Category Archives: Washington

Oyster Dome

November 21, 2015.

6.5 mi | 1900′ | 4:15 hr.

I arrived at the Chuckanut Drive trailhead and set out for Oyster Dome nice and early this morning. It was cold and dark in the dense, coastal forest. Although I knew Samish Bay was closeby, for most of the hike my view was blocked by trees.

The trail went consistently up, and up and up. I paused frequently to catch my breath. I was on a time schedule, as I would be meeting with a training group later in the day. But I made good time up the trail, reaching the Samish Overlook and then continuing on towards the top. Signs on the trail indicated that work crews were making trail improvements. Being unfamiliar with the area, I wasn’t sure if there was some recent damage to the trail or if it was work that needed to be done for awhile. I cautiously proceeded around the signs and eroded areas to continue on towards the top.

The summit was a bit anti-climactic. It was choked with trees. A small bald spot on the bedrock provided something of a view. But the rock sloped off steeply towards, presumably, a cliff…so I didn’t venture out too far.

It was still pretty early and cold. I sat there and took in the views, keeping an eye on the time. I had to be back at Larabee State Park for a workshop later this morning.

I only saw two people on my way up. On the way down, it was another story. People had woken up and gotten out to the trailhead. Many were tromping up the trail now.

On this hike I had passed by a few signs for the Pacific Northwest Trail. I’d never heard of it before. When I got back home I did some research. Turns out it was a 1200 mile trail leading from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, traveling along the northern borders of Montana, Idaho and Washington State along the way. Interesting. It certainly didn’t get the same amount of press as, say, the PCT or the AT.

Back on the trail, the forest passed me by like a blur. I raced back down, traveling more quickly than I had on my way up. Downhill was always easier. When I got back to the road, now packed with cars all over the place, I already missed the forest. Funny how you don’t always appreciate things when they’re right in front of you.

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

November 20, 2015.

4.5 mi | no ele. gain | 1:30 hr.

On my way to an event outside of Seattle, I stopped at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. I’d been here once before on a similar mission. Its location right by the highway makes it a perfect rest stop. Well, active rest stop I suppose.

I started out on the Twin Barns Loop behind the visitor center, walking at a brisk pace in the bitterly cold air. It sure felt like winter this afternoon. The birds didn’t seem to mind, though. I shared the trails with Canada geese, great blue heron and other waterfowl. The cool forest, creaky boardwalks and huge mudflats wouldn’t be complete without the array of bird life.

As the hiking loop emerged from the trees I walked straight ahead towards the Puget Sound Overlook. This stretch of boardwalk led far into the distance along an inlet. Today, however, the end portion of the boardwalk was closed, so I didn’t get that epic view at the terminus. But I was still able to see snowy Mt. Rainier poking up above the lowlands. I guessed that would do.

What a lovely way to spend an hour or so on a fall afternoon. I’ve only been here a couple of times, but I imagine that there’s lots of wildlife to see any time of year. Fall visitors get the added benefit of finding relative solitude here, too. Well, that is unless you count the birds.

Leadbetter Point hike

November 7, 2015.

4 mi. | minimal ele. gain | 1:30 hr.

Aaron and I drove up to Washington to spend a weekend exploring a new area. Neither of us had really spent any time on the southern Washington coast, so why not check it out in November?!

We arrived at a nearby campground the night before and set up our tent in the dark. When we awoke the next morning to the sound of rain, we knew we were in for an interesting visit. I stepped out of the tent and noticed that we were sitting in a couple inches of water. Miraculously, there was not a drop of moisture inside. I’m not saying the MSR Hubba Hubba is the best tent ever, but I was shocked at how well it kept us dry in those conditions!

As usual, the sound of rainfall inside the tent is much worse than the actual rainfall outside. It was sprinkling as we made breakfast and got ready to hike.

At the trailhead, a color-coded sign illustrated a variety of hiking loop options from the parking lot. We chose the 4-mile loop that was also mentioned in the Sullivan book. It started off pleasant enough, in a pretty coastal forest. The sky and the ocean were shades of gray. The trail led to a short beach walk, where we watched the waves rolling into shore and the raindrops plopping into the sea. Thick, hardy coastal shrubs and trees created a natural buffer from the ocean weather and we soon dropped back behind the vegetation to join the yellow trail.

