Winchester Mountain Birthday Surprise

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Here come the balloons! Baker peeks above the clouds.

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Party ready! PC Ken

Yeah, we took over a lookout. I almost felt bad, but everyone around us was pretty nice and patient and there weren’t many people because the mountain gods decided to wrap us in fog. To make the colors really pop, I assume. Thanks guys.

Eva had planned this crazy surprise from scratch maybe two weeks in advance. Like two dozen people coordinating formal wear, balloons, blueberry tarts, carpools up one of the worst roads in the cascades, how to get everyone there on time despite everyone being chronically late… amazingly it worked out.

  • Distance: 3.4 miles (i know, it’s almost a personal record of shortness)
  • Elevation gain: 1300ft (not too shabby for 1.7mi)
  • Weather: 40’s and partly sunny?
  • Commute from Seattle: 3hrs with no traffic
  • Did I Trip: Not today
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Blueberry break! PC Ken

I got to the meeting spot at 9:45. Everyone agreed to meet at 10. They all went to the Wake and Bakery (heh) beforehand, but I was out of cell service so I assumed they were wrapping up and moments away. But then it was 10, and then it was 10:15, and then Emily rolled up so at least I had company, and then it was 10:30… and finally everyone was there. We shuffled gear into the cars of those willing to take on the burden of driving to Twin Lakes, and headed off to the trailhead.

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The procession of the balloons

My car had about 40 balloons, which I figured would be enough to float us to the top. But it wasn’t, and that meant we had to actually face the road. Turned out the road isn’t technically that bad, just some small washouts. The scary part is the steep drop and the fact that it’s one lane. And I didn’t want to back that shit up (back up that shit?) in my manual transmission xterra, which, as dope as it is, doesn’t even like reversing uphill in a city. I need two gears for reverse in that car. Amazingly, we only had to pass two others, one that was a little spicy with like 3″ of space (Emily was like uhhh don’t go any farther this way…) and one where Emily and I both laughed and cheered because we passed them on a nice wide beautiful switchback. And suddenly we were at the trailhead!

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Each balloon can lift ~14g, so they helped a bit with pack weight

It took a while again to get everyone organized (party decorations, balloons, kids, dogs, debating turning cars around to hide obvious bumper stickers that would give us away) and finally we were on our way. I stupidly signed “EVE – PARTY OF 12” in the trail register. Thankfully, Eva had the foresight to guide Stephen away from the register so my idiocy didn’t give us away.

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The procession!

Meanwhile, we scampered (slowly) up the trail, taking blueberry breaks, pictures of everyone with their balloons, making bets on whether we’d have any views at the top. We got to the lookout and started setting up. Splitting up helium balloons (which don’t float as well at 6000ft because of the lower air density), recruiting the kids to blow up normal balloons, taping streamers across the ceiling, hanging up birthday signs, putting out the alpine blueberry tarts that Becka made, eating everyone else’s snacks because my snacks were mediocre at best:

  • A crumbled honey stinger waffle
  • A bag of muddy buddies grabbed at a gas station on the way to a SAR mission months ago
  • A salami wrapped around a cheese stick I didn’t know I had (aka old)
  • A quest bar I didn’t find until later
  • Some Peter Rabbit baby food (emergency sugar)
  • Espresso clif shot (emergency caffeine + sugar)
  • Pride and also Shame with a dash of Embarrassment (what I ate on the way up this time)
  • PB2 dust(???) in my pocket??? Basically pocket sand
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My favorite on the balloons

Yeah, I hadn’t been out since like mid August. I wouldn’t have starved but I mean… I’d need a certain level of desperation. Anyway, we finished up the decor just as Eva topped out, a few minutes ahead of Stephen. We scrambled to get the last of the balloon inside, eventually shoving them in the door and closing it while we tried to get the strings loose (I can untie them!! Wait! I can’t untie them!! What happened to the strings?! DOES ANYONE HAVE A KNIFE?!” I dodged inside worried Stephen was coming around the corner and snuck the knife to Eva, who finally cut the balloons free and turned around innocently just as Stephen crested the final incline.

I am still like a child playing hide and seek, suddenly I have to use the bathroom but I know it’s just the anticipation. Don’t turn around. Don’t make eye contact. Stephen of course immediately starts heading in the wrong direction. No don’t look. We hear Eva trying to corral him towards the door. He finally turns around like okay fiiiine i’ll look inside first.

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Cheryl helping with streamers

“SURPRISE!!” Those bastards going rogue, we had agreed to say happy birthday! At least, everyone except me seemed to be on the same page, and that page said surprise and I had just missed the update memo so I said more like “hhhhhhaaPRISE!” Stephen just goes “oh, hey guys??” and we can see the wheels turning. “Oh there are lots of you!” “Oh oh wow you even decorated!” and we’re all laughing and clapping and HE HAD NO IDEA. I figured he’d at least have a feeling he was getting into something, just not the full scope of what we had pulled together. But he was completely clueless.

We had blueberry tart, whipped cream, whiskey, champagne, sang happy birthday with Eva on ukelele, and caught up on just how Stephen had no idea. He said everything suddenly made sense. Why Eva was waking him up early. Why Eva was rushing him out of the house. Why Eva dodged the trail register. Why Eva was dragging him up the trail so fast. I can’t believe the numerous WHC stickers (and bright yellow car) didn’t give us away. I was worried they’d even catch up to us, because we were pretty behind schedule too!! But everything went smoothly.

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Balloons make it easy to find your friends

We eventually took down the decor and headed back to the trailhead, stopping along the way for formal photos. Eva and Stephen do this thing where everyone brings up formalwear and changes into it at the best viewpoint, and we found a great outcropping on the way down that wouldn’t block the whole trail but also had a perfect backdrop. We froze in the cold and the wind in bare feet and semiformal dresses but it was totally worth it for the laughs and the pics. And we were still back to the trailhead before sunset, which is great, because it meant we could drive the shitty part of the road in daylight, instead of hugging the road next to the abyss for 2.5 anxiety inducing miles.

Great day, great company, and even the long drive didn’t bother me (it helps having company – thanks Emily!!). The days like this are just as good as the crazy climbs and runs. Happy birthday Stephen!!

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY STEPHEN! (don’t judge by this streamer THE REST WERE PERFECT)

P.S. I used a couple of Ken Poore’s photography. They’re easy to spot in this post. You can tell by the way that they are. By which I mean they’re brighter, sharper, and better composed than my poor phone’s attempts at making clouds look okay. You can see the rest of his (more epic) work here: https://www.kenpoorephotography.com/

 

Royal Basin & Mt. Deception

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Anita coming around a glacier boulder, Deception on the right

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Wildlife by Royal Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper Royal Basin

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

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

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

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

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

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Some 3rd class scramble

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

 

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Mr. Billy Goat (credit Zee!)

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Coming across the north face

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

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Anita coming along the final ridge

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

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One last push to the top! Mystery in the background

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

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