We’ve run Moab many years now, with varying degrees of success. This year I had massive anxiety leading up to the race because I was pretty shit shape by every measure. My employer sucker punched me in the gut by more or less asking me to voluntarily resign after I showed interest in an offer on another team that ended up falling through. Yeah, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. It zapped any and all motivation and confidence that I had, but reading my old blog posts about Moab in years prior (I didn’t even write about 2019 but it was pretty on-brand) it seemed like the only difference from years prior and this year was my mental game. Several times I had run something like 7-12 miles once and called it good in terms of training. I was just totally elitist and invincible back then and this year I have been feeling very.. vincible.
Now enter my family. For the first time, my brother Ned would be joining us. You know how there were two types of people at the beginning of the pandemic? Those who thrived with all their newfound free time and flexible schedules and those who withered away due to lack of human contact and socialization? My brother and father were solidly in the former. Ned started running consistently for the first time in his life. My father woke up, surfed, then checked email, maybe surfed again, took the dog for a walk, went for a jog, checked email, paddleboarded at sunset, rinse and repeat. I was in the latter, slowly turning into a past-its-prime mushroom in Seattle with the rain and no ski pass and no boards and starting a now fully remote job that required both 7am and 10pm meetings. Not a healthy structure. But I had a good baseline from the climbs I managed to get on, and got some long runs in during August in Chicago and NYC, so.. that’ll be good for a November marathon, right? And I went on a slow 19miler in October but had to be rescued by my roommate 6mi from home. It would have been 25mi because I guess in layman’s terms “I got lost” and also brought no food or water. Either way, not encouraging.
But. I was STOKED Ned was joining. Stoked and terrified, because this race is one of my favorite things ever and I was both excited for him and worried he’d hate it/something would go wrong/the magic would have faded. But he and his girlfriend Jess were taking pictures from the minute we got to Moab and I couldn’t stop thinking “just wait until we’re on the marathon course, it’ll be even more mind blowing.” I didn’t want to say it out loud because I didn’t want to set expectations too high or sound like a one-upper. We crashed at the Red Cliffs Lodge as is tradition, and were up at 6am ready for action. Jess grabbed the free pack-it-out toilet that the race organizers gave each of us and tried to get Ned to take it. “I mean there is literally zero chance that I need to shit during this marathon.” We laughed. Probably fair. Probably. I packed some pastries in napkins for mid race snacks and we headed out.
Mom and Jess came to see us start and then took off on their own adventure while we went to wander the desert for who knows how many hours. Within five minutes, Ned was admiring the scenery, my Dad was peeing, and I was bitching about my recurring calf injury flaring up. Despite this happening on 80% of my runs and 100% of runs that start in sand, I neglected to take aspirin. I set the pace as the slow one, and we tried to explain to Ned just don’t run any of the uphills. We’ll get enough elevation gain at mile 15. After that, run whatever you want. Or whatever you can. And we had all of our usual calculated bail points. Around mile 5 my dad’s hip flexor or adductor was acting up, not a great sign so early on. He was worried. I was worried. Ned on the other hand was already pumped full of endorphins. “I feel great does anyone else feel great it’s like we haven’t even run anything yet!” Omg, is this how dad felt with me the first few years?
We finally got a nice long flat/downhill (one of the few sections where you can hit a rhythm) and cruised into the next rest stop. We are a family of salty people, so we all started popping electrolyte pills. I told Ned and my father to only take one or two at each rest stop. My father said no way I’ve done this before I need at least 4 and popped 4 or 5 pills in his mouth. Ned followed his lead. I glanced at the ingredients. Well, it’s not like they’ll overdose on anything in here, potassium’s low, so I guess they can do what they want as long as they drink enough. Better than cramping up when you’re 12mi away from any sort of road. Ned asked when there would be a bathroom. Oh, there’s one at mile 10 and 12 around the out-and-back, if you can wait until then. Seriously there’s only one bathroom? Well… yeah… it’s a trail race.
We danced around the canyon rim, amazed to see there was no bottleneck at the first scramble section. Soon enough we were at the base of the canyon, where we all agreed we were going for the full and not bailing for the half marathon. My dad’s leg was feeling better, my calves had blood running through them again, Ned was still galloping gracefully like a gazelle. We tried to explain what an “out and back” was to Ned and quickly realized our brains already didn’t have enough glucose to put our net three brain cells together to explain the concept or what it meant for us. You’ll just have to see. Oh, and this is the only bathroom on course if you want it. We all skipped it. The out and back went faster than ever, I used to hate it and I still kind of do but now it’s a great opportunity to cheer on everyone running in the opposite direction, and I love that. And we passed our number neighbor!! She was number 245, and we were 246/247/248 if I remember correctly. I shouted number buddies!!! and told Ned/Dad that I had found our fourth honorary family member. She was just as stoked as we were.
“You’re the blogger!!” A woman stopped dead in her tracks looking at me. “you’ve written about this for years!” I was too in shock to say anything. Uh, yeah, I guess I have, holy shit really you read them?? “Yes I said I HAD to remember your face in case I saw you here!” My heart exploded. We can stop running now, I’ve peaked. This silly little blog I wrote to remember my own trips and keep my family back on the east coast informed on my adventures made it to someone in the Moab marathon. How crazy is that?? Shit, I need to start writing again!
We parted ways. “You’re internet famous!!” Ned and Dad were stoked for me too. That’ll carry me up mile 15 for sure. We ran past the bathroom, skipping it a second time. The road section to mile 14 was longer than I remembered, the token tree greener than I remembered, the aid station better equipped than I remembered. Fewer people around us than I remembered. Shit, that means we’re slow. We popped some salt pills. “This is the best rice krispie of my life” said Ned. I was still aglow from being recognized.
We hiked the entirety of the >1200ft of gain from mile 14.5 to mile 16. It wrecked me the first year because I tried to run it, but now it’s a nice break from the redundancy of running. I remember hearing someone’s soul leave their body in disappointment on a false summit some year prior, but we knew what was coming and pulled some reverse psychology on Ned to ensure his hopes never got up. We snapped the traditional photo at the top of the climb, and Ned got a text from Jess saying she and my mom were having a blast. He had been worried about ditching her on her birthday for this race (she is a saint) so that was a relief. We realized Ned was worried about Jess and my father, I was worried about my father and Ned, our brother Calvin back home was worried about my dad, and my dad was worried about and Ned. Bunch of narcissists running a marathon through the desert worried about everyone but themselves.
The section after that 1200ft climb is my favorite of the whole race. You’re on top of the world, finally another section of easy cruiser terrain where you can get back into a vibe. Unless your shins twinge and threaten to start spasming. I skipped a bit and kept myself from falling over. Fuuuuck it’s only mile 16. We have 10 miles left. That’s WAY too early for spasms. And this is my favorite part to run!! Shit. I took a salt pill one of them had stashed, and I think a single advil. I’ll take another later if the one isn’t enough.
But I was totally in my head now. I slow jogged everything terrified I’d set off another spasm, and unfortunately the next few miles were through slickrock, which is NOT gentle on your shins. We did a LOT of walking. Usually we push it going through the slick rock, but not this year. I had a few more twinges threaten, but nothing full blown. I’m also convinced the slickrock changes every year. Or I’m delirious by this point every year.. that’s probably it.
After 13 miles of asking for a bathroom and skipping the only one available, Ned was about to cave to his bathroom urges. Wait wait I have napkins!! Omg Ned I have napkins!! I forgot I had wrapped some pastries in napkins at the hotel for race snacks. I hucked the pastries into the void (turned out they weren’t appealing anymore), tossed him the napkins, and he darted off trail behind a lone tree. We sat on a rock enjoying the silence and scenery while waiting. No cars, no people, no nothing. Just you and miles and miles of desert. And somewhere, a 26yo who narrowly avoided shitting himself.
We carried on pushing through slickrock and finally coming to what we thought was a nice 2 miles of gradual downhill from miles 21-23. But we were wrong, it’s more like one mile, and it’s rather rocky single track with plenty of ups too. And now my dad had to use the bathroom. Wtf is wrong with you guys? This has never been a problem before. He considered bailing at mile 23 for the portapotties but held strong and we ran past the finish line as usual to head out on the Adventure 5k, figuring he could wait another 30min. The past THREE years I’ve had something go wrong in the last 3 miles. Once an adductor spasm, once I stepped on an entirely buried prickly pear cactus which went RIGHT through my shoe sole like a knife through butter, and once a shin spasm that dropped me on my ass in surprise (dodged the cacti that time). My expectations were not high.
We got a little dizzy walking into the drainage pipe. I almost ate shit in the dark cave for the first time (there’s like.. one rock in there the whole time, and I tripped on it). My dad kept falling behind pausing randomly, probably thinking too hard about bathrooms. The scramble section was cool as usual. The worst part was these stupid mounds they added at like mile 25.5. This whole time we had been looking forward to the parking lot section, which while boring is at least flat and smooth and you’re basically finished. But not this year. We had these mounds, maybe 3-4ft tall to go up and down. Forever. It was. Terrible. Sheer anger carried us through.
We finally got to the flat section. “I might literally die if we don’t get to the finish ASAP.” Ned took off. “I might literally shit right here if we don’t get to the finish ASAP.” My dad followed. I had no choice. But it turned out I actually felt pretty okay all things considered. The pace felt refreshing and I was in full control of my peaceful, well-adjusted, content GI tract. Ned sprinted up the sand dune to the finish, I almost puked going up the sand dune to the finish, and I can only assume my dad nearly evacuated his bowels going up the sand dune because he kept running from the finish line straight to the portapotties.
Jess and my mom were waiting to meet us at the finish. Ned grabbed a medal (“I never take one, they just clutter up my house” “Well I haven’t gotten a medal since like the 8th grade and I EARNED this one”) and we all grabbed mugs (best race swag ever) while my mom laughed as we explained Ned and my dad fighting their GI tracts for the second half of the course. How many salt pills did you take? Oh like at least a dozen. Each. Except for Eve. She said only take one at each aid station. My mother looked at us. You know those have magnesium right? I think I almost cried laughing. The two of them had been popping quadruple doses of light laxatives at every rest stop. Yes, turns out there is a such thing as too many salt pills. Will you die? Probably not. Will you be extremely uncomfortable? Yes, yes you will.
But overall, the legs still felt fresh for all of us. My dad could actually jump like 18″ compared to past years where he was shattered. I didn’t have any spasms in the last 3 miles and actually had a good kick. Ned proclaimed it was the coolest thing he’s ever done and the best day of his life. We had a hilarious story from it, and we were definitely the happiest, most energetic people to finish.
I can’t say enough good things about this race. I’ve done many other trail races since and none compare. I’ve done it 7 times now, going back to 2013. Skipped 2015 for some volcano climbs in Mexico and skipped 2020 because I assumed it wasn’t happening (I was wrong). And even though we’ll never be anywhere near the front of the pack, it’s been such a blast every single time. There was one year where one of the top three finishers was in line with my mother getting coffee while we were still bumbling around the slickrock. Or maybe even still slogging up the mile 15 climb. Hilariously far behind. But it doesn’t matter. This race is something special.
p.s. “Hey do I have permission to make fun of both of you for magnesium shits in my blog post?” “all you, go for it.” “yeah of course.” I have a great family.
It was Tuesday night. “Want to go to the Pasayten to climb Cathedral?” Yeah right, that’s a 20mi approach for a multipitch 5.9, I haven’t hiked more than like 7 miles in a day since.. who knows. Nevermind climbing 5.9. I ignored it and rolled over and went back to sleep.
Wednesday morning. 5am. I was awake. I mean, you don’t get this offer very often. I had sorta just assumed I’d never climb the peaks back there because they’re so far and when would I ever find partners/make time? That chasm jump randomly kept me up at night too. So maybe… maybe I should consider this. I could get 20mi in a day given enough time. I can follow most rock and I can prusik/aid up if necessary. “Hmm so five days… leaving tonight, back Monday morning?” Eric starts sending me routes on mountain project. He knew he had my attention. “Okay, well I can’t leave Weds, but I could leave Thursday afternoon, and take Friday/Monday off… and also, I’ve climbed twice this year, so you’d be leading all of it. Is that better or worse than the alternative?” “Gotcha!! Okay fuck yeah! I’m in! I’ll start packing!” I could feel the stoke coming through the phone. Shit. What the fuck did I just sign up for?
Distance: 42mi round trip
Elevation gain: 5600ft (including both Cathedral and Amphitheatre), highest point 8601ft
Weather: 80’s and sunny, some thunderstorms, dense bugs (the air had a higher % bug than % oxygen i think)
Commute from Seattle: 4.5 hours
Did I Trip: No!! How is that even possible
Best beta: Steph Abegg as usual, we relied on MP and I wish we had seen this beforehand (ALSO THEY SAW A PUFF MUSHROOM)
We left Seattle around 2pm on Thursday and got to the trailhead around 7. The road is in unbelievably good condition. We passed small stands with posters, like an interpretive trail sign, until we passed a memorial for four people and it all clicked. This was all part of a memorial for the four firefighters who had died in the Thirtymile Fire (a huge wildfire) in July of 2001. Our stoke dropped, tempered by the raw memorial. I proclaimed we’d be stopping at every sign on the way back to read each one.
We started out immediately to see how many bonus miles we could knock out that night so we wouldn’t have to do a full 20 miles on Friday. Eric’s pack was 55lbs, mine clocked in at 45 (I swore it was heavier, I was wrong). I thought there would be campsites at Pocket Lake (spoiler alert: there were not) which was about 5 miles up the Chewuch River trail but Pocket Lake turned out to be a hint of a marsh more so than a lake. It’s okay, we can go further, bonus miles! Luckily, about a half mile beyond this alleged Pocket Lake, we found a wide open meadow right before the turnoff to the Fire Creek trail. That turnoff is also a great place to get water. but bring a filter, because there’s horse poop everywhere. Fortunately, Eric had considered this. I had not.
