A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Author: Ellen Bayer (Page 1 of 4)

Coming to the wilderness later in life, but making up for lost time, this blog shares my journey of discovery in the wild.

Wilderness Solo: My Alpine Lakes Circumambulation

SEPTEMBER 4-17, 2020

Entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, on the Paddy-Go-Easy Pass Trail.

Preamble

Circumambulate (v.) to circle on foot, especially ritualistically or ceremoniously

“A vacation is external. A pilgrimage is internal. An adventure combines them.” –Eddy Harris, Mississippi Solo

The route began to visit me in dreams. Tourmaline lakes tucked in bowls beneath jagged peaks blanketed my sleep, as my mind ambled through meadows of wildflowers and scrambled over fields of talus. Over the course of a year, it evolved from dashed lines on crinkled paper maps into a journey that would lead me through one of the most magnificent landscapes on the planet—which awaited right in my back yard.

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness encompasses over 400,000 acres in Washington’s Central Cascade Range, and it is the unceded territory of several Coast Salish Tribes and the P’Squosa (Wenatchi). Aptly named, a plethora of lakes are strung like gems across its great expanse, the deep blues punctuating the steely gray mountains capped in lingering snow. Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail snakes through here and is one of the most remote, and arguably most beautiful, sections of the entire trail. Beyond this well-trodden path, though, one finds secret lakes accessible only by bushwhack and forgotten trails which the natural world slowly reclaims. It’s possible to venture into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and not see another soul for days, giving you a sense of having this wild world to yourself. I love this place, deeply.

When I started dreaming up a solo wilderness adventure, my first thought was to devise a route that touched each designated wilderness area in Washington. A cursory look at the map, though, suggested this was a bit ambitious for a single-push excursion. Having too much wilderness to cover in one epic trip is a good problem to have; when I lived in Indiana, there was exactly one designated wilderness area to visit in the state. How, then, to narrow my focus?

Much of the western edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness has become a friend to me. I cut my backcountry teeth there, and I feel it as a strong acquaintance. Revising my plan, I dove into maps, my eyes tracing dotted lines and connecting them into one grand and epic route. After a year of daydreaming, map ogling, research, and reflection, I perfected my vision in what I have titled my great Alpine Lakes Circumambulation.

Pilgrims circumambulate sacred places, from the Kaaba in Mecca to Gang Rinpoche in Tibet. Pardon the cliché, but the natural world is a sacred place for me, and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is particularly so. Excursions into this place have impacted me in profound and meaningful ways, and it has propelled me on a personal journey of self-discovery in the wild. I designed this route to trace the perimeter of most of the wilderness area, with the idea of circumambulating a place that holds great significance to me.

While the mountains of exotic locales pull me, when it comes down to it, the call of this wilderness area that is a mere 60 miles from my front doorstep rings even stronger. A significant part of my rationale for this route resided in its close proximity to home; it’s a way to demonstrate that adventure awaits close by. It is not hyperbolic to claim that the Cascades hold riches that I could not exhaust in a lifetime of exploration. Furthermore, as an environmentalist and a scholar/creator working within the environmental arts & humanities, the global climate crisis is at the forefront of my thoughts and actions. I strive to reduce my footprint on the planet, and a journey this close to home is one way to live this imperative.

Let’s start with the numbers. My Alpine Lakes Circumambulation is a 160-ish mile loop that entails over 47,000 feet of elevation gain, and roughly the same amount of elevation loss. To stretch battery life, I didn’t track the actual route on any devices. These numbers come from averaging the distances and elevations from my CalTopo route and the Green Trails Maps.

I’m a sucker for loops and simply love the idea of circling back to the place you began, returning as a new person. When I look at maps, my eyes scan for loops, and I have spent the past year perfecting this loop of all loops. It went through eight drafts (nine, if you count the route I actually traversed). While I didn’t touch every corner of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I did circumambulate a significant portion of it. After much thought, I cut out some of the westernmost sections of the wilderness area, mostly because I knew that area well and wanted to explore more new-to-me parts. Also, I remarkably obtained a Core Enchantments camping permit four days before I embarked and had to modify the route at the last minute.

ALC final draft: my actual route and camps.

You can take a closer look at the actual route here.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I’m a seasoned trail runner. I can put in big miles with ease and am accustomed to spending a lot of time on my feet during big, tough pushes in the mountains. That said, this often entails a pretty small pack with the bare essentials and, at most, 24 hours’ worth of food. This adventure would challenge me to slow down—and the heavier pack would demand it. It would be my longest self-supported endeavor, and I planned to spend 14 days covering the same amount of ground and elevation change that I could knock out in a few days, if running supported. This journey wasn’t about how far and how fast, though. While I enjoy going hard, watching the sun rise and set, then rise again (and maybe even set again) before I sleep, this journey allowed me to stop for the night to kick up my feet, and it ensured that I wouldn’t miss a single sight along the way.

I’d never embarked on a solo excursion precisely like my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation before. While I have experience in all of the component parts, I had never designed a route of this length, packed all of the supplies I need for two weeks into one pack, set up food caches, and set out into the wild alone. This is what I found so appealing about this endeavor. It took all of the skills that I have gained and practiced over the past three years, and it asked me to put them all together, by myself.

The route would also challenge me. I would be alone with my thoughts for an extended period of time and journey without companionship. I was curious to see what that’s like. I mean, even Thoreau went home for dinner a few nights a week and his mother did his laundry. While I would encounter other hikers out there, it would only be in passing. How will traveling up to 20 miles a day while weighed down with all that camping gear and food feel compared to my usual zipping along with a little runner’s vest? What is it like to encounter a bear when alone? Should I not think about the fact that my trail name is Cougar Snack? What would it be like to lay down at night with nothing but the sound of my own breathing and the mountain breeze to accompany me? I was quite excited to find out.

In short: this would be a true adventure.

“Stop looking at this Alpine Lakes Wilderness map and pay attention to me!!!” -Sparkimus

It amazes me how far I have come in such a short span of time. When I moved to Washington, I was terrified of encountering apex predators, and even sleeping in a tent 10 feet from my car made me anxious. Going into the mountains alone never occurred to me. Climbing a mountain seemed impossible. I was particularly afraid of the forest at night, even when accompanied by others. While these days you might find me sprawled across the trail at 2am taking a dirt nap so that I can finish an epic push through the mountains, remnants of that fear remain. Experience has helped me become more comfortable in the wild, but there are moments when I have to remind myself not to be scared. There are also moments when I acknowledge that it’s ok to be scared.

