Royal Basin & Mt. Deception

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Anita coming around a glacier boulder, Deception on the right

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Wildlife by Royal Lake

Hooooly crap, this was a good one. You know sometimes everything just falls into place last minute and your mildly half-assed plans actually work out? That’s what this was. Like 24 hours in advance Anita mentioned she was going to Royal Basin, which I had always wanted to do as a trail run. And some dude had done Mt. Deception earlier that week, so I knew it was in decent shape. And that would be a cool day trip too. Maybe I could run up early in the morning, meet her, and climb Deception? She was stoked when I suggested it, and I decided I’d head up late Sunday night after Marmot Pass/Buckhorn and camp with them so we could get an early start. “What are you wearing?” she asked. “Some yuppie lululemon outfit” I responded. My climbing pants have a 6″ hole in the butt [insert asshole joke]. “No, I mean for boots!” Oh, duh. A real gear question.

  • Distance: 20mi ish
  • Elevation: 5500ft (also ish, highest point 7,788ft)
  • Weather: 50’s and partly cloudy
  • Commute from Seattle: 2:30 without traffic or ferry delays (ha!)
  • Did I Trip: No, I’ve gotten very good at walking
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Flat beautiful trail to Royal Basin

Mt. Deception is the second highest point in the Olympics, which I didn’t know until we were done climbing it. It is one of the largest piles of chossy shit I have ever had the pleasure of touching, and it was mostly covered in snow when we did it. I have strong feelings about this. I would not have enjoyed it if it hadn’t been snow covered. But snow meant some steep snow, some 3rd class scrambling, and a more mountaineery-feeling experience than had we struggled up a one-step-up-slide-half-step-back-god-damn-scree climb.

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I had driven from the Marmot Pass trailhead to the Royal Basin trailhead and was rallying to knock out another 8 miles and meet Anita and Zee at their campsite. I assumed the trail would be flat soft dirt, easy cruising. I had also assumed that the Marmot Pass trail was one mile down the road from the Royal Basin trail.
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Royal Lake with mist in the morning

I was wrong on both counts. There is a Marmot Pass trail close to the Royal Basin trail, but it is not the trail I had taken to get to Marmot Pass. And as for the Royal Basin Trail once I did get there, well… the first two miles were nice soft flat easy cruising, and particularly beautiful in the dappled afternoon sunlight. But after that it’s rocky, uphill, sometimes overgrown, there are mosquitos, devil’s club, spiderwebs to fight through (you know how I feel about that – spiders fine, webs nooooo), and a surprising amount of elevation gain, though usually gradual. And carrying an overnight pack still isn’t pleasant, especially when you did a 13mi hike right before it, and I was not too enthused every time I rounded a corner only to see more uphill, or opened up the map only to see I was somehow only 500ft closer than the last time I checked. Views finally started to open up and I got glimpses of Deception. Shit, I’m going up that? It’s sooooo far.

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This used to be a lake! Heading to the Upper Basin

But I was making good time, and soon enough I heard two hikers. And one voice sounded familiar. Same accent, same tone, a guy dragging behind her… that’s gotta be Anita. I jogged up to Zee and said hi, just as Anita turned around and saw me. And we had a nice running hugging reunion, we hadn’t seen each other in months and holy shit I was so happy to have company for the last mile of the hike so it wasn’t me vs. my mind for another half an hour. And it guaranteed I would find their campsite and not be walking up to random tents in the dark “are YOU Anita?” “are YOUUUU Anita?” “Is ANITA in there?” and blinding everyone with headlamps while I stumbled around exhausted about to give up (which may have happened before).

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Upper Royal Basin

We found a great campsite just northeast of the lake. I crashed in my bivvy almost immediately (after panicking at two things: the recently updated forecast, which showed overnight showers – not great for a non-waterproof bivvy and down sleeping bag and the bear poop like 15ft away and I was between the poop and Anita’s tent, aka I’d be the first bear burrito that evening should the bears decide we smelled delicious). Eventually it didn’t matter because I was unconscious by like 8:30pm and if it did rain, I didn’t even notice.