We pitched camp in the open meadow and had an uneventful night besides a mystery crash in the forest and some rock fall that apparently sent Eric running in his sleeping bag thinking we were right beneath the cliffs. We were up and moving by 5:30am, eager to knock out mileage and get to Upper Cathedral Lake before the heat of the day. And if we were there soon enough, maybe we could even get on one of the routes up Amphitheater Peak!
We plodded along a very evenly graded trail (yay, horses! Last time I was on a “horse trail” in the Pasayten it was a lie) through varying stages of recovering burn zone. Fires had swept various parts of this loop in 2001, 2003, and 2017 (same fire that roasted Shellrock Pass and almost Dot Lakes!). We had sketchy log crossings. We saw a grouse (or a pheasant, or something). We saw a bear print. We saw a moose with her calf! We saw glacial erratics miles away from any glaciers carried down these valleys eons ago. Wildflowers starting to break through as the forest recovered. And black toothpick trees with peakaboo views as far as the eye could see. Literally. For like 17 miles. I started out all “wow it’s beautiful” but started falling into “fuck there are so many miles.” “Oh thank god a water break.” “Oh dear lord no we’re going uphill.” “Oh no a downed log.” “Oh no another log.” “Oh no a cluster of logs.” “Oh no it’s a switchback.” I started chanting the sections we had left in our head. We were on a 3.9mi stretch. Then 1.2, 1.1., .6, home stretch. Then 1.1, .6, home stretch. Then 1.1, home stretch. And finally. HOME STRETCH.
Right when I thought we were in the twilight zone making no progress through burn zone with increasing mosquitos and flies we broke out into open meadows and found ourselves in The Sound of Music. Remmel towered in the distance (it’s a walk up! A walk up!!) and grasses and cicadas and wildflowers and tarns sprawled as far as we could see. That’s Canada over there, eh? The jokes started. My aching feet were battling with my desire to take 1000 pictures. Do I want to walk to that tarn? Brain and heart say yes, body says you can go fuck yourself. We took the scenic route unknowingly, connecting with the Boundary Trail instead of following the cutoff that would have taken us directly below Amphitheatre and straight to Upper Cathedral Lake. A different type of bonus miles.
We finally reached the lake around 1pm, and quickly found a campsite (somewhat determined by “I just put my stuff down, and cannot convince myself to pick it up again”). Eric spotted a party of two climbing Pilgrimage to Mecca across the lake, and scrambled over to the base of the route to say hi. I stayed at camp, napping, or something that required no movement of any kind. I was already mildly anxious about the rock climb and I planned to conserve energy so I’d be as fresh as possible the next day.
Around dinnertime, we realized Erik and Maria had been at the belay for the final pitch for… well, a few hours. Erik had climbed some but appeared to be back down. We were debating if we should be worried. Right as we were trying to figure out what was going on, Erik shouted “Hey Eric! FYI, having some arm cramps.. gonna give it 30min and attempt to climb through it!” Some back and forth started to figure out how bad the situation was. Do you have water? No! Do you have headlamps? Yes! What radio channel? Pitch 3! One more pitch to go! Base of pitch 4! No, what RADIO CHANNEL? Radio! Rockie Talkie 10!! We cracked up. Rockie talkie ten, got it. We were able to radio them, though they couldn’t respond to us. Our camp neighbors came over. “Hey, we heard your buddy yelling, sounds like he’s got some arm cramps and can’t place gear? We’re climbing that route tomorrow, if they rap off gear we can clean it and bring it all back.” Rock climbing is such an awesome community. They hung with us for a while discussing options in case this turned into a full blown situation, laughing and joking the whole time too. After about 45min, Erik gave the final pitch a good old fashioned college try, and topped out with all four of us cheering from the lake below. “Like watching our own action movie” our neighbor said. “Strong work guys and… we’ll meet you around the corner on the descent with water and some menthols.” Eric took off to go be support crew and I continued to play sloth hiding from mosquitos at camp. Fortunately they did come back through our campsite so I could cheer and celebrate.
We woke up around 5:30 and got moving around 6. I thought I slept like a rock but my Whoop recovery was 7% so apparently I was wrong. We hiked up and over Cathedral Pass, and left the first switchback to start heading up to the gulley. We did not find a climbers trail, but the gully and start of the route were easy enough to find based on pictures.
Things we brought:
4L of water
Some cigarettes for Eric
No bug spray
~10L of human blood in our bodies to offer to the mosquito guardians of Cathedral
Light layers (nothing waterproof)
Screenshots of beta
Just enough tape to cover our hands
STOKE FOR DAYS
Oh, and we had swapped radio with Erik and Maria, so we could talk and they could reach us, but we couldn’t reach them. I still couldn’t believe we were there. Well, let’s get after it! Eric started up the first pitch a little after 7am. Our goal was to average 1 hour per pitch and be done by 5pm.
The first pitch was pretty straightforward. Thanks to mountain project, we chose the “nondescript easier cracks to the right” instead of the offwidth at the top, though by “grainy” I think they meant “the rock gets extremely loose and sandy” which is never fun. I spent some time hanging and battling to remove a red #1 cam which didn’t make the rest of the climb seem promising. My price was going up as bugs swarmed my head and my fingers got bloody fighting this crack. Would I pay… $25 to keep moving? $35? If it hit like $75 then I’d be leaving it there and buying Eric a new cam, but somewhere around $45 it finally came loose.
Pitch 2 was phenomenal, the chimney was the perfect size for me, nothing required skin/blood sacrifices, and I was stoked the whole way though I do think we exited the chimney a little too early and also overshot the best belay ledge (it’s a super short pitch). Not much to see here, just a good old scoot your way up the chimney.
Pitch 3… well, the first words out of my mouth upon reaching the belay were “that was NOT 5.8.” I am not convinced we hit any of the features listed in the description, and I struggled HARD. I was discouraged, the pitch took well over an hour, if this is how the rest went we were going to be slow. Bugs had followed us yet again. I was wearing my thick soft shell to try and prevent severe blood loss.
Pitches 4 and 5 blend together in my mind. Both ended in a traverse on a huge sandy belay ledge, something about twin cracks, finger cracks, if a pitch didn’t have finger cracks on this route you’re probably off route. Both fine, definitely confidence boosters after pitch 3 where I had been reevaluating wtf I was doing on this route. Also, “cruxy mantle” in the description is accurate, there was a mantle and it was the type where I felt like I had just disobeyed the laws of physics using pressure so you have that to look forward to. Or maybe the bugs carried me as thanks for my bodily sacrifice.
Pitches 6 and 7 were kinda bummers. We didn’t find the 3rd-4th class terrain in pitch 6, or the “open book feature.” Everything was 5.6ish or higher. Steph Abegg was more realistic (“choose your 5.7 adventure”) so I wish I had read that a little more closely before the climb. Eric told me he had spilled an entire liter of water, he was getting arm cramps pulling up a 12lb 70m rope every pitch, I was getting tired, I sat at the belay stations which only exacerbated the tiredness. My snack was the crumbs of severely crushed cheese and crackers, not unlike the state of my energy and soul. Eric’s soul soon shattered too upon the realization that he had forgotten the lighter for his menthols. But it’s okay, we’re gonna dig deep and crush this crux. Look where we are. This is awesome. 5.9 finger cracks coming up. And the 10a finger crack that followed. What had I climbed this year? 5.6 and some top roped 5.8s? Yeah. This is like when my dad ran 7 miles one time and then decided to run a full marathon. No stop, it’s going to be great.
Eric started leading the 7th pitch, and a few drops of water hit my shoulder. Oh. Oh no. A few more drops. And then a rumble. That… that was thunder. Did Eric notice? I’m not going to say anything I think he’s focused enough on leading he doesn’t notice. Except the thunder got louder. And closer. And the rain drops continued, though not enough to really wet the rock. I got to Eric at the belay station. We laughed. Shit might be about to get weird.
We were in good spirits, the nihilistic “eff it, what can you do” kind determined to knock out the crux and get off this peak before we were caught in a Colorado style afternoon thunderstorm. Eric started up, game time decision whether he’d link the pitches or not. We ended up not linking them, for many reasons but the one I focused on was that I was about to be struggle city and wanted/needed a tight belay. Eric had walked me through aiding in case I needed it but I already knew I’d be doing my best to not be utilizing any gear because pride. And speed. Aid is slow. And now I had the added motivation of thunder. Fingers, let’s get ready to get fucked up.
Getting off the ground of pitch 8 was the hardest move of the entire route in my opinion. Once off the ground, you can stem up the twin finger cracks and it’s actually a blast. I managed to find plenty of placements for my fingers everywhere I needed them. Didn’t have to aid with any gear. I’d link a few moves and then have Eric take, especially when I was cleaning gear. His placements were bomb and usually had good rests, I just was so wiped and climbing at the edge of my capabilities this year. But I was determined, and Eric knew it. And this rock is SHARP. It may not be comfortable, but everything sticks. Eric CRUSHED both of these leads. Eell, every lead, but these two were especially impressive. Cruxes, dehydration, onsighting, thunder, threatening rain, mosquitos, what more could you ask for? And he did both cleanly and confidently.
Eric was pulling up the rope on the 9th pitch getting ready to belay me when I heard RAINBOW! EVE!!!! RAINBOW!!! SHOULDIGETMYCAMERA think of the enthusiasm pouring from the double rainbow guy from 10 years ago, that was Eric, fanatically shouting some hundred feet above me. Way ahead of you!!! I shouted back, holding my camera precariously on a semi-mostly-hanging belay. There was an enormous rainbow across the valley to the east
It felt like we cruised up both crux pitches. I even got some super comfy ring locks on the 9th pitch! I was honestly surprised, it was very fun (albeit painful, my hands were shredded) climbing with finger placements exactly where you hope they’ll be. I think having thunder behind me kept me from getting in my head and helped me commit to every move, and every move I made I found exactly the holds I needed. I felt pretty good about my finger crack abilities by the end of the second pitch. Stoked to be at the final belay, Eric asked if I wanted to lead the last pitch. No. Thank you, but no.
And so, Eric started up. As soon as he got out of view I heard him cursing. Something about a fucking hand crack this isn’t a hand crack is this a 5.8 hand crack no way is this 5.8 5.8 my ass and soon enough I heard “Eve, off belay!” and I laughed taking him off belay wondering what the heck this last pitch was about to be like. It was supposed to be a short 5.8 hand crack and then a scramble to the summit! But it was a weird off width/fist crack almost, and some shenanigans I don’t remember now, I was just happy to get to Eric and see that all we had left was a scramble. And the chasm jump. Ohhh boy.
We only spent a few minutes on the summit. It was around 4:30pm, we had at least surpassed our time goal. Didn’t find a register, wanted to get down before the storm came. Chugged the final quarter liter of water/nuun that we had between the two of us. I kept my rock shoes on for the chasm jump but took one look at it and said nope, get the rope. I did not come 99% of the way to be that fool who falls in a chasm carrying a rope or a climbing rack. We made a small anchor so I could downclimb and step over, except then I asked to be lowered instead. Once on the other side I switched shoes and suddenly Eric was next to me having leapt the chasm like everyone else I’ve talked to. I wasn’t even sure I could jump that on flat ground with how tired my legs were.
There was another spicy downclimb into a gully (like… a canyon) and then you traverse into a real gully (open fan of talus and scree and crap, traverse don’t climb the opposing wall in the canyon) and can just walk the rest of the way down. We saw two people on the trail below. Is that Erik and Maria? If they have water I might cry. I laughed. Their turn to bring us water and menthols! Erik met us first with like 3L of water (as Eric was chugging directly from a stream). I chugged some of Erik’s water without crying and soon enough we were back with Maria, who had a lighter! I fucking love the rock climbing community. Eric has good taste in people, I already trusted Maria/Erik would be cool but they surpassed expectations this weekend.
We all hiked back to camp and ate dinner together, resigned to the bugs. Eric had brought pudding cups (speaking of “light and fast”, Erik had 6 dehydrated meals because you never know what you’ll be in the mood for) and candles for the fourth of july, and even though it was technically the 3rd, Erik and Maria were headed out early the next morning so we decided to celebrate then and there. Awesome night with some really chill, fun people. Hope we get on another climb in the near future. We’ve already proven we won’t do the Seattle Freeze.
I slept rough that night, trapped in a sleeping bad with sore muscles that desperately needed stretching. We woke up to the smell of wildfire smoke and had a lazy morning. We packed up camp and deciding to walk up Amphitheatre on the way out. We stashed our packs in the shade at a mini switchback and just took one bag of snacks/water with us, not really knowing how Amphitheatre would go (we only had beta on the climbing routes) but I was pretty sure it was a walk up from this side. Given the view from below, I was SO SURE we were going to cliff out before the real summit, but we figured we’d give it a shot and bail in 2 hours if we somehow hadn’t summitted by then.
We followed a very well maintained horse-friendly trail up to the saddle and then took off to the right following intermittent boot paths. Right where I thought we’d cliff out before the true summit actually turned out to just… be the summit! Must have been a weird angle from below, and it hadn’t even taken us an hour. We admired the views and Cathedral, and the wild number of unclimbed routes all around us. Amphitheatre has some very cool geology, it’s shaped like a capital T and the lower left side of the T is rolling meadows but every other side is hundreds of feet of vertical rock.
