Royal Basin & Mt. Deception

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Anita coming around a glacier boulder, Deception on the right

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Wildlife by Royal Lake

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

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

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Flat beautiful trail to Royal Basin

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

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

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Royal Lake with mist in the morning

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

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

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

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Upper Royal Basin

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

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

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Anita on the way up

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

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

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Pieces of steep snow

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

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Some 3rd class scramble

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

 

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Mr. Billy Goat (credit Zee!)

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Coming across the north face

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

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Anita coming along the final ridge

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

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One last push to the top! Mystery in the background

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

P.S. This would be a sweet trail run (maybe minus the chossy shit, like we discussed above. Wait for snow).

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Olympus way in the distance, the highest point in the Olympics

Cashmere via Victoria’s Secret/NW Face

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Looking back at Lake Victoria

For a socked-in-by-clouds summit, this was a pretty awesome day. 4.5 miles with 6500ft of elevation gain, I mean that always has to be fun right? Simon, Sam, and I all headed out to Leavenworth on Friday night. I had no plans. Literally none. I had all of my gear in my car and figured I’d play it by ear. I tried to make that abundantly clear to everyone. I didn’t even know if I was going to go. A brutal week had left me exhausted with an abject lack of shits to give about anyone else or any sort of planning, but Sam was already in Leavenworth and Simon was somehow putting up with my bitching and still wanted to come. He was just that desperate for mountains after a month of travel and injury. Oh, did I mention I found this route up Cashmere like two hours before leaving?
  • Distance: 9 miles round trip (varies based on whether you’re a route finding idiot at the time)
  • Elevation: 6500ft gain, baby! Buns and thighs!
  • Weather: 30’s and snowing and windy, 40’s and foggy, 50’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: 2:30 with no traffic
  • Did I Trip: To the point where I had to self arrest, so yes, yes I did. It’s been a while since I didn’t trip on an outing. I’m getting uncoordinated. Maybe don’t rope up with me.

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Don’t worry it gets cloudier

I mean, the route sounded awesome. Private property, bushwack, unmaintained/abandoned trail to a lake most people haven’t heard of, with a backdoor route up Cashmere. Awesome.

I got to Leavenworth around 8, and I stopped at Safeway, where I found a cheese I had not seen since moving here from Boston: Cabot’s!! It puts Tillamook to shame. I bought 3lbs of it (Seriously sharp cheddar and habanero cheddar) and some crackers and met Sam, who was napping at a nearby park n ride. Simon was still an hour out, so I cleared my back seat and followed Sam’s lead. Naptime.

Simon showed up around 10, and we headed to the trailhead. We were planning to start up Friday night, but what… what it…. we just… didn’t? I timidly posed the idea. Sam laughed. “I had been asking myself ‘why do we choose to do this?’ earlier tonight.” We agreed to sleep and get started around 5am.

I woke up at 4am. We all did, and telepathically agreed to not get up. I was in the middle of the best night of sleep I had had in well over a week and I was getting my extra hour.

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Starting up through steep forest

At 5am I dragged my well rested ass out of my sleeping bag, packed up camp, loaded the cars, and started moving. With our day packs. Day packs!! What is a day pack?! It’s a pack that’s light, and doesn’t include a tent or sleeping bag or sleeping pad or liner or dehydrated meal or stove… and it is fantastic.

We trespassed immediately onto private property (part of the fun?), and walked down the road (driveway?) until we saw a blaze off in the forest. Sweet, time to head up. I had a compass bearing, but it wasn’t necessary. Just go up until you break into the burn zone, and then go up more.

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At least it was a scenic detour

We made a slight mistake as I was not checking the actual trail map at all, only the mediocre GPS app I was testing, which did not have a map of the route on it. Our biggest issue was that you should keep going up until around 5100ft, but we headed left far lower than that, because I thought the drainage we were supposed to follow was far more east than it actually was. This meant some exciting creek crossings, steep snow, no shortage of devils’ club, and an abundance of elevation gain that was was more of a pain in the ass than it would have been had we stayed in the burn zone, which was a nice walk up. Also, there’s a nice series of blazes starting around 4500ft in the burn zone, which will help you find the route very quickly. We did not have that luxury.

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Fun scramble near the lake

After a few facefulls of thorny plants, some steep snowy bushwacking, and bitching on my part (I don’t like stopping, I didn’t want to be in photos, I had some frustrations to take out and they wouldn’t be beaten by taking my time and relaxing, I’m not that type) we finally got to the lake. Clouds were roiling above Cashmere, so I made sure to lower my expectations. To the ground.

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Heading around Lake Victoria, Cashmere being elusive in the clouds

We started heading around the lake, as it was too melted out to cross directly. Honestly I think we were a week or two too late to get the real experience here, since the snow had melted 2,000ft up over the past ~10 days (~5200ft we hit consistent snow). It’s usually a ski trip, but I didn’t bring the skis. I knew Sam would be booting it since he hates his skins, so I figured we’d all take turns breaking trail, and I was into this whole “day pack” idea.