That’s something that resonated with me in Kyle Dempster’s film, The Road from Karakol. I viewed it when the world of outdoor adventure was new to me, and the fact that such an experienced adventurer could find himself in a situation where he was scared—and was able to admit this out loud—was a revelation for me. I had felt like an imposter trying to forge my feeble way into the wilderness, and that moment in the film helped me to realize that even the most seasoned outdoorsperson has to confront fear at times. I appreciated his honesty, and that moment has stayed with me. Going in, I knew there might be moments on my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation that frightened me, and that’s ok. What’s important is that I felt confident that I would approach any such moments with poise, not panic.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the important role the award named in honor of Kyle Dempster, the KD Solo Adventure Award, played in the development of this journey. I spent months working on my application, refining my route and articulating my vision. This resulted in an 8-page, single-spaced, application. While Kyle’s family and friends decided not to give the award in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to develop and submit an application for it. (It bears noting that I didn’t break any state or national mandates or health guidelines during this excursion into the wilderness.) I managed to find other sources of funding for the excursion, and I went forward in the spirit that the award seeks to foster: a passion for adventuring solo in wild places, with a leave no trace ethic, and a promise to employ creative storytelling to share the adventure with others. I hope that this journey and story live up to Kyle Dempster’s example.

What follows is a trip report that is, admittedly, more of the play-by-play variety. You won’t be surprised to learn that it is rather long (you’re welcome to just scroll through and look at the photos!) I’m in the process of working on an article and a live story based on my experience, both of which will entail more art than reportage, and both of which will be substantially shorter. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s an in depth look at the daily details of my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation.

Day 1: Cathedral Trailhead to Sprite Lake

Mileage: 4.77mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +3229’ -438’ /Highest Elevation 6173’ (all distances are approximate)

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Have a lot to think about on this trip but it feels good to feel good in this moment.”

Here I go! Photo credit: Rich White

After a year of thinking, it was finally happening. My friend Rich dropped me off at the Cathedral Trailhead; he would pick me up there in two weeks, and I wondered who I would be then. Butterflies fluttering inside me, I heaved my ~35 pound pack onto my back and started down the dusty Cle Elum River Road, toward the Paddy-Go-Easy trailhead. With this arrangement, I would get the 1-mile road walk out of the way, so that my journey would end on trail. I’d been curious about Paddy-Go-Easy Pass and was excited finally to see it for myself. Somewhere I read that the name came from a miner who used to say to his mule as he ambled down the slope, “Go easy, Paddy; Paddy, go easy.” 

Blue skies ahead mean the pass is near!

It was early afternoon and hot, hot, hot. The trail snakes through a burn, so it was largely exposed to the sun’s rays. Wildfire smoke rolled up the valley, clouding the scenery and laboring my breath. It’s a steep haul up to the pass, and it ended up taking me 3 hours to cover 4 miles. A smile spread on my face when I could see blue sky and knew the pass was nearby. I wasn’t prepared for the view that would greet me there; cresting the pass, The Cradle knocked the wind out of me. What a mountain! It’s like an island of granite floating in a sea of lesser peaks. Even the wildfire smoke couldn’t obliterate this stunning vista. I was four miles into this journey and already it was blowing my mind with beauty.

My first view of the Cradle, from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass. What a mountain!

Just below the pass lies lovely little Sprite Lake, my destination for the night. Winding down on boot track, I heard a man’s voice loudly echoing off the surrounding rock. It turned out to be a solo guy talking and laughing to himself, which was a bit unnerving. Solo dudes in the woods are more intimidating than bears. I decided to camp up above the lake, both for solitude and to keep some distance from this guy. Plus, you couldn’t beat the view.

Camp 1, above Sprite Lake.

My first major blunder of the trip came hours into Day One. In an attempt to hang my food bag from a snag, the rock and rope caught in a crack in the branch, and they wouldn’t budge for anything. After much tugging, I had to accept that there was no choice but to cut the rope. I climbed up the snag as best I could, given that it was a brittle dead tree just waiting to snap, and cut the rope as high as possible. It broke my heart to leave a trace right out of the gate.

Looking down at Sprite Lake from my camp.

I spent the early evening walking around Sprite Lake, collecting water and cleaning up in the outlet. My grand plan had been to scramble up two peaks that rise above the lake, Paddy-Go-North and Paddy-Go-South. This would be the first of many plans bagged on this journey. I was wiped out and opted instead to do a modified mini-scramble up high enough to watch the sunset to the west. For some reason, I wore my Crocs for this endeavor, but they held up. The smoke started to clear as the sun set behind Mount Daniel and Cathedral Rock, and I thought about how my adventure would end in their shadow, two weeks from now. It was a thrilling thought.

Sprite Lake, with the ridge of Paddy-Go-South Peak to the left.

A few more parties arrived in the late evening, one young man gasping out loud when he saw Sprite Lake. Yes, agreed. It was disappointing not to have the place to myself, but it was a holiday weekend, and it seems the secret is out on this alpine lake.

In bed by 8:00 p.m. No need for a rain fly, I was able to watch the last embers of daylight fade and peaks silhouette from the comfort of my tent. No podcast, no book, just me with myself and this perfect twilight.

Day 2: Sprite Lake to Little Lake Caroline

Mileage: 17.5 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +5729’ -5545’ /Highest Elevation 7237’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “No one condescended.”

The next morning, I awoke from the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had in a tent, and perhaps one of the most peaceful of all time. What an incredible feeling that was, after months of restless nights with a clenched jaw. The waxing gibbous moon’s high beam woke me in the night, but I simply smiled and went back to sleep. After a spectacular sunrise, I packed up and hit the trail a bit later than planned.

Sunrise on Sprite Lake.

Today’s route started downhill along a brushy section of trail. I’d heard this trail could be difficult to find through the meadows, but I managed just fine. With bushes of berries and bountiful brush, I made sure to let the bears know I was passing through. For reasons that escape me, I hummed “Singing in the Rain” as my bear warning song. This would remain my go-to make-noise-through-brushy-bear-country-song for the duration of the journey, sometimes with modified lyrics. To mix things up, sometimes I would instead declare in a deep sing-songy trill, “Comin’ through! Mean no harm to you! I’m just passin’ by! Won’t stay the night!” After two weeks of singing this out loud to yourself, you begin to feel a little bit like a lunatic.

Hitting the trail.

