McClellan Butte

After a long break for the holidays, we’re back! This hike is from two weeks ago (I know I know, I’m behind) and I’m finally getting around to it. 12/17/2014, to be exact. Emilie and I had been aiming to go on a hike for some time, and since the forecast was lousy, we were going to repeat Talapus and Ollalie Lakes. Half an hour down i90, we realized the clouds weren’t bad, it didn’t look like rain, so the hell with it – we’d do McClellan Butte.

  • Distance: 9 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 3700ft gain (5170 highest point)
  • Weather: 30’s and cloudy
  • Commute from Seattle: 45 minutes (no traffic)
  • Did I Trip: It could have been intentional because I was aiming to sit anyway
Scramble to the top of McClellan Butte

Scramble to the top of McClellan Butte (with a taunting hint of blue sky)

Green, dry trail. Could be a summer hike

Green, dry trail. Could be a summer hike

So like I said, we were on our way down i90 and made a game-time decision to hike McClellan since despite the clouds, every peak was in view. Emilie warned me that she had been sore after the last time she did it, but being the stubborn elitist bum I am, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I knew the parking lot was close to the highway, so it’d be easy to get to, and the ground was clear and dry. Unfortunately, we missed the parking lot (the turn off to the right looked narrow, so I didn’t believe it) and drove an unnecessary 4 miles(!) out and back on a potholed gravel road before finally finding it. We packed our bags, grabbed our trekking poles for old lady knees, and off we were.

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Fresh snow!

We were both in trail runners, so for once I didn’t look like a lone idiot. My ankle was still swollen and wouldn’t cooperate with my hiking boots, so goretex Wildhorses it was. I tossed microspikes in my bag just in case. The first mile of the trail was dry, simple dirt. A gradual elevation gain. You cross a few old gravel roads as you switchback up the side of the mountain, which connect to Annette Lake and the Ashael Curtis trail. It was about a mile in that the switchbacks started to get steep. We were crunched on time already, so I knew we had to maintain a good pace. We hit snow starting around maybe 3000ft, and it got deeper as we went. Not deep enough for snowshoes, fortunately, but enough to make it ten times more beautiful than usual.

Avalanche debris across the trail

Avalanche debris across the trail

There were no fresh footprints ahead of us, but the trail is obvious. There were a few avalanche chutes to get past (one with avalanche debris!) but nothing threatening that day. This was actually the first time in my life that I’ve seen avalanche debris up close. We saw plenty when climbing Rainier, but on a much larger scale, which made it harder to process. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen several like this mini one, and I’m sure there will be more to come throughout the winter.

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Snack break

We stopped for a snack break. Oat bars, candy, some tea. Emilie had been making fun of one of our friends who once forgot to bring water on a hike, and I realized…. I forgot to bring water. Shit. I had like 3/4 a liter of tea and that was it. So I started melting fresh snow into each cup of tea to try and make it last longer. Win win, it cooled the tea down too. Also, gaiters and waterproof pants have secondary uses – seats. I stacked them all up so I wouldn’t just be sitting on snow. I know, I’m pretty resourceful.

Views were starting to open up

Views were starting to open up

I checked my watch. Okay, we had about an hour to make it to the top. How far in were we? We guessed 2.5 miles, so we’d have to be fast. But I hadn’t put in this much effort to turn around, especially now that views were starting to open up. We put the snacks away and continued, coming up with back up plans in case we didn’t have enough time. Drop Emilie on the side of the highway. No, that’s mean. Maybe the Issaquah Park n’ Ride. Borrow a shirt so I could go straight to work. Hike faster. Run the last few miles once we were back on dry ground. Okay, so we had some options.

Trail starting to flatten out

Trail starting to flatten out

By the way, the middle two miles of this hike are up, up, up. The majority of the elevation gain is within those two miles, the two on either end are relatively flat. So we were rushing, and mourning how out of shape we were. Or at least I was. The trail finally started to flatten out, and we knew we only had about a mile left until the top.

Remember how I had mentioned there were no fresh footprints in front of us? Well suddenly there were. Just after I took the picture to the right, footprints appeared. What? There aren’t ghosts on McClellan Butte. Ghosts float anyway, so that’s a moot point. Where the hell did they come from? We got excited at the prospect of mystery company. Looked like two sets of prints, so there was some bad-ass duo out there who took a rogue path up the side of McClellan. They were only going forward, so we knew they were ahead of us, and we’d have to run into them eventually. Assuming they followed the same path back.

Stairway to heaven?

Stairway to heaven?

Soon, we could see the peak in view. The frost on the trees was neat, so I made Emilie stop while I tried to snap a pic.

Frost "growing" on the tiny branches

Frost “growing” on the tiny branches

Not sure how to use my point-and-shoot for close up photos, I ended up using the “food” setting. Other options were “portrait,” “low light portrait,” “fireworks,” “toys,” and “landscape.” Thanks, SONY.

Once we turned the corner a few feet from the peak, we saw the two ghost climbers. They had taken an improvised route up the mountain, one that was shorter than our trek but much steeper. Ice axes in hand, they waved to us, and we walked over to say hi and see if we could scramble up to the top, the real summit.

Emilie and I in front of the icy scramble

Emilie and I in front of the icy scramble

Unfortunately, the scramble was completely iced over with several firm inches of ice. Even with full crampons, I’d have been concerned. The photo to the left is taken at an angle that (I swear) makes it look less steep than it actually is. Anyway, I’ll be going back in the summer someday for a trail run/hike and I’ll get to the real top.

View looking west-ish from just below the scramble

View looking west-ish from just below the scramble

Chatting with the two hardcore hikers, we got some history about McClellan. There were old metal pegs sticking out of the rock as well as some thick cables. Turns out there used to be a light at the very top (it’s the highest peak in the North Bend area, I believe) to guide airplanes. There were also lights on Mt. Catherine and Bandera(?) for the same reason. I love getting bits of history about the mountains. And it’s even better coming from another person.

View looking south-ish from just below the scramble

View looking south-ish from just below the scramble

The two hikers headed back down the way they came, and we spent a few more minutes snacking until I check my phone. Shit! I was on track to be late to work. We threw on microspikes to help with traction on the way down, and started hauling ass. We agreed to jog the last mile or so if necessary, and Emilie would have someone meet us at the Park n’ Ride so I wouldn’t have to drive all the way to her house. By some miracle, we made it down in under two hours, without jogging! I had been resigned to my fate, but now there was hope. With no traffic, I made it to work with enough time to both eat AND shower. Which was great, because if I had to choose, I don’t know which I’d have chosen. Either way, I probably wouldn’t be very popular at work that night.

This hike ended up far surpassing my expectations. My attitude going in was “oh, it’s in North Bend, how hard can it be” and the answer is it’s a butt kicker. I was sore the next day. But on top of that, the views were great, the snow was great, we lucked out with the weather, and hiking with friends is always a plus. Especially on trails with mindless switchbacks. When it’s warm out again (or maybe sooner, if I’m impatient) I’ll go up there and loop around from McClellan to Annette Lake and the Ashael Curtis trail. Eventually, I’m going to have to explore all the connections instead of following one trail.

One more from the top

One more from the top

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