Amphitheatre had a summit register (like the cutest tiny PVC pipe) which we signed before downing some water and snacks. We knew we’d hit a stream on the way back to our packs, so figured best to drink as much as possible now. I actually felt peppy and rejuvenated, like 800ft of walking gain with no pack had revived my body. Back at our oversized packs, we loaded up and headed cross country to intersect with the trail, following the Denali rules of “walk separately” so you don’t trample the same place in the event that you are forced to walk on vegetation. We probably saved ourselves a mile or two by going this way instead of following the boundary trail, and we did find the shortcut turnoff that would have taken us directly to the upper lake that we ignored in favor of the scenic route on the way up.
At first, it felt like we were flying back to the trailhead. The places we took breaks at on the way up came hilariously quickly (1.2, 1.1, .6, home stretch was suddenly “crap we’re done with all of the short stretches”) feeling like minutes instead of the eternity the approach had taken. But the sun got higher, and the bugs got denser and braver, and my body got weaker. We decided to aim for the horse camp just past where the trail splits to Tungsten or Chewuch/Remmel (or just before, if you’re on the way up). That would give us about 8 miles to hike the next day. Except when we were halfway there I was dragging. We a 3.9mi stretch, then 2.2, then another 2.2, something like that, didn’t matter because it all blended into “i’m going to FREAK OUT if we stand here too long because the bugs are starting to incite an instinctual flight response” and “if I take this pack off it may never go back on again.” We kept reminding ourselves these were bonus miles. We had all day Monday to do the rest, just wanted to see how far we could get on Sunday.
But, miracles happen. We started getting suspicious and mildly concerned when all of the logs/downed trees we had remembered were… missing. Were we on the right trail? Was I hallucinating? We finally ran into a party who said there was a WTA crew doing trail work on the full Cathedral Pass loop, meaning all of those downed logs we had battled on the way up were no longer there!! We didn’t have to skirt trees or stumble over twisted gnarled tree trunks or crawl beneath awkwardly low but not low enough logs. One may be a mild inconvenience, but 100 and you start to resent the existence of trees. The groups had also trampled and brushed out the trail, making it obvious and easy to walk. We joked about how we wanted to catch up to them to thank them but also never wanted to catch up to them because it would mean back to jumping fallen trees. We ran into them just after the turnoff to Remmel Lake I think, where they had set up camp in the buggiest section of trail possible. One of the guys did a casual 8mi trail run (he obviously forgot to take our 12lb rope with him) to scout the next section they’d be clearing while we slogged along wishing we were 24 and ripped. We persevered through the last section of downed trees, somehow didn’t fall off the bouncy skinny double logs across the river, and dropped our packs at camp.
I set up my tent immediately, took off shoes and socks, and sat my shattered, depleted body straight in the river. It was wonderful. Like a bath for body and soul, 10/10 would sit again. My core temperature returned to normal, my feet were finally relieved of pressure, the heat rash all over my legs temporarily stopped burning and itching. I pumped some water with Eric’s pump (so exhausted it was so hard) and limped back to camp barefoot. I destroyed some mac n cheese with chicken, and went to lie on my sleeping bad. I could barely lift my arms, they were the heaviest I’ve ever felt them in my life. My shirt stank from sweat combined with dunks in the river. Everything was dirty. Thank god for spare clothing, I just wished I had a third shirt and more pants. I dozed on and off throughout the night, woken up by sore muscles every time I had to roll over. Using the sleeping bag like an open quilt helped a lot, but it was too warm for the weather and all the bugs were getting stuck in my tent fly causing a caucophony of whatever is the opposite of a lullaby.
We woke up early again, and I think got moving around 6:30. We CRUSHED the last section, carried by rants and commiseration and survival instinct and desperation, counting each valley turn and dredging up landmarks from our memories of four days ago. The last maybe quarter mile to the car was brutal for me mentally, totally flat but the trail just kept going and then finally we were at the bridge that crossed tot he parking lot and bam we were back at my car. Which had a ticket, as expected. But it wasn’t really a ticket… just a notice to pay te $5 for a day pass! They’re way too nice, I was expecting to be donating $35 to the USFS for my forgetfulness.
I had Eric get the keys from the top of my pack so I could back up to the car and sit my pack down like a semi approaching a loading dock, except even slower and probably less coordinated. I chugged the leftover propel in the trunk of my car, changed into super low profile running shoes, fresh shirt, ahhh it felt wonderful. Time to stagger into the Mazama store for some salted baguettes.
But first, we stopped at the main memorial for the four firefighters. The fire had trapped 14 firefighters and 2 civilians, and there were several spots where these 16 folks grouped together. We read the memorial signs in reverse order which was tricky, but still fascinating, informative, and tragic. Highly recommend stopping at them on the way in and reading them in order (they’re all within a few short miles).
Surrounded by a quick moving wildfire (125 feet per second uphill = 85 miles per hour), six trapped firefighters deployed shelters on the scree and talus (field of small rocks), just as instructed in training. One decided his shelter would not hold and jumped in the river, another had no fire gloves and burned his hands badly trying to set up the shelter and then put out the flames that were already inside it. He bailed too and got in a van on the road (just feet from the river). Amazingly, the van sustained barely any burns, and those in the river survived. Unfortunately, the shelters couldn’t handle the sustained heat of the wildfire, the incident commander couldn’t get teams to the shelters because of the heat, and the four inside their shelters perished. And there we were, almost exactly 20 years later, watching the forest regrow while these people leave voids in their place.
Back in the car for good, we went straight to the Mazama general store, which has become a total overpriced hipster tourist market that stopped serving their dreamy breakfast burritos and only sells large containers of overpriced lotion to desperate sunburned/deet-lotion-burned climbers such as myself. My face had molted in the past 48hrs so I covered it in $18 cedar scented lotion you bougie bastards (okay, it smelled great). We got salted baguettes and sandwiches. I wish they made sandwiches ON the baguettes instead of whatever weird sliced bread they use. “Wait where did you get that?” Eric suddenly had a sandwich on a baguette. “Did you… did you migrate your sandwich onto the baguette?” “…yes. I knew what I wanted I wasn’t going to waste time with that dumb bread.” I cracked up. Expert move.
The drive back to Seattle was uneventful, besides possibly getting 28 miles to the gallon. I don’t trust it, but coming back from WA pass was the one time my car definitely got at least 26mpg, because we literally only had 2 gallons and somehow traveled ~52 miles (and then put 21 gallons into a 20 gallon tank). We were back in Seattle around 4ish, early enough I had an awkward few hours of lying on the couch making excuses to not unpack. I powered up the hill to Ha! to have mac n cheese with my roommate, because that mac n cheese brings LIFE to tattered muscles. I hadn’t had it in years, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t earn four nights of mac n cheese in a row. And this was a heck of a lot better than the variety of dehydrated mac n cheeses I had subsisted on for four days.
Easily the most memorable climb I’ve been on in a while. Awesome people, strong sense of climbing community, good company, and really just so much stoke. The whole crew and everyone we ran into were just so happy to be out there doing what we were doing despite the heat, the mosquitos, the physicality of it all. Couldn’t have asked for a better July 4th weekend, America is pretty freaking beautiful and I’m so thrilled we pulled this off.
What do you do on a weekend where the in town temps are supposed to be over 100 degrees? Well, you can suffer in the city fighting for “beach” parking with 800,000 other people, you can spend a buttload to airbnb a place on the coast, or you can drive a few hours, bust ass for a few more hours, and have an alpine tarn and maybe a scramble all to yourself. The coast was tempting, but my inner scrooge won me over and I decided to keep my money and head to the mountains. Also, did I mention the salted baguettes last time?
Distance: 14mi round trip
Elevation gain: ~6200ft (8731 highest point)
Weather: 90’s and sunny, seriously
Commute from Seattle: 4.5hrs
Did I trip: Actually…. no?
I met the group at 5:30am at a park n ride, we split gear into two cars, and headed out to Mazama. Despite me driving at the speed of a grandmother, we actually arrived at the trailhead at about the same time, and soon enough we were headed out into the bone dry sun baked sauna that is the Pasayten wilderness on a record heat weekend.
We were all feeling the heat within a mile. There are two variations of dehydration, we’ll call it. One is the classic that everyone expects where you don’t drink enough water. The other is more sneaky. It’s possible to drink too much water, and lose so much salt through your sweat you get something called hyponatremia. Coming from an extra salty sweaty Bostonian family, I’m quite familiar with hyponatremia. We pop salt pills like candy in the Moab marathons, and I’ve started just pounding Mio (nuun doesn’t actually have that much salt) and cheesy crackers on any strenuous trip, and this was no exception. My main food source for this trip was two identical bbq pork bahn mis, followed by variations of Rob’s food (he is generous), followed by cheesy crackers.
We stuck to a slow pace. The first 3 miles of trail are pretty flat, you only gain ~1k ft in elevation. Right after the bridge across Beauty Creek, there is a spot with air conditioning (a breeze off the waterfall) that was lovely for a break. You then hang a right onto another surprisingly well maintained trail, and you gain >1000ft right off the bat with a set of brutally sunny dry switchbacks. Zhong and Rob had the idea to shadow hop. Everyone cluster in the shadow of two lone pines. Okay, now GO GO GO through the sunny section!! Now make space in the shade for the last person to cram in!! Rest through the shade aaaaand SUN PATCH GOOO rinse and repeat for the next ~2 miles. I liked hearing Smit and Zhong giggling behind me. What’re you two giggling about back there?! I knew the going was getting tough when the chatting started to die off. I started cursing the Pasayten with its long valleys and dry air and constant sunshine. Put me back on the mildewy west side with the worms and the mushrooms.
We finally crossed the braids of a large stream coming down from the tarn that would later be our campsite. We refilled water, submerged hats and shirts and bandanas, and had an extremely refreshing lunch break (bahn mi for the win). Just after that river crossing, you turn left straight uphill through a meadow. This was like mile 15 of the Moab marathon. Up and up and up with the sun beating down on you and no respite from the heat. Wildflowers were nice, and there were some points where you could dip your gear into the waterfall again and try to revive your shriveled raisin of a soul. That’s what finally made me put my sun hat on: not only is it good at blocking sun, you can dunk it in water and have a temporarily frigid head cover that brings your brain’s temperature back to Earth. Unfortunately, my SPF 50 sunscreen had separated into oil and something chunky, and didn’t seem to be working as expected. Zhong noticed how sunburned I was getting. I didn’t even notice until her mouth dropped seeing my face. “You’re sunburned!! So sunburned!” She turned to Rob “she’s a lobster!!!” and back to me “you need sunscreen!” and i took one look in the selfie camera and turned to Irma to beg for her stick of thick zinc sunscreen. Luckily she was happy to donate some to the lobster cause and I covered my whole face in what felt like wax paste. “It’s hard to get off…” she warned after my face was 70% covered. I laughed. Good. That’s apparently what I need. This was good, I already knew I was with a group who would take care of me.
The trail gets a little squirrely as you enter sparse forest (larches!! green june larches, dammit!), but it’ll reappear sporadically until you’re close enough to the tarn you just need to crest a small hill and you’re there. The tarn was gorgeous. And having shade, even dappled sunlight, was amazing. Clear blue water, small icebergs, breeze off the snow, I dropped my pack and immediately dunked my head/feet/shirt in. Basically everything without fully jumping in. It was incredible. We found campsites for all five of us(!) and spent the rest of the day rehydrating, planning for the next day, eating (Rob’s food, thanks Rob), and generally hanging out. Zhong and Irma had a bunch of book recommendations that sounded great. We wanted Zhong to read out loud to us from her book but she somehow distracted us enough to forget about it.
I dozed to the sound of Smit and Irma chatting. I absolutely love falling asleep to people talking, I have no idea why but it’s how I’ve always been. Getting that treat in the alpine, I was extremely content. Unfortunately I had just brought my bivy, which is almost literally a body bag. I forgot how claustrophobic it is. I had to zip it all the way to keep the barrage of bugs out, and spent the next few hours after the others went to bed listening for signs of wildlife approaching and convincing myself that I wasn’t really in the forest given how few trees there were. I hate camping in the forest.
We woke up at 4:30 to get a 5am start to attempt to beat the heat. The bugs were still there, and they were worse than the night before. We initiated a competition for who could get the picture with the most bugs. We headed up to the south ridge (climber’s left of the lake) which involved a loose talus walk and then an option between a 3rd-4th class scramble or some moderate snow. We divided and conquered, some taking the rock and some taking the snow. Once on the ridge, it was mostly a walk, following the path of least resistance, moving consistently to avoid the bugs. I had the weirdest craving for sake, which we had at camp the night before. “What is that peak?! Or that peak? And that one to the left?” “There’s an app for that you know” Rob said laughing. I got a new phone a few weeks ago and for two weekends in a row now had forgotten to download peakfinder, which shows you all the peaks. And I’m new to the Pasayten, I’m not used to seeing the Cascades from this vantage point.
Robinson is deceptive. You get up on the ridge above the tarn either taking the S ridge or the SE ridge, and follow that around a cirque to a false summit (where S/SE ridges meet), and then traverse another ridge for like actually a mile before you’re on the summit. This is a combo of talus, side hilling, and a surprisingly fun 3rd class ish scramble. 4th class is generous, there were plenty of hand holds and huge ledges for feet. Some of the traversing we did was harder than the alleged crux moves here due to more exposure (in my opinion). But the team was rock solid, and no one had any trouble with the scramble moves. I’ve seen some crazy dramatic pics of the scramble, not sure if they were from a fish lens go pro or what but I’ll provide you with some more vanilla/”I can handle that” pics.