The forest was stunning. Mushrooms in all different colors, shapes and sizes grew along the forest bottom. Plants thrived in the moisture and nutrient-rich environment. The rain kept pouring down, but we were shielded from the brunt of it by the trees.

That is, until we hit the shoreline again. It was only a 0.7 mile stretch, though, so how bad could it…

Yeah, it was pretty bad. We battened down the hatches. Rain cover, check. Rain jacket, check. Rain pants, yep, you get the idea. Gloves, hats, everything went on. The wind was fierce. Now we were getting blasted with rain, wind and sand. The sand was the worst. It was comically bad, so we decided to have fun with it. I think we spent twice as much time as we needed to here because we were busy taking videos of the sand and waves, posing for silly pictures and generally laughing at the conditions we found ourselves in. Knowing the hike was only 4 miles long, and not like 14, we knew we were in no danger.

By the time we made it to the blue trail and back into the forest, we were soaked through. My camera lens was covered in water and all of my pictures after that point were blurry. The rain kept pouring down.

We sloshed ahead without a care in the world. When you’re already wet, what’s another puddle? It was evident that this area historically saw a lot of rain, based on the signage that we found on the ground.

Once back at the car we were able to dry off, change clothes and head into town for some normal-people activities. Like visiting the cranberry museum and visiting shops. And then, starting to dream up the next outdoor adventure.

Panhandle Gap

August 15, 2015.

12 mi | 3000′ ele. gain | 6.75 hr

Rick wanted to go to Mt. Rainier National Park. For climbing, of course, but not to the summit of Rainier. Instead to a lesser peak, a jumble of rocks really, called Cowlitz Chimneys. Our chances of doing this in a day (on THIS day) was pretty slim, but we’d already committed to the dates so we were going. The weather was pure misery: rain, fog and rain/fog. It was summer. Or so the calendar said.

We started at o’dark-thirty to get the most of our day. Last night we camped in a cramped, flooded campsite and got okay sleep. At least now I was fed and on my feet.

We walked, mostly oblivious to our surroundings. At every vista, our faces were in the clouds. I appreciated the occasional splash of color from late summer wildflowers like fireweed. By 7:45 we reached Summerland, one of those awe-inspiring meadows that postcards and jigsaw meadows are made of. But today, the low fog bank cloaked its beauty. The vegetation was bogged down with moisture and the sky was dark gray.

Continuing to Panhandle Gap, the vegetation all but went away and we found ourselves on a Martian landscape. Glacial streams poured over slate gray rock beneath slate gray skies. Everything blended together. Patches of snow clung to the cliffs, providing a constant flow of water to the tarns and creeks.

At Panhandle Gap we sat and chatted about our options. It was plenty early to tackle another objective, but we couldn’t see anything. Hoping the fog would lift, we hung out a bit and watched and waited. Nothing.

Marmots teased us from the rocks as we retreated.

A long day in the mountains is never wasted. We made the right call. Mountain weather can be tricky to predict days in advance, let alone months in advance. So when trying to coordinate outings with certain people, sometimes it won’t go the way you’d hoped. I was happy to have had some time to hike with Rick and to see an unfamiliar place, in any kind of weather.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mt. St. Helens Worm Flows

March 23, 2014.

12 mi | 5500′ ele. gain | 10:30 hr.

Headlamp, check. Lunch, check. Crampons, check. Snowshoes, yep, I got it all. Is everyone here? Great. Let’s go!

We left the parking lot before sunrise to charge up the ski trail in the dark. We’d only need sunlight for the upper mountain anyways, so it was nice to get a jump start on the day.

At 6 am, just as enough sunlight began brightening up the snowy trail, we got a glimpse of the mountain. As we headed towards treeline, the clouds lit up in shades of pink and orange. It looked like we had a pretty day ahead.

By the time our team reached the 4800′ sign, the summit of the mountain was socked in by clouds. The rest of the mountain was illuminated with early morning sun and soft, blue shadows. Behind us, an endless views of peaks and valleys, a mixture of green and white.

The snow was patchy, leaving large outcrops of bare rock here and there. We negotiated the best route we could in the conditions present today. As the mountain steepened and the snow hardened up, we put crampons on our boots. That little extra purchase gave us the mental and physical boost we needed to climb higher.

The cloud layer dropped down, revealing the shiny summit of Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams also poked its head above the clouds to our right. There were climbers in front of us, behind us, to our left and right. It was a good day to be in the mountains.

