Thursday night around 10pm I get a message from Alejandro. “I don’t know what you’re doing this weekend but you should probably cancel it and come do Seven Fingered Jack with me and Stephen.” Uh… actually… hold my beer, gonna I cancel my plans. Jk I didn’t have any plans, for once. See you tomorrow afternoon! I hadn’t done SFJ or Maude before, and it was an area I had wanted to go to for ages! I just never tried to rally people to go because I assumed everyone I knew had already done them, so I’d wait for an opportunity to do them solo, except I lack motivation for solo trips more often than not. I like company, and now I’d have GREAT company. Alejandro and Stephen might be two of the funniest people I know, and their sarcasm and wit is just perfect for enduro-suffering sports like backpacking, scrambling, and mountaineering.
- Distance: I don’t know. 5mi approach, maybe 3mi for both peaks.
- Elevation gain: Saturday was ~6k, Friday was.. something less than that
- Weather: 60’s and sunny
- Commute from Seattle: Well it was SUPPOSED to be 3hrs
- Did I Trip: No but both my climbing partners did
The crux of the trip was the drive. It took almost 6 hours to get from Seattle to the trailhead, despite leaving at 12:30. Midday. To beat traffic. Highway 2 had multiple accidents that had shut down both directions of travel. Alejandro, Stephen, and I texted sporadically when we passed bits of cell service. Alejandro left around noon. I left around 12:30. Stephen… well he left West Seattle Island at a reasonable time, got lost in the Bellevue REI for an unreasonable time, and then went through a space time warp while we wondered if we should order him a milkshake at the 59er diner or not. “By the way Eve, you should probably just do Maude while we sleep.” “I figured.” My circadian rhythms are offset from Alejandro and Stephen’s by like 6 hours. I’m in bed at 9pm. I wake up at 5am. One time Stephen replied to a message at like 8:30am on a Saturday and I wondered if I should be worried.
Quick side note: The 59er Diner, before I forget, is totally worth a stop. The diner burned down in a fire in 2016 and reopened in I think 2018 with the same old vibe they used to have. Great milkshakes, good burgers, don’t get the onion rings though they taste more like pancakes than onion rings. Curly fries were also great but I have yet to face a bad curly fry.
Stephen made it in time for a milkshake, and we drove the final 70ish minutes to the trailhead. Stephen immediately bashed his head on the trunk door, drawing blood. Good start. We started hiking around 6:30 or 7, and I was hoping to be at camp by dark. It should have been an easy approach, 3mi on flat trail and then about 2mi on steep “unmaintained” trail to Leroy Basin where we’d spend the night. We loaded up on bug spray, and the first 3mi of trail were SO nice, especially after the brush bashes I had had the past few weekends. I hadn’t seen Alejandro and Stephen in months and was so stoked to catch up. “Oh, Eve” Stephen said. “Alejandro and I were thinking you should just climb Maude tomorrow morning while we sleep.” I laughed. We had independently all reached the same conclusion. Sounds good to me.
The chatter dried up around the turnoff to Leroy Basin. “Unmaintained” is a stretch, because there has definitely been vigilante maintenance. But vigilante maintenance can’t clear the huge tree that fell whose root ball ripped up the path below it, or widen the trail where it’s overgrown with stiff tree branches. But at least there was a trail, which was an improvement over the freaking Bird Creek Bushwhack. But I swear you think you’re about to crest a knoll and get views and no, the trail goes left into the trees. Another knoll to crest, almost there, and no, the trail goes left into the trees. And again, and again.
“Turns out mountain biking is not the only exercise you need” Stephen lamented after a year of swearing mountain biking is the only exercise you need. “It flattens out ahead” I told Stephen, by which I meant “caltopo doesn’t have it shaded so it’s at least less than… 27 degrees.” Yeah we never found flat. Until we were at the campsite. “That trail is penance for whatever you did in your past life.” Some dummies were camping with a bonfire next to us but don’t worry they didn’t burn the forest down. Alejandro was still nowhere to be seen, and it was officially dark. Our campsite was right next to the trail, so we figured he’d walk up eventually. Soon enough we saw his headlamp. He dropped his pack on the ground. “Those campsites down low… those campsites were like sexy sirens on rocks.”