We took a long break at the summit, topped off with summit sake that Rob had carried up!! My cravings weren’t all for naught! I think I wrote “I think I hate the Pasayten” (no no Pasayten I kid I love you) in the summit register because this was two weekends straight of sun and heat and loose talus. I was anxious to get down because of the incoming heat, so I was the party pooper who started to hustle everyone. Going down went more quickly, though. We backtracked to the false summit, and decided to take the southeast ridge down instead of the south ridge, so we basically traversed the whole cirque above the tarn. We ran into two other parties on their way up, all doing it as a day trip. The southeast ridge had more shenanigans (scrambling, navigation) than the south ridge, which had been a pretty straightforward walk. No bugs anymore, which was lovely. But I was dreading the scree field we’d have to take to get back to the tarn.
The top ~100ft of the scree field have been scraped bare of actual scree, leaving behind hardpacked dirt/who-knows what, ball bearings, a sense of impending doom, and thoughts and prayers for those below you. Smit and I immediately kicked down a stream of small rocks, and traversed skiier’s left to wait for the party on their way up (both named James) to pass. Once they were past, we were free to skid as we pleased, and skid we did. As soon as the hard pack and ball bearings end, you can comfortably plunge step/rock-slide-surf your way down the face. We ignored the switchbacks and cruised back to camp in what felt like just a few minutes.
At the lake, Smit poured rocks out of his shoes and gaitors and we packed up camp and waited for the others to get down. I struck up a convo with a woman named Costanza, turned out we had a bunch of mutual friends. She was chilling at the lake while the Jameses went up Robinson. I was super glad to have good company, especially after a year of being starved of socialization. We headed out from camp around noon, resigned to the heat and the pounding of downhill hiking on the way out. We split into two groups on the way down and agreed to meet at the trailhead before heading out.
The meadows went by super quickly, and we took a short break at the stream where we had lunch the prior day. Again, dunk shirts, dunk hats, get as much covered in cold sweet water as possible, and begin the ~2mi trek to the next stream, which was at the base of 1000ft of brutally dry sunny switchbacks. Oh, and upon reaching that river, we realized there was no good way down to it, so we took a 10min break in the air conditioning before continuing on. Luckily there is a small stream just a few minutes past the bridge, and we dunked our heads in that one proclaiming THE STREAM GIVETH LIFE because the relief felt from that cool water was simply incredible.
We were back at the trailhead just before 2:30, and went straight to the river near the parking lot to cool off. We set up a la croix fridge, changed into shorts and sandals, and started to chill waiting for the second group, which we figured were maybe an hour behind us, worst case. We decided if 5pm came around and they weren’t down we’d go back to look. Well, we waited. Around 4:20, one member from the second group came out. Where are the others? At 4:50, another came down the trail, having high-tailed it out from the bridge after an hour long break thinking the third had snuck ahead of them while they read a book slightly off trail during a break. Except their third wasn’t at the trailhead. She was still out there somewhere. And it was almost 5.
I changed back into pants. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. No one else had come down the trail either, and there were a good 7 others up there. 5 hours to go 6 miles is generous. If the rest of the group waited an hour and she was behind them then she’s at least an hour away, she might not even be back on the Robinson Creek trail yet. And where are the others? We know it’s almost 100 degrees out, 103 in the valley and the trailhead wasn’t that much further up in elevation. I paced for a bit and went over to Rob. We should go check. I’m sure she’s 10min up the trail and I’m overparanoid but we should go check. He jumped into action immediately when he realized what time it was. We packed like 6 litres of water and 4 la croix and some electrolytes and started up the trail. Rob did voice checks in case our teammate had fallen or wandered off trail in the heat. We passed James #1 from Costanza’s group jogging to the trailhead. Heat stroke, he said, your teammate has heat stroke and no way is she getting out of here on her own, it’s not good. 911 was already called, SAR is on the way.
Rob and I started jogging too. My brain went into SAR EMT mode. There’s two people with her, she’s 2.5mi up the trail, she’s in the shade, they’ve been with her for about an hour by now, sounds like AOx3, hopefully they’re close to water, shit heat stroke isn’t gonna be solved in the field, there’s nowhere on the trail for an LZ but maybe a hoist, trail isn’t bad for a litter evac if the medics can bring up ice packs and IVs, where even IS the closest hospital?! And then we rounded the corner after the first bridge just after a mile in. And we saw our teammate. Walking! With Costanza and James #2! I was speechless, I threw my hands in the air in silent celebration and she returned the gesture. Holyshit. She came back.
We ran over to her and Costanza and James2 got us caught up on her progression and what had happened. “My angels!” she was calling them. “They are so nice! My guardian angels! They found me!” Costanza & the Jameses had found our teammate at exactly the right time. She was on a log in the shade, slowly shutting down because of the heat. They soaked her with dozens of bottles filled with water from the nearby stream, and in a crazy show of resiliency our teammate actually recovered enough to walk herself out. She was all bubbles and positivity and gratitude by the time we showed up. At one point leading the way down, I asked if my pace was okay. “Yes, it’s fine… actually a little faster would be fine too.” Okay miss who-needs-heat-exhaustion-anyway, we can go a little faster. And how would you feel about eating some watermelon? “That would be oh, dreamy!!”
The first medics with SAR caught up with us and trailed us on the way out to make sure everything went smoothly, and an ambulance was at the trailhead ready to do a check on vitals to make sure everything was stable and okay (everything looked good!). Rob broke out a celebratory watermelon that the others had hung in the river in a bag so it was ice cold and extra refreshing, and we debriefed on what had happened. It is always a difficult situation to talk about, but it’s a great example of how anything can happen in the mountains regardless of experience, and we need to be as prepared as possible.
Primary things we should have considered: 1. Splitting into two groups, especially on such an abnormally hot day, may have been a bad idea. While everyone in the group is strong and competent, heat, like altitude, can take down even the fittest people with no warning. 2. If you are in a committed group, stay together. Don’t get too far apart, wait if others are out of sight behind you, etc. 3. Know the signs of environmental issues like heat exhaustion and heat stroke (hypothermia in winter) in yourself and in others and how to prevent or treat the problem. We knew this weekend would be a scorcher, and it would have been helpful to do a quick group pow-wow on signs/symptoms/treatment before we started the trip. 4. We arguably should not have even waited until 5pm. 5hrs for 6 miles is very slow. Maybe we should have gone to look around 3:30 or 4. 5. Consider bringing two way radios if there is a chance you’re going to split up. I’ve done this on some hikes and never regretted it (plus radio nicknames are hilarious).
We were very lucky that Costanza’s group found our teammate when they did and could identify what was happening and knew what to do. And even more lucky that our teammate had a miraculous rebound and was able to walk out. SAR was amazing, the medics were amazing, it’s always incredible seeing the unity and selflessness and support when something like this happens. The outdoors community really is tight knit. Naturally we all walked away with some level of guilt and anxiety and embarrassment, but also with a sense of wonder and gratitude. The best we can do is learn from it, respect and appreciate it, and try to help others do the same. And our hot (heh) teammate made a point I like too: she’s now an expert at recognizing the signs and symptoms, knows exactly what to do about it, and can even relate to the person going through it.
Overall, I can’t thank the group enough for a great weekend. Unexpected ending, but it was a crew of happy positive people with funny stories and a lot of determination and resolve and I’d be happy to camp with them again, this time with my own food and sunscreen. Maybe after I’ve read some of the books Zhong and Irma recommended. I have some catching up to do, I think it’s time to finally get a library card!
More like Big Chossy amirite? No no it’s okay, I’ll show myself out. It’s an overused joke (original credit I believe goes to a well known climber Selena in our area), but it’s true. everything in and around the Pasayten seems to be crumbling piles of talus. I think I got spoiled my first few years of hiking and climbing in Washington. If I went off trail, I was prioritizing glaciers and skiing and rock over.. well, everything else. Turns out quite a few of the peaks here are walk ups, depending on how well you can walk up thousands of vertical feet of talus fields. So all of these need to be done in like May/June or else you gotta hone that ankle strength and bring your dork poles.
Distance: ~11mi round trip
Elevation gain: ~6200ft total, 8500ft highest point
Weather: Cloudy and 60’s, sunny and 70’s
Commute from Seattle: 4 hours
Did I Trip: Yes, immediately
We decided to take two days to do the craggies, and why not? I hadn’t camped in months, weather looked amazing, it was a 4hr drive each way, let’s enjoy it. My car was behaving strangely so I hitched a ride with Rob (“Have you had the salted baguettes in Mazama?” “No….” “Well we’re stopping there on the way home if we have time” okay, you have piqued my interest), and we met Mike at the trailhead around 10:30am. It was 3.5 miles to camp at Copper Glance Lake and like I said I tripped immediately and banged up my knee clambering over a log. Good first impression, forgetting how to walk. I am also convinced the trail is deceptively steep (or I am deceptively out of shape). It switchbacks at the entrance to an old mine, I’m a chicken and didn’t walk in but it looked like you could explore quite a ways. Supposedly there is another entrance higher up the slope, but that one’s blocked, and mines are for ghosts and whatever was in The Descent anyway so I’ll keep my distance.
If you thought it was steep before the mine, it’s worse after. But views start opening up, and you can see peaks through the toothpicks of burned trees from a 2018 wildfire. The undergrowth is rebounding, super green, and it’s crazy to think just a few years ago this was forest with no peakaboo views. I also just found out that this is the same fre that burned east of Shellrock Pass in my Pasayten trip last year (pic example here). Crazy to see how different the areas look just a few months apart. The trail starts to traverse finally, but don’t get complacent just yet, because the blowdowns start to pile up. You’ll clamber over some, reroute around others, stand in front of some wondering where the trail continues afterwards. I can’t believe this hasn’t been brushed out yet given how short it is and how sweet the lake is. You cross the river, pass a mosquito pond, and (woo!) gain another like 150ft over an alleged cliff band, only to immediately lose the 150ft and continue dropping to Copper Glance Lake. We crossed this four times and every time lamented WHY DIDN’T THEY JUST CONTOUR?! I’m not convinced this cliff band exists. I think they could have contoured.
The lake actually blew my mind. I was NOT expecting a spectacular blue alpine lake with looming giants and larches waiting for the fall. I was surprised by the lack of campsites, but we found a big one directly across the lake from where the trail drops you, and we pitched our tents there. We even had a little stream running next to camp so we didn’t have to hike (all 20ft) to the lake! We decided to go for the peaks that day instead of waiting for the morning, so we packed our bags and got moving once again, back up and over the hump that definitely isn’t dodging a cliff band.
We left the main trail just after the mosquito lake (or just before, if you’re on your way up and not coming from the lake). We expected more of a boot path. Or at least, I did. But maybe whatever was there was destroyed in the fire, because there were barely hints here and there and those hints could have just been game trails. Over and around downed logs and charred remains of trees, kicking clusters of grasses spitting up dozens of mosquitoes, we finally broke out onto the talus field which was such a relief compared to still healing burn zone terrain. At least, at first.
The talus was stable enough, you could hop from rock to rock without too much movement. You literally just climb straight up the talus field, trending slightly left until you’re on the summit. We hit patches of scree that would slide downhill, switchbacked up slightly to avoid kicking rocks down on each other, and occasionally took scramble detours to avoid the tumbling talus. The scrambling was actually quite fun, nothing very exposed but some sections that were definitely 3rd class. Even on the scramble sections you could break off what would have been a nice handhold. We definitely each shouted “ROCK!!” multiple times as we accidentally trundled down some softball sized chunks, but none made serious contact and soon enough we were standing on the summit. Or sitting. I love sitting. I was wearing a bright blue soft shell from an old friend, Ann Nelson. I asked Rob if he remembered her so I could brag about the jacket. Mike had never met her, so I filled him in on the short version – bad ass hiker/climber who helped many of us get started as newbies, and unfortunately passed away in an accident two years ago. The soft shell is absurdly warm and while it’s a bit big on me it’s been one of my favorite layers when I think it’ll be cold up high.
Rejuvenated and ready to start the traverse to West Craggy, we looked to the west and realized huh, that other bump looks taller than this one. What do we do? Well when in doubt, tag both, of course! We ran to the western summit only to look back at the eastern and immediately agree yeah, the first one looks taller. Alright, now let’s get the chossy sidehilling out of the way.
We started the traverse, first dropping down more talus (wow, shocker) and crossing over to the saddle between the two peaks. Where was all the heinous side hilling I had heard about? This wasn’t so bad! We had cruised to the saddle too, so how bad could the rest of the peak be? Ah, the naive confidence of someone lulled into a false sense of security. From the saddle, navigation got trickier. I thought you just followed the ridge to the summit, but you actually traverse onto the southeast face of West Craggy above the basin. This involved following a series of ledges, some third class scrambling, some more loose rocks, more ledges, and finally an obvious gully (very obvious, I promise, like a HUGE FAN of talus) to the ridge. We had been following a gpx track for a while, but eventually gave up trying to stick to it, and I was glad we did – aiming for that gully and following that to the top was definitely the right choice. Doesn’t even feel like a gully, more like a swath of low angle scree and I was sooo happy. We each took a separate rouet up it, some preferring snow, some preferring scrambling, and some preferring slogging up with felt like sand dunes. I turned to Mike. “Less than 500ft to go!” I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist was something like “thank fucking god.”