 

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About to start up the gully above Lake Victoria

Simon decided to chill at the lake instead of head up to the summit. Sorry Simon, with a grand finale like you had back at the trailhead I couldn’t leave you out of the post! With most people I’d be concerned, or turn around with them, but Simon is extremely capable and I knew that for him to draw the line, something had to be bugging him (he was coming back from an injury, too, so better to play it safe). Being as self sufficient as he is, I knew he’d be fine getting down on his own. So we carried on, agreeing to meet back at the trailhead.

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Kicking steps up the gully

Sam and I got to the base of the gully and took a quick break for snacks and sunscreen. It wasn’t actually that steep, maybe 45 degrees at the most. We made fairly quick work of it, except 3/4 of the way up Sam demanded a sandwich break. Okay, let’s do it, I’m hungry too. He devoured a sandwich and I sat down and cut the cheese (stop laughing) to eat with crackers, and we carried on.

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On more mellow ground in the basin, sun almost breaking through

Soon enough we were in the clouds. We kept hoping they would clear, and occasionally they’d blow past for a split second, but never enough to have views or even see where we were going. We got one glimpse of the true summit for maybe ten seconds, and made a beeline for it. It took us probably another 20-30 minutes from that glimpse to get close to it. I had a hard time breaking through the icy crust, so I strapped on my crampons (in the steepest, most awkward spot I have ever had to put on crampons) figuring I’d front point the rest of the way up. Some very steep snow (steeper than the gully), a few scramble moves, and some rock-ice blends that made me appreciate my few days of dry-tooling and briefly made me wish I had brought tools rather than the axe. I was shocked that any ice was still up there.

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Final push!

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Summit?!

Sam popped up to the summit while I negotiated a different route, trying to follow a steep snow finger between rocks rather than his scramble. Wouldn’t it be funny if we were at the wrong summit? I heard Sam go “uhhh.. crap.” The clouds lightened, and we saw… the real summit. 50ft to the east, and maybe 15 feet higher than us. At one point I was trying to stop swearing (in general, in life) but this was just comical. God. Dammit. All that effort, whiteout conditions, only to suddenly realize we were sitting on the wrong damn rock.

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The real summit (back right). Crap.

I couldn’t help but laugh. I wasn’t going over there, are you kidding? No views, I was cold, it was windy, we’d have to downclimb and climb back up again, and 99% of our time above the gully had been completely socked in by clouds. It just wouldn’t be worth it. Maybe we’d have ended up on the third summit ish rock, there were a few that all looked similar in the clouds. We’ll make a revenge trip someday. Sam demolished a pop tart, and we scrambled down a separate route back to steep snow where we painstakingly downclimbed backwards, more or less trust-falling into our previous steps, some of which had punched deep through the crust. Sam finally put his snowboard to use, stopping every 100ft or so to make sure we kept each other within sight. Low visibility can be problematic.

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Visibility getting better on the way down (that’s Sam snowboarding)

Going down the gully I did have to do an easy self arrest after the snow changed from powder (easy to plunge step) to ice (I went for my plunge step and just wiped out) and guys, I have one tip here. Wear gloves, sleeves and pants when you’re on anything that might require self arrest. I had sleeves and pants, but my hands were torn to shit by the ice, and it hurt. Your brain doesn’t care until a few minutes later, when you’re like “why are my hands burning” and look down to see bits of gravel and ice and scrapes and who knows what was in that avvy debris all in your skin. Gross.

Another tip that I loved is one that I originally chuckled at. Most crampons nowadays have plates built in to prevent snow balling up between the teeth under your foot. Well, it doesn’t always work. I had an IMG guide over the summer make me run down a steep slope whacking snow out of my crampons with my ice axe, which both looked and felt ridiculous. But that silly technique saved me from a few more slips on the way down, and the “clink! clink!” with every step gave me a funny rhythm to maintain and I imagine notified Sam of my arrival when he couldn’t see me.

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Five blazes. Actually six, but the wind blew one out of frame

 

As usual, going down went faster than going up. We got snowed on, rained on, sunned on, and luckily found the regular route back down quite easily thanks to Simon’s footprints (thanks for breaking all that trail!) and the 8000 blazes that mark the route assuming you find it at the top of the burn zone. It’s pretty funny that we missed it by that much. I got a picture with six blazes in it at one point, and Simon had old-school cut blazes into a few trees in case we missed any of the hot pink flags. Sam’s colorblind, which made finding blazes hilarious (but not as hilarious as watching him try to follow routes at SBP).