We got moving around 8am. There is the alpine start (the offensively wee hours of the morn), the Anita start (mid hours of the morn but as late as possible), and the bonfire start (>11am). So 8 wasn’t ideal knowing we’d be slow, but I figured if we moved steadily we’d be fine. And it was partially on me and the fact it took me 20 freaking minutes to find the stupid pit toilets. Zee turned around on the way to the upper basin, and Anita and I continued. The basin is spectacular, almost like Enchantments lite. I can see why the permits are so competitive. That’s another thing, I got SO lucky. Anita had been fighting for permits for years, and here I am mooching off her hard work. And the main attraction over the basin is Deception towering over some small glacier tarns below a dying glacier. At the base of the slopes, we decided to take a rising traverse rather than risk the rockfall on the more direct route, so we started kicking steps uphill. And so it would be for the next few hours.
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Anita on the way up

There were a few scree sections (“ugh, should I remove my crampons?” “Nope, back on snow in 50ft!”) a few loose third class scramble sections (“can i take my crampons off?” “No, back on snow in 20 ft!”) some steep snow (PERFECT conditions for bucket steps and a nicely plunged ice axe) some moats (there’s no way for them to not be awkward, would it help if we took off our crampons?) and a little more kitty litter scrambling (“can I take off my-” “no”) and we finally topped out at the col, marked with a stick to help differentiate from the myriad of other similar cols.

Here’s where the route was longer than expected. We dropped down some talus (loose, because this mountain is a crumbling POS, we’ve been over this) onto another dying glacier and traversed to the back ridge, where “can I take off my crampons” was finally answered with a resounding “YES!” and we rejoiced in the feeling of boot sole on rock instead of scraping metal. We traversed to a third ridge, which was a perfectly straight talus walk on top of the world followed by a short step of near vertical snow and a final talus walk (i’m so done with talus by this point) to the summit, where we sang and hollered and waved at Zee and marveled at the views. It truly was incredible. Long day of uphill, but high reward with the gorgeous scenery up there.
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Pieces of steep snow

But we had to descend all of the shit we had come up. Getting back off the upper talus section was easy. Crossing the glacier on the north side was easy. Getting back up to the stick-marked col was easy. Then we had the only tricky part to contend with: downclimbing a few sections of pretty steep snow. Maybe 50 degrees. Face in, kick steps downclimbing. I kicked enormous steps for Anita, and luckily some cloud cover meant the snow wasn’t total slush. We actually made surprisingly good time, and these are the parts of climbs that are so singular, so focused, that everything else goes away. I had lingering stress from my old job and nerves around starting a new one, nerves around fitness after working weekends for so long, none of that matters when you’re on terrain like this.

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Some 3rd class scramble

We even skirted most of the 3rd class scramble, with one awkward 4th class step either on a thin downward sloping slab or to hop across a moat back onto snow (pick your poison, I do think Anita’s route across the moat was better but I thought it looked sketchy from up high). From there, we cruised plunge stepping down moderate snow the entire way back to the basin after a short scree field! It was amazing! We found yaktrax prints at the bottom, I said I hope that’s Zee. Despite turning around earlier, it turned out he had rethought (almost went with “rethunk”) his decision, and gave it another shot. And I’m glad he did, the upper basin was phenomenal. We soon found goat hoof prints perfectly inside of the yak trax. They continued for maybe a mile, until we eventually found Zee, hiding in a patch of bushes from the goat that had been stalking him for literal hours. He did get an incredible picture when the goat got too close for comfort.

 

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Mr. Billy Goat (credit Zee!)

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Coming across the north face

We made it back to camp around 4. Zee went to get water (THANK YOU! I was so tired I did not want to do camp chores) while Anita and I changed our shoes and laid around a groaned. When Zee hadn’t returned for 20 minutes, we started wondering what was up. Should we be worried? Is he taking a nap? Maybe we should go look. And then we saw Mr. Billy Goat walk across the trail again, slowly, starting at us. “Zee, the goat is back!” Anita shouted. And then we hear Zee’s deep grumbly voice. “…I know.” We burst out laughing. He couldn’t get away. It’s okay, Mr. Goat will be extradited to the Cascades any day now if he hasn’t been helo-dropped there already.

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Anita coming along the final ridge

I hung out until 5, and then packed up my bags to start the slog back to the car. Anita gave me a brownie for the way out (THANK YOU! For feeding me! Everyone fed me this weekend!) and I started on my way, where I was immediately blocked by Mr. Goat. God. Dammit. I tossed a rock and whined. I just wanna go hooooome mr goat pleeeease let me pass! He eventually ambled over to the side of the trail and I darted past. Anita made a bet that I’d be back at the car by 7:30. I thought 8. But she had given me a goal, and I made it back at exactly 7:30. Even took a selfie to prove it.

