pass, a broad, snow-filled basin provided a look at some new features on the south side of Glacier Peak. As the sun set, we prepared dinner and then nestled into our sleeping bags for a good night’s rest.

basin pano.JPG

Day 2: search for the climber’s trail

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We got off to a late start the next morning, and began hiking in the heat of the day. From the pass, the PCT dropped over 2500 vertical feet in the next five miles. It was depressing to lose that much elevation after working so hard to get up there. We trudged along, through bright meadows and dark forests, along snowmelt trickles and rushing streams. We were on the hunt for the Sitkum Glacier route. We had a couple of maps and a little bit of beta to go on, but no recent trip reports with updated conditions or directions. Regardless, we hiked for several more miles to the WC trail. Here we kept our eyes peeled for a cairn, a brushy trail, or any other indication of the climber’s route.

We found no such clue, and found ourselves eventually at a broken bridge over Kennedy Creek, which we knew was too far along the trail. We then headed back the way we came, scouring the trail for any sign of the way to go. I sat down for a while while my partners wandered through the forest. It was almost 5 pm. We had 3500′ to climb to get to the basin. Tonight. I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

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I had to be the Debbie Downer to break the news. We were all exhausted and frustrated. But we’d recently passed a sweet backcountry campsite, so we returned there and set up camp for the night.

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A quick wash in the river followed by a fire-side dinner brought our spirits up. We chatted until well after the sun set, then retreated to bed.

Day 3: splitting the group

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After a nice long sleep in, I bid farewell to my hiking partners and began the trek to Red Pass. They had already planned to circumnavigate the mountain post-climb, so their journey led north and mine led south. I walked in solitude back through the woods and meadows I’d traveled the day before, seeing everything from the reverse perspective. Again, it was brutally hot and now I was headed uphill. My legs were tired and I just couldn’t drink enough water. As lunchtime approached I desperately looked around for an adequate spot to rest and refuel. After passing a few so-so locations, I stumbled into the most perfect location for lunch. A small stream tumbled down a green meadow dotted with snowfields. The huge basin beneath the pass fanned out before me, and Glacier Peak stood like a sentinel over the whole scene. I inexplicably broke into tears, the combination of adrenaline, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and awe spiraled out of control. I wiped my face, broke into a smile, then quickly got to work filtering water and setting out my lunch.

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From here, it was a quick walk up to the pass. The easy switchbacks of the trail allowed me to move steadily, despite the intermittent snow. The Crocs handled like a champ. As I approached the pass, I saw a couple of humans and their huge dog. This was the first sign of life I’d seen since leaving camp. I worked up a friendly conversation starter in my mind as I continued up, but was startled by their dog who’d bolted down the snowfield towards me. It barked and growled, running circles around me as I stood and shot an angry look towards the couple. They made a half-ass attempt to get control of the dog, which failed. I waited, prepared to wail on the beast with my hiking poles if it got any closer, but they finally grabbed its collar and pulled it in. I walked by with a brief “hi” and kept on going until I reached my camp. What a horrible encounter.

Portal Peak

Two nights ago, while camping at Red Pass, I’d eyeballed Portal Peak. From the pass, it looked to be a stone’s throw away, just about 400 feet of elevation gain and a quarter of a mile’s walk. I was dying to get a summit, so I made this my goal.

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With not much more than a water bottle and camera, I scrambled up rocky ledges and heather meadows to the top of the peak. I was overjoyed to see a summit register and USGS marker, as well as an unobstructed view of Glacier Peak. I hung out up here with the butterflies and wildflowers as I scanned the horizon trying to identify the mountains. I was completely out of my element; it was my first trip to this area. I thought about all the PCT hikers who had walked just a few hundred feet below this spot but never paused to leave the trail and take in this view. Amazing.

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Day 4: back to the car

I awoke to a beautiful sunrise, finally an early wake-up. After breakfast, I packed up and began the descent. The early morning air was cool and breezy. But that didn’t last long. The summer sun picked up and I shed layers. I was under no time crunch to get back to the car, but I really wanted to be done.

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On the way back down I passed by a trail crew working to clear vegetation and divert water from the trail. I also passed a ton of hikers coming in, and a train of mules and horses carrying gear. It felt much different from my wilderness solitude the day before. I was pretty ecstatic when I saw the trailhead.

And now, for something completely different

I had a couple of days before I would meet up with my next climb team near Stevens Pass so I planned to do some car camping along the river. I drove just a few miles back along the North Fork Sauk River and found an excellent dispersed campsite on the left side of the road. There were no other campsites nearby.