Once you have crested the ridge, it’s reminiscent of Mt. Baker, where you top out and then have to walk like half a mile on flat ground to gain like 13ft to reach the true summit. That’s how this is, except it’s not quite flat, and you’re still hopping on talus instead of walking across easy snow. Rob was ahead, and as we were approaching what I swore was the summit he just said “Oh no, another false summit! The real summit’s another half mile away!” I froze. I would say my heart dropped, but it was more like my heart asked my brain if it should drop and my brain said “hold please” and furiously scrolled through memories. The map. The topo map. Contour lines. The route. How West Craggy looked from afar. No, this had to be it. But I knew we had to traverse a ways, maybe I underestimated the number of bumps on the traverse. Rob started laughing. He must have seen time stop for me as I reevaluated everything I thought I knew. “It’s the summit!! I’m kidding!”
We caught up with Rob on top and we grabbed snacks, layers, and the summit register. Clouds had moved in and wind had picked up and it was getting COLD. Rob signed, handed it to me, I signed. I usually like to flip through pages and look for people I know, but these pages were tightly wound and I was worried I’d rip them, so I just handed it to Mike. He signed, and it split open to one page as he was finishing. “Hey, Ann Nelson!” He handed it back to me, and there was her note & signature from 3 years ago. 6,000ft of gain at age 60, not too shabby. My breath caught and I was overcome for a few seconds, but I took a deep breath and smiled as old grief turned to happiness thinking it was nice to say hi to her and Mike kinda just got to meet her too.
We started down since it was already 6:30ish and we didn’t exactly know the route down since we were doing a loop. Dropping down was straightforward at first, but we got to an impasse – either put on crampons/use ice axe to downclimb steep thin snow, or find another way. I learned later there was a “magic ramp” we definitely did not find. But we made it work. I was donning my crampons for the first time all day (carried em, might as well use em) when I heard Rob shout. “This goes! I mean, kinda!” Oookay, here we go. I took off my crampons and we followed Rob down what I’d probably call fourth class, but that may have been skewed by the looseness and the fact we were downclimbing. The larger rocks were super solid, but everything was covered in kitty litter/talus and Rob stood well out of the way at the bottom so we could kick down/clean anything we had to. At some point Mike started in with the baguettes. “Have you had the salted baguettes in Mazama? I need to get two so my neighbors can try one too.” Rob overheard. “Yes, the baguettes!!” Wtf, how have I not heard of these baguettes? Fuck I need a sandwich.
Once on the mellow snow, we CRUISED for the next 45min or so. Coming down snow was the best feeling ever after hours of talus hopping and traversing and downclimbing. Finally we could just plunge step and boot ski and Rob fit in a few glissades (bumpy ones) and ah it was heaven until the postholing began. There are two small tarns up in that basin, barely starting to melt out and neon blue reflecting the sky with ice underneath. When the snow ran out we were back to hopping talus, until Rob found bits of a trail near the river. We lost it as we entered burn zone carnage as we got closer to the main trail, but soon enough we popped out right next to mosquito lake again (YES Rob YES you aimed PERFECTLY). Rob took a break and I asked permission to plow ahead. Permission granted. Mike and I approached the base of the steep gain between us and the lake to avoid the alleged cliffs. You ready for this? I’m ready for bed, that’s what I’m ready for. We trudged up it, driven probably by the odd combo of exhaustion and determination.
Back at camp I filled up on water and got the stove ready before sitting down. If I could pull it off at Dot Lakes I could pull it off here. Mike had a sandwich I side-eyed/envied and went to bed immediately, Rob and I split a beer and stayed up chatting while cooking dinner. Lucky to have good company at camp. As soon as I got in my tent, it started raining. I reluctantly pulled all my yard-saled gear in the tent and went back to sleep, constantly woken up by the wind. But my tent didn’t blow away with me in it and nothing got wet, and that’s about all you can ask for.
We woke up to perfectly blue skies and no wind on Sunday. We had a relaxed breakfast, and headed back to the trailhead. Going down was easy, but a bit of a knee banger. That trail feels longer than 3.5mi especially when you’re talking about baguettes for the 8th time. We were back at the car by 10:30 and eating salted baguettes in Mazama(!!!!) by noon.
In case anyone was concerned, I did manage to singlehandedly finish the baguette before it went stale.
You know those trips where expectations are sort of at rock bottom, and then everything ends up being amazing? This was one of those. We had our minds set on the Chiwaukums, but upon getting home Saturday night and realizing there was way more fresh snow than we anticipated followed by a sunny day, we figured we’d hedge our bets and pick something less ambitious. The stoke was tempered, motivation was fading, we were pitching ideas like the Tatoosh for the 183498th time or Hyak laps. Guys. It’s going to be sunny. There’s fresh snow. Let’s explore somewhere new. I pitched Sasse Mountain, which honestly I had really only heard about snowshoers doing, but looking at caltopo, there were definitely some sweet bowls back there. And assuming those bowls were full of snow, that meant skiing.
Distance: ~10mi round trip
Elevation gain: 3600ft (5,700ft highest point)
Weather: 50’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 2hrs
Did I Trip: Powder faceplant, yes
We met on Salmon La Sac road at 7am. There are two options to this peak: skin like 6mi up a road (boooo) that avoids most avy terrain and then go cross country at the end, or boot up through a forest (boooo) cross country from the start and negotiate some forested avy slopes. We chose the latter, because skinning roads is boring and booting straight up is fast.
Except we couldn’t find the trail. I’m still not sure where it starts, but we could see the old roadbed the trail follows for a bit from the road, so we just walked straight to that and followed it. It was dry. Really dry. We negotiated a stream crossing and started to gain elevation, only to find… more dry slopes. Where. Was. The. Snow. We started to worry that there wouldn’t be any good skiing. We started to lower expectations. “I mean, this is boney, but I’d ski it” “yeah it’s not bad” “dust on crust but mellow enough maybe it won’t suck” “it’s still a workout at least” “yeah better than staying in town” “all backcountry skis are rock skis right” and finally, FINALLY we got a glimpse of the views. Panoramic views of the “Snoqualmie Pickets” (heard that the other day and love it), aka the chain of Lemah/Summit Chief/Bear’s Breast, with Hinman and Daniel to the east. Okay, okay, so at least it’s freaking gorgeous here.
And then we rounded the corner onto the first sharp ridge. And BAM. Beautiful open ski slope, right in front of us. Dane did a quick shear test on the snowpack since it was a similar aspect, and about 8″ slid cleanly off. Okay, so we agreed that while we were all drooling at the prospect of skiing that face, we weren’t going to do it. And that was fine, because after a few more rolling humps and bumps and transitions from windblown pockets of powder to scoured ice and cornices along a ridgeline, we found out the face was frozen solid. Avy danger? Nah. Skiing? …nah.
My skis popped off twice traversing steep icy slopes as we sidehilled to avoid cornices, so I booted it the rest of the way up the ridge, postholing the crap out of Dane and Robert’s skin trail. “Why’re you setting such a shitty skin trail?” “Why are you so shitty at skinning?” Dane and Robert carried us along with their trash talk. We were almost at the top when I realized that we hadn’t gone nearly far enough to be at the true summit. Dammit, this was that knob on the way, Not So Sasse. Which was way sassier than Sasse given its ridges and cornices, and actually had better views due to the lack of trees at the tippy top. You could even see Stuart poking out over Jolly Mountain. We skiied down to the saddle between the two setting off some baby storm slab sloughs in the process, and quickly skinned up true Sasse, which was covered in burned trees, was far more mellow than it looked, and you spent like 15 minutes traversing 500ft to gain 10ft of elevation to get to the “summit.” But along the way, we were oggling the shady tree runs coming off to the west. And from the summit, we decided to ski directly down to the bowl through the trees. We started off on ice, timing turns for pockets of powder. But three or four turns later, we had PERFECT POWDER.
We giggled all the way down. HOW is no one else here?! Powder stash!! Bluebird powder day! Darting through open burn zone trees leapfrogging our way down we popped out into the bowl only to find… someone’s skin track. Dammit! It’s been discovered! But uh, should we utilize this and do another lap? No one protested. Back up we went. And the second run was just as good.
One interesting thing about this area is that it was part of a massive wildfire called the Jolly Mountain complex back in 2017. Not So Sasse and its ridgeline as well as some of the lower glades look like they were spared, but it is always fascinating getting to a view point and seeing blackened toothpick trees for miles. This is the same fire that affected Hex mountain, a very popular snowshoe slightly further south. Towns to the south of here had to be evacuated for almost a month until the fire was contained and naturally put out by the first rains in fall.
We decided to follow the mystery skin track on the way out so we could avoid regaining elevation and skiing mediocre ridges. We figured worst case scenario we could traverse waaay south to meet our skin (or boot) track. I was cruising and about to thread the needle through two trees and WHAM suddenly I was face down in the snow, mouth stuffed with powder, blinded by snow, skis still attached and still perpendicular to my body. Like the skis had stopped and my body kept going. Turned out I wasn’t as deep in the snow as I thought, I just had eaten a bunch of it and my sunglasses trapped quite a bit against my eyes. I oooohed and ahhhed and groaned while Robert shouted “Are you okay!” and I figured well he can hear me so he knows I’m breathing, and eventually got enough air to respond “yes I’m in one piece.” Feet of powder (or slush) tend to be quite forgiving. But then I had to wrangle fully buried skis out of extremely heavy snow, which required more core strength than I’ve developed or maintained during covid.
I popped around the corner rght beyond that sneaky patch of sticky snow only to find Dane patiently waiting above a second bowl! I don’t have an excuse regarding why we didn’t ski this bowl… we should have, just to tag it. But we were focused on adventuring our way out, and so we traversed to another mellow ridge, where we found….
…a THIRD bowl, this one with mellow glade skiing with another party doing laps on the perfect soft snow. We could see the road across the bowl and below us, and skiied straight to it, which snuck out a few more turns. Rather than regaining lost elevation, we followed the road for a bit until we could cut switchbacks and ski straight to the next stretch of road below us, though more low angle glades. Careful of gullies if you cut the switchbacks, though, there are some nasty gullies and some sneaky cliffs. But we had heard if you followed the road the whole way, you had to put skins on for some uphill, and we weren’t having any of that. Sidestepping and switchback-cutting forever.
The theme of the day was variable conditions. Crust to powder on crust to powder to ice to the stickiest shit I’ve ever skiied, and the road was no exception. In the shade? Zoom zoom. In the sun? glop glop walk whine paddle with your poles. The trees soon got too tight so we committed to skiing the road until we were at the switchback closest to our bootpack, and then we’d switch to boots and hoof it back through the woods to the car. You can follow the forest road all the way back to the main road, but it would have been a mile or two away from where we had parked, so we went back to the “trail” we took up, and were still back at the car pretty quickly.
All in all, it was about an 8 hour tour in a completely new area with a TON of terrain and routes you can safely follow even on big storm days. I’m amazed this isn’t talked about more. And it was even better by how low our expectations were around 9am that morning as we booted crusty, patchy snow in the trees telling ourselves it was better than nothing and I reassured myself that they’d still hang out with me and take my future recommendations despite this shitty one (though secretly I was just relieved to not be at Hyak or Castle).
We had a great dinner(? it was like 4pm) at “the brick place on the right when you’re driving back to i90 through Roslyn” where we all crushed burgers, fries, beer, and water. Turns out it’s literally called the Brick Saloon and despite stopping there most of the times I’m in the area, I never remembered the name. Definitely worth giving them a visit when you’re starving and parched after a trip, and I’m so happy that things are starting to open up again. This time last year, we were sneaking around, even minimizing trips to gas stations. Feels pretty good to bring some business to the nearby towns, and to wreck a burger when I’m starving instead of driving straight home, opening the fridge, being disappointed, closing it, lowering my standards, opening it again, reconsidering… you know how it is. Here’s to many more ski tours and burgers!
“Why do you think it’s called Anaconda Peak?” “Because.. my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun?” Rob couldn’t finish the sentence without laughing and I cracked up. It’s true, you need some serious buns to do this peak, especially on snowshoes, which are second only to crawling on your hands and knees as a self-propelled mode of transportation. Snowshoeing. Is. So. Hard.
I joined Rob’s trip up Anaconda at the last minute. It was organized by Tim, who is like a gecko on snowshoes and can fly up any slope of any angle at an inhuman rate of travel and he’s turned the corner or crested the knoll before you see where he went. More on that later. We met at the gas station in Granite Falls and caravan-ed to the trailhead, which we almost missed by two miles, but finally found before we got started. It’s just past the “red bridge” which is more like a pink bridge nowadays.
Elevation gain: 3700ft
Weather: 40’s and rainy/sunny (classic)
Commute from Seattle: ~1:30
Did I Trip: Yes, many snowshoe slides and a stumble or two, maybe a faceplant
We started up the Marten Creek trail, which begins on an old road that we suspected was from logging times given the second growth forest, but actually provided access to mines further up the valley by Granite Pass. The trail was wide and well graded, but must have been a bitch of a logging road (mining road?) because it was STEEP. But mossy, and beautiful, and protecting us from some of the rain that was coming down. We found a cool sign explaining that the lower section was actually an experimentation zone, like what Amber and I had seen at Little Mashel Falls a few weeks ago. After some surprisingly extensive Googling and checking coordinates of sites listed in random long term doug fir studies, I finally landed on the Stillaguamish test site (thanks to this PDF), which is where we were despite the sign saying CARSON WASH which misled me for a solid 10 minutes. It was seeded in 1915 (okay, that sign was accurate) along with four other test sites. Each site had multiple varieties of douglas fir, and the goal was to measure survival rates, health, and how well different varieties of doug fir could adjust to different environments. At this site, in 15 years, the douglas firs had grown to about 5.2m already, and by 2013 they were 36.0m tall. Only 15% had survived, which was the lowest survival rate of the five test sites but second tallest in height and the largest in diameter, partially due the Stillaguamish site’s lower elevation & warmer weather. After a hundred years of being studied, the researchers also confirmed some common sense: survival rates of seeds are better if they stay in similar climates to the parent trees.