We walked, one step after another, for an endless amount of steps. With the summit in view nearly the entire trip, it felt so close and yet so far from our present position. The mountaintop never seemed to come closer, no matter the effort! But, the iciness of the upper slopes made me realize how close we were to finishing. With a firm boot pack I was unlikely to take a slide down the mountain but I placed my feet carefully with each step.

Finally, after several hours of walking we reached the edge of the crater. One by one each team member arrived, jubilant and overwhelmed with excitement! Suddenly all the pain and suffering of the trip up here just vanished into dust. We chose a resting spot far from any potential cornices and ate heartily. Many photos were taken. It was now a crisp, bluebird day.

Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier came into view beyond the summit crater. There was no rush to get down the mountain. We made sure everyone on the team had enough time to revel in their success today and take in all the views.

On the way down, we reviewed the plunge-step technique and made good time getting below the steep, icy stuff. Then, it was time to glissade! Great snow conditions made for some fun glissade runs and took some time off of the descent. Eventually those rock outcrops forced us to get back on our feet and descend in our boots along the ridge. The long slog through the trees began. But everyone was still riding high on that summit rush so we all chit-chatted and filled the time well.

The parking lot came into view just before 3:45 pm, a perfect time to end the day. We geared down and drove into Cougar for a well-deserved greasy dinner and lovely conversation. A superb day in the mountains with a team of mostly first time climbers. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip.

Luna Peak

August 22-25, 2013

About 40 miles, 8,000+ feet elevation gain. For route information, check out Steph Abegg’s website or buy/borrow Selected Climbs in the Cascades Vol 1.

Photos from the trip | Video 360 from the summit ridge

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It has been said that Luna Peak has one of the best views in the North Cascades. But few people ever experience this view because of the rugged, long approach and lack of technical objectives. It takes a seriously determined person to put in that much work to get someplace without a mind-blowing rock or ice climb to top off the effort. I was one of seven such people who set out to ascend Luna Peak on this trip.

It all began at the Ross Dam Trailhead, which was packed with cars. The Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a playground for hikers, backpackers, fishermen, canoers and kayakers. There’s resort accommodations, lakeside, boat-in camping and backcountry camping. At the parking lot, we laced up our boots for a quick 1-mile downhill jaunt to the lakeshore, where we’d pick up a water taxi that would take us across the lake.

The boat ride was short but exhilarating. We sped across the clear, blue lake and exited the boat when it reached the other side. From here, our team of seven set off on the ten mile hike to Luna Camp.

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Big Trees on the Big Beaver Trail

The walk along Big Beaver Trail was lovely. The trail was relatively flat, with small, rolling rises and dips. We meandered beneath giant cedar trees as the path traveled further and further from Ross Lake. It took all afternoon to get to our camp. Feeling heavy under the weight of my overnight pack—my first of the year—I plodded along slowly. I was thrilled to arrive at Luna Camp, where I dropped my backpack and decided which dinner meal was the heaviest one. That’s what I’d eat tonight.

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Day one turned out to be a walk in the park. The next day, we walked about a mile and a half further up Big Beaver Trail to a cairn marking the start of the bushwhack. Off we headed, into the brush, to find a way to cross Big Beaver Creek. As we pushed through Devil’s Club and various edible forest berries, it became apparent that this would not be an easy task. After much deliberation and scouting, we settled on walking across a single log that looked far more perilous than it turned out to be. Getting from the riverbank to the log was the most challenging part.

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Once across the creek, we stashed a cache of supplies that we wouldn’t need for our high camp: tents, spare first aid supplies, water shoes, etc. This is where the real fun began. And by fun, I mean not fun.

Whackety whack

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For several miles, we bushwhacked roughly along Access Creek, crossing it once, and thrashing through a mixture of steep, dense shrubbery and more flat, open forest. At one point in the relatively benign forested section, the front of the team upset a colony of ground nesting bees, which took out their anger on the latter half of the team. That included Simeon, Angela, and myself. Each of us was stung several times. We ran quickly to try to escape the fury of bees, but I still managed to get stung four times: on my right hip, behind my left knee, and on my left wrist and elbow. They went for critical joints, which I would curse them for later.

