Last time I hiked Round Mountain was like a 2/10 on a scale of 1-10. We were socked in by clouds with no views, I forgot my favorite snacks, and I got dumped a few hours later at a park n ride after overeating mediocre chicken alfredo on the way home. Something about my crass language and favorite phrase “god dammit” cued the guy I was dating at the time into realizing maybe I wasn’t very religious, despite my very biblical name. I laugh now because obviously he was totally right, but at the time it took me a while to remember my life was awesome. Fortunately, two coworkers had also been dumped that week, so we took turns moaning and groaning and hogging the one bathroom in the office in case someone was about to cry. We even went to a cage fighting match between humans and computers which was a hilariously Seattle experience I will never forget. Complete with body slams and chair hits. Somehow, I didn’t meet any new dating material there.
So when Rob mentioned he was putting together a crew for Round Mountain, naturally I wanted a redo. Round Mountain is known for its prominence, it’s the 8th most prominent peak in WA with almost 4800ft of prominence despite only being 5300ft tall. Prominence = views. It rises up straight from the valley floor outside of Darrington, with phenomenal views of Whitehorse to the south and the entire cascade range to the west and north. You’re in a fishbowl of peaks. It’s generally quite safe on high avy days thanks to the entire route being forested and along a ridge. The forecast called for clear skies, views, and suckers I’m single there’s NO ONE to dump me at the bottom. Let’s do this.
Distance: ~6mi (slightly under)
Elevation: ~4100ft net, 5320 highest point (you lose some elevation that you have to regain on the way back)
We decided to be on the trail by 8am. I am turning into a Seattlite who shows up 5-10min late to everything, so Rob told me 5:40 when he wanted to meet at 5:30 (it worked). We stopped at the pilot gas station and I’ll have you know I didn’t buy a cinnamon bun. We got to the trailhead around 7:15, I had enough time to crush a banana before Daniel showed up and we were plodding down the forest road around 7:40. You know how there’s the saying “be bold, start cold” because you know you’ll warm up once you start moving? Round Mountain is more like be bold, just start naked. You walk a forest road for a while and then cut straight into the forest uphill, and within 200 vertical feet of the road you’ll be sweating profusely and LET ME TELL YOU there is no end in sight until the summit. It felt like spring despite being February. Warm, sunny, and I stupidly wore expedition weight wool base layers because I don’t know follow seasonal transitions.
We went up and up, picking our own paths through the steep woods. The terrain is very open with no bushwhacking at all, surprising for the north cascades. I looove sunlight through the forests here. I don’t think we even hit snow until around 3500ft. We were carrying snowshoes that we never put on. There was some unavoidable postholing, but such is life, it’s not a real snow adventure without some postholing. Rob broke trail, finding each and every hole for us. Every time I turned around Daniel was right behind me absolutely beaming with smiles. We talked through summer goals and lists to pursue and it was like getting the mental gears moving again, until I remembered I suck at goal setting. I just wake up on a Thursday and see where weather is good and try to find last minute free people. I don’t have a list, or a goal, or anything. I guess I have a list called “the selfish ten” that are peaks I will bail on anyone and anything for but even with that I’m being hypocritical because I have a few friends climbing a peak on that list the same weekend another friend has a wedding… and I’m going to the wedding.
We finally crested the knoll where you gain the last ridge to the summit. I say “finally” but really it went by surprisingly quickly! Good conversation with new people always helps, and I think we were moving at a decent clip. I can only speak for myself but I was hilariously overpacked for this balmy pseudo spring day. Two summit puffies, snowshoes, avy gear, great way to get in shape?
Go up and over the knoll! Sidehilling around it would be miserable. It looks like you can’t walk off the far end of the knoll but you can (well, maybe not in snowshoes). Getting to the saddle took longer than expected, but finally we were climbing up again, and into the sun this time. Don’t be fooled, you still have a ways to go here. There were old boot prints we followed and we started to leapfrog a pair of two others that had caught up to us. At this point Jon started to lead, and I swear everyone in front of him and from prior days was also >6ft tall because I started having to kick extra steps in between their ginormous strides. I stashed one pole by a patch of trees where the prior party had stashed some gear and continued up with an ice axe.
It’s crazy how different conditions change the experience. The first time I did Round Mountain snowshoes were essential and I still remember swimming uphill through powder. This time we got to kick steps, the snow was mostly solid, there was exposed rock for a scramble-y move or two.