Enough on douglas firs. About a quarter mile after the trail starts to head north and finally flattens out, you’ll notice you are fairly close to the creek (~200 horizontal ft maybe). This is where you cross the creek at a point of your choosing (the crossing we chose… I mean, it worked) and start heading uphill. Creek crossings in winter are always interesting, and Rob broke a great trail across some logs that did the job well enough. Just beyond the river we strapped on the torture devices known as snowshoes, and started to head uphill. Tim put it best. You ever want to diet? Forget it, just go on a few snowshoes and before you know it you’ll be running marathons like no one’s business.
Rob and Tim took turns breaking trail, which was totally fine with me and Trang and I assume Alex, who was recovering from a broken ankle but still decided to bring extra water as training weight. I asked what was the biggest trip he’d done so far, and the answer was “this one.” Just a casual jaunt up 3700ft of powder in snowshoes. I have happy unbroken ankles and they weren’t stoked on the day. But I spent this winter becoming soft between accutane and sedentary-ness, like a humanoid soft serve ice cream with asthma and a propensity to burn in the sun. A creme brulee, perhaps.
The first uphill section was steep but not threateningly steep, and soon enough we were on a forest road running along a ridge. We carried on to the end of the road, and headed uphill due northwest towards the south ridge of Anaconda. This was also steep, but still manageable until we got to the point we had to start making switchbacks. And when this happens, the first person basically kicks a one-snowshoe-wide trail, and the second person has to try to widen it, and maybe by the time the fourth person comes along you have a small sidewalk. Or all the steps blow out and you have misery, depends on the snow. We had a bit of both, but the ridiculously huge trees with fresh snow and patches of blue sky kept us motivated. Oh, and you couldn’t stand in one place for too long, or you risked getting smacked by a tree bomb, which is chunks of melting snow falling from the trees. That’s the real reason to bring helmets!
The final stretch of the south ridge was surprisingly steep, I definitely underestimated it. I expected a walk in the park, I got a mountaineering adventure, ice axe included. I think my favorite thing about Tim was the boundless energy and positivity the entire trip. I’d see one of his gecko prints sideways on a mound of vertical snow, laugh, and hear him whooping 100ft ahead of me. He and Rob were also both great at checking in on everyone. “Do you want some goldfish?” “Who needs a snack?” “Don’t forget to drink water!” “Do you want some goldfish now?” “What about now?” “Goldfish, anyone?”
We took a break just below the summit where we had a hard time breaking trail up some very steep snow between tight trees, and Trang decided to wait. Tim and Trang were prepared and she had layers, a radio, snacks, the works. She whipped out a beautiful purple goretex layer I immediately complimented and she and Tim started laughing – she wanted to return it because of the color!! No, it’s the best shade of purple ever! It was hard to tell from my gear for once, but I LOVE bright colors.
We were at the summit… maybe 15 minutes later, and Rob had the idea to save the final ridge traverse for Tim to lead since he had organized the trip. On the summit, we had sneak peeks of the surrounding peaks. Tim made sure to radio Trang so he could trash talk a bit so she knew what she was missing, at least for the 3 minutes of views we had before being back inside a ping pong ball. I think Anaconda is like Oakes lite, where you suffer through forest until the very end where you get spectacular views, except we couldn’t entirely tell thanks to the clouds. I also learned that having a great camera doesn’t mean you take great photos (literally ALL FLOPS, they are all terrible, and you will see none of them) and sometimes carrying four jackets IS useful (we were SOAKED from rain/snowbombs on the way up and a dry midlayer was amazing). And finally, Tim accepted Rob’s offer of goldfish.
We didn’t want to make Trang wait too long, so we headed down after a quick bite and some group selfies. The way down went faster than the way up besides several transitions between boots and snowshoes, and me snagging my “radio antenna” on everything. “You didn’t collapse your trekking pole all the way!” I laughed but pouted at the same time. “Because they’re ski poles 😦 This is as collapsed as they go!” I always have a pole sticking up like two feet above my head. Luckily, we glissaded much of the way down, which makes me short enough I’m not hitting branches with my antenna. At one point Trang asked how you stop sliding going downhill on snowshoes. I don’t think you ever do, you either learn to use it to your advantage or you get resigned to it. Either way you stop fighting it.
Back at the river, we found a MUCH better crossing than what we used on the way up. I was still in snowshoes and used them to dance across some rocks. Rob got his feet wet. Tim pretended to be a diva and Alex had no ankle so we (Rob gets most of the credit, actually) started laying out more and more rocks to build a crossing, and by the time Tim crossed last it was a bona fide rock bridge while we laughed on the other side. From there we had a few soul sucking postholes getting back up to the trail (I refused to put the snowshoes back on, we were so close!), and then it was clear sailing back to the cars. The sun had come out and we had beautiful afternoon light shining through the trees.
The cherry on top? We got back to the base of the trail a few minutes before the others and Rob goes “I’m going to get the watermelon set up so it’s ready when they get down.” WATERMELON?! Oh my god, it’s March and all I wanted suddenly was watermelon. It was some of the best watermelon I’ve ever had, such a perfectly timed snack. Rob carried it over to the other three and we munched watermelon marveling at the clear sunny weather and how it had turned into such a pleasant day.
This was one of the most refreshing hikes I’ve had in a long time. I hadn’t seen Rob in over a year and hadn’t met the others yet, but I told Rob back at the cars that it was a really good group of people and I hope I can join them on future adventures. Just a really good group dynamic with happy people who are just thrilled to be on their feet outside, and I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s been a tough winter for me. Not as many trips as usual, not as much skiing as usual, way less social than usual. It felt so damn good to reconnect with people and get outside, even if it required… snowshoes.
“Little” obviously has to do with the river, because these falls are anything but little. But the trail… the trail is… weird. It looks like there are multiple different ways of accessing the falls, two via a Weyerhauser road and a third from above(?), which we explored a bit but bailed because it was pointless for us. We started at the coordinates provided by WTA starting at Pack Forest, more specifically the Charles L. Pack Experimental Forest. Sounds more exciting than it is, it’s just a significant piece of land with multiple drainages, significant enough rivers and flora/fauna to use as a playground to land management. Fortunately, we get to use this as our recreational playground, too! Unfortunately, WTA’s description was either entirely inaccurate, incredibly unhelpful, or yours truly is incapable of urban navigation (most likely).
Distance: 7mi (all falls plus a slight exploratory detour)
Elevation gain: 500ft
Weather: 50’s and cloudy
Commute from Seattle: 1:30
Did I Trip: No! Neither did Amber, though her muddy clothes suggested otherwise
We pulled up to the Park Forest gate at the coordinates from WTA. Well, sort of, the gate was closed like a quarter mile before the WTA coordinates. There was a couple who parked next to us and asked if they were in the right place, to which I confidently replied “yes!” and they asked where to go and I said “beyond that gate, and follow the road until eventually there’s a trail!”
Within 5 minutes of walking, we found ourselves at some sort of… camp? Office retreat? I have no idea. Cabins and parking and we continued to follow the road until we came to a sign: TURN AROUND! Ah crap, is it closed for some reason? We got closer. “Mashel Falls is not this way. Go back to the sign and turn right.” Oh. Okay. That’s cool I just immediately got us nearly headed off in completely the wrong direction. We would have been wandering a maze of forest roads with no waterfalls. We went back to the sign, which turned out to have a trailhead style billboard with a map saying “Little Mashel Falls Reroute” which made me feel a little better. And a bright red paper saying “LITTLE MASHEL FALLS ——->” which made me feel less better. So, that drives the theory that WTA’s directions are out of date.
We walked across a field (new red sign “falls —>”) went left/counterclockwise around a pond (another sign “falls —–>”), and popped out onto a Weyerhauser road (signed), which we followed for what felt like forever (with more signs). Our new friends knew this route, and had just been following us hoping for something shorter and faster. We unfortunately soon left our new friends behind as they took a break, though we got the advice “you’ll cross a bridge and then the trail will be right there!” which kept us from doubting ourselves too much as we passed backyard after backyard after backyard and no signs and more backyards. Infinite backyards. Twilight zone levels of gravel road and backyards.
We eventually came on a small waterfall between backyards. “Is this it?” I asked. Did I drive all the way here for a small waterfall mostly covered in brush off of a gravel road? “We haven’t crossed a bridge yet, so let’s keep going? And given the signs… it’s probably signed?” And the WTA description definitely mentioned a trail eventually. And there was supposedly 500ft of elevation gain somewhere in there. So we kept walking. “This feels like the Burke Gilman.” My expectations were getting lower and lower. I hoped Amber wasn’t disappointed. Still a change of scenery, a break from Seattle, a walk with good company, and finally… was that a sign?! A trail sign!? Just before a bridge? YES! And we turned onto a real trail!
The real trail was 70% mud, and we had neglected to consider that you gain all of the elevation in the half mile to the falls. It’s slippery, and surprisingly steep, but it finally felt like we were in the wilderness and not on a logging road paralleling a highway.
START WITH THE UPPER FALLS. Because they were the most anticlimactic/least climactic. Stay on the main trail until you come to a junction with a small creek running to the right of the trail, and head left. Most of these were signed. The falls were pretty big, and in summer they might be cooler because you can log hop or wade the river to get a closer view. We didn’t want to negotiate a very slippery wet 12″ diameter barkless log to reach the island with the (maybe/probably superior view) so we settled for obstructed viewing.
The middle falls are the best. SUPER slippery, lots of mud and wet rock, but they funneled most of the water into one central fall (unlike the upper fall, which had many routes) and it was POWERFUL. You could see the mist blowing through the air and feel it thundering. Next to it was a slimmer lace-like fall, looking all dainty and delicate next to the main event. We hiked down laughing with excitement, along with two other equally stoked women. After the upper falls, the middle falls were so close and so awesome. I had brought my new camera, ready to practice waterfall pics, and triumphantly took it out only to turn it on and see “battery exhausted.” I was going to practice with my new tripod, but I guess.. not anymore. Not Today! I snuck out two pics before it died all the way. No time to change settings or reframe. Rookie mistake. I was hoping to get a pic of the more delicate falls out of frame too.
You can also walk behind the middle falls! There was so much water flow that we couldn’t get all the way behind the main fall, but we could sneak around the daintier fall and get pretty darn close. Amber (smart woman) put on her rain coat so she wouldn’t get soaked, I just risked it. The temperature must have dropped 10 degrees when we got close to the water. Apparently in summer the fall is only like four feet and you can go all the way behind it and even dunk your head/body into it, but that would have been insane with today’s volume. We figured this had to be the best part, there was no way the lower falls would be this good.
Surprise! The lower falls were pretty damn good too. We met two happy dogs, I thought Amber wiped out because she was covered in mud somehow (she didn’t wipe out… “I wish I had wiped out, because then I’d have an explanation for all of the mud”), I managed to sneak two more pics on my trying-to-die camera before we headed back uphill to the main trail. That’s the only downside – the side trails to the falls (besides the upper) were downhill, so you had to regain elevation to get back. Oh, and did I mention the slipperiness? It’s actually pretty impressive neither of us totally ate it at some point. Or lost a boot to a sucker-hole of mud.
I’m honestly surprised there weren’t more people here. Multiple access points, huge beautiful falls, only 500ft of elevation gain, 90 minutes from Seattle, dog friendly, where was everyone? It’s so accessible and quite beautiful and green despite being young growth, at least once you’re done walking past everyone’s backyards. And perfect for a rainy winter day. Or if you figure out the alternate route. In which case let me know because maybe I’ll go back with a fully charged, very much alive camera to actually frame some long exposure shots!
Another hike to strike off my OG hikes list! With no plans leading up to the weekend, I joined a mellow (but long) hike with Anita, Charles, and Emily. I had never actually been to the Middle Fork besides on SAR missions, so I was curious to get a taste of what it’s actually like and get some fresh air and socialization with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I brought my new (to me, still, despite having it for like 6mo by now) camera figuring there’d be some cool waterfalls. After all, the hike is called Otter Falls. For the sake of recordkeeping, this was hiked January 9th, I was just slow to write about it. And ah shit, I forgot to take a panorama for the top of this post.
Distance: 11mi round trip
Elevation: only 650ft!!
Weather: 40’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 1:12 without traffic
Did I Trip: No but RIP my favorite glove
We rolled up to the trailhead I think at 9am. You know me, I’m usually up by 5:30, gym by 6, work by 7:30… yeah, well, if you give me ANY slack in that routine, I’ll be late. Fashionably so. Anita has seen this firsthand several times now, where my “I’ll just have tea for 20min” turns into “omg it’s been 45min what happened where have I been yes hello it’s eve and i will be 20min late.” So to avoid this, I packed everything the night before, and set an alarm for 15min before I needed to leave the house. So I actually got there at 8:50, and hung out waiting for the rest of the crew, and they all rolled up basically at the same time like they had a telepathic connection I hadn’t cued into yet.
Anita had brought a sweet little dog she was dogsitting named Teddo who came with his own jacket and even a little doggie harness. We started off down the trail, pup trotting ahead of us after an immediate bathroom break. The trail is an old road bed, very consistent and flat and wide which is great when you’re socially starved and want to talk to all of your friends at once and not walk single file. I’m honestly not sure where the road bed ends because it keeps going past Otter Falls itself. The forest is second growth (the road bed is from an old logging road) but it’s still spectacularly green, mossy, and beautiful.
