After Courtney (haven’t written about it yet), Eric and I deliberated where to go. I had my eye on Slate Peak and Tatie/Grasshopper pass, but Eric was hoping to go out to the Tiffany Peak area. Tiffany actually was on my radar for some reason, we were already more than halfway there, and I had a willing and enthusiastic passenger, so… might as well make the drive now! Plus Eric had waited for me while I did Courtney, it was only fair to go get after his objective the next day. Eric is an incredibly quick conversationalist too. If there was someone to have in the car for a 5-6hr drive, it’s him. It is fascinating to converse with him, we could zoom though a thousand subjects without any gaps, catching up on the years that had gone past, the peaks flashing by the window, the wildfire smoke going up in the distance, the Mariners craziest moments over the past 30 years, Eric’s brain vs GoogleMaps (Eric won).
We made it to the Tiffany trailhead around 6pm or so, and hung out chatting about obscure Cascades objectives and swapping stories until it was too cold to sit comfortably outside. I called dibs on the book we had been passing back and forth, set up my tent, and Eric set up in the car. Something hoofed trotted by my tent. I had pangs of anxiety that it was a cow and I was about to be surrounded in my tent by grunting grazing cattle, but fortunately, whatever it was, it was solo. Once my heart rate dropped back to normal and I didn’t hear any clopping hooves I managed to fade into sleep. I like cows on my plate, not sniffing my tent.
I was up around 6:30 and got my running stuff together. The skies were much less smoky than the prior day, thank god. My legs were tight and sore, but I hadn’t come out here to hang out, so I figured I could at least hike Tiffany. I told Eric as much. “You might beat me back to the car in that case,” he warned. I figured I had a book, food to cook, it was a beautiful day, I’d be fine. Eric had started the book the prior day while waiting for me. “Whoever gets back first gets to read the book!!” I wished Eric luck on his adventure across the road (the peak northeast of Spur Peak, Peak 6970) and started hiking up the Freezeout Ridge trail. Eric is an OG peakbagger and was aiming to climb 1,000 unique peaks, and had already done Tiffany and Clark. He was also dealing with deteriorating health due to a degenerative lung disease called pulmonary hypertension among other things, and was choosing simpler objectives, like this numbered peak that only gained ~500ft elevation off the road.
You’re starting at almost 7,000ft already, and pretty much above treeline. The area had burned decades ago, but the trail was clear, and I was crossing grassy fields within no time. The sun lit up the few larches that I could see, past prime but still yellow! The turn off to Tiffany Peak came up in about 1.5 miles and I quickly started up it, my legs complaining the whole time. It was reminiscent of the top of Maude actually, or Amphitheater. Broad grassy slopes, that ancient empty Pasayten feel. Finally I was at the top, looking down a sheer rock face drop down to Tiffany Lakes and munching on my pb&j.
The lakes were surrounded by larches! I tagged both ends of the summit to snap photos. What a pleasant surprise! The larch groves had been burned in the fire decades ago, larch carnage everywhere. But those that remained were perfectly lit up in the sun. Across Whistler Pass from me was a beautifully dense slope of larches, so rather than backtrack, I jogged down the southeast side of the peak, stumbling across a trail that faintly, very faintly switchbacked from the pass up to Tiffany’s summit like some untouched high country adventure. What a treat. For a top peak by prominence this seems to get surprisingly few boots.
At Whistler Pass, I savored feeling like I had this whole plane of existence to myself, found the trail that would run past Clark, and jumped on that. Faint at first, it grew more and more defined as I went south. I couldn’t resist running. I headed off trail to get a good look at the larches, and noticed something sparkling at my feet. I was entirely surrounded by quartz crystals. This was a childhood dream. Magical. Who ends up standing on a pile of crystals? In front of larches? They were everywhere! I scuffed around for 30 seconds but didn’t find any perfect/clear pieces, and decided I should be on my way so Eric isn’t waiting for too long.
Clark Peak has a very clear saddle just to its northwest, I left the trail right below that and started hiking uphill. I aimed for the saddle and then followed the ridge to the summit. Or what I thought was the summit. I don’t know, there are like 2-3 bumps that all look similar so I just tagged all of them with some fun 10-15ft scrambles. Besides that, it was underwhelming. No larches over here though, they were all back on Tiffany. I ate my second peanut butter & jelly sandwich and figured I’d go check out Tiffany Lakes.
I dropped back to the trail, nearly overshooting it because it was so faint where I crossed it. Back to Whistler Pass, where I could see a barely worn trail heading down the ridge east of Tiffany. This became more defined as soon as it started to traverse the slope, and about halfway down I left the trail to hike up to the ridge. The larches here were insane, huge and still bring yellow. But the lakes looked soooo far away, and it was already 11ish, and I had planned on being back by noon, though I hadn’t communicated that to Eric. I knew he’d be fine waiting for me but I just really don’t like making people wait. Feels like I’m inconveniencing them even if they swear I’m not. Between that and feeling too lazy to go to the lakes, I turned around.
I cruised back to the trailhead, running most of the way. The air was clear and sweet, the grass lit up in the sun, scattered larches around the fields, and views of the northern Cascades beasts across the way. Tiffany has over 2,000ft of prominence, which (with no trees in the way) means astounding views. I could see the wall of wildfire smoke in the distance, obscuring half of the Cascades but far enough away my lungs didn’t notice it. I finally ran into another person maybe a mile from the trailhead. Amazing to have a trail like that all to yourself for 99% of the trip.