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Where Simon (I’m convinced) fell through, with an Eve shaped hole right above

We’re pretty awesome, and got down in far less time than it took us to get up. We false-summitted after about 8.5-9 hours (we spent a LOT of time in the whiteout deliberating over where we were and where we should go, not to mention our off route expedition on the way up) and were back down in 4. There was one amusing spot where I am pretty sure Simon fell through a snow bridge, because I saw a huge hole in the middle of a very thin snow bridge over a small brook and thought ‘oh, I’ll just walk next to it’ only to immediately punch through neck deep myself, laughing at my stupidity. Eventually we left snow cover, and after heading down through the burn zone we found an old logging road and some squirrely trails that got us back to the private road much faster, though we had to fight off thick ass slide alder to find the nice route. I heard dogs barking at one point, and started having paranoid thoughts about “the most dangerous game,” what if the owners of that house are avid hunters and send the dogs out thinking there’s a deer or cougar nearby? I wanted to be down by dark, and I remember several times where I was tangled in alder fighting my way through (why did I have this stupid shovel sticking off my pack!? At least it isn’t skis) imagining how miserable it’d be to be doing that, in the dark, wondering if we were about to be confronted by drooling growling dogs and angry property owners. Also, I was convinced the skin was sloughing off the bottom of my feet. I wore my like D-Team socks (A team is Darn Tough baby) and it just wasn’t working out.

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Map (thanks to Summitpost & Wenatcheeoutdoors.org)

I couldn’t believe it when we hit the road. Awesomely fast. There were fresh tire tracks, but we didn’t see anyone. They must be used to the occasional climbers using their road and schwacking through their forest. We hiked back across the bridge where Simon was loyally waiting with hot chocolate ready for us, fretting about how we had never chosen a “call search and rescue” time for him to take action. He had settled on midnight – knowing our speed and experience and having done half of the route, he logically concluded that if we weren’t back by midnight, something had gone very wrong. Yes, I’d agree. We’d have to had seriously screwed up to be up there that late.

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One more pic of Sam being bad ass

I opened my trunk door. It stayed open. For anyone who’s been in my car lately, the door wouldn’t stay up and I’d prop it open with a trekking pole. I looked at Simon. “Did you do this, or is it just working?!?” He had replaced the pistons in the door of my car, which I had (stupidly) left unlocked. Holy shit! A working trunk door, and hot chocolate, and shoes that didn’t have my shitty socks, and German food, and I tried schnitzel for the first time, and the lemonade that Sam had mentioned halfway up the climb that had been on my mind for hours… wait, I was in a great mood. What is this? I hadn’t bitched about anything in hours! I hadn’t whined or moped (well, besides lamenting the clouds and lack of sun, cmon Cashmere) or been snarky or rude or irritable. And it wasn’t even sunny. But I guess there’s something refreshing about 6500ft of gain in 4.5 miles, with steep snow and ice and bushwacking and bear prints and deer prints and a false summit because it wouldn’t be climbing without the occasional oops, right?

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Nearing the top of the gully

In hindsight, that was one of the most awesome trips I’ve had in a while. Even if it was cloudy with mediocre conditions, it pushed it physically, technically (kudos to Sam, because I do not know many people who would have kept going without protection once it got steep, rocky, and icy but Sam basically doesn’t have a comfort zone, everything is fair game), and it’s pretty cool to look back and realize that we did that so casually, with no rush, no alpine start, no after-dark return. And almost zero planning, though I at least had a picture of a map on my half charged phone. So I had like, 6/10 essentials. Don’t follow my example. Prepare more, and don’t be a bitch. Yours truly, Proud Owner of a Healthy Trunk Door.*

 

*Car, or ass? You decide.

Gunn Peak

The three musketeers!

The three musketeers!

I wasn’t totally convinced about this hike, but I hadn’t made any of my own plans for Saturday, so I figured why the hell not. Rob and John are good company, so worst case scenario I’d get a good laugh and a bit of a workout. I ended up getting both of the above, as well as a pleasant reminder that stunning, untouched scenery can be found without driving 3 hours into the wilderness. Hiked the first weekend of October, 2015!
  • Distance: no idea. 9 miles? 7 miles? Short for how long it takes.
  • Elevation: ~4000ft gain, 6210ft highest point
  • Weather: foggy until we got above the clouds, and then 40’s-50’s and sunny!
  • Commute from Seattle: 90 minutes
  • Did I Trip: I was going to count everyone’s slips/trips/wipeouts on the way down but I forgot to keep track! But yes. And we had two twisted ankles, some muddy butts, and a very tired dog.

Tarns in front of Townsend

Tarns in front of Townsend

Now I’m writing this three weeks late (and posting four weeks late) because I’m busy lazy, so we’ll see how much I remember. We drove out in pouring rain. Halfway there, sitting in traffic (on Rt 2!) in the dark dreary wet weather I realized I didn’t even care, I was just happy to be getting out. We were listening to Reel Big Fish, who can’t be happy listening to that? We even stopped on the way to get steak and veggies for a campfire meal. I’ve never really cooked over a campfire before besides sausages and stuffed mushrooms and other wrap-it-in-tin-foil-and-go, so this was new.

We pulled up to the trailhead, still in pouring rain. I set up my tent and layered up for the weather, and we started grabbing big rocks to set up the fire. With some small miracles (and a starter log, or two) we had enough of a fire going to heat up food, and John cut up the steak while I handled veggies. I eventually admitted I had never made a shishkabob when John had to assist with the peppers. The only instructions were “make them a good size so they don’t fall off the skewer” which I apparently could not handle. For you other newbies, that means like ~1″ in diameter.