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One last push to the top! Mystery in the background

Huuuuuge thanks to Anita and Zee for adding me to their Olympics permit at the last minute, and to Ranger Scott for all of the phone calls trying to get my name on there (and my payment). Seriously amazing trip, and another data point that the Olympics are far more beautiful than I ever give them credit for. And I was the perfect amount of wrecked when I woke up back in Seattle on Tuesday. Just in time for a shit ton of programming homework that I had procrastinated on. Woohoo!

P.S. This would be a sweet trail run (maybe minus the chossy shit, like we discussed above. Wait for snow).
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Olympus way in the distance, the highest point in the Olympics

Granite Mountain Bivvy & Ski

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Kaleetan & Chair Peaks in the background

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The lookout with Rainier

Don’t get excited, I know everyone loves a good ah-shit-I-was-stranded-overnight story but this was an intentional bivvy. I was having a hell of a day. Around 6pm JT texted out of the blue. “Wanna go sleep on granite?” I mean… yes? But I’m anxious. Should I stay here in case Google answers my emails and there is a real issue, I’m still stuck getting access to this freaking API which I wanted to have by Monday, I still haven’t finished my taxes, I need to clean, my tabs are about to expire, oh god the panic set in and then was exacerbated by all of the big picture concerns that get dredged up when I’m in a bad place. My two best friends moved this morning, my other best friend is still dead, I have a mortgage to pay and what if I never save enough money to do anything ever again besides fix my house, what if I take 6 hours to get to the top of Granite and I forgot how to ski? Kacie called me to straighten out my manic state and I left the conversation 30 minutes later confident that Granite was the right choice. I’m in. I’m packed. Are you ready?? I’m ready. Let me know when you’re an hour away. Come on come on come on!

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Not so bad sidehilling (PC: JT)

I ranted for the entire 60 minute drive (in my head, alone in my car, you’re welcome). I was hoping anger and frustration would carry me up the mountain, but by the time I got to the trailhead I was just exhausted. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I was just going to be head down, one foot in front of the other until my ass was on top of that ridge looking up at the stars in my cozy bivvy and then I’d take a deep breath of air and remember that the majority of things that stress me out don’t matter and it’s just a matter of perspective. Perspective that has been difficult to get the past few months, whether it be because of work or weather or conditions.

  • Distance: 9.5mi round trip (incl. West Granite)
  • Elevation: ~4600ft net gain (5,600ft highest point)
  • Weather: 20’s and clear overnight, 50’s and clear during the day
  • Commute from Seattle: 60min
  • Did I Trip: Basic trip on flat ground followed by a ski wipeout also on flat ground an hour later. Don’t get complacent folks
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The ridge in the dark

We started up the trail, which was snow free for probably two entire miles. From there it turned into some uncomfortable sidehilling, fighting with skis and boots caught in trees trying to balance on said uncomfortable side hilling (you’re like 2′ wider than you usually are when the boots are sticking off of your skis too), and oh yeah we were wearing running shoes. It’s a delicate balance, trying to rip skis through branches while not slipping or committing to the point where you stumble.

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Bedtime! (PC: JT)

Once we got above treeline, JT broke trail and took off. Which was a relief, because screw skis snagging on trees, screw my soppy wet feet, screw the cold, the highway is stupid, it looks like it’s the same distance away all the time so we’re making no progress, it better not rain, and why is it always longer to reach this ridge than I think it is. This brought us back to our regularly scheduled evening programming, where JT is mostly a headlight dancing in front of me and I moan in my head until we get there because my bedtime is at 9 and for some reason I’m dragging my ass up a mountain at 11pm instead of sleeping. And I wasn’t sure if I still had feet. They were there somewhere, numb stumps becoming one with the ice in the darkness. At one point I figured JT had disappeared over a knoll, until I heard his voice 30ft in front of me. He had turned off his headlamp to get a better look at where we were going (that sounds like the opposite of what you should do, but your eyes adjust to the darkness and there’s usually enough light above treeline to still see shapes) and probably could have scared the shit out of me if he had waited just a few seconds longer until I was closer.