The trail hugs the Taylor River, which was the last large scale logging operation in National Forest uplands (I assume as opposed to lowlands?) according to Mid Fork Rocks. Crazy to see how wild the forest looks despite being second growth. The old logging road may have used to connect to Highway 2 – it definitely connects as a trail now, though the section through Lakes Snoqualmie, Deer, Bear, and Dorothy seems pretty trail-y and less road-y, so the rumors I’ve heard of a road connecting the middle fork Snoqualmie with highway 2 may just be that, rumors. I was up by those lakes a few years ago (came from Highway 2) wondering where some trail runners came from – the answer is the middle fork, and it’s a sweet little car to car. At this point I’ve been tantalizingly close to connecting them, minus the elevation gain between the Taylor River and Snoqualmie Lake. Which, brief aside, is stupidly named because Snoqualmie Mountain is a few peaks/ridges away and Snoqualmie Lake drains into the Taylor River.
The creek crossings were extra hilarious with Teddo. Everything was covered in a thin slippery layer of ice, so Teddo got a ride across each creek thanks to the handle on the back of his harness. He was incredibly tolerant of being treated like a sack of potatoes, though he’d whine waiting at the other side if the rest of us weren’t fast enough. The trail honestly was much of the same. Trail, second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Rinse and repeat.
At the first major river crossing, which thankfully (maybe) had a bridge, I decided to take out the new camera and see if I could get some of those long exposure waterfall shots I’ve seen others take. My pack immediately fell over at my feet, threatening to dump its contents (camera on top!!!!) into the river 15ft below, but I snagged it just in time. I spent the next 15-20min messing with my camera wondering why I spent an hour on reddit instead of researching how to take waterfall pics before leaving the house. But I think I got some that were passable.
Unfortunately, it turned out I hadn’t snagged my pack fast enough. I put the camera away, and a glove was missing. Nowhere to be found. Presumably swept downriver who knows how far, only to rot away in a stream never keeping hands warm again. I bought those gloves I think at SeaTac on the way to run a marathon in Moab years ago, when I thought I had forgotten gloves and panicked. Turned out I had remembered gloves, but the ones I bought still ended up becoming a personal favorite, as they were very light but completely windproof and good for frigid fingers. That’s definitely one of the worst clothing losses I’ve suffered on a trail. Up there with my hat coming down from a one day assault on Snowfield and my Patagonia puffy coming down from the Ptarmigan Traverse before the Bachelor Creek drainage was brushed out. And this one doesn’t even have the epic story. Just a glove dropped into a creek 😦
We carried on as I rallied past my injured pride and regret for losing my poor glove. It had a good life, it saw some cool places. We briefly debated going to Marten Lake, which is a short steep detour from the Taylor River/Otter Falls trail, but decided to continue on to the falls instead. Emily kept us occupied with stories of her WTA trail work parties and middle fork history (she has like a perfect mental map of the middle fork, it’s wild), Anita kept us laughing with quotes from movies and dating mishaps (dick videos apparently are a thing nowadays), and Charles had us cracking up with his stories about hikes with Anita, including a hike he bailed on that was like a half mile long. Charles also did not judge my abject ineptitude at photography with my new camera, including waiting for me at one point while I was totally, helplessly absorbed in figuring out the camera and oblivious to anything else. Bigfoot could have run past me and I’d have had no idea. I didn’t expect anyone to wait, but I also realized when I snapped out of my camera world that I was grateful he did.
The turn off to the lake is like a free for all. There’s no real trail, just a bunch of trampled ground and all routes lead to the falls. The falls are GORGEOUS. I didn’t realize how huge they were, and we can only see the bottom ~500ft! The water technically falls something like 1,200ft. Emily had memories of being a teen and climbing up the rock to use it like a waterslide wearing denim shorts. We had a short snack before heading back to the main trail to push a little further to a second (smaller) waterfall. We came across a HUGE erratic split in half, and followed a social trail next to it thinking it might lead to the river or some views. Instead we suddenly found ourselves standing upon a bed of freshly cut boughs, which I figure might have been where someone slept… because I couldn’t think of another reason to have laid out freshly cut evergreen branches like that. And on our way back to the main trail, someone caught eye of an old brown tarp set up like a lean to. Pretty sure someone was living back there and we had almost stumbled across their space. Wouldn’t be the only one doing that back in the middle fork drainage.
We turned around for good at another waterfall just a bit past the turnoff to Otter Falls. Emily kept me occupied with other creepy middle fork stories, and brief side trips down just about every significant social trail we saw. Which I love. At one point we heard Anita getting excited telling a story to Charles and Emily laughed and said “well we’ll never run into any bears with them around.” True, and anyone who knows how I feel in the woods knows I am very thankful for that.
We were back at the trailhead around 3:30pm, temperatures dropping quickly since the whole valley was so shady and sunset this time of year was something like 4:30. I think because of the lack of elevation gain it felt like a pretty fast 11 miles, even though in hindsight we only did ~2mph. Must have been how starved I was for socialization. I was excited to get home and read up on middle fork history, but I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. But for when I’m not too busy adulting or getting outdoors, that’ll be the next rabbit hole to go down. Emily, if you’re reading this… be warned. I have questions.
I gotta give a huge shout out and thank you to Anita for pulling this all together, especially kind of last minute! It was so refreshing to get out with such a fun group while the country was threatening to implode. And thanks to Emily for the wealth of knowledge about the area and the hike suggestion (I think Otter Falls was her choice), and to Charles for unknowingly probably protecting me from whatever middle fork spirits would have captured me while I was becoming one with my camera. Hope we can repeat the adventure someday!
And some three-quarter ass trips for good measure. And yes, most of these can be snowshoed too! But snowshoeing anything is a full ass endeavor unless you’re just popping up to like Glacier Vista or Skyline Lake on pre-trampled trails and making hot chocolate and ramen in the sun. It’s freaking hard and you don’t get to go “wheee!!” all the way to the bottom.
Sometimes you want to get out and ski, but you don’t want to spend 4hrs thrashing in the brush in the dark going uphill and 4 more hours slogging to the top and 2hrs skiing ice/being bitch slapped by trees and crying back to your car. That used to be my definition of a ski trip. Yeah, it’s more rewarding maybe, but it’s not realistic, especially as responsibilities start creeping up. Turns out I can’t actually only do chores/errands/adulting just on weeknights. Actually sometimes I need a weekend day for chores, which sounds SO old and SO boring and SO domesticated. And growing up I was told only boring people get bored, so I am now a boring person. SO. We need to mitigate that. And I’ll do anything to avoid using PTO on a weekday for chores. Oh god. Stage an intervention if I ever do that.
Oh, and usually when these days happen my mind is already fighting off baseline choring anxiety (for example right now: “oh shit, I forgot to respond to that” “oh shit, I didn’t pick up those screws” “oh shit, i need to get olive oil” “god dammit, I was supposed to ship that” “you still don’t know how to get new blinds for your window, they’re gonna be entirely broken aka see through any day now you cannot keep avoiding this” “you NEED to sell that dress, dude” and “fuck, I need to figure out what to do with the (full) trash can that some asshole added to my trash cans”) so the capacity for additional challenges is low.
And thus, half day half ass tours are born. You might still feel like a poser, but at least those $700 skis are on your feet and not gathering dust in your basement while you sign refinancing papers and weep over tea remembering when you used to actually be cool and found adventure in untouched wilderness and powder and views instead of finding vague glimmers of grandeur in newly lowered interest rates.
1) Okay, we’ll start with the obvious: Paradise. What’s great about this? The road is usually well maintained and you can go as slow as you want, just pull over for the braver souls with bigger balls (and maybe smaller brains). The gate doesn’t even open until 9 so if you live in Seattle like me, you don’t have to get moving until like 7am. The most used skin trails are quite mellow, but there is a GREAT mix of terrain from open slopes to treed slopes and basically flat to avalanche territory and cliff jumps. And you can bring your snowshoe friends! If you are really nice to your snowshoe friends, they might agree to take your keys and pick you up at the Nisqually Bridge after you ski all the way down the Nisqually instead of just going back to Paradise. Oh, and if it’s clear, you can stare at Rainier or the Tatoosh all day, obviously. And when there isn’t a pandemic, you can stop at Elbe Bar & Grill and get a Boingo Burger on your way home. Copper creek is also great, but it can be packed. Also, despite Rainier looking grand, this is a great option when it’s socked in by clouds, because it’s less distracting and you can find treed slopes for contrast so you don’t get flat light vertigo.
1.5) Castle/Pinnacle Saddle. This is like Paradise, but closer to the Longmire gate with a more specific objective and feels a bit more alpine. It’s only something like 4 miles round trip, and not that much elevation gain. Also, if you camp up there in shit weather, you can line every aspect of the bowl with your own tracks before anyone else gets there the next day since the gate doesn’t open until 9. BOOM. You’ll feel like a boss until you wipe out hitting a patch of scoured ice skiing down with your overnight pack in front of another party. Not that’s ever happened, to me, at least. A friend. Obviously.
2) Artist Point.Similar to Paradise, usually well maintained road, lots of varied terrain though main skin tracks are quite mellow. Great for snowshoe friends too. In fact, you can just walk some of the trampled trails with no snowshoes, just be ready to posthole and faceplant if you step 12″ too far off track. And you can stare at Baker and Shuksan if you go to the right areas! And you can pay for a lift ticket and ride the chairs if you get lazy, or have a beer at the lodge and just stare at Shuksan. Downsides? It’s far. You’re probably leaving home at 6am. The lot will be packed. You might wait in line for parking. Snowshoers are traffic cones you’ll probably be dodging all day, including your friends, who you’ll wait for because you’re nice. Avy classes everywhere. People doing dope jumps make you feel like a nerdy wuss pretending to know how to ski. Also great for cloudy/socked in days, despite the ridiculous views on clear days.
3) Yodelin. Slightly more adventurous and not great for snowshoers. Not sure about views because I’ve never been there on a nice day. So I choose to believe that this has no views ever, and therefore is perfect for socked in days with flat light (woo, trees!). Usually space for parking, but Stevens Pass can be messy with a train of cars going slowly turning into the ski resort next to assholes still trying to do 60 mph to pass everyone on compact snow and ice with the occasional un-chained prius. You do actually skin to the top of a thing, which is cool. Two things, actually, since there are two minor peaks to check out. You do have to consistently head skiier’s left as opposed to true line of fall (or line of fall and then flat traversing for what feels like forever), though supposedly there’s a more direct line I haven’t found yet. There is also some neat history – this used to be a ski resort (with cabins/lodges/chair lifts) until the cabins were wiped out by a MASSIVE avalanche in 1971, killing four people. Interestingly, Yodelin is now known as a good place to go tour on high-avy-risk days due to its (mostly) mellow slopes and consistent tree coverage. Still looking for a map of where those cabins were, but the old concrete base of one of the cabins is still easy to find. Oh, one more downside: beware of sledding kids on your way out.
4) Kendall Fun Zone – yeah…… uh… fun…. I mean… it… has… skiing? It’s at Snoqualmie. Views are meh. You can listen to the highway the whole time. Park at the first lot on the right at exit 52, walk under the highway carrying your skis, and hop onto the snow just north of the highway. But Snoqualmie is low. It’s often wet. It’s often heavy. It’s often full of the other 500 people who woke up that morning and decided they wanted a short tour, so the bottom is a luge track and the top is already all chewed up by other people’s turns and “damn snowboarders scoured this” but turns out it was just skiiers survival slipping around other parties/trees/ice/backcountry moguls/dogs/children/lost snowshoers/rogue branches. You’ll also have to scout every corner on the way out or you’ll take down an innocent person on their way up while you battle ice. If you just got a dump of fresh powder and get there at 6:30am to beat everyone up? Sure, the trees are great, just knock out a few laps real quick and gtfo before the hoards come. Dru Bru opens at 11 so apres-ski can start early.
5) Hyak – not fun per se, but if you just want to rip some laps and get some vert then I guess this is your solution. Views? Who needs views when you’re pushing for laps. No views unless you like looking at ski resorts or highways. Expect people. This is like the Vantage of skiing, except it’s a $1000 fine or something like that if you’re caught while the lifts are open. But if you do the Hidden Valley area, you can choose between black diamond runs, blue runs, or a green cat track alll the day back to the parking lot, and that’s just the front side! There’s a world of groomed cat tracks on the backside too!. But don’t try to pee in the bushes, you might get rudely called out by ski patrol, including a surprising “I’m so sick of you people.” You people. Backcountry skiers? I assume the contrast between yuppie ski resort patrons and dirtbag backcountry skiers peeing on trees just highlights those of us that don’t like waiting in line with 100 people for an indoor 2 stall bathroom during a pandemic.
Honorable Mention: Skyline Lake: The stuff on the back is fun, and you can get to Tye, but Skyline itself is underwhelming and shorter than Yodelin and highly trafficked (so you’d be lucky to get fresh tracks). Parking is also a nightmare now that everyone and their mom skis/snowshoes/snow camps/sleds/splitboards/swims in snow so let them have their space to learn and try just a liiiiittle harder to find something better for yourself.
Amabilis: I had high expectations for this one and have wanted to do it for a while, but all I’m hearing right now is nightmare parking stories, a very groomed road (sometimes groomed all the way to the top!), and we weird mix of xc skiiers, snowshoers, and the occasional AT skier who decides skinning up a groomed road with 200 of their best friends will be fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll try it someday because anything is better than sitting at home wondering if you should have tried skiing, but I’ll save it for a day with a snowshoer friend or a cross country skiier. I hear rumors of small views along the top ridge but nothing jaw dropping.