The views were ridiculous. I could tell by how tall Higgins seemed that we were nowhere near the summit of Round yet. Higgins and its entire ridge looks SO cool from Round Mountain, it’s extremely steep and jagged and from the highway side it has these incredible diagonal striations like a little piece of Glacier National Park or Banff. The views were almost enough to distract me from the fact I was fucking starving.
The summit is aptly named. At least in winter, it is quite round. Huge plateau with plenty of space and views in every single direction. I didn’t even know which way to face for a panorama. Even the Olympics were visible. Rob whipped out his car windshield visor as a sit pad which had us cracking up. Daniel asked if we wanted spicy mango candy or chocolate covered espresso beans. Rob asked if anyone wanted chocolate or whiskey. I don’t remember what Jon had to offer, but it was definitely better than my snacks – anyone want, uh, soft boiled eggs, or lentils? A resounding no.
*edit: Jon had maybe some Hawaiian pizza to offer, unless he had already eaten the 8 slices he carried up the mountain
Whatever guys, I devoured my snacks. I just started Invisalign, and I wildly underestimated how much of a pain in the ass it would be with my lifestyle. I have a single crowded tooth that you can’t even see when I’m smiling, but after two years of starting at my own face on Zoom I can’t un-see it every time I talk or laugh. But. You can’t eat ANYTHING with them in! And if you take them out to eat, you have to brush them AND your teeth AND floss before they go back in. So I ate like a full meal on top of Round Mountain, and then had a little dental hygiene clinic. No pocket snacks, no quick bites, just one big committing break and I guess that’s how the rest of my climbs will be until I’m done with the liners. My best idea so far is cutting shot blocks into small pieces and taking them with water like sugar pills but I like to ENJOY my food.
The way down went by so quickly. Rob started singing songs that only require one line to get stuck in your head. Like “it’s the fiiinal cooountdooown.” I had more examples but now that’s already in my head and I can’t remember anything else. I was worried I’d overshoot where I had stashed my pole since it was no longer obvious with all the gear the other party had stashed, but we found it. We glissaded a 12ft stretch, and another 12ft stretch. Downclimbed some of the rockier parts. Snapped 1000 more pictures. Wove our way back up the almost knifey yet forested ridge to the knoll, and from there we knew it was the home stretch, but a misleading one. It’s. SO. Steep. And just so sustained. It’s honestly better with snow. Without snow, you’re trying to creep down this slippery mossy dirty slope, hoping your feet will stick to something. It’s extremely tedious. I think the part just below the knoll was the worst, and it gets less steep as you get closer to the forest road. Going down doesn’t feel much faster than going up because of how tedious it is. At least it’s soft so it’s not a total knee banger.
We were back down by 3pm, making it somewhere around 7hrs round trip with a very long summit break. Our moving time was just under 6hrs. We stopped by the Rhodes River Ranch in Oso for lunch/dinner (dunch?). It’s open again, and it’s just a very cool location with great food. You can watch horses in a ring below the restaurant seating, the burgers are delicious. And they give you chocolates with your receipts, so don’t put your invisalign back on until after you’ve paid 🙂
Great day with a great group, still can’t believe we got so lucky with weather in freaking February. Hope we get on some more adventures and I HIGHLY recommend Round Mountain to anyone looking for a lesser known peak with a fairly safe winter route and really just phenomenal views. I think it’s being discovered though, we ran into multiple other parties up there. It certainly deserves it. Can’t say it’s worth lugging skis up there (I considered it) but I’m sure someone’s tried it…
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.
The reputation of this peak is both hilarious and accurate. It’s a chossy heap of shit. Martin will erode into nothing millions of years before the rest of the cascades. A single small quake will send it crumbling into the valley while Bonanza looms 1000ft taller, unscathed. A climbing party will remove the wrong fist-sized rock from their scramble route, and half the mountain will collapse. It’s alpine Jenga.
Okay, now that I’ve set your expectations extra low, here’s why it’s still worth doing: I swear, that between most of those gullies trying to skid you off into the future, there are some lines of decent rock, and it’s not unmanageable. At least on the way up. It’s not the west side of Gilbert with the miracle streak of conglomerate and death runout everywhere else, it’s more forgiving than that. The fact that we got 5 people up and down without incident speaks for itself.