I spent the rest of the afternoon and the following day relaxing by the river, reading, stretching, and basically doing as little as possible. It was a perfect end to a strenuous trip. Car camping in the right place can feel just as much a wilderness experience as camping in the backcountry. The roaring river drowned out any noise from passing cars, the canopy of trees offered respite from the summer sun, and the soft, flat ground provided a comfortable, low-impact place to pitch a tent. A nice, big fire ring gave me a safe place to build a campfire and ample deadfall in the area provided the fuel. If I’d only left a couple of beers in the car, it would have been the perfect end to a lovely trip.


Hiking the Leutasch and Partnach Gorges in Germany

April 22, 2014.

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We’d done our fair share of being city tourists in France and Germany, and were excited to take advantage of some hiking opportunities in Bavaria.

Leutasch Gorge

Our first hike was close to the cute little town we stayed in last night: Mittenwald. This picturesque little village sat alongside the Alps, offering views of great rock faces and dark, forested hillsides. A short drive brought us to a time-limited parking space. The only reason this was notable was due to the fact we had to place a little paper clock on the dashboard showing what time we’d arrived. The clock was provided by the rental car, and thankfully Aaron had read about this quirky fact before we took our trip. With the clock in place, we set off for the trailhead.

The waterfall hike was closed, so we scanned the map and crafted a loop that was roughly a few miles long. The map was so detailed that trail segments were measured in meters, so we practically walked the entire trail system there.

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The Goblin trail was the most fun and interesting, as it took us along metal walkways and bridges that put us right on top of the gorge. This crazy network of “trails” was manufactured right into the rock. We could look beneath our feet to the river, a couple hundred feet below us in some places. I was happy that our early start meant that no one else was out there; it would have been much more scary if the walkways were mobbed with people.

In addition, there were several signs along the way that detailed how the gorge was formed, what animals lived there, how to identify plants, and lots of other interesting facts. Each sign was colorful and written in a few languages, so we actually learned a thing or two.

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After finishing the gorge walk, our hike looped back through the forest. At some point we found ourselves briefly in Austria, as indicated by a small sign. No passport required there!

With just a half mile or so to the car, the weather suddenly changed and a passing storm dropped hail and rain on us. We ducked under the roof of a nearby lodge (closed) and ran into a young girl who had also taken shelter out of the storm. She chatted us up in English as best she could, and when the rain relented the three of us walked back to the car. We bid our new friend adieu as she rode her bike back into town. On to the next adventure.

Partnach Gorge

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The second hike was much different than the first. It was located near the Olympic Ski Stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a buzzing hive of tourist activity. We were on a time schedule to get our rental car to the drop-off in Munich, so with that in mind we picked up a map at the Tourist Information desk and started walking towards the gorge.

The paved road leading to the trailhead was busy with other people walking, biking or taking a horse-drawn buggy to the gorge entrance. When we finally made it there, we found a little ticket booth with a woman collecting a 3.5 € entry fee per person. She told us the hike was a loop, so we started straight ahead as instructed.

I was surprised at how many people were shoving their way against the flow of traffic. “What loop??” I thought, as families and couples retreated towards the ticket booth. I was doubtful we’d have enough time to complete this hike.

This trail, in contrast to the previous hike, was just above the water coursing through the gorge’s rocky walls. In many places, a trail tunnel was blasted into the rock. In others, the trail was made of steel beams. Handrails protected hikers from falling into the swirling river, or being pushed in by the madding crowd.


Water dripped down on us from above, and spray from the fast-moving water blasted up from the river below. It was raincoat time. After we exited the claustrophobic, yet beautiful, gorge, the trail climbed up an open hillside and brought us to a wider and more gently flowing part of the river. This appeared to be where many people stop for lunch and then turn straight back. We continued up, determined to make our loop, switchbacking up the hill to an even more idyllic setting. The sun blazed high in the blue sky, brightening the grassy meadows and clusters of wildflowers. The high peaks of the Alps formed a beautiful backdrop on the whole scene, which felt quite like a movie set.


People were milling about up here as well, but as soon as we dropped down the other side of the hill, we were on our own. We walked past a curious sign that announced “Way only for practiced” and discouraged children from using the path. “Cool,” I thought. Now we’re on for an adventure.


The trail here was muddy in sections but it was well built and had several sets of stairs and handrails to guide hikers through the roughest bits. I thought it was a pleasant walk. The scary sign kept everyone off the trail, so we were able to finish the loop in quiet solitude. It was the polar opposite of the tourist trap we just scrambled out of.

We returned to the ticket booth, checked the time and hoofed it down the trail to get back to the car. There was no time to waste.