Okay, here are some not-full-day-but-more-like-three-quarter-ass trips. And these come with blog posts, because they were great and didn’t all blend together like a sloppy slope of pacific northwest concrete transitioning to mashed potatoes. And you should save them for clear days because VIEWS. Except maybe Jim Hill and Lane. Lane looks at Rainier like the rest of the tatoosh, and you don’t want to sacrifice powder for sun.
6) Rock Mountain.This one was a surprise. Yeah, you’ll be pushing up some steep treed areas to start, but it mellows out above treeline and turns into another planet. Totally worth the steep grade coming right off the highway, and we only ran into one other party. There’s a traverse up here if you want more, but even just Rock Mountain for the was pretty damn good. And on the way home, Mountain View Diner. Food if necessary, but really, you just want the pie. Any of the pies. All of the pies.
7) Jim Hill. Wow. This was another just phenomenal day, and another route that’s mostly skiiers and not snowshoers. I’d recommend the Henry Creek approach over the Lanham Lake approach. Lanham Lake had significantly fewer people, but some very tedious and icy sidehilling and a lot of elevation gain in a short time. We gypped ourselves because we thought it would take longer to get down than it actually took, and the Henry Creek approach was way less annoying (though it did resemble a luge trail). Either way, north facing cold powder when we were there, with minimal effort as far as ski touring goes and surprisingly few crowds (despite being a Saturday morning). It’s amazing we have something like this as a half day tour, and you can knock out several laps of ~500ft of vert pretty quickly once the skin track is in. Also pie.
8) Arrowhead. Okay, I’m taking a unique stance on this one – you basically get the “ski route” experience of Arrowhead on Jim Hill, and both are amazing. But if you follow the snowshoer route up Arrowhead (east slopes through trees, not starting at Henry Creek and traversing), you might find some of the BEST low angle tree skiing in the Stevens Pass area. North facing aspect, stays cold and light, and NO ONE is there because everyone takes the main skin route that traverses from Henry Creek. There’s no luge track! Just the sweet “whshhhhhh” of powder on your skis making fresh tracks because the mobscene is to the west. And the ridge ski is fun too and you have consistent views of the Chiwaukums once you hit the ridge which are just outrageous. And you can take snowshoer friends with you, and you don’t have to worry about etiquette or splitting trails because there’s no one there to bitch about your inter-activity friendship! Just make sure you find the right turn off or you’ll be bushwhacking through dense steep brush and… not skiing. And the aforementioned pie.
9) Table Mountain Circumnav. More than a half day I guess, but less than a full day, and very easy/obvious navigation if it is clear and you have line of sight. Haven’t seen a snowshoer, but I guess it’s possible if you are determined? Pretty good skiing. despite being a circumnavigation, and spectacular views the whole way. Rare to get a high quality traverse in a day, but this sure felt like it, except for the ice couloir I tried to ski down from Herman Saddle.
10) Lane Peak. Also basically like Paradise or Castle/Pinnacle, but with more vert and more technical skiing. Just make sure you don’t need to rope up on the way up. If you do, wait til you’re more comfortable on steep snow. Also, this sucks when it’s icy, or when you break a ski boot at the top of one of the couloirs. But overall, it’s a phenomenal ski, and you can choose between three sweet couloirs. The zipper is the classic, be comfortable with jump turns. The fly is the easiest one, you can pull it off without jump turns and still get in some sweet steep powder (or ice, if another party beat you to it and scoured all the good snow off). And Lover’s Lane exists too, but I don’t know much about how that one compares to the other two. the best part of this is probably how those couloirs look when you’re driving the road to/from Paradise – “Yeah, I skiied that” “NO WAAAAY THAT’S RAD” and secretly it’s far more mellow than it looks from the road. Also, see #1 re: boingo burger.
Another honorable mention: Union & Jovepeaks (easy duo) or McCausland, also at Stevens Pass. Yes, you’ll skin up a road. Yeah, it’s probably chewed up and icy. But it’s worth it, especially if you hit the right conditions and know how to ski (I did not). If you’re ambitious you could probably combine all three of these, maybe even add Lichtenberg. But that wouldn’t be a half day, or a half ass.
So there you have it. Want to sleep in? Lacking motivation? Dog/child/SO/your feelings can only handle a few hours of ski touring? I got a go to list you can knock out so you don’t feel like you’ve totally lost all sense of adventure/fitness/ski capabilities. And really, only some are like that. The three-quarter days are actually pretty dope, and you’ll have actually earned food afterwards, unlike kendall trees and hyak where you pretend like you had fun and then cancel everything you just did out with beer.
Yeah yeah no one reads blogs on Sundays… but I’m excited about this one and it’s been a while so let’s go for it. Oakes is a relatively short peak in the North Cascades that has been gaining popularity over the past few years, presumably due to its amazing views and the crazy increase in people getting outdoors recently. There is no trail, but a fairly obvious route given the terrain. It has been on my list for a few years, but finding sunshine in winter, people who are willing to forego a ski day or larger objectives, and the motivation for >5000ft of bushwhacking is a difficult task. Surprising? No. Well, finally the planets aligned, and after a weekend of trying to ski ice we resigned ourselves to booting up stuff. We made a great attempt on Baring last weekend (maybe a post for another time) but had to bail before the summit, and that bluebird day of booting gave me the hunger for a winter summit. We knew most snow would be shit for skiing since there wasn’t any precip during the week, so we figured we’d pick another “cardio peak” to try and get in some elevation and views. Oakes was a perfect choice.
Distance: 7.5mi round trip
Elevation gain: 5000ft (5600ft highest point)
Weather: 20’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 2:30
Did I Trip: No faceplants thanks to a trusty walking stick. Many postholes.
We left Seattle Friday evening so we could trailhead camp given the good weather. Fell asleep by 11, my bag was so perfectly cozy, woke up to a dozen alarms we snoozed from 5:11am (i don’t… know why my alarm was set for 5:11 exactly) until about 7am since we decided bushwhacking in the dark sounded shitty and we were confident we’d be able to finish within the 9hrs of daylight that Washington has right now. The muscle memory of my legs with regards to hiking/mountaineering seems stronger than the actual muscles of my legs, so I figured worst case scenario I’d be able to hobble down feeling fine and cry about it the next two days when I couldn’t go from standing to sitting without falling part of the way.
We hopped out of the truck around 7am. “Shit, are my trekking poles in the cab? Or did I forget them?” Robert opened the door to peek. “No dork poles in here.” Crap. I love those on bushwhacks and steep shit. They save my knees, they let me whack plants, they make sidehilling marginally more tolerable, I can lean on them and try to crack my back which has felt like it’s 65 years old lately, probably because 85% of my life now consists of staring at a computer screen and occasionally migrating from my basement desk to my breakfast nook desk to my countertop desk which are all within ~20ft of each other as I work from my (beloved, adorable, best ever) tiny house. But they were sitting in my trunk 100 miles away, so there I was, newly in the market for a walking stick. We crossed Oakes Creek running over the road (and creating some seriously slick frozen spots) and started looking for a good way to enter the forest.
We went into the woods maybe 100ft left of the river (looking upstream). It was schwacky, but not bad. There was ankle-to-waist-high vine maple for the first couple hundred feet (I learned I need to strengthen my soccer-ball-kicking muscles aka the ones that kick through vines) but the forest soon opened up to a moss carpet and eventually a tiny icy layer of very annoying snow. We found a bootpath along a mini-ridge in the forest which was beautiful and cruiser for a half hour or so before it disappeared again. Robert found a “sword” (a triangular piece of cedar good for whacking/chopping other vegetation) as well as a walking stick for me. Two sticks actually, one was light and the other was heavy but more durable. I chose light and fast, plus it had the perfect little nub for my fingers to rest on like a trekking pole. I dubbed it Pope John Pole II (Donald Stump felt like a cop-out, plus I’d rather be accompanied by a Pope than Trump on a climb I guess). Robert deemed his Stick Cheney, and it turned from a source of amusement fighting trees to a hiking and mountaineering tool. Thanks to my trusty stick, I was saved from multiple face plants, and the first 2000ft of gain actually went by pretty quickly in my head (2hrs in real life haaa) and soon enough we were at the first road crossing.
Despite the bushwhack/off trail nature of this peak, there is a web of roads that switchback up it from the south. You can snowshoe those, but it’s something gross like 18 miles of road walk. I have no idea what the status of those roads is for driving/snowmobiling/biking, even in summer. I assume they’re blocked, otherwise I think this peak would get a lot more summer traffic knowing you could drive to 1,000ft below the summit.
The bushwhacking between road crossings was more mellow, and we were finally starting to get glimpses of the views to come. Snow started almost perfect at the first road, but it was good snow for booting (besides the occasional tree well/posthole). We are some hi-chews, chugged some water, and kept moving. I felt good, but slow. Like 2018 or 2019 Eve would have cruised up this in a few hours, 2020 eve isn’t sure she existed, and 2021 eve is clawing her way back into existence after a sloooow year of climbing. But I figure 5k in a day off trail would be a good start.
Past the last road crossing, the route finally steepens. Nothing comparable to Baring the prior weekend (which was funny, Baring made Oakes seem moderate) but definitely a lot of sustained steep snow. I can see why people used to use those big ol ice axes on top of huge wizard-staff style alpenstocks, the walking stick cut nicely into snow. Better than a trekking pole for sure. We had ice axes, but never felt compelled to get them out. There were several icy stretches that were fine going up but would suck to come down without crampons, so I committed to donning crampons at the summit even though I knew I wouldn’t want to. (spoiler: it was a good call) The snow alternated between that frozen crap and bucket steps (aka really good booting conditions), and while trailbreaking wasn’t easy, Robert insisted on doing all of it. To build fitness, or character, or something. I offered to give it a go but I mean… I’m not going to complain if you want to break the entire trail and I just have to climb stairs behind you. In fact that sounds lovely. Except that I get complacent, and then I posthole purely because I stop paying attention to walking. So you can’t win em all.
Okay here’s the one downer about Oakes: Views don’t really happen until like the last 100 vertical feet, if that. That’s why you should just look at it as a cardio trip. But when you get to the top. Ohhhh my god. Everything due north of Oakes is a surprise as you crest the summit. You can see Bacon and Baker and the very tip of Shuksan, and Blum looks enormous, and the entire Mystery traverse is laid out in front of you. And Despair, Triumph, and Thornton peak look staggeringly massive and truly alpine with jagged, icy, rocky spines. The topographical relief of the North Cascades is absurd. At some point I said to Robert “How is it that we’re on a peak that isn’t even 6,000ft tall and I feel like we’re on top of the world in the middle of nowhere?” “…Because it’s the North Cascades.” And he’s right. They’re the best.
We only spent ~30 min at the summit. I could have spent hours. The views were so awesome and I so desperately wanted to see sunset. It hurt to even think about it. But it was almost 1pm, and we wanted to be back at the car within daylight, so we started back down. We figured we could get down faster than we got up, especially given how much we were dragging the last 1,000ft.
We ran into a group of four about 2000ft below the summit. Right after Robert said “so at this point think it’s safe to say there’s no one else up here? By this time of day they’d all have turned around if they weren’t within 1,000ft unless they want to come down in the dark…” It took us probably 90min, maybe longer to top out from where they were, but they’d have the benefit of a solid bootpack and no navigation required which would have saved us a lot of time. But it was still almost 2pm, and I wondered if they’d summit or bail because the lower part of the descent would be miserable in the dark. Or maybe they were aiming for sunset views, in which case I hope they see this and share pics.
We literally cut our time in half on the way down, and that includes an unfortunate 30min terrible sidehilling-through-vine-maple-slide-alder detour because we dropped too low without contouring west. We had found a bootpath, and when it ended, I didn’t realize how firmly skiier’s right our track turned. We kept following the line of fall, and so when we started a downward traverse to the right to meet the route, we ended up just paralleling the route through 40 degree slopes on the side of a huge drainage until we finally rounded back onto the mellow slope the route follows. It probably would have been easier to just climb up the drainage back to the “face” that the route follows. The route basically threads the needle between 30-50 degree forest and snow. If you stick to it you’ll be fine, if you get dragged down into the drainage because you weren’t paying attention/thought it didn’t matter then you’re going to have a bad time sidehilling with walking sticks slipping on slide alder grasping at plants like Peter clinging to the cliff in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Always the optimist I laughed an commented at least slide alder makes great veggie belays. But it doesn’t count, because we wouldn’t need veggie belays if there were no slide alder. You don’t get credit for solving the issue you constantly cause. Stupid alder.
I was starting to feel my dehydration, and my face was burning and stinging from sweat (thank you, dry skin). On the bright side, the normal route suddenly seemed basically flat after the shit we had just been through. It still required several re-calibrations of expectations (we’re less than 1000 vertical feet away now right? Uhhh more like 1700 feet away.. now we’re like 500ft away right? uhh more like 750… okay now we’re definitely within 100ft uh sorry more like 300… god dammit). But we found intermittent bootpaths again (where were you on the way up!?) and even some blazes, and suddenly we saw cars! The forest road! Water! Sneakers! Dry socks! Ahhhh! Changing footwear felt so good. We drove to the first gas station to stock up on drinks and snacks because we were both starving and had barely drank/snacked on the hike.
This hike FAR surpassed my expectations. The views were better than I thought, it wasn’t nearly as steep/miserable as I expected (though it does gain 5k ft in 3.5 miles), and we had perfect conditions for it. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a winter workout with some of the most stellar views you can get in a day trip, with that sense of adventure that comes from being entirely off trail on a peak that not many have climbed before. At least, if you’re willing to sacrifice a ski day. Or want to carrys kis 5k ft for max 1000ft of skiing and that’s being generous, because 200 will be open and the other 800 will be trees with varying snow conditions. Enjoy!