But there was nothing we could do about that now, so we continued on our journey. As we began to sense that we were nearing the basin and our high camp, the trees parted a bit to provide views of the creek and the rocky sided canyon containing it. As the tall trees diminished, the understory began to thicken. Devil’s club gave way to slide alder, a brand of vegetation notorious for heinous bushwhacking. It was critical to maintain just the right distance between the team member on either side in order to prevent being whacked by a branch or whacking the person behind, as well as keeping close enough so you wouldn’t lose them in the thick mat of branches and leaves.

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The ground got soft and wet as we approached the creek. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” I thought, as I looked through a window of trees and glimpsed large boulders piled on top of each other just across the way. Oh, how lovely it would be to get to that side!

The team agreed, and we made another sketchy creek crossing to make it to the heavenly rockpile we’d seen from afar. The walk to camp from here felt like a breeze. We all plopped our gear down in the flat, broad basin beneath Luna Peak and promptly fell off to dreamland for a couple hours. It was a peaceful and much needed afternoon nap.

What are the chances?

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Gray clouds flirted with the ridgetops all day through the evening. There was much talk about the forecast: 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms for tomorrow. It sure looked like weather was moving in. Clouds swirled in and out the whole time we sat at camp, debating what Plan A, B, and a number of contingency plans were for every possible scenario. Tomorrow was supposed to be our summit day, but we gave ourselves a slim chance of that happening.

At 4:30 the next morning, our alarm clock (Alex) shouted, “the stars are out!” That meant clear skies, and an opportunity to summit. We ate breakfast, slimmed down our packs for the ascent, and made a beeline for the first gully.

Speaking of bees, by this point my arm and hand had puffed up like a balloon from the previous day’s bee encounter. I had a hard time moving my wrist, and everything was very itchy. The swelling would get worse and worse over the course of the day, which I attributed to the vigorous level of exercise, not some crazy allergic reaction.

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As the sun rose, it painted the mountains with orange and yellow. We ascended slowly, taking some time to acclimate to movement this early in the morning. At the top of the gully, we reached a col. Here, there were amazing views of the Picket range right in front of us, and no sign of the predicted thunderstorms.

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Take a right, then another right

We quickly powered up with some rugged, alpine blueberries and began the traverse through the heather. Some parts were fairly steep, but they did not necessitate an ice axe, which was suggested in other trip reports. We zipped right across the traverse and then picked a line to reach the summit ridge. Crossing patches of greenery, rock, and snow, we all climbed up to the final saddle, with Luna Peak rising up to the right.

It was here that Simeon chose to hang out, enjoy the views and take care of some blisters while the rest of us made the final scramble to the top.

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The ridgeline leading up Luna peak was bouldery and fairly solid. It never got too steep or treacherous. The rest of the walk was very pleasant, and the views on a clear day would be second to none. At this point, high clouds obscured the tippety tops of the mountains, and occasionally dropped down to fill the valley. We enjoyed peekaboo views of Luna, Challenger, and the other dramatic peaks extending out in all directions.

At the summit, or really the false summit, we sat down and savored the chocolaty treats that Eric brought up for us, surrounded in a gray fog. The true summit lay just a few minutes walk away, along a sketchy ridge that popped in and out of view. We weren’t interested in making that trek today.

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And then turn around

We returned the way we came, back down to the saddle, then down an alleged chimney, across a snowfield, and back to the vegetated traverse. It felt a little steeper this time around.

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At the top of the gully, we split into two teams so we wouldn’t shed too much rock down on one another. Going down was painfully difficult, as my knee started acting up and refusing to play nice. I was elated to get back to camp, sit down, and tear into the Hostess cupcakes that I’d left hanging just above marmot’s reach.

But our day wasn’t over yet. We still had to complete the bushwhack and return to the trail, where we’d try and find a place to spend the night. We were all dreading the bushwhack. We put it off as long as we could, then loaded up our packs and began walking down the boulderfield.

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This time, we followed some cairns to try and locate a better place to cross the creek and avoid the slide alder. This was a success. Once across the river, we stumbled across a rough path that was a zillion times easier to walk on than our random path on the way up. The hardest part was going down the final steep descent to reach Big Beaver Creek and our gear cache. MIraculously, we hadn’t been rained on, and our unbelievable luck would continue as we re-crossed the creek and popped out on the other side.

We all mentally prepared for the final stage of the bushwhack along the creek. We decided that following a compass bearing and going right towards the trail was the best choice, to try to shave some time. One by one, we filed out in a line, pouring our last stores of energy into tired leg muscles.