About an hour in, a dull pain near my Achilles grew louder. Stopping to assess the situation, I found that my socks had snuck down and my skin was rubbed raw, to the point that blood had soaked through the backs of my shoes. This was an entirely new (to me) phenomenon; not even during a 100-miler (wearing the same socks) had this happened. I cleaned up in the creek, grabbed some moleskin, and covered the wounds. Note to self: don’t put moleskin directly on open, bleeding wounds. This would be a perpetual problem throughout the trip. I next sacrificed some precious TP to cover the wound. Later, I would use the one band aid in my first-aid kit. It was a hard-learned lesson; never again will I backpack in ankle socks or step foot on a trail without a load of band aids in my kit. 

Skipping along through an alpine meadow.

It wasn’t until I reached the Jack Creek Trail that I saw other humans. I encountered four parties in total, all of whom smiled and said, “Good morning!” I was pleasantly surprised that not one person asked, “Are you out here alone? Does someone know where you are?” There was no condescending to me, no questioning of my credentials or of my choice to be out there alone. This was a most welcome change from previous solo excursions in the wild.

I was enjoying hiking alongside Jack Creek so much that I nearly missed the junction with the Jack Ridge Trail. I just happened to consult the map and saw that I was standing right at it. You could be forgiven for missing the Jack Ridge Trail; I suspect no one has ventured up it in quite some time. It was a brushy beast, a slog of switchbacks and blowdown. The day was steamy, even in the trees. My enthusiasm admittedly flagged a bit on this big climb, but, as always, I perked up once gaining the ridge. Here, again, I missed the junction with the trail that would take me down to Trout Lake. Soon realizing my mistake, I backtracked and found the little-used trail. Getting off the beaten track was a key objective for this journey, and I was certainly accomplishing that!

Finally on top of Jack Ridge!

It felt good to move downhill after a monster climb, but I also knew I’d be climbing again before long. Whenever my thoughts took that direction, I reminded myself that I was making forward progress, even if I was losing elevation (which I would, inevitably, soon have to regain.) This would become a daily, necessary reminder.

Sure enough, I soon reached the Eightmile trail junction, where a long uphill push would lead to Windy Pass. It was physically and mentally challenging to confront a big climb at the end of a big day, and it was the first of many occasions on which I pondered whether it was better to end the day with an uphill push or to begin the day with it. By the end of the trip, I decided it’s best to end the day with the big climb, because you can smell the barn and will feel sweet relief at the top knowing that camp and dinner are near (as opposed to starting the day with a climb out the gate and no immediate physical reward for it.) My brain started to unravel a bit on the way to Windy Pass, and I talked out loud, giving myself a pep talk. Not having seen anyone for many hours, the remoteness of this place pressed itself upon me—in a good way, even if slightly intimidating.

Alpine meadow en route to Windy Pass.
Layers of mountains in the distance. Looking west from the top of Windy Pass and back at the ground I’d covered that day.

As with any mountain pass, the universe rewards your effort. Reaching the top, I paused to take it all in. To the west, I could see all of the ground I’d covered that day, which is really something to behold. All around me, layers of mountains spread out in every direction. To the east, the places I would soon go revealed themselves, most prominently the Stuart Range. Up along the ridge from the pass stood Cashmere Mountain. I would have to table that scramble for another day. Cashmere is a truly gorgeous mountain, though, so I feel quite incentivized to return.

A beaut of a ridge leading to Cashmere Mountain.

There was a new spring in my step as I turned downhill from the pass toward my final destination for the day, Little Lake Caroline. I was now in an area where a permit is required for overnight camping, and I was so grateful to have one. The perpetual anxiety about finding a campsite ramped up as I ran down. It was a holiday weekend, and I feared there would be campers all over the lake. Solitude would be ideal, but at this point, I just wanted a place to lay my head. This is a constant source of anxiety that I’m struggling to overcome. It accompanies me on every backpacking trip, especially when I have a particular camp location in mind. It just doesn’t do you much good to stress yourself out about the possibility that there won’t be a campsite for you. The sun was setting, and I moved forward with great urgency.

My first view of the Enchantments and the Stuart Range.

My memory of the remaining distance was off, and the short jaunt turned into another mile plus of hiking, which gave me more time to fret. The fretting was all for naught, though, because Little Lake Caroline was entirely deserted when I arrived. Whew! Other than the 4 parties I’d seen in the morning, I hadn’t encountered another person the entire day. It’s exactly what I was looking for, and such a tremendous privilege to have these wild places to myself. I chose a nice little spot with a lake view, made camp, ate a hasty meal, and crawled into bed exhausted.

At 17+ miles (and just under 11 hours), this was the longest distance I’d ever backpacked in a single day. In my journal, I took note of the importance of getting an earlier start from now on and of picking up the pace on the downhills and flats. I shook my head at how much I’d minimized the difficulty of this endeavor. Just because you can run 17 miles like it’s nothing doesn’t mean backpacking it will be the same.

The Humbling of Ellen would become a major motif on this journey.

Camp 2, at Little Lake Caroline.

Day 3: Little Lake Caroline to The Enchantments

Mileage: 13.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +5198’ -3713’ /Highest Elevation 7847’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “My plan: use recorder as deterrent.”

Today I was up with my 6am alarm to find waiting a kind message from my friend, Sudeep. While I went to the wild for solitude, it was admittedly nice to receive words of encouragement unexpectedly, this one all the way from Nepal. Since I had the tracking function going on my inReach, friends and family were able to follow along on my journey. It was nice knowing that people were watching from afar and sending good energy my way.

Despite my best efforts, the morning routine from wake up to trail took an hour (this would be true throughout the trip.) I soon reached Lake Caroline, where campers were just beginning to stir. From there, the trail leaves the forest and enters a large burn, the ghosts of trees left in an open expanse of dry, brittle flora. The upshot is that the Stuart Range was in full view, and I grew excited knowing I’d soon be up there in the aptly named Enchantments.

Hiking down through the burn toward Eightmile Lake.

Taking my own advice, I tried to cover ground quickly while losing elevation. This impulse competed with a shooting pain in my right shoulder, which grew impossible to ignore. It would start in one spot and then spread down into my arm, sometimes so painful that it took my breath away. This was another problem that persisted the entire two weeks. I was surprised that it showed up so early, and that it stubbornly remained. It forced me to take mini breaks along the way, stopping to ease my pack onto a tall rock or tree stump, shifting the weight off my shoulder for a moment. I’d give myself two minutes to regroup, let the pain subside, and then move on. This was incredibly humbling. My M.O. when running or doing other big pushes was not to stop, and here I was stopping about every mile for a two-minute break. The necessity of it was frustrating, and the differences between running long distances, and backpacking them, were slowly sinking in.