Distance: 2mi from camp to summit (okay obviously my math sucks because gpx track had us at 25 miles for the whole holden/bonanza/martin/holden trip)
Elevation Gain: 2,100ft gain to summit (8,511ft highest point)
Weather: 70’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 8hrs bc ferry
Did I Trip: Technically no, but plenty of other mechanical stumbles
We left camp at 6:15am, ready for a more casual day than Bonanza the day prior. We followed a vague bootpath on and off up and over two small humps until we were at the saddle just west of Martin. We traversed a tiny bit east before finding a gully to head up. There were multiple options. I’m still not sure which is the “correct” one. They all had 3rd class ish steps towards the beginning, none were 100% walk up. And honestly, the 3rd class ish steps were the most solid parts. Because the walk up sections were previews of what was to come. Extremely loose dinner plate talus and steep awkward sidehilling. If you managed to go straight up you’d randomly slide back a few steps.
We crested the west ridge after fighting ungracefully through some stubby trees, and were able to walk maybe 1000 horizontal feet before traversing east again around 7,500ft. The view of Bonanza is spectacular, you can really see just how large the Mary Green glacier is and how daunting the summit looks from afar. Crazy to think there’s a manageable way up that.
From here, it’s a project of scrambling over ridges and aretes and connecting shitty gullies when they become really too shitty to climb. If the gully is seriously bad, there is probably a ridge or some cleaner line you’re missing, or it’s time to traverse to the next gully. Treat it like a scavenger hunt, it’ll go. If you are lucky, you’ll see a cairn, but there’s only like 5 on the entire mountain and if you build one, it’ll probably fall over in five minutes anyway. Climbing Martin is like a 12 step program, but it’s OGAT: one gully at a time.
When truly on the ridge (or even the aretes between gullies), the scrambling was solid. When in gullies, it was loose and tedious and sometimes just nasty, but more often than not we found clean lines on the way up. But sometimes things would look solid, and then break off if you tugged or knocked on them even slightly. Some blocks that looked embedded you could actually remove and then put back exactly where they came from, like 3d puzzle pieces. Totally bizarre.
There was one section where I realized we were on exposed, thin ledges that just felt like they’d crumble at any point. No jugs, nothing solid. It was probably the fastest I scrambled all trip, and the only section on the way up where I had an “oh, whoa” moment. The rock was red, then white, and then we were above it, and I noticed rap tat right at the top which was great because I knew I wouldn’t be stoked on downclimbing that. Turns out we had overshot the “first crux” per summitpost, which is just to climber’s left of the white and red gully. But it wasn’t so bad, at least on the way up. And above that gully, we found solid clean rock on the ridge (exposed, but fun), and then it was back to crossing yet another gully.
The second crux went smoothly on the way up. It was exposed, but had solid rock compared to the rest of the peak, and a few very fun moves. Beyond that, nothing dramatic between there and the summit. I’m sure Rob was singing the final countdown. You know what else distracts from shitty choss? That diarrhea song (you know, “diarrhea [fart] [fart]”), which SOMEONE started singing as talus and scree and debris crumbled below our boots, a fitting theme for Martin’s quality of rock.
The summit is big, and we took a looooong break with snacks and naps and pics. My favorite signature in the summit register was Dick Hertz (ha) with the SKt (Slowest Known Time instead of FKT, fastest known time) with 80hrs round trip from Holden and 2 bivvies. We’ll never know their real name, or what actually happened, but it sure gave me a laugh. I bet it’s some animal who did this in like 7hrs from Holden and just has a good sense of humor.
I was anxious about the downclimb as usual, but I had bomb ass shoes and the way up had been fine and I was confident in the group to help me through whatever might get in my head. I made sure I was neither first nor last. It means someone’s below me if I need someone to talk me through some moves, and someone’s above me to distract me if I just need to recalibrate my brain. Put more simply: I won’t be left alone! Turns out I enjoy climbing a LOT more when in a crew. Rob being the mountain goat he is downclimbed first. I followed. The crux was a great combination of fun and electric. I grabbed pics I didn’t think to get on the way up (probably too busy studying moves/getting hyped). We kicked tons of rocks down on the way back to the white slabby gully, including one where we might as well have glissaded talus. We went one at a time, very slowly, and eventually stopped even shouting rock because there was no avoiding it and everyone knew.