Post-shishkabobs, it was bedtime. Another rainy night in a tent built for snow, though at least I remembered to open the vents this time. We had alarms set for 5am, and soon enough, we woke up to… more pouring rain. The general consensus was that we’d keep sleeping, so I rolled back into my sleeping bag burrito after peeking out the door.

Ripley looking damn good on one of the first scramble sections

Ripley looking damn good on one of the first scramble sections

We got up for real around 7, and made hot chocolate and coffee. After about an hour, the mist started to brighten, and then clear, and we got a glimpse of blue sky. We had originally resigned ourselves to doing Barclay Lake or Mt. Baring, but… you know what? Eff it, let’s try for Gunn. Might as well. Summitpost said it might take around 9 hours, and we had 9 hours. We all had headlamps and were content coming back after dark if necessary, assuming we had good blazes. Sweet.

The trail is back down the road, maybe a tenth of a mile from the Barclay Lake trailhead. There’s a small dirt road that leads to a campground, and it’s right before the campground that you’ll find the trail heading off to the right. When we were there, it was nicely blazed with hot pink blazes. Rob had brought orange tape for us to use, though we didn’t need it in many places.

Up and up and up

Up and up and up

The trail goes maybe 150ft through a forest before you cross the stream, which was easy enough with plenty of logs and stones to hop across. I imagine when the water’s higher, it’s a bit more tricky. Once on the other side, the trail continues along what might have been a logging road at one point. I couldn’t tell besides the flat grade, but when someone pointed it out, I could totally see how it might be possible.

Don’t get complacent. The trail starts to go up, up, and up after a quarter mile on the flat forest-reclaimed road. It was reminiscent of the Eldorado approach, except I wasn’t carrying 50lbs. Just lots of roots, steep sections, and eventually, something I forgot existed: scrambles in the woods! After pushing aside plenty of tree branches along the bootpath and constantly being showered by water, we reached a rocky cliff, at which point you turn right and pretty much hug the rock for a while.

I always associate scrambles with open views and exposed rock. But there are some that are surrounded by trees, moss, roots, all those foresty things. We had Ripley (John’s dog) with us, and he had brought her life jacket (it has a handle on the back) in case we had to do a doggie belay and carry her up some sections. The first scramble was just a very short “traverse” to stay on the path, covered in moss and dripping with water because of the previous night. A few minutes after this, we reached a section that is probably a beautiful waterfall on occasion, but was pretty dried up this time of year. Cross that and immediately scramble up to the left and back into the trees. Yeah, this hike makes you work for those views.

Finally getting above the trees and brush, Baring in the background

Finally getting above the trees and brush, Baring in the background

Eventually the trees shrink into bushes and brush, and it feels like you’re making progress. But the brush isn’t much better. It’s thicker, harder to push out of the way, and does a damn good job of obscuring the path. And since it was all still wet… it all rains down every time you squeeze between bushes. But thanks to those blazes and the fact that much of it was trampled, there were few spots were we had to guess. I honestly expected it to be much more of a bushwhack than it was, but I think this late in the season, enough feet have been up there that it’s a little more well traveled.

I mean there was some fall foliage

I mean there was some fall foliage

Despite it being early October, there was only one section with real fall foliage, but damn was it vibrant. Finally we were out of trees, out of tall bushes, and surrounded by low colored, blazing heather and blueberry bushes and some scrubby plants I don’t recognize. I stood around snapping pictures constantly, and since Baring was in full view standing over the clouds I couldn’t stop. I had NO idea that there were pics so dramatic so close to Seattle. I thought most of the hikes within an hour or an hour and a half were more “rolling hill” style, with rounded tops, below the tree line, things like that. Not the sharp, dark rock we were looking at here. It felt so much more remote than I had expected.

Looking back at everyone approaching the talus field, Townsend and Merchant in the background

Looking back at everyone approaching the talus field, Townsend and Merchant in the background

There was a bit of a bootpath through the fall foliage. We reached a saddle between Tailgunner and Peak 5760 (which I admittedly might be confusing with Point 5760), just east of Tailgunner and just south of a small valley with a few tarns near the base of Peak 5760. We dropped down almost to the tarns but rather than take a pleasant dip we hung left towards the talus field. The route to Gunn Peak is effectively straight across the talus field to the highest clump of vegetation right below a prominent rocky outcropping on the south face of the peak.

Aim for that highest slanted strip of trees below the rocky outcropping in center frame

Aim for that highest slanted strip of trees below the rocky outcropping in center frame

Rob on the 3rd class scramble

Rob on the 3rd class scramble

We each chose our own way across that, and rejoined below the cliff band, which is where the real scrambling starts. Ripley had been a champ so far, but the 3rd class scramble was a bit too much for a dog. Ben, Vazul, and Evan agreed to hang with Ripley and take her over to Tailgunner while Rob led John and I up Gunn. We agreed to meet back at our lunch spot on the ridge between Tailgunner and Peak 5760.