Cruising down past Eightmile Lake, I soon reached the trailhead, where I encountered two rangers. I did not envy them having to manage the masses who had flocked here for the holiday weekend. We chatted and I told them about my route. Both men grinned and nodded in admiration, the younger of the two exclaiming, “That sounds awesome.” The other ranger shared with me his favorite campsite near Little Annapurna, which felt like a secret gift. I thanked them and then waded through the surreal gaggles of humans.

The rangers at the Stuart Lake trailhead were an entirely different matter. I should cut them some slack, because it must have been an incredibly stressful duty to stand there and try to manage so many people at once. The first ranger, seeing my backpacking gear, asked to see my camping permit. She immediately told me there was a problem, because I was entering the Core Enchantments after my permitted entry date. When I protested, pointing out that the Core Enchantments permit covers the entire permit area, and that I had been in the permit area since the start date, it just wasn’t computing for her. I’m not one to get angry, but I wasn’t going to let this ranger ruin my trip. I had followed the rules and was growing increasingly worried that this ranger was going to halt my trip on Day Three. She countered that I couldn’t leave the permit area and then come back, to which I replied that I hadn’t. She wasn’t following, so, clearly irritated, I spelled it out. “I came from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass. My car is not here. My car is in Ronald, Washington. I came here on foot. I’ve been in the permit zone since the beginning of my permit dates and have just reached the Core zone now, on foot.” The other rangers soon stepped in on my behalf and said it was fine, and one of them said, “You came from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass on foot? That’s awesome! I would have never thought to come from all the way over there.” The first ranger finally grasped what I was doing and said all was good. I guess not many people choose to hike to the Enchantments from so far away, so she didn’t know what to do with me.  

Crisis averted, I joined the throng making its way to Colchuck Lake. After days of seeing so few people, being suddenly thrown among the masses was jarring. My empathy for the rangers being at their wits end expanded when I saw what they were dealing with. There were people with music blasting from phones. Many did not wear face coverings. No one knew to yield to the uphill hiker. I saw entire groups with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This is an 8-mile hike that folks were attempting with no food or water. It’s a tricky line to tread, as I’m a strong advocate for expanding access to the outdoors but am also taken aback when I see people do so without understanding basic trail etiquette or safety. It speaks to the role of privilege in outdoor adventuring, as many people venture out without knowing how to do so safely. On the hike in, I thought about what could be done to educate newcomers to the trails. No good answers came to me, but it’s a worthy question to pursue further. I try to address this in the courses I teach, but that has a limited reach. As more people turn to the outdoors as a refuge, it will be an important conversation for the outdoor community to have. How do we invite more people to explore the natural world while also empowering them to do so safely?  

Finally, I arrived at Colchuck and saw Aasgard Pass looming in the distance. Thinking I was descending down to the trail that wraps around the lake and over to the pass, I made haste to reach the crux of the day. I kept losing elevation as well as sight of the lake—and kept going for longer than I’d like to admit. Something didn’t seem right, though, so I sheepishly asked someone walking toward me, “Are you heading to or from the lake?” “To the lake,” she replied. Who was the idiot in the woods now? I was. I was the idiot in the woods now. It’s funny because I once marveled at how the great PNW adventurer Christof Teuscher had managed to ascend Aasgard only to then descend it (he was delirious after attempting the Alpine Lakes Grand Tour route with no sleep and I think he’d run out of food at that point.) How do you go up something and then back down it and not realize your mistake? Well, I just found out. Maybe the greater Colchuck/Aasgard region is like the Bermuda Triangle of the Cascades.

Colchuck Lake, with Aasgard Pass and Dragontail Peak (right) behind it.

Moving in the right direction, I wrapped around Colchuck and soon stood in the shadow of Aasgard. So many hikers and climbers were passing me in the other direction, and I must admit that I started to feel a little intimidated by the climb, especially since it was pretty late in the day and no one else was heading up it now. Reassuring myself that I’d climbed it before, I pushed forward. Of course, climbing it with a heavy pack is quite different than wearing a running vest, which even the WTA website notes: “Seasonal hazards exist, including streams that melt the snow out from the bottom up, and you’ll need route-finding experience, agility, and excellent balance. Those lucky enough to score a permit for the Core Zone should consider these factors when you’re thinking about heading in over Aasgard Pass for an overnight. While it may be considerably shorter mileage-wise, the trail up Aasgard can be treacherous if your center of balance is compromised by a pack loaded with overnight gear.” OK, I was a tiny bit uneasy about going up Aasgard with a loaded pack.

Aasgard Pass gains 2,000 feet in under ¾ of a mile. As the WTA description notes, it’s steep, and you must scramble parts, route find, and negotiate streams and patches of rotten snow. There’s also a false summit to tease your sense of how far you’ve come. On the plus side, the views get more unbelievable with each step up you take, which gives you a good excuse to pause for a breath. I settled into a rhythm and took my time to find the best path up.

Starting up Aasgard.

Soon, I encountered climbers and day hikers coming down the pass, which I hadn’t expected. My body tensed as I anticipated their comments. “Getting a late start up, aren’t you?” “Where’s your boyfriend? “How does he feel about you being out here by yourself?” All of this, and more, I’d heard before, and heard it often. It is, hands down, the worst part about adventuring solo as a woman. The condescending remarks couched in concern, the mansplaining, the questioning of credentials—it’s something that I am the recipient of nearly every time I go into the woods alone. It’s not just me; many solo female adventurers report similar experiences (a March 2021 article in Backpacker addresses this problem.) Even Seth was sending me inReach messages that from his perspective maybe expressed well intentioned concern about me climbing Aasgard but instead read like votes of no confidence. I was primed for a fight with some dude on this mountain pass.

And then, the universe completely surprised me.

Zen mountain goat taking in the views (laying on rock at bottom center of photo.)