Back at the car, Eric was nowhere to be found. The book hadn’t been moved. I cooked some ramen to have for lunch and sat back reading in the sun. No sign of Eric for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. Around 1:30 I started to get worried. I can see half the peak he’s climbing from here and it’s empty and silent, I should be able to hear or see him coming down. I decided at 2pm I’d start looking, first by driving down the road to see if he was coming down another side of the peak. If no luck doing that, I’d return to the trailhead, drop the car, and try to follow his tracks as best I could.
Around 1:50, a car pulled up with Eric in the passenger seat. I jumped up from my seat. “Holy shit!! Eric! What happened?” Eric was all smiles and gratitude getting out of the car, thanking the driver who picked him up. He turned to me. “I way overdid it. Pushed myself way too far. Stupid, so stupid.” “Hey, you made it back to the car! What do you need, water? food?” Eric sat while I helped pack his stuff. Like I would discover a week later with my broken wrist, stuffing sleeping bags into stuff sacks is a surprisingly strenuous, involved activity. “I dropped straight down to the road because backtracking the way I came would have been impossible given all the blowdowns. I was too exhausted. And even then, when I got to the road I couldn’t walk 40 steps without taking a break. If he hadn’t driven by it would have taken me probably an hour to walk the half mile to the car.” Jesus. “And it was uphill!” “Yeah, I’m really lucky he came by, and was willing to give me a chance. I probably looked like a crazy person asking for a ride out here.”
“How long would you have given me before calling SAR?” he asked. “Most people… most people I give to sundown or even the next morning depending on who it is. You? At this stage? Maybe 3 hours. You’re on a short leash.” We had a good laugh and got back in the car, planning to stop every hour or so so Eric could shake out his legs. “Well did you get the peak?” I asked. “You must have if you dropped down to the road way over there.” “I’m not sure, let me take a look. I was on top of something up there at least.”
As we were driving away, Eric looked out the window, pulled out his map, and chuckled. “Heh, that’s definitely where I was. Yeah I guess I did make it, huh.” He sounded pleasantly surprised, and pleased. 33 peaks to go to 1,000.
Eric would never make it to the 1,000th unique peak, or even the 968th peak. He passed away four days later at a UW hospital. Primary cause of death: pulmonary hypertension. I didn’t ask if anyone was with him because I was and am scared to hear the answer. His hydroflask is sitting on my countertop because I have analysis paralysis over what to do with it. I had a terrible feeling the day after I dropped him off, wondering how much time he had left, worrying about who would tell us if something happened to him, thinking maybe I should tell him to list me as an emergency contact since I live three blocks away. I figured it was part of processing how I felt knowing that a friend had a terminal illness and seeing the effects in person. I was just jumping to worst case scenarios and I’d leave it up to him, he had years left right I mean heck he just went on a bushwhack even if it was a short one. And life expectancy for his condition had jumped from 1-3yrs to 7-10yrs recently. Had I researched further, I’d have read that what I saw Sunday was textbook Stage 4, and Eric had probably been doing his best to remain upbeat and not let me notice how much he was struggling.
I emailed him 15 minutes after he died thanking him for the company, the recommendation for Tiffany and Clark, the quality conversation, offered to drop off the book for him to finish now that I was done with it. For me, it was one of those extremely rejuvenating trips where everything comes naturally and seems to just click into place. Simple and liberating. But he never saw my thank you. He got the last word, he had sent me a big thank you on Sunday night (“and can i swing by to get my milk jug and water bottle back?”) and I took four days to respond because I was scatter-brained back in civilization. And it wasn’t for nearly three weeks that we noticed it wasn’t just me. Ed messaged. “Have you heard from Eric recently, Eve?” No… and he left mid conversation. That’s not like him. No social media activity. No one had heard from Eric in three weeks. I tried to sleep that night but my gut knew something was wrong. The next day I walked to his apartment a few blocks away and met his neighbor and landlord who immediately recognized my description of him, shared the news, and got me in touch with his family. I’m left with a water bottle, memories, and some amount of solace knowing he topped it all off with a peak on a surprisingly summery October day way out in the Pasayten nowhere.
When I first moved to Seattle, I met a woman at a run club the day after I arrived. I ran into her a week later on a solo jog around Discovery Park, and we ended up running an hour together as she showed me around the trails. She was moving out of state the next day. “What really IS a friend?” I remember her asking. “I mean, we’re running together, but we’ve only met once and we’ll probably never meet again, does this count?” I think about that a lot, I use “friend” where many people would use “acquaintance” or even just “someone I met once.” I built a community out here from scratch. My friends span from 25yos living with their parents to people celebrating their senior discounts at Denny’s to people who are now dead. So I don’t know how to define “friend,” and my community may be non traditional. But it’s a heck of a community. These connections between people are what matters. And it sucks when one of those connections is snuffed out.
Eric’s memorial was a few days ago, bare bones but it came together last minute and was very cathartic. Friends from different decades and phases of his life, different jobs, different climbing goals. Crazy seeing how many people he mentored, even when he couldn’t keep up physically anymore. I can only speak for myself but the hours afterwards were the most at peace I had felt in a long time. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’re treading water until you have the space to reflect.