The ridge was almost a knife edge, which was wild in the dark. Abyss on both sides, though in the morning it turned out the height was not nearly as significant as it seems in the darkness. We debated camping lower than the lookout on a flat piece of ground, but I figured a) there has to be some flat around the lookout and b) I didn’t come this far to camp 50 feet below the top. ONWARD.
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Sunrise, Mt. Stuart in the back

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Beginning the crusty traverse to W Granite

Just behind the lookout and before the cornice was a flat spot. Home sweet home, baby. I set up my two sleeping pads. One has a sneak leak that I haven’t found, so I brought a second for extra insurance so I didn’t end up chilling my body like a sushi roll on the ice every 45 minutes. I tore off my socks and stuffed my feet into the sleeping bag, suddenly coming to the realization that I had entirely forgotten ski socks and was stuck with my dank (not the cool dank), soon-to-be-moldy athletic ankle socks. Well, shit. Put those suckers against your skin or you’ll be even less happy in the morning. I dozed off in my now soggy ass clothing, happy I had brought the 0 degree bag and smiling to myself at the fact we had pulled off a 9pm ascent of Granite and I was away from people and work and responsibility beyond staying safe where we were. Do you ever have those moments where you feel like you are exactly where you’re supposed to be? That’s how it was.

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Looking back at Granite

We woke up briefly for sunrise pics, went back to sleep and lazed around until 8ish, when we decided we’d do a lap on West Granite before the snow on Granite was soft enough to ski back to the trailhead (or to the trail, with our sad snowpack). We followed the ridge down Granite, through some trees, and up to the summit of West Granite, also known as Tusk O’ Granite, I believe (a way cooler name). It might have been the first time I had worn crampons all season. Holy crap. We soaked in views, dreamed of skiing Kaleetan, and set up for a ski down to the basin between Granite and it’s Tusk.

The ski ranged from crust to mush to 1″ corn on crust. Nothing terrible thuogh, and overall quite fun. Cramponing back up the slope to gain the ridge back to Granite was less than phenomenal, though it was good to get back into the rhythm of crampons on fairly steep snow, especially crust where you can’t kick nice bucket steps. I was so dehydrated. I hoped I was getting a tan.
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Kaleetan & Chair over Tuskohatchie Lake

Back at camp we packed bags quickly and skiied the ridge to the gully. We debated skiing the way we had came up, which is the summer trail, where most hikers/snowshoers were. The gully looked way more fun, I was just scared of it because of all of the horror stories. But the snow up high was bulletproof, and it would be a pretty quick ski, and definitely well within my skill set. We took off and made a few turns, tucking over on a ridge where a party of four was skinning up.

Just before that ridge. we set off three loose wet sloughs. Yeah, they were sloughs, but I got stuck in one of those once and arresting with skis on your feet is a BITCH. And these ran probably 800+ft, basically to the bottom of the snowpack, through a narrow funnel at the bottom of the gulley. So… that was all of the red flags I needed. I took off the skis. I was booting the ridge. I can’t even put into words how disappointing it was. I’m finally good at skiing, we have this beautiful gully, I can even do it with a huge overnight pack… and we waited just a little too long and everything got just a little too warm. Every step set off more sloughs, but on the mini-ridge I was at least confident that nothing big would go (the snow on the ridge was shallow) or stick me in a terrain trap. We were back at the trail way faster than it had taken us on the way up.
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Trudging our way back up to the ridge

We switched back to our soggy shoes (at least my soggy shoes, JT’s were waterproof) with maybe a mile and a half of trail left, and cruised back to the car marveling at how loud the highway was and how it never seemed to actually get closer, not unlike how it never seemed to get further when we were on the way up. But finally I caught a glimpse of yellow through the trees, yes! My car! Which has SOCKS! And dry SHOES! Oh, the simple joys of clean footwear.

I used to think that driving home during daylight hours meant you wasted daylight and should have gone farther and done more, especially on a beautiful weekend. But I still had adulting to do, we already spent more time skiing than expected, and it would be good to be home by 2. All things considered, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to sneak in a 15hr trip on demand like that and go from sitting at a desk in Seattle to sleeping on top of a mountain in the Cascades.
Oh, and as soon as I got to Seattle I turned right back around for a SAR mission, so there wasn’t much adulting done on Sunday.
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Kaleetan, Chair, and the Leham/Summit Chief group on the far right