Rob scaled the scramble with ease, and I waited below for him to clear the loose sections. When he was out of sight and well beyond the trees, I went up. I will say that some people (such as Rob) are very graceful scramblers. I am not usually among those. But there was nothing too hard, and I was up and in the trees soon enough, trying to find Rob. I had been making fun of him for putting up blazes for the entire hike, and now I didn’t know where he was. Ooh look! A blaze, just beyond the trees! Yes, aim for that, he must have put it there!

Nope, just a leaf. God dammit. But I was back out on another talus slope above the trees, and saw Rob up ahead of me scouting out the path. I figured we should wait for the others, so we decided he’d scramble a little further to figure out where we were headed and I’d wait to see who else joined.

John on the way back across the catwalk

John on the way back across the catwalk

After 10 or so minutes of waiting, the two of us were ready to continue when we saw John pop out of the trees below us. Sweet! We waited for him to catch up. You keep to the base of the cliff, negotiating talus until a gully opens up on your left side. Follow the gully, path of least resistance, and cross a notch when you reach the ridge. On the north side is where you’ll encounter the catwalk. It’s not Kendall Katwalk, it’s much narrower with a harrowing drop of 1000+ feet. Don’t fall. Follow that ridge, and soon enough, you’re on Gunn Peak! Which, despite being only 6200ft tall, is #29 on the most prominent peaks of Washington list with over 3651ft of prominence. Wow.

We couldn’t find a summit register. And damn did we look. It’s either not there, or it fell off the cliffs, or some asshat buried it under too many rocks. Ugh. We took a few photos, cracked open beers, and Rob laughed and called us the three musketeers. The three who made it to the top of Rainier back in August, and now the three who made it up Gunn Peak. Kudos, guys, you’re fantastic climbing partners.

Rob soaking in the views: Townsend, Merchant, and Baring all visible

Rob soaking in the views: Townsend, Merchant, and Baring all visible

Back through the fall foliage, even more vibrant in the late afternoon sun

Back through the fall foliage, even more vibrant in the late afternoon sun

Just as we sidled up to the clearing, we saw the other three coming back down. Perfect timing! We had spent quite a while on the summit, and I thought the rest of the group would be waiting for us. We met up and took a quick break before heading back down. I thought the way down went faster than the way up, but I’m a bad judge of time. Vazul and Evan and I were flying, and I got into a nice steady downhill rhythm. We stopped occasionally to wait for the others. At one point we were convinced they were lost near the sometimes-it’s-a-waterfall crossing, between someone yelling to ask where we were, general shouting, and the warnings (“ROCK!!!”) and what sounded like mini rockslides everywhere. We sat on the steep trail and waited for them to successfully make it over to us, where we were solidly back in the trees on dirt trail with no scrambling left.

Evan on one of the foresty scrambles

Evan on one of the foresty scrambles

In my head, I was comparing it to Eldorado, which had a bitch of an approach. Going down from Gunn, that’s what I was expecting. But the forested section was much shorter than Eldorado, and I was thrilled when we were on the flat what-once-might-have-been-a-road section. Poor Ripley was exhausted, but had kept up with us the whole time! Every time we stopped on the way down she sat on the ground and tucked her paws beneath her. But she didn’t seem to want to admit it, because she still looked damn happy.

We had been hearing gunshots for a while, and as we got closer to the river, we realized we were pretty close to the shots. I was unnerved, but didn’t think much of it. I think I’ve already mentioned I grew up in east coast cities, dealing with gunshots in deep, dense woods is not among my talents. Ben and John started yelling from the back, and Evan, Vazul and I looked at each other and said holy shit, we didn’t even think of that. Duh. Make lots of noise. The shots stopped, and John and Ben kept yelling periodically just to make sure. Within 15 minutes, we had crossed the river and popped out near the campsite, and apparently surprised the shit out of a few guys doing target practice, aiming across the river. Right where we were. But they had heard us, and had stopped, and I learned rule #1 of being close to gunshots while bushwhacking: make it clear you’re a person.

The best time of day for the woods

The best time of day for the woods

Up and down within 9 hours, never lost, no injuries, amazing weather up above the clouds, and we were back before dark. An unbelievable day, well worth the soggy night at the trailhead. Ripley was too tired to jump in the car, and from what I heard, spent the next few days mostly sitting and occasionally limping around the apartment.

Tower Mountain and Golden Horn

Rob and Simon at the beginning of the scramble

Rob and Simon at the beginning of the scramble

Edit: Happy one year anniversary to the blog! Woo! Here’s a link to my first ever post… it’s come a long way, as have my photography skills (or lack thereof) and tendency to keep talking.