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Not two minutes later, we stumbled across the trail. TWO MINUTES. We all looked at each other in disbelief, then smiled and praised the forest gods for this luck. After a short break here, we walked briskly, no, ran towards camp! We hoped there would be an empty spot at Luna Camp and sure enough, there was. We all unpacked, set up tents for the night, ate dinner and crashed.

Saying goodbye

The last day was a repeat of the ten mile walk along Big Beaver Trail. Again we sorted out into two groups and took off. My body was tired, but my mind was focused on reaching the lake. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Four of us reached the halfway point at 39-mile camp in just under an hour and a half. Sweet. We re-supplied with cold stream water, and hightailed it down to Ross Lake.

We were set to meet our water taxi at 2:15 and arrived at the lake by about noon. That gave us 2 hours to take off our boots, swim, lay down, eat the rest of our food, and bask in the glorious sunshine reflecting off the lake. What a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

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The last boat ride felt bittersweet. I couldn’t stop grinning as I looked back at the green mountains, sparkling lake, and wisps of snow on the high peaks. Once on the other side, I had a nice chat with Eugene as we slogged methodically up the final mile to the cars. My body had been on autopilot all day today, and that mile passed in an instant.

Overall, I had an extraordinary experience in the North Cascades. It was one hell of a way to start climbing season for me.

Mt. St. Helens: A Spring Adventure

June 14, 2013.

Winter Route, or some rough approximation, from Marble Mountain Sno-Park | 12 miles | 5500′ ele. gain | 9-ish hours

Hike Photos

On a whim, I decided to join a group from portlandhikers.com who had a few spare permits to climb the mountain on this Friday. I’ve climbed St. Helens several times before, but always in the winter. See, I can’t be bothered with the process of acquiring a limited entry permit and *gasp* paying for one. I was happy to swoop in where some poor soul ducked out of the opportunity to climb this amazing volcano.

I met this motley crew at the Lone Fir Resort at 6 am, where we filled out the climber’s log and dutifully tied our permits to our backpacks. Shortly later, we reconvened at the trailhead and put the finishing touches on our packs and outfits for the day. Or so I thought. Turns out, the tennis shoes, shorts, and track suits that my new climbing partners were wearing were not “drive up” clothing, but the clothes for the hike. Oh boy, I thought, this was going to be an interesting day.

The hike to treeline was completely snow-free. This wasn’t a mountain that looked familiar to me. It was interesting to see all the greenery and flowers on what, in my mind, was an icy, windswept, white wasteland. Soon after emerging from the trees, we continued walking straight on a rough, rocky ridgeline that was dotted with trees. The well-packed trail became indistinguishable from the rest of the ridge, and I knew that we were off course. The hike organizer was out of eye- and ear-shot, so I jogged ahead to try and get his attention. “We need to go left,” I said, “although I’m not sure where the route is.” Everything looked surprisingly foreign to me. At least the ridge to our left looked like it had more solid footing, so we ventured that way.

Corralling the group into a tighter line, we veered west to try and regain the climbing route. We followed the ridge until it petered out, then fumbled our way roughly up and left, looking for the path of least resistance. By now we’d hiked into a thick, low-hanging cloud that reduced visibility at times to about 50 feet. Morale was low. Some of the team members were struggling with the snow and loose rock on our off-route adventure. With some coaching through these tricky sections, they performed wonderfully and group confidence and enjoyment (I think) began to improve.

At last, we reached some long snowfields that made the traveling easier. The organizer passed out various traction devices to his friends, which helped them walk more easily through the snow. We kicked lots of bomber steps in the sloppy snow. I left my crampons in my pack, as my boots were performing nicely.

We slogged ahead for hours in a cloud, chit-chatting about miscellaneous things to keep people from feeling too lousy about what was supposed to be an easy and straightforward climb. It reminded me how much of mountaineering is pure drudgery, and to normal people, it kinda sucks.

“Don’t worry, we’ll climb above the clouds and you’ll see, it will be spectacular.”

I counted on breaking through the thick cloud layer like a winning marathon finisher, breaking through the tape with a huge grin of joy. Sure enough, we saw the sun poking through the edge of the clouds and we emerged victorious, with the summit of the mountain in view. We took a break above the clouds and looked down at the earth below. It was covered in a giant, puffy blanket, through which only Mts. Rainier and Adams were tall enough to penetrate. It was spectacular.

After some refueling and sunscreen-slathering, we continued along in the final summit push. We picked up a hop-on who joined our group, and we took turns kicking steps all the way up to the crater rim.