I went to bed and Alejandro and Stephen crossed the entirety of Leroy Basin on a 30min one way trip to get freshly flowing water from the opposite side of the meadow rather than the stream like 200ft up the trail from us. Only the finest, freshest, cleanest of water for them. I went to sleep, had weird anxiety dreams about sleeping over a hole and trying to cover the hole with dental floss to hold up my torso (idk), and woke up at 4:30 to go for Maude. And hit snooze. Like 6 times. I finally got moving around 6am.
The trail traverses up and east for seemingly forever. The larches are underwhelming, I was relieved I hadn’t saved this for larch season. You finally get above treeline into sparse wildflowers and sandy choss, and up to a saddle south of Maude where you head almost directly north through slopes of snow or talus depending on the season. The snow was icy, spikes would have been nice, but I didn’t bring any so… step carefully. Icy Lakes looked GORGEOUS. Really want to camp there someday. South Spectacle Butte looked far more imposing than I had ever imagined. There are so many more peaks to be bagged in this area (and larches!). And I saw more small wildlife than I had seen all summer!
The final stretch to the summit was brutally windy and freezing cold despite being mid August. I was driven only by stubbornness and a flock of small birds flying in circles tweeting around me like Snow White except grouchier. To add disappointment to discomfort, there was no register on the summit, so I ate my PB&J sandwich and quickly turned around wearing every layer I had. I made quick time back to the saddle where a chipmunk threw pebbles at me and I was happy to duck out of the wind, thanks to the ridge in the way. I was back at camp around 9:30, and ready to go 15min later. Alejandro and Stephen were still having breakfast. “We thought you’d want like, a break, or something.” I was mostly basing my timing around highway 2 traffic. I either needed to be back on i5 by 1pm, or not until 8pm. So.. ok, I’ll aim for 8pm. Let me know when you’re ready.
We started up to Seven Fingered Jack around 10:30. It looks very cool from Leroy Basin. The trail is an obvious, well traveled left turn off the trail that heads towards Maude. You quickly gain elevation into an upper basin, this one chock full of larches. THIS is where you want to come in larch season. There were some campsites tucked away on a larchy knoll to our left, teasing me for a return a decade from now. We schlepped up grassy slopes to the left, then ascended a loose rocky talus field to a short little gully on the right that took us up through a break in the ridge system where there were some hints of a trail. The trail was more like heather steps, which we followed up to a second basin, with bits of pumice,* lingering snow patches, and a crazy neat mushroom boulder.
From the rocky basin, you take a talus fan up to your left that traverses below some sheer rock walls. Put on a helmet, this is where it gets loose. And stays loose. All the way to the top. It was a neverending slope of talus. Part of me is still up there side slipping around wobbly rocks. But the views just got better and better. Alejandro turned around after getting sick of the loose shit at the top of that narrow talus fan. I couldn’t blame him at all, and it didn’t get better from there. From there it’s a long time sidehilling on talus or kitty litter on sloped rock. Stephen and I continued, choosing our own paths up through the rocks. He went high in search of 3rd-4th class scrambling on more secure rocks, I stayed low taking my changes surfing uphill on scree. I occasionally turned around to see him poke his head above the rocks and then disappear again. We finally curved to the right again to gain “a ridge” (not a ridge, despite what the topo map says) and made it up the final (also extremely loose) gulley to the summit, where we texted sappy things to our SOs back in town and I crushed a second PB&J sandwich. Fortunately we both had downloaded GPX tracks, because I swear every gully looked the same to me on the way down and I would have been in for a lot of trial and error without them.
I was losing my mind going down the endless talus again. I am sure Stephen was too. At once point he said “I’m playing that game of -” [my brain autofilled the rest: “gambling whether a rock will hold my weight or not”] but his thought was cut short by the sound of falling talus and crumbling rocks and I turned around to see Stephen tumble head over toe, a literal full somersault like something out of a cartoon. My brain froze, paused at the first step of the “do I panic” flow chart. His fall concluded and he jumped up right away. I shouted something like “Stephen! Holy shit! All in one piece? Sit down and take inventory” though he had already found a place to sit and was almost doing the Atlas Thinking pose. We waited a few minutes for adrenaline to subside. “Ok, scratch here, deeper scratch there, got a band aid for this one… man, my elbow hurts.” “How bad? How’s your range of motion?” “Motion is okay and.. well I’ve broken it twice before so I think I’d know if it was broken.”
