Moab Trail Marathon

Coming up to an aid station in the middle of nowhere. Those guys camped overnight!!
Five minutes in and admiring already

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.

More cruising

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.

Running above the kane creek canyon

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.

Watch your feet!

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?

The out and back

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.

I prefer the token tree be yellow.

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.

Gaining elevation quickly

“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.

“I wore this mustache ironically but… everyone here has a mustach, and I think seriously?”

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.

Work doesn’t matter out here.
Catching up to groups one by one

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.

Trail down below

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.

“you guys are crazy” “no YOU’RE crazy”

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.

Drainage pipe, trippy

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.

Family finish!! Stoked!

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.

Ned coming up one of the scramble sections. Something special.

Martin Peak: Alpine Jenga

Martin and Holden Lake from Bonanza
Rock? Petrified wood? Regular wood?

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.

There’s a route in there somewhere

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
  • GPX track here
Rob’s expression matches my thoughts

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.

“Alright now that’s enough of that”

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.

Finding veins of solid rock

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 red/white gully. Rob is on the airy narrow ledge section, Mike’s just below it.
Solid ridge scrambling

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.

Summit shot!

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.

Downclimbing a crux

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.

Mike admires the views by the crux

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.

Beautiful spot for a rappel. Ridiculous really
Me on a downclimb section*

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.

Much better as a rap

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.**

Mike on the west ridge in front of Bonanza

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.

Rock our neighbors found on Bonanza, way cooler than the quartz I found

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.”

Chilling at thte Holden bus stop

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!

Our humble abodes below Bonanza

*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

Bonanza Peak

Bonanza and the Mary Greene Glacier from Martin Peak
Adventure car

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.

Lady of the Lake

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
  • Did I Trip: I mean probably
  • Beta Spray: Here, here, and here (PDF) with our GPX track here
Copper rising over the Holden Lake trail

Sparknotes version:

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

Holden Lake

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.

Copper over Holden Lake

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.

Waterfalls all around

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.

Waterfall slabs in the morning. Follow the grass, then traverse straight left to center pic, then up just left of the waterfall that starts center frame.

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.

The first part is the worst (though dry)

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.

Good morning to you too

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.

Obligatory crevasse pic

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.

Rope management in heaven

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.

Okay this makes it loook a little spicy

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.

Album cover on the ridge (taken by… not me)

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.

Final talus walk to the summit
Summit shot!

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.

Downclimbing begins

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.

Variations on downclimbing (less fun than mac n cheese, also not taken by me)

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.

Waiting for our second team

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.

Yeahhh we rapped that and then another one (not my pic)

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!

Additional pics:

Glacier Peak from the summit
Holden mine remediation very visible in the valley right of center.**
More of the scramble. You will find edges I promise (though I’m not sure what Alex is standing on)
Soaking in the views
Descending the glacier
Ascending the glacier that morning

*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.

Sasse Mountain Ski Tour

Sasse Mountain, our objective
The face of joy

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
Making upward progress

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.

Quick hand shear test

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.

Rainier! And a soft snow spot thank god

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.

The face we were all drooling over

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.

Almost at the summit
Robert getting the goods

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.

Cornices in the distance, burn zone next to life

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….

The second bowl had phenomenal views of the Snoqualmie Pickets in the distance
Even the road has views!!

…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.

Classic backcountry skiing

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!

One more picture – the “trail.” Have fun!

Anaconda Peak/Gordon Ridge Snowshoe

I think this is Bald Mountain from the summit of Anaconda
Game on!

“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.

  • Distance: 7.5mi
  • 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
Figuring out the river crossing

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.

Stillaguamish Experimental Plot

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.

Everyone appreciates a wise tree

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.

Rob breaking trail – steep!

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!

Did I mention it was steep?

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?”

How does that slope look?

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.

Tim laying tracks to the summit!
I THINK it’s Liberty in the moody clouds

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.

Contagious laughter!!! The pic makes me happy

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.

Turned into a beautiful day

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 Mashel Falls

Conveniently located stranger for scale at the middle falls
Most of the trail

“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!”

Another backyard

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.

A third backyard

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!

“…is this the falls” (no)

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.

Amber admiring the thinner middle fall

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.

The larger side of middle Little Mashell Falls
Young growth can be lush!

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!

Lower Little Mashel Falls