How not to return a rental car

We had just enough time to drive to Munich and return it at the train station by 4 pm to avoid being charged for an extra day. We’d never been to Munich before, as we’d picked up the car in Frankfurt and were just driving the one way. We plugged the train station into the GPS and were on our way.

Racing down the Autobahn was fun for Aaron and scary for me. But I’d no idea it would get so much worse when we entered the city. In the city, we hit traffic. Traffic of all sorts: cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a man on a camel in the middle of the road. We scrambled to find a gas station to fill up, detouring around construction and trying to interpret all the German signs we’d barely become familiar with. Miraculously, we navigated the gas station and drove to the train station. Traffic congestion increased at an exponential rate the closer we got to the station. People were all over the road. Lanes inexplicably split off in all directions, with one-ways, train tracks, bike lanes and all sorts of other confusion muddying up our drive. To top it all off, we couldn’t figure out where the car drop was.

We circled the train station several times, once mistakenly turning ONTO the train tracks, until we found an underground parking area. We parked the car, ran into the train station, and asked the first English-speaking staff person we could find to direct us to the rental office.

The man at the rental counter kindly gave us a map and directions to the car drop site, which would have been very helpful to have had at the start of our journey, and we ran back out to the car.

Tension was high in the car as we barreled out of the train station and followed the new directions to the car drop. We pulled in, Ace Ventura style—”like a glove”—and breathed a sigh of relief. It was 3:50.

It was really nice to have a car for this leg of the trip. We had the freedom to come and go as we pleased, travel to areas we couldn’t walk to, and see some of the German countryside from the comfort of a car. But I absolutely stressed about this car return. I’ve learned a few things about how to better prepare for next time. At this point I was so ready to be back to being walking distance from everything in the city. And we’d finish our trip with a couple of days in Munich, Germany…

Black Crater

July 13, 2014.

7.8 miles | 2500′ ele. gain | 3.5 hours | Hike photos

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After seeing some early morning lightning and hearing ominous thunder from our dispersed campsite near Clear Lake, we decided to take a drive to McKenzie Pass to see what the weather had in store for  the day. From the expansive viewpoint at the Dee Wright Observatory, our fears were confirmed: the mountains were under attack by a number of dark storm systems that were laying down rain and hail in addition to the lightning strikes. Forest Service crews were standing by to keep an eye on brewing forest fires. We looked at each other and said, well, let’s go hiking.

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We decided to head to Black Crater because it was just a bit east of the worst of the storms. The trailhead was empty, so we parked and started walking uphill at a brisk pace. Most of the trail to Black Crater is buried in the forest. We trudged along, listening to the sky grumbling, wondering if we’d get stuck in the rain, or worse, in a fire.

Shortly after pondering this, rain began coming down on us. Aaron, of course, had his raincoat and pack cover on in a flash. I hadn’t packed a rain shell for this trip, but I did grab the footprint for my tent and stuffed it in my pack for just such a predicament. What followed was the assembly of a functional poncho for myself and my backpack.

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We moved ahead with confidence, pushing through the rain and hail no problem. The next obstacle, predictably, was snow.

It began as a few short snow patches, but as we reached treeline, we hit more persistent and deep snow. We managed along just fine, barreling straight up a steep snow slope when the trail’s switchbacks disappeared beneath it. While the distant skies were still gray and dramatic, the skies overhead began to show patches of blue and friendly, puffy clouds. We enjoyed the final stretch to the summit, traversing across beautiful rock gardens and passing by twisted whitebark pines.

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I had become fully engaged taking pictures of and admiring the tiny, bright, alpine flower beds. But when I lifted my head to look in the other direction, I shouted “holy crap! The Sisters are RIGHT THERE!” So close I felt I could throw a rock to North Sister.  But as we continued, the views got even better, clearer, and more spectacular. With all the exploring I’d done in Central Oregon, I was completely blown away that I’d overlooked this tremendous hike.

Just below the summit, a broad, cinder plateau offered a nice photographing opportunity. The clouds cooperated just long enough for me to capture a photosphere.


Then we hiked up a narrow catwalk to reach the summit proper, atop a small cliff. Here were the remains of the old fire tower lookout. It must have been a pretty amazing place to be. As we quickly downed our lunches, the gray clouds began to swallow up the Sisters. We knew more weather was heading our way, so we boogied out of there.


But the rain never came. In fact, the sun began to break through and we began seeing other hikers coming up the trail. Things had taken a turn for the better. Back at the parking lot, we ran into a family of hikers who said they were behind us but turned back due to the snow. With confident feet and a capable hiking partner, I thought, that snow was no big deal. I felt lucky that we were able to enjoy some solitude on one of Central Oregon’s most perfectly perched viewpoints.