It was thrilling to stand at the edge of the crater and look at the world around me. It was extra exciting to share that moment with the rest of my team, who were totally troopers for enduring the day to that point. Everyone was feeling good, and the summit was well-deserved.

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Time to go. So, how do we get back down? I was really surprised that we’d hardly seen anyone so far today. The sign-in book was filled with names of people who allegedly would climb the mountain, including some groups of 10-12. We didn’t see a thick line of bootprints leading the way back down the trail, either. We decided to begin following the flags and posts marking the summer trail, since it overlapped a bit with the winter trail near the summit. Whooping and hollering ensued as we walked, then glissaded, and glissaded some more. Everyone was having a great time.

However, the excitement of glissading distracted us from keeping an eye out for our junction, and we ended up far from the winter route again. The trip leader was way out of earshot; I was worried that we’d end up at the wrong parking lot and have a lot of backtracking to do to return to our cars. Before veering to the right of a huge rock formation, I rallied the troops and we took a sharp left, following some snowfields and gullies as we approached treeline. From a distance, we could see a short stretch of trail following a short north-south ridge. We made that our goal.

But getting from point A to point B wasn’t so easy. First, we had to negotiate a fairly steep and loose wall of rock to drop down into a narrow basin. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, since I’ve done lots of dumber things before, but I was concerned about some of our team members. They took it slow, and everyone made it down in one piece. From there we scrambled up and over some blocky lava flows, crossed a brushy bump, and landed on our trail. Phew! Awesome.

It was cake from there. We picked up the winter climbing trail just before the switchback we’d missed on the way up. Of course, it looked much more obvious on the way back. We ran into a group of climbers who’d been similarly confused earlier in the day. But they ended up bagging the climb as they got disoriented in the clouds. Bummer. They were busy placing some arrows marking the trail and blocking the herd path that deceptively led them (and us) astray.

Every climb is different. The mountains always present different conditions, challenges, and secrets. I’ll never get tired of taking opportunities to climb peaks I’ve climbed before.  Each time, another story: Feb 2012 | Feb 2011 | Jan 2006.

West McMillan Spire

September 7-9, 2012.

West McMillan Spire

Goodell Creek trailhead > Terror Basin > West McMillan Spire and back

Approximately 20 miles | 9000′ ele. gain

Picasa Photo Album

This was my first venture into the Picket Range in the North Cascades. The Pickets are notorious for the burly approaches and challenging, remote peaks. I was really excited to get going but a bit nervous about what to expect.

The original plan for our team of four was to tackle the South Face of Inspiration Peak, a multi-pitch 5.8 rock climb accessed only after crossing a heavily crevassed glacier. I was a bit skeptical of this objective since we were getting such a late start to the approach, but I was just happy to have the opportunity to poke around up there.

On Friday morning we picked up permits in Marblemount and drove to the Goodell Creek climber’s trailhead. We got off to a casual start around noon and began hiking up the trail. The trail followed an old roadbed for about 3.5 miles. It was flat and extremely well-maintained for a climber’s trail. But the pleasantness was immediately over when we reached a large cairn and arrow made of rocks that directed us straight uphill. Over the next few miles, we gained about 6000′ of elevation. Steph Abegg has a great graphic that shows the mileage and elevation here.

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It was hot, and we were working really hard. Eventually we popped out of the forest, traversed along some cute heather meadows and then continued up some more. I was happy to find ripe huckleberries along much of the approach. They were like miniature morale-boosters.

The sky was growing dim and we were still nowhere near our camp. We finally approached the saddle that we’d cross to drop into Terror Basin. On the other side was a steep slope and a snow gully with a moat near loose rock and vertical dirt. I assumed we’d have to descend the moat, so without delay I began downclimbing. It was really crappy and loose but with the snow directly to the side it felt less exposed than downclimbing the slab. At the bottom, however, the loose stuff continued and the snow went away. We all made it down this treacherous nastiness without incident, and hightailed it across more snow and rock to find a camp. Just as the sun went down we settled in near a big boulder with a flat, sandy sleeping spot.

In the morning, our team dropped from four to three as one person opted for a rest day. Again, we were off to a late start. I knew Inspiration was out of the question. An hour of walking brought us to the camp we’d hoped to reach last night. Another hour brought us to the foot of the glacier. It was heavily cracked up and it would take some skillful navigating to find a direct and safe route to the rock. Then, there were several hours of climbing left on territory that was new to all of us.