A mountain goat chilling on a boulder caught my eye, and I stopped to watch it. The goat seemed to be completely relaxed, maybe even entertained by the humans, hanging out on its rock and taking in the view. Continuing on, a party of four men soon appeared, and I told them not to miss the goat below. The group included two young men, probably in their mid to late teens, and two men who were probably in their 50s. They asked where I was going and where I had come from. I pointed behind us, saying, “That’s Windy Pass, by Cashmere Mountain. Below it, is Little Lake Caroline. I came from there, and I’m heading up into the Core.” One of the older men nodded and said, “Then you’ve come a long way, and you’ve had a long day.” He said this with a tone of admiration. The other man then added, “I’ve got mad respect for what you’re doing.” This floored me. What an example they were setting for the two young men in their party. They didn’t condescend or question me, and they didn’t feel threatened or emasculated by a woman doing something difficult. Instead, they expressed admiration and respect. This exchange went a very long way in restoring a little bit of my faith in men of the outdoors. 

Pausing on Aasgard to look back at Cashmere Mountain and Windy Pass.

I crossed paths with several other parties and was soon stopped by another man around my age. His friends continued their descent as he stayed to talk with me. We chatted about our days, and when I described my route, he looked at me and with steady gaze and said, “Wow, that’s badass.” His tone also suggested, “and hot!” He kept extending the conversation, apparently reluctant to go. At one point, his friends stopped, looked back up and stared at him for a moment, and with a wave of resignation continued to descend without him. It seemed like he was stalling to see if I would invite him to come bivvy up top with me. Alas, this was a solo journey, so I had to let this silver fox go. Our brief encounter nevertheless showed me that there are some men out there who can appreciate a solo woman out in the wild; not all of them will project their own insecurities onto you.

After two hours of climbing, I reached the top of Aasgard Pass. ¾ of a mile in two hours! Pausing, the Cascades unfolded before me. I could see all the way to Windy Pass and beyond. There were jagged peaks poking the sky, and a gorgeous pyramid-shaped mountain that was just so striking. There really is nothing like gaining the top of a mountain pass. You’ve just exerted yourself to the max and probably had some mental challenges as well. When you summit, the work is done, and the visual reward stands before you. Turning to what lay ahead, the out of this world beauty of the Enchantments Core was there to greet me.

Entering the Core Enchantments.

The Enchantments have the well-deserved reputation of being among the most stunning places in Washington; there’s really nothing else quite like it. It’s a basin surrounded by jagged peaks and dotted with turquoise lakes. Mountain goats rock hop like mythical creatures. Waterfalls cascade over granite and snow lines the shores. Due to its popularity, and the fragility of the ecosystem, one must have a permit to camp, and only 24 people are allowed to do so each night. Chances of getting a permit in the lottery are 2%. While I had once run through in a day, this was my first overnight in The Enchantments. I’d lucked into a last-minute permit through the online “walk up” system and was so glad to have this opportunity.

Now it was time to find a good campsite. I saw what looked to be a nice spot on an isthmus between two lakes but realized upon closer inspection it wasn’t really a site. Following a goat trail, I continued past those lakes and landed on a perch overlooking the entire Core. To my right was a stream that turned into a waterfall. Prusik Peak, Little Annapurna, and McClellan rose in the distance, and Dragontail stood sentinel behind me. Alpine lakes sparkled below in the magic hour light. Pinch me.

Camp 3, perched above the lakes of the Enchantments.

There was just enough room for my tent on the perch, and it was solid granite, so I had to get creative with using rocks to stake out the tent. This creativity extended to lining the interior with rocks as well. The wind had picked up and was whipping furiously, threatening to whisk away my tent if I wasn’t in it. It was all a bit nerve-wracking, but the view was too incredible to pass up. I cleaned up in the stream and then kicked back to soak in the view.

The lake outlet stream, next to my camp.

Some newbie campers made for great entertainment, as they attempted to hang their food bags on trees that were barely taller than me. The campers stood on tip toe and slung the bags on the top of the small evergreens, not quite understanding that this would not protect their food from the largest threat out there: mice. Of course, I would also need to solve this problem myself and opted to do the slightly less stupid thing by wrapping my food in a few layers of bags and stashing it in my tent. I wasn’t sure if goats were attracted to the smell of human food, so I concluded that I’d just keep the recorder handy so that I could belt out some awful, loud sounds should a goat drop by for dinner.

There’s absolutely nothing like being done with the day’s miles, being clean, fed, and cozy in a sleeping bag, falling asleep as the stars emerge in twilight. Despite the wild wind whipping, I dropped off to dreamland feeling quite content.  

Day 4: The Enchantments

Mileage: 1.76 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +270’ -854’ /Highest Elevation 7858’ (highest point on route)

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “I want to believe that I can love an experience like this, even if alone in every way.”

Once again, moonbeams awakened me in the night. I peeked outside the tent and saw the fuzzy band of the Milky Way belting the sky. The next time I opened my eyes, bands of scarlet, orange, yellow, and purple rimmed the horizon. To the east of the Enchantments the landscape flattens, so from my perch, I could see way off into the distance without obstruction. Snug inside my tent, I witnessed the sunrise in its entirety, which was one of the most magical experiences of the trip. From moment to moment, the colors changed, now deepening, now softening. Anticipation built, waiting for the sun to make its appearance. You could feel it coming, slowly, and then there it was, first a sliver of fiery orange, then a half sphere, and then a complete orb breaking the dawn. In the changing light, the surrounding mountains and lakes shifted in texture and color. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this everyday occurrence that felt instead like a miracle.

This sunrise will forever remain with me. Photo taken while laying in my tent.

After an easy morning on my perch, I packed up for a short hike further down the basin in order to get another view for my second night in The Enchantments. First, I stopped at the privy, which gets hauled out by helicopter when full.

One of several privies in the Core.

Trekking along, I heard a small animal make a soft, squeaky noise, which I thought might be a baby marmot. Coming around a boulder, I stumbled upon a grazing goat, and then the source of that little voice appeared: her kid! The mountain goats of the Cascades look like wild, mythological creatures. They are shaggy haired and fine horned, and the kids are absolutely adorable. The kid came clambering over the boulder to the safety of mom. I took a few steps away so as not to disturb them and watched these beautiful goats for a few minutes. This really is an enchanted place.

Mama goat and her kid. Note that I zoomed in for this photo and did not approach them as closely as the photo might suggest.

Continuing onward, the usual campsite anxiety kicked in. I thought about camping at the site near Little Annapurna that the ranger recommended, but then decided that I wanted a lake view so headed toward Perfection Lake instead. I forced myself to relax and slow down to enjoy the scenery, but my eyes also scanned for others toting packs in this direction.

Hiking through the Enchantments Core, reminding myself to slow down and take it all in.