A rocky outcropping splits the white/red gully (skiier’s left) from a grassy gully (skiier’s right) that looked doable. We gazed down each side of the outcropping. We scoped out the grassy gully. I did my usual I’d prefer to rappel, but if you downclimb, I’ll follow.. except no one wanted to downclimb. And we had carried the rope all the way up here (by we I mean Alex thanks Alex) so why not put it to use? We set up one of the most beautiful rappels I’ve seen (scenerywise, though I assure you our rope management was impeccable as well) and rapped as far down as we could get. “Take a picture of me rapping, for my dating profile.” Damn straight!
Rob was the first one on rappel, and he cleaned the rap for us, pulling pieces of loose rock and flakes off of the rock wall. One of the flakes was HUGE. It had been a while and we were starting to wonder if he was okay when we heard a huge crack followed by rockfall followed by Rob explaining what was going on. And when I rapped down, I could see the huge scar left behind the flake that he had pulled off. Great call, would NOT have wanted that coming down on any of us.
At the base of the rap we kicked more rocks down traversing to skiier’s right to get out of the line of fire from any other debris the rap might pull down, and then it was back to awkward sidehilling, ball bearings on solid rock, stringing more gullies together and tagging the ridgeline between gullies. The five cairns helped, plus some recognizable rocks. Once we were back on the mellow end of the ridge, we cruised to the very end and took the last gully on skiier’s left to get back down to the saddle. This went fine, but still had a 3rd class ish move towards the bottom. Not a problem, I just expected a walk up gully at that point and we never found one.
Getting up and over those two humps back to the saddle above Holden Lake was tough. I was low on water, Mike and I hauled ass back with the others somewhere behind us. My inner juke box was alternating still between the diarrhea song and you are my sunshine, two wildly different tunes. Back at camp, I boiled water to chug before collapsing on my sleeping bag in my tent. I love sitting. Full crew was back at camp by 4pm.
Maybe an hour later, there was a sudden commotion around the bathroom area, and we saw a porcupine! I’ve never seen one before! We all gathered around, he didn’t seem to care one bit that he was being watched. The new neighbors joined us for a watch party (they just got back down from Bonanza). Some hiked down to the river for fresh water and a shower, I boiled snow for my final variation on mac n cheese and chugged more mio, content that we only had to hike back to Holden the next day. I groaned as I lay down in my tent. Someone laughed, I think it was Tim. “You know what that sound is? That’s the sound of a 70 year old. Or a climber.”
In the middle of the night, I was woken up by sniffling outside. I always thought I could just kick/punch an animal through my tent if it sniffed too close, but I didn’t want to blindly smack a porcupine, right? So I sat there panicking. I’m so blind without glasses/contacts in. I debated between fight or flight. What does flight even mean when you’re in a tent? It kept sniffling. Mike’s light in the tent next to me turned on. Okay, he knows too. Reinforcements. I unzipped the door and peeked outside. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m fucking blind. Well whatever it was took off, and sounded like it tripped over one of the tent lines. I shone my light around a bit more but didn’t see anything. Must have been a deer.**
The hike back to Holden was quick, about 2.5 hours. Including Mike and I thinking one of our party members was missing on the far side of Holden Lake. We literally jogged back there to find him, shouting his name, and it turned out he had at some point passed us and was ahead of us on the trail back to Holden! We passed another party on the trail that mentioned him and said he was totally okay, confirming what everyone else had thought. Oops.
PSA: there is no $1 ice cream at Holden in the morning, don’t get your hopes up. We kicked around the bus stop until the bus showed up, munching on whatever snacks we had left, wandering the center of the village where we were allowed. It was our driver’s first time driving the bus in a year, and it was an old school manual transmission school bus that had to go through these crazy gravel mountain road switchbacks with no protection. She crushed it though, while I panicked in the seat and didn’t look out the window. Apparently my heart rate was so high that my Whoop picked it up as a bona fide cardio activity for 30min! I can’t be positive, but the time of the activity line up with the pics I took, so… yikes.
Back at Lucerne landing, we unloaded our gear and immediately jumped in the lake. BLISS. Sheer bliss. It was cold and refreshing and clear and amazing. We sunned on the dock until the ferry got close and I figured I shouldn’t be lying around in my underwear as a boat of presumably very polite proper religious tourists rolled up. But yuck, putting on climbing pants was gross. At least I had a fresh shirt.
The ferry ride back was uneventful besides a cool waterfall we pulled up to. The views were still spectacular, though I wish I could have had my overheated beaten body towed behind the boat on a rope so I could just sit in the ice water (I know that’s not as pleasant as i made it sound, I’d be more like a drowning rock being skipped than a pleasantly dragged passenger).