Middle and North Pyramid

July 4, 2014.

North Pyramid Trail > Middle Pyramid Trail > Summit > Traverse to North Pyramid 

about 9 miles | 1900′ ele. gain | 5:15 hours | Hike photos

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On my last trip to Scar Mountain, along the Old Cascades Crest trail, I became intrigued with the idea of linking up the Three Pyramids. I couldn’t find any trip reports online describing such a hike. Pulling out the maps, I learned a little more about the terrain. Only the Middle Pyramid had a trail to its summit, the former site of a lookout tower. North Pyramid was only a short ways off of one trail, and the toughest looking bit looked to be the South Pyramid, at least a one mile walk from any trail.

I began my trek from the North  Pyramid trailhead, the same starting point for the Scar Mountain hike. Almost immediately, I got lost among a jumble of short, overgrown gravel roads. I angled into the woods in the rough direction I thought I needed to go, and stumbled across a nice looking trail. The trail led downhill to a small bridge and a thickly overgrown, streamside meadow. Bushwhacking through face-high ferns and salmonberry bushes, I followed the sound of the creek to find a second bridge. Once on the other side, the trail was easier to follow.

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I continued uphill and crossed road 2047. The trail continued along in spurts of uphill sections and traverses. Eventually, the trail climbed up through a series of switchbacks to gain the ridge between North and Middle Pyramid. At the saddle between the two, the trail provided a sunny view of the mountains. Looking back, I could see the summit of North Pyramid. It looked totally do-able on the way back, if I could avoid the rocky cliffs.

I finished the walk up to Middle Pyramid, ending up at what appeared to be another saddle between two bumps. I mistakenly took a left, scrambled to the top of a rock pile, and looked south to see a post on the other bump, presumably the true summit of Middle Pyramid.

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I quickly made it over to the post and settled in for an early lunch. This gave me a great vantage point to both North and South Pyramid. The south side of the summit dropped sharply to what looked like a cliffy and steep ridge to South Pyramid. The summit block of South Pyramid also looked blockaded by rock cliffs. It would have been too much for me on my own today, so I took a bunch of pictures and put that Pyramid on hold, for now. Looking at the map, a southern approach looked to be a better way to get up there.

Oh, and the views from the old lookout site weren’t bad, either.

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Returning the way I came, I veered off the trail about halfway along the high traverse and followed the ridge north. The forest was gently sloped and open, with trees and beargrass lining the ground. On the east side, the forest gave way to steep, rocky meadows, and eventually I was pushed up to a blocky ridge that was overgrown with moss. Following the path of least resistance, I eventually reached the end of the ridge, and had spectacular views towards Mt. Jefferson. I looked around for a summit register, but couldn’t find anything.

It was a nice little place to sit and hang out, with the exception of all the biting ants. Once they got used to my presence, it seemed, they left me alone. Anyways, the views up here were tremendous, with nothing obscuring the sightline to Jefferson. pano.JPG

Plus, I got a nice vantage point to look at Scar Mountain, the last place I went hiking.

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Not wanting to retrace too many of my steps, I angled back along the ridge for just a short while before descending the steep, western face. I intended to pick up the trail at the switchbacks, but the lay of the land forced me a little too far north to do that. Instead, I ended up walking and sliding down a gully, grabbing on to trees and bushes for balance as I made my way back to a nice, gentle section of trail.


I was heavily assaulted by mosquitoes along this particular section of the bushwhack, which was unusual. I had hardly seen a mosquito all day long.

Back on the trail, time flew by. Once I reached the bridge over the creek, I stopped to collect salmonberries for the Fourth of July BBQ I’d hit on the way home. Unfortunately, the bushes were growing right at the creek’s edge, with the only access being from the creek itself. I slipped off my socks and shoes and walked through the ice-cold, ankle deep water. The berries were flourishing, ripe, and tasty.

On the way back to the car, I completed the short section of trail that I missed on my hike out. Turning around, I saw a barely noticeable brown post marking the start of the trail as it left one of the brushy roads. Easy to miss.

Back at the car, I noticed that the parking area was ringed with ripe, wild strawberries. I had a tiny bit of space left in my berry container to gather a small handful of strawberries before taking off.


Although I just read an article in the Salem Statesman Journal about the Middle Pyramid hike (from another trailhead), I’m sure this area does not see a ton of traffic. Certainly few people take the longer route that I did, although it’s not that long and it’s quite nice. If I someday become interested in backpacking, I’d love to traverse the whole Old Cascade Crest trail.