It was a short way to Perfection Lake, and there was a site right off the trail near a stream and with a decent lake view. There were also a few tents pitched nearby. Spotting a boot track, I dropped my pack to “reserve” this spot while I hiked out to see if this path led to a better place. That’s one camping lesson I have definitely learned: always spend a little extra time looking around to make sure you choose the best campsite.

My efforts were rewarded, as I came upon an unbelievable site perched above the lake, with a front row view of the ever-aesthetic Prusik Peak. Squealing with delight, I ran back for my pack and laid claim for the night to this most enviable piece of Earth. The location provided solitude and incredible beauty, a perfect combination. The plan had been to spend the rest of the day summiting Little Annapurna and exploring the basin, but I ended up taking an easy day in camp. It gave me the opportunity to wash my clothes, read, use the solar charger, and lounge around basking in the glow of this landscape.

Camp 4, above Perfection Lake with the striking Prusik Peak as backdrop.

I thought I’d treat myself to a hot lunch since the day had turned cold and windy, but the result was spilling my ramen all over the ground instead. You can imagine how fun it was to clean that up. I would now have to carry out a plastic baggie full of limp noodles and dirt. Leave no trace! To compensate, I ate my Pad Thai dinner for lunch (and ate Oreos topped with almond butter for dinner.)

View from the other side of my camp, over Perfection Lake. The Chessmen and McClellan Peaks in the background.

Later in the day, a couple showed up and asked if they could share my campsite with me. I pointed to a lovely site directly below, right on the lake. “It has an even better view than this site, and that way we each have our solitude.” The woman, intense rudeness in her voice, insisted they wanted to camp right here, using a giant boulder on my site as a wind block. I was, admittedly, not very welcoming and made my irritation clear. When she angrily insisted that they wanted to camp right on top of me, I shook my head and said, “Well, I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do.” I didn’t own the place, but it struck me as quite thoughtless to come into the wild only to camp so close to another party, especially when there are many other sites available. They left to retrieve their packs, and I figured now was a good time for some recorder practice. My chilly reception must have been enough of a deterrent, though, as they never returned. I didn’t like how this incident brought out a possessiveness in me. I think the woman’s tone, coupled with the fact that it was entirely unnecessary to camp so close to me, raised my hackles quite a bit, but this is not the person I want to be in the outdoors. In that moment, protecting my solitude felt more important than generosity. Yet another item for reflection.

In the evening, wildfire smoke rolled in. The blue skies dimmed, and the atmosphere quickly changed. The wind picked up and tiny flecks of ash fell like snowflakes. It became difficult to breathe. I pitched the fly as added protection and hoped that the strong gusts would blow the smoke on its merry way. With no fire alarm from Rich, I reassured myself that this was the smoke of distant blazes. The temperature continued to drop, and the wind had a bit of a bite to it. A larch on a ledge above the lake flamed gold, and I shivered at these unmistakable signs of autumn.

Wildfire smoke begins to roll in.

Day 5: The Enchantments to Icicle Ridge Saddle

Mileage: 19.29 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +2336’ -6631’ /Highest Elevation 7201’

Favorite lines from today’s journal entry: “Cricket symphony all around.”

Everything was shaking. Bolting up, I opened my eyes only to be swooshed in the face by a curtain of fine grains of dust. It coated my eyes, face, nose, and mouth. The tent poles bent in toward me, and a roaring filled my ears as I spat and rubbed my face. The smell of smoke infiltrated my senses, leaving me coughing and trying to figure out what the heck was happening. It was completely disorienting.

A windstorm. It was midnight, and the Enchantments were howling like it truly was the witching hour. You could hear the wind off in the distance, moving down the basin with vengeance, building in sound and fury as it made its way to my perch. That built anticipation for the moment when a gust would pound the tent, the poles caving in on themselves. Using my feet, I propped up the poles, bracing with each gust. The fly flapped like crazy and sounded like an amplified grocery bag whipping violently. It wasn’t scary, but sleep was impossible in such conditions. While I spent the night trying to prevent my tent from imploding, I marveled at the power of the natural world. Gasping at the raw beauty we encounter in the mountains is quite lovely, to be sure, but there’s also something about experiencing its harsher side as well. It’s nothing personal; the wind would whip whether we were there to witness it, or not. It’s just a little astounding when the natural world reminds you that you are a tiny and insignificant speck that cannot tame or control its force.

The upshot of the intense winds is that they ushered out the wildfire smoke, dawning a clear and sunny morning. Perfection Lake sparkled in the sunlight and Prusik Peak punctuated a bluebird sky. There were many miles to cover today, so tired or not, I needed to get moving. As I made my way around the lake, I chatted with another party of campers down below, who’d spent the night in similar fashion. We found some camaraderie in our shared dusting-eating and pole-bracing night.

Blue skies return above Perfection Lake and Prusik Peak.

I struck a balance between slowing down to enjoy being in the Enchantments with needing to press forward and cover ground. While I have mixed feelings about ducks and cairns, the Enchantments seem like a good place for them. The ecosystem is quite fragile, and it sees a lot of visitors, so I think it’s a good thing to have stones marking the way and keeping foot traffic on a single path instead of creating threads of social trails. As day hikers scrambled up from Snow Lakes, looking quite spent already, I’d say, “You’re almost there, and it is so beautiful!”

The beauty of the Core Enchantments just doesn’t quit. The larches were beginning to don their autumn gold.
A cairn marking the way out of the Core, with the Snow Lakes visible below.

Soon, the last of the day hikers had passed, and it was just me. Even the Snow Lakes were more or less deserted by then. With much frustration, I made my two-minute stops to appease my screaming shoulder. Near Nada Lake, I encountered a mama goat and her kid. They were busy browsing brush along the trail, and there was nothing I could do to convince them to snack elsewhere. Each time I tried to shoo them away, they just moved further down the trail. I didn’t want to get too close or find myself between mother and kid, so I decided to try going up off the trail to skirt around them. By that point, Mama had enough of this rude human intruder, and she shuttled her kid off the trail and out of sight. 

Looking back up at the Core from the shores of the Snow Lakes.
Looking down at Nada Lake, below the Snow Lakes.

Leaving the lakes to wind down the endless switchbacks, and lost in my own little world, I startled another mama goat and kid. At the same instant, a trail runner, speeding along and likewise lost in his own thoughts, startled me. He paused briefly to watch the goats and chat with me about his thru-run, then pressed ahead to complete his route. Clearly annoyed, mama gracefully bounded up the steep incline off the trail, mewing kid on her heels. I realized with some amazement that I didn’t envy the trail runner, who would soon be sipping a beer and eating hot food, resting his tired feet. I was happy and content to be on a longer, slower adventure.