The other highlight of the day? Besides jumping in the lake? Mike’s girlfriend meeting us at the North Bend Park n Ride with pizza and HOMEMADE MINT BROWNIES. I don’t know how she did them, but holy shit, that was the most delicious return to civilization I’ve ever had. The pizza even became a joke on the ride home. Shroedinger’s pizza. Was it happening? Was it not happening? Dare I even ask? Don’t let those hopes get up. I expected nothing. And boom. Pizza and brownies. I’ve only met her once and I felt like Doug in Up. “I just met you but I LOVE you.”
I drove home, unleashed a forest of pine needles in the bathroom, threw all my clothes in the washing machine and threw away all the trash I had accumulated. I had found socks and a shirt on Martin, I almost had a full Martin outfit. My bed was almost too soft compared to the past few nights on the ground, and I was not looking forward to being back to work the next morning. I liked my alternate alpine life better.
Once again, super strong team, great collaboration and communication, and I seriously hope I get to go on some big trips with them again. At some point on this trip multiple people were rapidfire giving advice to someone. “Put your hand in” “no put it here” “no take it out” “okay put your foot in” and whoever we were talking to finally said “okay but when do i do the hokey pokey and turn myself around?” which of course triggered full group laughter. I’m very lucky to be included with this crew!
*those dents in my helmet aren’t all from Martin **a person definitely tripped over those tent lines at some point too but I don’t remember who. Oops
The most reassuring trip report about Bonanza you’ve ever read. Yeah you read that right. Maybe the planets aligned, but I think a lot of the nerve fraying reports for Bonanza are overhyped. And I’m a WIMP. I mean seriously. Talk to me while we’re face-in downclimbing, it can be about anything but someone needs to be talking to me so I can’t get in my head. Same if I’m making an airy move on a rock climb. So I went into this climb with expectations of exposure, spice, and whatever a noun for “heinous” would be, and came away swearing I’d write the most reassuring trip report ever.
That’s not to say it was easy. The waterfall slabs are spooky in the afternoon. The snow can be steep. The scramble is exposed and arguably 4th-5th class at the very top. Lots of transitions. It’s a long day. But this has got to be up there with Fisher Chimneys as one of the most enjoyable moderate routes I’ve done in Washington. Here we go.
Distance: 5mi to camp, maybe 2 from camp to summit?
Elevation: 3,000ft gain from Holden to camp, 3,100ft gain camp to summit (9,511ft highest point)
Weather: 70’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: Like… 8hrs because you have to take the ferry
1. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Or as bad as the pictures look. But it’s not easy. 1.5. The bushwhack near the lake is gone because some saint came through with a pair of loppers, and a saw, and a dream 2. Bring multiple pairs of shoes for approach/glacier/scramble. Scrambling in mountaineering boots blows. Very happy I had scrambling shoes. Mike brought enough shoes for our whole party. 3. Do Martin, because you aren’t going to want to come back just for that crumbling mess 4. Plan on rappelling the waterfalls in the afternoon but power to you if you find a down-climbable route 5. The ice cream place in Holden isn’t open in the mornings so you won’t get ice cream on the last day don’t get your hopes up
Bonanza is the highest non-volcanic peak in Washington, and the 26th most prominent in the state. It’s known for throwing a moderate level of everything at you – off trail navigation, bushwhacking, glacier travel, scrambling. Many of the trip reports I read spent time talking about the difficulty and not so much the tremendous scenery that flanks every section of this climb. And these pictures do NOT do it justice. At this point I like to think I do a good job capturing scenery, and I tried to give a taste of every section of this climb, but this was truly just one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been.
We piled into my car at the North Bend Park n Ride and met the rest of the crew at Field’s Point Landing Friday morning. I missed exit 85 on i90 as usual, and had to turn around like 6 miles later at the next exit. Near Blewett Pass we stopped for a bathroom break and got to see my car peel out doing 0-60 in like 2 minutes given the extra 1000lbs of passengers and gear (without that, I only need like… 48 seconds). And finally, my stomach dropped out of my body as I realized what I had left at home: the cheese. I had a whole bag of pretzels, and no cheese. Four days, no cheese. This was going to be horrific.