Context: Months prior, our friend broke his ankle on a mountain bike ride, only for Stephen to announce and everyone to agree “yeah you’d totally know if it was broken.” To be fair, I did a brief patient assessment and also didn’t find any signs of a break, but my mistake was not firmly palping the ankle bone itself! Fast forward 48hrs, our friend’s ankle was definitely broken, and I’ll never miss a cracked ankle bone again because the shame of missing it still hasn’t subsided.
So, in response, I laughed. Of course that’s your answer. But hopefully you’re right. We got moving again. “This is my trip for scrapes” he sighed. “Starting at the car.”
We made decent time getting back down to Alejandro back at camp. Stephen insisted on hiking down climber’s left, meaning I couldn’t get a dope photo of him in his bright orange shirt among the greenery. We watched the wildfire by Lake Wenatchee grow in size, or at least the cloud it was creating became huge throughout the day. Stephen and Alejandro were spending Saturday night at camp too, while I was headed out, but I took another break back at the tents before leaving. No rush now that I had to wait out the Stevens Pass traffic thanks to that stupid traffic light everyone knows sucks.
I was jealous they had another day there and also sad to leave such hilarious company behind. The slog back to the car was going to feel long. The Leroy Basin trail went by quickly, but the 3mi of flat trail.. oh boy. I swear I had been hiking the flat section only for 2+ hours when I decided that it had somehow extended to 7 miles. Or I had died on SFJ and this was purgatory, forever hiking a forest trail that looks the same for ever and ever. Time warped in my brain. Was this a contest with the universe? Was I in some simulation loop and the only way to break out of it would be to check the map and that would snap things back to reality? Or was checking the map considered defeat, my poor human psyche collapsing under the weight of infinite flat redundant hiking? I was determined not to check. Maybe those thoughts broke the spiral, I don’t know. I finally saw a landmark near the beginning of the trail and knew I was close. I broke out of the trees into the parking lot at 6:15pm, less than 2hrs from when I left camp. The time warp was entirely in my brain.
A few miles down the dirt road, I came across a very out of place character standing on the side of the forest road waving me down. Soaking wet. Small day pack. Top hat in hand. Uhh, okay. Situations that ran through my mind:
1. Ghost. Because who is dripping wet out here? It doesn’t add up. It’s a sunny beautiful dry day. Maybe you aren’t real.
2. Scam. You’ve all heard those horror stories about people who pretend to be dead in the road or like they need to hitchhike somewhere and then their buddies emerge from the trees to do whatever terrible things to you
3. Hitchhiker from another trailhead?? But the only loop that could conceivably connect my trailhead with the next one down the road is absurdly long and why is he soaking wet?!
I rolled down my window and said something extremely not smooth, like “…what are you doing here?” Poor guy was still in good spirits and calm and collected. “Well i got lost, but I knew there was a road here, so I just aimed for this. How far is the Little Giant Pass trailhead from here? Is this the right direction?” “You got lost…from Little Giant Pass? How long ago?” “yeah.. well, what time is it?” “7pm almost” “Then about 4 hours ago, but not entirely sure, I dropped my phone in the river. And my map.” “Well, hop in, happy to give you a lift to the trailhead, save you 20min of walking.” “No don’t worry about it, I’m soaking wet.”
This guy had been bushwhacking down from the Little Giant Pass trail, forded the freaking river at the bottom of the valley, and then shwacked back up the opposite hillside to find the road. I do that shit voluntarily and it sucks, I can’t imagine it being involuntary. “Does this car look like it was built for luxury? It’ll survive some water. Plus it sounds like you have a good story.” I dropped him at his car a few minutes later, only to be passed on the highway by him an hour later because I drive like a grandma.
Now what do I need to do to get more last minute invites on Stephen & Alejandro’s trips? 🙂
*can confirm, pumice floats. At least for a while until it’s all waterlogged, then it sinks.
Image dump of the rest of the pics since narrative got ahead of everything I wanted to share. The views really are just absurd.