Admittedly, there was some relief in finding that the switchbacks weren’t quite as interminable as I’d remembered, and soon enough I was crossing the bridge over Icicle Creek. Pausing for a short respite, I ate some Oreos and almond butter by the creek side, drinking deeply and catching my breath. Over four road miles lay between me and my food cache at the foot of Icicle Ridge, so I didn’t linger long.

Not only did I have those four-plus road miles, but there would be another three miles of climbing up to Icicle Ridge after that. The day grew shorter, and I moved my feet with some urgency. The pavement felt foreign, as did the cars whizzing by. A man and young girl passed me on bicycles, and the man smiled and said, “You’ve still got a spring in your step!” “It’s because I still have a long way to go!” I replied. An elderly man stopped his car in the road and asked me where I was going. He seemed concerned and wasn’t quite understanding my replies to his queries. Finally, he said, “You can use the phone at O’Grady’s down the road to call for help.” I smiled and said, “I don’t need help. I’m out here on purpose,” waving as I walked on. 

The downhill grade and nontechnical footing propelled me down the Icicle Road rather quickly, and before I knew it, the turn for the Icicle Ridge trail head came into view. It was time to recover my first food cache! There was also the slight chance that Rich would be there to offer me a root beer, and while this was intended as a solo journey, I was excited at the prospect of a cold, bubbly beverage and a friendly face. Alas, he wasn’t there, and so I pressed on to locate my cache.

It’s funny how you can note landmarks, take photos, jot down descriptions, make a short video, drop a way point—and then everything looks the same when you return. Those distinctive trees and rocks that I felt sure would point me back toward my well-chosen hiding spot became, a week later, nearly indistinguishable from their neighbors. I had a good general idea of where to look, and the way point helped, but I misremembered some of the landmarks and bumbled around in the woods for a bit. After some harried thrashing, I caught sight of one of my actually distinctive landmarks and ran over to find the bear barrel and gallon of water I’d left there a week earlier. I added six days’ worth of food to my pack, left my trash in the barrel, and filled every water receptacle available. There would likely be no water sources on my path for the next 24 hours, so stocking up was essential.

This, of course, made for one helluva heavy pack. I staggered a bit under the weight as I turned to climb steadily upward for the next three miles until gaining Icicle Ridge. Thoughts of the bear seen here a week ago, blocking the trail and turning hikers around, converged with fears of the ridge being a party spot for local hooligans. In my mind, 3 miles wasn’t a long way to hike for a party spot, but upon reflection, my guess is that your average teen is not going to hike that far uphill carrying loads of booze. At the time, though, this concerned me, and I asked the two pairs of hikers who passed me on their descent if it looked like a party spot. None of them thought so.

Reaching the saddle, it was clear my fears were a bit unfounded. I pitched my tent, secured my food, and ambled out to the summit for a view of Leavenworth. Town lights twinkled on in the dusk as wildfire smoke settled over the manufactured Bavarian village. This would be the closest to civilization I would camp on this trip, and it’s interesting that this made me more anxious than even the most remote site on the rest of my journey. It’s telling that I fear humans more than I fear the wilderness.

Camp 5, on the saddle of the east end of Icicle Ridge.

As I lay in my tent, the sound of voices coming up the trail gave me pause. Frozen and listening hard, human voices became the barking of distant dogs. I relaxed and savored the sound of crickets singing in the evening, a sound we don’t hear on the west side of the Cascades and which I miss from the Midwest. An animal called in the distance; I wasn’t sure what it was, but its wild sound soothed me to slumber.

Looking down at the lights of Leavenworth from Icicle Ridge.

Day 6: Icicle Ridge Saddle to Cabin Creek

Mileage: 13 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +5175’ -3088’ /Highest Elevation: 6896’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “It’s still a journey, and adapting is part of the adventure.”

Talk about character building. Day Six was, hands down, the most challenging day of this journey, in every conceivable way. It was also the most impactful. I might even, in hindsight, go so far as to claim it as my favorite.

The day called for an early start, as I planned to traverse Icicle Ridge all the way to Lake Augusta. Much of today’s hike would move through a burn, exposing me to the beating sun. There was the slim possibility of getting water at a spring along the way, but I wasn’t taking any chances and loaded nearly a gallon onto my back, wishing that I didn’t know a gallon weighs eight pounds. It promised to be a hot one, and the wildfire smoke continued to billow along the ridge. Most of the trail would be at a steady incline, and a good 7 miles of it would be on unmaintained trail. I knew it would be tough, but I also failed to fully grasp what I was in for.

Three trail runners attained the saddle as I packed up camp, huffing for air. They smiled a good morning, then turned around, grateful for their descent. They would be the last humans I’d see for nearly three days.

I set out for the long, steady climb up Icicle Ridge. The early morning air spoke of the day’s heat to come, and the wildfire smoke’s presence grew ever more acute. The trail wound up and up, never letting me attain the crest, never quite gaining the sky. The weight of my pack forced me to take numerous brief breaks to relieve my back. After hours of nothing but climbing, I finally gained the top of the ridge. From there, I could see the Enchantments and the ground that I had covered the day before. The smoke obscured the views, but I could make out enough details to identify peaks and appreciate their beauty all the same.

On top of the ridge, the backside of the Enchantments come into view.

At one point, I stopped and made myself admit out loud that this was hard. On top of the smoke, climb, and heavy pack, you could add the concern about water. It was a delicate dance between keeping hydrated and not blowing through my supply too quickly.

As I walked through the burn, it was a study in contrasts. There were fallen trees, bleached by the sun. The trail was sandy dirt. Charcoal coated the ghost trees left standing. But there was a lot of new growth, with new trees and those spared by the flames as well as flowers and grasses tenaciously managing to carve their niche in this site of devastation. I thought a lot about Hemingway’s story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” As the main character, Nick Adams, makes his way through a burn, he notes the cones of Jack Pines littered on the ground and the saplings that were emerging. Fire is essential to the life of a Jack Pine. It is only through contact with fire that the pinecone will open to release its seed. Fire brings about death, but it’s also necessary for new life. Nick Adams had been through the horrors of war, and he came to that place in search of healing. The Jack Pines, one might argue, are a sign of life finding its way through the chaos and destruction. It’s a promise of hope and renewal for Nick.