We had the slow ferry on the way there, which took about two hours from Field’s Point to Holden. It has snacks! I got some pretzels and hummus, and cheese sticks. We passed smaller boats, kayakers, even paddleboarders on our way up Lake Chelan. At the Holden landing, we promptly got into the wrong bus (villagers only), were shamefully ushered off the bus, and finally seated in our own van. In 2015, the Wolverine Creek Fire evacuated Holden just before cutting off road access entirely, so much of the 17mi drive from ferry to village is in a burn zone. I’ve heard great things about the village and maybe this is to blame on covid, but we were totally ignored. Nothing was open, couldn’t find anyone to check in with at the ranger station, no one would answer my questions. I thought I was just being a dick/doing the horns effect thing feeling out of place knowing it’s a religious village* and I’m not very religious and then someone walked by singing hymns. Maybe I am actually just that out of place. I love people and had so many questions about the history of Holden but jeez no one wanted to talk. We finally started hiking the road that would eventually turn into the Holden Lake trail around 2:50pm.
The trail is very easy to follow. Spectacularly green, wildflowers blooming, Copper Mountain rising above the valley. It took longer than anticipated to get to the lake, maybe heavy packs, maybe late start and sluggish after being on boats/in busses all day, I don’t know. My mind was wandering, from the Kraken logo to Homestarrunner/Trogdor to the song about burninating the peasants. Some other hikers thought we were bears. Maybe there was a bear. Either way this trail kept going FOR EVER. It took us a little over two hours to the to the lake (the song stuck didn’t help) and we arrived around 5pm. Sunset wasn’t until ~9pm ish so we had plenty of time. I spied a fifth of whiskey in Rob’s pack… that bodes well, I think.
We took a long break at the lake before following a path counterclockwise to the far side of the lake, where we were able to follow cairns AND CLEARED BRUSH up the gulley to camp. That’s right. Someone came in with a bona fide saw and chopped up that slide alder. There was basically a trail the entire way to camp. And following it up next to the stream was glorious. Waterfalls cascading down the face of Bonanza above us like Shangri La, wildflowers and Copper Mountain and Holden Lake behind us as we gained elevation. Spectacular beauty in every direction. I was like a black hole of sweat soaking in what the world has to offer.
We reached camp at the saddle around 7pm, roughly an hour and a half after leaving out break on the south side of the lake. It was steep, but thanks to the brushed path and plenty of cairns, we never had trouble with navigation. at least, Mike and I didn’t. The others went through some twilight zone shit and had a bit of a brush bash, but found the path eventually. We pitched tents in an obvious flat spot at the saddle with a big snow patch for water. I stuck mine in the middle so anything coming to get us would have to go through everyone else first. Mike and I split a bear bag, partially because I forgot a rope to hang anything with, and partially because if anyone saw me try to throw a rock over a tree limb 30ft in the air they’d laugh and then evict me from the climbing party.
There is a better camp a bit higher up towards Martin, but we weren’t sure about the water situation, so we stayed where we were. It was also just as fast to hike back to the river to fill up on water as it was to boil it (and the melted snow always had surprise pine needles), so it was nice to have reasonable river access. Also, river showers. I crushed my first dehydrated meal. I called my menu “variations on mac n cheese” since the meals were things like chicken alfredo, creamy pesto chicken, mac n cheese, mac n cheese primavera… you get the gist. And you know what? They were all GREAT. We agreed on a 3:30am wakeup. Ugh. Alpine starts.
I woke up to everyone rustling, and we were moving by 4:30am, hiking up the ridge towards Bonanza. I immediately forgot socks and turned back to run down to camp to grab them, knowing I’d regret it if not. I had two pairs of shoes, traditional mountaineering boots for the glacier travel and light trail shoes for the scramble. I honestly considered just bringing rock shoes for the scramble given what I had heard about it, but left them at home after getting these hiking shoes. But whatever makes you most comfortable. You want to summit safely and as comfortably as possible. That’s why Mike had four pairs of shoes. If chances of success were correlated with pairs of shoes we were in great shape.
From camp, this climb has three distinct sections, each with their own challenges. Waterfall slabs, then glacier, then scramble. We reached the waterfall slabs around 5am. We were able to fairly easily pick a way up these without getting too wet (see photos above for details). We unintentionally followed the last two pages of the PDF and the “alternate route” on Andrew Leader’s trip report, both in the beta spray towards the top of this post. Both were in the back of my mind, but it felt like a natural path we never consulted anything during the scramble. Gaining the grass at first was probably the worst part, maybe the final move over the top waterfall was a close second because it was wet (but juggy). I wished I had worn my scramble shoes for this section, mountaineering boots on (wet) slab are yucky. But we were quickly transitioning to crampons by 5:45am, and I was stoked to be on top of the world as the sun rose.