With much of the Cascades getting a solid amount of fresh snow on Friday, we figured we’d avoid potential avalanchey situations and check out the dry, east side. A forecast of “Sunny, 0% precipitation” turned into “Mostly cloudy, snow, and freezing temperatures,” but when has that stopped us? We met at the trailhead parking lot Friday night and got started Saturday morning for what I thought was a 7 mile approach. Hiked 9/26/2015-9/27/2015!
  • Distance: 24ish miles round trip (surprise! 10 mile approach!)
  • Elevation gain: ~7000ish?
  • Weather: high 20’s and snowing to 50’s and sunny. Yay, mountain weather!
  • Commute from Seattle: Just over 3 hours
  • Did I Trip: I fell on my ass twice and struggled like a beached whale to get over the final summit block if that counts
  • GPX file here (summitpost also has one for just Golden Horn)

Awesome topography in every direction

Awesome topography in every direction

So there was one potential issue with this trip from the beginning that I neglected to tell my teammates: I was sick. For those of you who don’t know me, I almost never get sick. So when I do, I’m a victim of the man cold. It’s all over, I must be dying, what do I do? Do I eat soup and wash my hands a lot? I have no idea. Actually, you know what might cure me? 48+ hours of physical exertion, little sleep, no showers, and sleeping (trying) in a germ cocoon. Yeah, that’ll do it.

Kacie in fall colors

Kacie in fall colors

I knew John and Rob from Rainier back in August, but had just met Kacie and Simon. Simon pulled up in a manual transmission off-roading jeep and immediately offered me hot chocolate, so he had to be cool. Kacie made herself crack up all alone by changing the color of her inflatable tent lamp, so she had passed the test too. After a soggy night that staunchly defied the “0% precipitation” forecast, we got started.

From the beginning, the hike was gorgeous, even in the fog. The approach is entirely along the PCT, meaning mellow, well groomed, soft flat trails. Almost no elevation gain. We made good time. I had been worried about keeping up due to my abject lack of energy, but I did okay. Green trees and dirt gave way to white granite and larches, and soon enough we were all in a constant state of wonder. Everywhere you turned was beauty, it didn’t matter where you looked.

A few miles into the trail, I turned around and saw Simon talking on a banana phone, and Kacie exclaimed “You have service up here!? Do you have A Tree&Tree?!” and in that moment, I knew we had an awesome group.

Flat, well groomed PCT

Flat, well groomed PCT

We continued along the PCT with occasional glimpses of Tower and Golden Horn through the clouds, but it didn’t seem like weather was clearing up. The trail is very straightforward, since you’re on one of the most well-maintained trails in the state. The offshoot for Snowy Lakes is maybe a quarter mile after you pass beneath Tower Mountain, directly across from an open field with a few campsites (and in our case, four far ass marmots lying on a rock). The trail turns from beautiful flat highway to steep and rocky, but not too steep and rocky. We were just spoiled by the PCT, and being back on a less maintained trail was hard.

Snowy Lakes were stunning as soon as we came around the corner. We set up camp on a ledge sheltered from the wind at the lower lake, in a nook away from the mobs of people (all relative, it was like 20 people total). Luckily, there were rocks. I had been worried about setting up my tent. I hadn’t camped on a non-glacier in… well… a long time. Did I need stakes? What if there weren’t rocks? How do you keep it from flying off in wind if you can’t deadman anything!? Oh wait, there won’t be as much wind. It was pretty out of place, but damn if that orange didn’t look great against the yellow larches and bright blue water.

It's a little out of place

It’s a little out of place

Looking back at Mt. Hardy

Looking back at Mt. Hardy

We waited a bit longer before aiming for Tower, hoping for weather to clear up, but since it wasn’t improving, we got moving. Onward! We went off trail a bit to get to the talus slope, and from there you just work your way to a cave that’s very visible from Snowy Lakes. Cross to the right in front of the cave, and you will find yourself in the main gully. As you gain elevation, views open up, and the ridgeline that grows into Hardy was a very neat topographical feature. If only it had been clearer.

We made it to the cave, and someone said “Rave cave! We even have hula hoops!” I laughed and said “really?!” before realizing what a gullible idiot I was. There are no hula hoops in the wild. Except five minutes later, crossing the cave entrance, there were hula hoops! Holy shit, I didn’t think you were serious! Okay, perk for the way back. We were watching clouds drop lower and lower on Tower as some low hanging dark clouds came towards us from Black Peak, so we wanted to move fast. I announced that I didn’t think we’d get dumped on, we just wouldn’t have views.

Snow in the gully (Photo credit: John)

Snow in the gully (Photo credit: John)

Well, I’d be a shitty forecaster, because within 15 minutes, it was snowing. I’ll work on that. We made it to the gully (continue east past the cave and you’ll see the gully on your left) where we ran into a four person team that had turned around and had been waiting a long time for the other half of their group to get back. Much of the rock was frozen over, icicles included, not to mention the gully was a bowling alley of rocks to begin with. We let them pass us since they were turning around, and decided we’d still give it a shot. The left side is smoother with more exposure, the right side is more jagged with more prominent footholds and handholds, and that’s the way I’d suggest going.