Terror Basin
I asked if there was an alternate peak we could get up from here. Glenn suggested the west ridge of West McMillan Spire, a third-class scramble. We could clearly see the gently sloping ridge from where we stood. it looked totally doable, so we changed our itinerary and set out towards the spire.

The glacier crossing here was very moderately sloped and crevasse-free. We took our sweet time ascending the snow, stopping every so often to look around at the awesome scenery and to guzzle down some water. It was murderously hot! The air was almost perfectly still and the sun was blazing.


We stopped short on the glacier, avoiding the steep snow finger that led to the base of the west ridge. Instead we angled onto some rock and decided to “lead” a couple of pitches to get some use out of all the rock gear we’d hauled up here. We stashed most everything else, including 2 packs and all the snow gear here. Then I started up a vertical-ish slab and placed a couple of pieces for the hell of it as I quickly scrambled up easier and easier rock. I belayed my partners up and Glenn wandered further to pick out another crappy vertical section and we got some simul-climbing practice in. Yeah, not for me. Now I know.

West Ridge West McMillan Spire
Once we put all our toys away we each chose our own adventures up the mellow west ridge. I went for the more solid, vertical sections since they were short and fun and not that exposed. The guys seemed to prefer the loose talus and scree for whatever reason. Either way, we all made it up to the false summit and then completed the final traverse to the small summit block. The views up here were hard to beat. The mountain dropped away steeply in all directions. We had amazing views of the Picket Range and beyond. Glacier Peak, Mt Baker, Mt Shuksan and the Liberty Bell Group all stood proudly among the glaciers and spires. I could see no evidence of human civilization in all 360 degrees around me. It was spectacular.

Summit shot

Descending the ridge was mostly easy. We had to avoid the steep stuff near the bottom that we’d simulclimbed up. Instead we took a loose, exposed gully back down to a point where we could see our packs. Here Glenn veered off across ball-bearing covered slab to another loose gully where he was cornered in a moat. Brad and I chose the awesome slab on the other side and got down pretty easily. It was amusing to watch Glenn in action as he self-belayed with a nut tool over the narrow but deep snow moat.

We walked back down the glacier, staying to the left this time, to avoid crossing the waterfalls and having to downclimb the steep, polished slabs we came up. From there, it was a mostly straightforward snow and slab traverse back to camp. By now I was pretty worn down and was really looking forward to taking off my boots and settling down in camp. Even though we just did an easy scramble, it was still an 11-hour day.

Dan was looking rested and spry as he had a nice, mellow day hanging around the beautiful camp area. No one else had been down in the basin since we’d arrived. We all ate dinner and watched the sun set, then happily headed off to sleep.

The next morning, I awoke in a hanging mist and couldn’t see a thing from camp. We were totally socked in with clouds. That was going to make for a super fun day.


Another lazy start (arg!) this morning meant it was also going to be a long day. We were all dreading the awful moat we’d had to descend from the saddle to enter the basin and had been strategizing alternate routes for the way out. We left camp at 7:45 am and trudged up the snow to the more solid-looking rock beneath the moat to our right. It looked mostly easy and straightforward, but it was steep and exposed and we’d had our heavy packs on. We ended up protecting two pitches–one on the slabs beneath the moat and the moat itself. This was the smart thing to do, but it did cost us a couple of hours. At 9:45 we were finally up and over the saddle and began the long walk out.

We wandered through the clouds, following trails worn through the heather and cairns marking the rock as we slowly began the long, traversing descent. But the mood changed rather quickly when the real descent began. Just as surely as the trail shot straight up a couple of days ago, it dropped straight down in a hurry. This was the most heinous descent I’d ever done. my quads and knees were screaming for mercy. My feet weren’t faring any better. There was no relief along the way, it was just all down all at once. I relished every tiny bump that led uphill as opportunities to give my poor muscles a rest.

Cloudy forest

But all was well as we dropped down the final bit of trail to the old forest road. From here, walking would be a breeze. I kept my internal radio station on mindless, mellow songs as we cruised all the way back to the car. By 3 pm we were done.

This was arguably the most challenging trip in recent memory for me. What surprised me the most was that my muscles didn’t feel completely spent the next day. I guess that means I could have pushed harder. And THAT means I will be back in the Pickets again soon.