We had two rope teams of 3 headed up the glacier, which is SO much bigger than it looks. We were able to cut straight through the center rather than hugging rock on the right and then traversing across the top of the glacier, but I don’t think it saved us that much time. Cooler crevasse views though. I spent the whole time telling everyone who would listen that I would rappel down the scramble section, for sure. I’m a sandbagger. Underpromise, overdeliver. Twice I thought the glacier route wasn’t going to go. We had to cross a sagging snow bridge across a decent crevasse that looked nasty from afar but ended up being totally solid, and then there was a decent moat between the glacier and the rock ridge that turned out to have a snow finger that was solid, but THIN. The glacier took us about two hours with plenty of stops for crevasse pictures.
On the rock ridge, we coiled ropes, switched to whatever our preferred shoes were (was Mike on pair #3? #4? Did he leave some at camp? Different shoe on each foot?), and started picking our way uphill. Here I was anxious again, having read tons of trip reports about negative holds and downward sloping slabs and kitty litter and exposure. But we found there were decent ledges almost everywhere. If there wasn’t one right in front of you, it was one move away, never sustained spiciness. I entered my own 3ft world, each of us choosing our own adventure, solving the scramble puzzle move by move with that little flare of confidence and accomplishment with every movement. I followed fresh red rap tat most of the way up, jumping point to point like a bizarre pinball game, my reminders of “I’m going to rap this” becoming fewer and further between as I realized the scramble was… totally manageable. The group generally stayed close, though we each took slightly different routes. This was to optimize rock fall. Slightly different routes meant no one directly below you (hopefully), and staying close meant if a rock did get knocked loose, it couldn’t pick up too much speed before connecting with someone. It was also clearly the path of least resistance, and it just kept going smoothly. And hey, if we wanted to rappel down, the entire rap route was brand spanking new so at least we had that going for us.
The final ridge to the top is technically difficult starting just above where we are in the above photo. I’d honestly say we made some low 5th class moves there, but they all had extremely solid holds, and some were these nice juggy holds and a fantastic hand crack that I found in this chimney-like feature that just felt super comfy. I was very happy I was fresh off climbing Cathedral Buttress, because I felt much stronger and more secure than I had expected. I pulled myself up onto a shark fin and did a few au cheval moves before the final talus walk, and soon enough we were doing cheers with whiskey at the top. You know who HAD brought cheese? Rob. Smoked. MFing. Gouda. So in classic fashion (this seems to be turning into a trend), I probably ate more of Rob’s snacks than my own.
We took a long break but I was (as usual) anxious about getting down. Sorry I’m (secretly? hopefully?) neurotic. I wanted to rappel at least the top section. We set up a rappel, I went first, Rob downclimbed (he’s part mountain goat), the other 4 followed the rappel. It took astonishingly long to have five people rap, and that idea was immediately vetoed for the rest of the scramble. Patience is not my strong suit. So we began to pick our way downhill. I was in the middle, which is good for me. I’m a wimp but I’ll follow just about anything. Shit I’ll DO just about anything if I’m properly distracted. There were a few moves I asked Rob to talk me through, which means there was some 4th class on the way up because that’s about where I start paying attention to downclimbing and have to face in.. He started explaining the rock features and where I could put my feet and I laughed – it doesn’t even have to be downclimbing beta, it just needs to distract me from thinking about whatever we’re doing so I go with the flow and stay in that flow state instead of overanalyzing. I’ll start coming up with prompt questions for next time. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had. Favorite peak you’ve climbed. Would you rather fight a coyote or an eagle. Are there more doors in the world, or wheels. What song only needs one line to get stuck in your head. No wait maybe not that one, that’s risky. Rob had already gone from Danger Zone to Final Countdown and I’m sure there would be another song rotation in 30min.
Having confidence in the people around you is HUGE on a peak like this. Knowing Rob (mountain goat) and Tim (gecko, can stick to anything) were SO nimble and would find a reasonable way up and down did wonders for my own mentality and brought me back the joy of climbing that I had occasionally been missing in prior years. A team on an adventure, working together, same goals, same destinations. People to follow and chase or lead, no pressure either way, we’d find a way for everyone to get up. Conversation partners to keep mind off tired feet, exposure, getting too far ahead of yourself. Knowing I could ask anyone to talk to me and they’d start chatting to distract me while I downclimbed. Hearing Tim crack himself up in the distance. Looking at him and Alex edging on nothing. Finding the route of least resistance through the 19,428 options in front of us.