It didn’t matter, we didn’t make it very far. We turned around maybe 200 vertical feet from the summit. It just wasn’t worth it. Cold fingers, low visibility, snow, rock fall, icicles, the potential for the entire fourth class scramble to be a sheet of ice on our way down… meh. We turned back, knocking down a microwave sized rock in the process. The other group was long gone, but it’s still a little unnerving.

Why would you stay at home when you can hula hoop in a cave on the side of a mountain?!

Why would you stay at home when you can hula hoop in a cave on the side of a mountain?! (Photo credit: John)

Nearly back at the cave, Rob turned to me and just said “we should hula hoop!” I thought he was joking, but to hell with it, we got to the cave and picked up those damn hula hoops and went for it! There is nothing more hilarious than John and Rob hula hooping in a cave in the snow at 8,000ft. Well maybe the human ladder that happened 24 hours later, but we’ll get to that. We hula hooped, we broke into bouts of Beach Boys songs and dancing. I had Surfin Safari in my head (why? it’s the furthest topic from what we’re doing) and had shamelessly sung the opening verse a few times, which eventually triggered a spontaneous performance of Barbara Ann since we had a perfect division of bass voices and sopranos (if I try to be shrill enough). Barbara Ann became the song of the trip, much like Come and Get Your Love back on Eldoardo. It’s just hilarious and makes me smile every time. Anyway, imagine hiking up to a cave and there’s a bunch of people hula hooping in snow singing that. That would have happened, except that no one else was up there, because it was gross out.

Cave life

Rave cave! (There was a bivvy spot in the back if you’re ever stuck)

Jesus brings out the sun back at the lakes

Jesus brings out the sun back at the lakes

Energy renewed and spirits lifted, we set out back down the loose talus to head back to camp. Simon had turned around earlier, and we wondered what he might have in store for us. More hot chocolate? A fire? No, that’s a lot to ask. We stopped to take pictures of the snowy larches, lament how the weather wasn’t doing us any favors, and joke about how it was so foggy there WAS no peak to summit, I mean if you turn around there’s just nothing there! At Rob’s suggestion, we considered pathetically yelling “Simon!” in the fog close to camp, hoping he’d get the Touching the Void reference. But it wasn’t foggy enough, and we were so excited by what Simon had for us back at camp that we forgot anyway.

Not only was there hot chocolate, there was a fire! In the snow! Woo! We had our hot drinks and crowded around it warming up, until someone turned around and saw the sun breaking through the clouds across upper Snowy Lake. We dropped everything except cameras (and in Simon’s case, his precious fifth of vodka) and ran to the upper lake to take pictures. A group of unhappy looking campers was making dinner as we excitedly ran past to see the sun on the lake, and the next hour was spent running everywhere like overexcited chickens snapping pictures, talking to other pictures, doing karate, walking on water, skipping rocks (or trying to learn how, for me – “did you even have a childhood?!”) and enjoying the situation to its fullest.

Sun sneaking beneath the clouds

Sun sneaking beneath the clouds

“I’m a blackbelt what’d you expect?”

We finally figured we had overstayed our welcome at the upper lake. We were loud, and I proclaimed it was time to go back to our corner. We invited everyone to come to our fire, where we had plenty of food and drinks. Alcoholic or just cozy, take your choice. No one took us up on our offer besides a camper across Lower Snowy Lake from us, who couldn’t resist the offer of fire and warm drinks and hilarious jokes. We crowded around it again as night fell, and thoroughly enjoyed our Backpacker’s Pantry meals, tabasco hot chocolate (sorry Kacie, I’m not sold on it), spiked hot chocolate, various kinda of tea, and finally, an apple crumble dessert. From Mountain House. Dehydrated. It was delicious, and would make a great breakfast too. Take note.

My body finally caught up to me, and I retired to my tent. My germ cocoon. Friday night I had felt iffy, Saturday night was doomsday. Doomsnight. I snuggled in my sleeping bag, freezing cold, and waited out the misery. Come on, body. Get over yourself, you have shit to do tomorrow. I finally gave up around 6am and left the tent to explore the outdoors since sleep was clearly a hopeless endeavor.

Golden Horn reflected in Lower Snowy Lake

Golden Horn reflected in Lower Snowy Lake

Mt. Hardy reflected in Upper Snowy Lake

Mt. Hardy reflected in Upper Snowy Lake

I got to watch sunrise light up Golden Horn, and snap pictures of reflections in the lakes. I hit up the lower ridgelines to look out over the clouds at the ridge across the valley. Eventually everyone else woke up and we made tea and hot chocolate. Guys, I’m used to being up and moving within an hour of waking up. Sitting around for three hours drove me insane. I don’t work well with casual starts, apparently.

We finally got moving a little after 9am. There was a group ahead of us on Golden Horn that I had run into before the rest of my team woke up, so I knew we’d have company. I was a little worried about keeping up with everyone given how I was feeling, but eh, I’d play it by ear. We were in such a beautiful place, it wouldn’t even matter if I missed out on the peaks.