Transitioning back to the glacier was interesting. We did not trust the snow finger we had stepped off of since it was thin and very mushy in the afternoon sun with a nonzero chance of us plunging straight through and 20ft down into a moat. That’s not how I want to go out, so we set up a belay system to belay each person down into the moat, and then a separate belay off a picket on the glacier as they climbed out of the moat on the other side since the glacier wouldn’t be a great place to fall either. Slow going, but in a zero fall zone, it was the safest option. It honestly wasn’t that bad, the double belays might have been overkill. But walking down the glacier went quickly.
Next up: the waterfall slabs. I started scouting out where to downclimb. I kept striking out. Holy CRAP they were wetter than they had been in the morning. Maybe we should rap? Maybe I’m being a chicken? I’m probably being a chicken. Rapping would be sooo slow. Okay you guys go first. If you can do it I’ll suck it up and follow. Except then everyone else took a peak over the edge and the consensus was uhh.. yeah… we can rap this. We tied the two ropes together for a full 60m rap (one rope would have been fine but we weren’t sure) and did two rappels to the base of the waterfall slabs, finishing below where we had started that morning. Again with the fresh rap stations. It’s really insane how much bigger the waterfalls were. You expect some extra runoff with sun and afternoon heat, but the difference was surprising. From where the raps landed us, it was a talus traverse back to the ridge, and a walk back to camp, where my variations on mac n cheese awaited me.
We all crashed back at camp. Actually I think some of the guys went to the river for water and showers while I boiled snow with pine needles because I could not be bothered to walk down there. I could barely make it to the bear bag Mike had hung. I LOVED my dehydrated meal. Peak Refuel guys, I’m never switching brands again. I also swore I’d chug a jet boil of mio before falling asleep and I did exactly that. I changed into fresh base layers and I think I was asleep before my head hit my pillow. Figurative pillow. It was probably just some clothes in a lump.
The next morning, we woke up around 5:30am to climb Martin right next door. More of that to come in a separate post!
*Bonus info re: Holden because it has a fascinating history, paraphrased from here. In the late 1800’s, a prospector discovered ore outside of Holden. His last name was Holden. Go figure. He never got enough funding to mine anything, but in the 1930’s, a future generation figured it out and built a copper mine. Like the aptly named Copper Peak towering over Holden. Go figure.
The mining era came to an end in the late 1950’s, and the mine closed down. Having been built on now protected USFS land, much of the village was burned down to be reclaimed by wilderness. There were still no major access roads, no industry besides the old mine, no sizeable logging operations now that they were surrounded on three sides by wilderness. And so the village sat mostly unused.
At least, until some seemingly random guy in Alaska decided he wanted to buy the village. The asking price was $100k (about $1M today, not bad for A WHOLE VILLAGE IN THE MOUNTAINS). He didn’t have $100k lying around, but he kept asking, and several years later he was a student at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle when he has the lightbulb moment: would they donate it to LBI?
Yes, actually, and then he had to tell LBI what he just orchestrated. They accepted after a visit (duh, it’s GORGEOUS), and with some donations and funding from larger Lutheran groups, were able to restore what was left of Holden and built it out into a full village getaway. It honestly felt like a summer camp when we were there. The only way in or out is by air or by ferry and their sponsored buses from ferry to village (~17mi), the vehicles are all ancient manual transmission vehicles that probably only get refreshed when necessary (buses included), the ferry brings mail and food and supplies and volunteers. One volunteer had to leave on our ferry due to a medical issue that couldn’t be treated at camp, they volunteered there for a week every ear going back decades. It is a really close knit community in a really special place with incredible surroundings.
Oh, and huge scoops of ice cream for $1 that are never available when hikers need them.
**The mine remediation happened from 2011-2016. Holden Village (and the mine) are surrounded by federally designated wildernesses, and the mining practices in the mid 1900’s were not the cleanest. The river especially rushing right through the old mining grounds mean lots of iron leeching into the water. As of 2017, there would be a 5 year testing period to see if more work needed to be done, and I have no idea where it stands now but with a scar like that I’m curious how long it’ll take for the wilderness to reclaim that mine.
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!