Looking back at Tower over Snowy Lakes

Looking back at Tower over Snowy Lakes

The hike to Golden Horn is almost entirely line of sight – walk across scree fields until you’re nearly at the base of the summit block, and then do a little class three scrambling to wrap around to the southwest side of the peak. A short gully will bring you to the final few steps. Here, stay on the southwest side of the peak, don’t try to go for the north side. The other group had been staring at the northwest side for a long time, and was about to give up when we showed up and scouted out the southern side. We all joined up, and Joe offered to lead it.

He used two cams, 1 and .75 I think. There was a great horizontal crack in the second slab, and the second crack he utilized was between a flat boulder and the cube of granite that made up the final move to the summit. An elegant muscle up/shimmy combination, and he was on top! We let their team wrap up before sending John up to top rope our group.

Rob on the shimmy move

Rob on the shimmy move

I couldn’t figure out what the hell was taking John so long to get a good anchor set up. He finally got it worked out, and I got Kacie roped up and ready to go on her first rock climb. Go big or go home! Rob was up next after Kacie tapped the summit, and he made the muscle up/shimmy move look easy. John lowered him, and it was my turn. Getting up to that top move was a breeze, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I hopped up, got my elbows over the edge, and immediately realized it wouldn’t be so easy. For anyone who knew me in high school and college, my eight-straight-pull-up days are long over, and it was a pitiful fall from glory. My shoulders and lats forgot how to exist. I told John to drop me back to the flat ledge. I was gonna give it one more try before admitting defeat. Come on body, one push, just one push. With a shot of luck and a bit of a jump, I managed to drag my ass over the edge, only slightly resembling a beached whale. Hell. Yes. (note: how are there no pics or videos of people getting stuck trying to get out of a pool?! That’s what it was like)

Kacie got a solid 10 pics of the struggle

Kacie got a solid 10 pics of the struggle

Got there eventually! (Photo credit: John)

Got there eventually! (Photo credit: John)

I snapped a few pictures, laughed at John’s anchor (which was amazing but impressively precarious to set up, which is why it had taken so long), and had him lower me back down. Naturally I had wanted to rappel, but he was reluctant, and I realized I was in no condition to argue given how shitty I was feeling, and probably not in the best state for any major decisions either. Great, I’ll downclimb.

We finally went to regroup with Simon, who had patiently waited at the notch while we figured out the technical pitch. There was a tricky ledge we had to get across. I scuttled down it just fine (I think my state of mind took away the “look what’s below you, or isn’t” fear) but Simon announced that the previous group had used him as a human ladder, and when Kacie wasn’t sure about getting across, he grabbed a rock at the end, hung his body along the ledge and said “Okay, go, climb me!”

Simon sacrifices his body for the greater good

Simon sacrifices his body for the greater good

Simon coming back down the scramble

Simon coming back down the scramble

I think I cried laughing. Kacie’s face says it all. John was up next, and finally we were all across the ridge. At one point, I think Rob had told Simon he didn’t have to wait for us, and Simon had said “No, you need me to get down!” We had no idea what that meant until the human ladder happened. Simon for MVP!

From there, we made quick work of the hike back to camp. Plunge-stepping down scree is much easier than hiking up it, and before I knew it we were back at camp. Which was great, because I was losing hearing in my right ear (it still hasn’t returned three days later) and was on my way towards becoming a very useless group member. We took a break by the lake while everyone packed up tents (I can pack up that tent in like 10 minutes now). We finally had the lakes to ourselves, since everyone else had left. I ate about 1500 calories in one sitting. A beef and cheese burrito, a full thing of maple butter, a bag of m&ms, a kind bar, the combos that had spilled all over the brain of my bag. “Cheese flavored filling,” not even cheese. Whatever, they’re delicious.

The way the light reflected off the lake was ridiculous. That's Rob in the bottom left corner for scale

The way the light reflected off the lake was ridiculous. That’s Rob in the bottom left corner for scale

The hike back out was the perfect end to a trip. Sunny, smooth, greeting PCT through-hikers, golden hour, and (we had hoped) the lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the moon. We knew it was a supermoon, so when we saw tons of stars, we knew the moon had to be eclipsed. On the drive back, the moon was so bright it kept startling me when it flashed through the windows, and I stopped while crossing a bridge to get a good look.

I got back to Seattle a little after midnight, and succumbed to another miserable night. Turned out my bed wasn’t much better than the sleeping bag/tent/germ cocoon combo. And I probably hadn’t done myself any favors by going on that trip. But you know what? 100% worth it. Gorgeous area, awesome company, and one (and a half) stunning, enjoyable peaks. I think next year I’d like to turn it into a trail run if I don’t have time to take up a full weekend, and maybe take another shot at Tower. Or Hardy, which I’ll have to research, but I chatted with Dave at the top of Golden Horn and we thought it looked pretty doable. And I can only hope my next trip involves people as hilarious as the four I was with. Hula hoops and human ladders for all.

Golden hour

Fall foliage at golden hour