This was on my mind as I traversed the burn, thinking about my own search for meaning and healing out here in the wild. I could see a range of flora eking out an existence. I wasn’t sure if these plants came back stronger because of the fire, or if fire was necessary for their chance at life, but I could clearly see that the plants did come back. They were a study in resilience, a wilderness lesson.

Hiking through the burn on Icicle Ridge, new life emerging.

Reaching a spot that offered a clear view up and down the valley, I paused to rest and appreciate where I was. Spotting a distinctive mountain out in the distance, I worked out that it was the back side of Cashmere. On the other side of it, just beyond my view, was Windy Pass. A thrill surged through me. How incredible to stand there and look back at where I had come from over the course of several days. This vantage point threw into perspective my objective to circumambulate something sacred. I could see my circular path around these mountains, and it lit me up to be here in this moment, on this journey I’d been dreaming of.

Looking back at my route. Cashmere Mountain is the tallest peak on the right.

Eventually, I came upon the trickle of a spring. I took the opportunity to refill all of my water bottles while also drinking deeply from this welcome source. There were still many hard miles to cover, and keeping hydrated would be key to a good day. Refreshed, I carried on through the otherworldly landscape of charcoal, snag, and sand.

You might easily break this particular day into two parts: that before the Fourth of July Trail junction, and that after. The map indicated that for the next seven miles “trail overgrown; hard to find.” From the comfort of my home, this didn’t seem like such a daunting proposition. I love to bushwhack and route find, so I eagerly anticipated the adventure this section promised. Feet on the ground, it was an entirely different matter.

The dividing line of the day: the intersection of Icicle Ridge and the Fourth of July Trail.

Initially, ducks and cairns marked the way through a stark and sandy landscape. Faint boot track occasionally appeared. The footprints of another person pointed my direction, and I took a strange comfort in seeing them. I started to refer to the prints as being those of “my buddy.” At times we took different paths, but my buddy’s prints would always reappear on course with my own steps. Until they didn’t. Then, I knew that I was entirely alone.

The open ridge steadily gave way to stands of trees. There were no cairns in sight, and the hint of boot track came and went. Mostly, it went more than it came. When I caught sight of a track, reassurance swept over me. When I lost it, concern snuck in. Soon, the stands of trees grew into dense forest. There was no trace of my buddy or of a trail. Where the map indicated there should be trail was nothing but heavy brush and thick evergreens. The ridge descended, its slope growing steeper. The sun dropped toward the western horizon. My water drew down.

I pulled out the GPS to check my location and to assist me in finding the trail. It only served to fuel my frustration, as there simply wasn’t any sign of trail where it said one should be. Minutes later, the device’s batteries died. Stupidly, I hadn’t swapped out the old batteries before starting this journey, and I had brought only one set with me as a backup. Given that this was only Day 6 of 14, I was reluctant to use the spares so soon, but reason prevailed, and I put in the fresh pair. This moment called for some navigational assistance, and the enfolding, dense forest with no distinct landmarks meant that map and compass would not be of much help in determining my present location.

My hands trembled slightly as I replaced the batteries, the realization of how remote and alone I was slowly sinking in. The perfect word to describe the moment escapes me. I wouldn’t say I was entirely lost, and I wouldn’t say I was truly scared, but I was a little bit of both. There was still a lot of ground to cover, daylight and water were in short supply, and there was no trail. Being off trail wasn’t an unfamiliar circumstance to me, but I’d never been so remote and so alone. There was no one else for miles in any direction, of that I could be sure. True, I had a satellite device, which I could have used to message Rich and ask for help. But what kind of help could he even really offer? He would be able to see my location and could look at a map and offer suggestions, but none of that would ultimately be of much use when viewed from the actual location on the ground. In that moment, the stakes felt high. It wasn’t a life-or-death situation by any means, but it was nevertheless a serious one, and I did need to find a way forward and get to water.  

What is most remarkable to me as I reflect back on this particular juncture in my journey is that I didn’t panic. We can theorize how we might react in a given circumstance, but we can’t truly know for sure until we confront it. While there was a small sense of fear in the background, I was able to quiet it and remain focused on the task at hand. I didn’t send out a lifeline. I didn’t crumple or cry. I simply looked at the map, determined the general direction I needed to trend, and hiked on. It felt good to see that this was my response, and I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to test myself in this way.

Before I could start congratulating myself, though, there was still the matter of getting to a water source. I knew that the “trail” eventually dropped down off the ridge and crossed Cabin Creek, and that there was, supposedly, a campsite there. I noted this location on the GPS map, and then aimed in that general direction. Sometimes thickets of trees and brush drove me off course; at other times, the grade became too steep and cliffy, and I had to find another way forward or use some veggie belay to get down sketchy slopes. Every so often, I paused to check my location and correct my trajectory. The going was slow, but as in all things, I made relentless forward progress.

Emerging from the forest, I reentered a burn along the top of the ridge. While the going was downright treacherous—walking beneath dead snags that could topple at any moment; exhausting side hilling on loose sand that gave way under foot and consistently threatened to send me cascading down the side of the ridge; crawling over blowdown after blowdown—the upshot was that I could now see down into the valley and what must surely be Cabin Creek meandering through an alpine meadow below. In the distance, a copse of trees seemed the likely location of the promised camp along the creek. Now, I could simply aim for that beacon. Easier said than done, but catching sight of my water source gave me a lift.

Looking down at my goal: the forest at the edge of the meadow.

At one point, after sliding over some blowdown, I felt something catch my leg. Not thinking anything of it, I continued on, only to feel something dripping down my thigh. Reaching a hand to pat my leg, it came back covered in blood. Looking back at the tree, I saw a slick of bright red smeared across the trunk. Finding water felt like the more pressing cause in the moment, though, so onward I went, leaving a trail of blood like an advertisement to the apex predators in the neighborhood. “Here I am, a wounded animal! Just follow the red arrows to dinner!”

From time to time, pink flagging appeared to mark the way to Cabin Creek. I followed it when possible, but it was so sparse and intermittent that stopping to look for it became more distraction than aid. As such, I opted to set my sights on just getting down to the valley in the best way possible. Eventually, I stumbled into that beacon forest and found myself at Cabin Creek. It was a sight for thirsty eyes. I gulped the little water remaining in my bottle and set about the work of filtering more.

The plan had been to camp at Lake Augusta tonight. Before departing on this adventure, I sent Rich and my brother, Al, a detailed spreadsheet with my daily mileage and intended camp locations for each night. Smiling, Rich cautioned, “I wouldn’t get too wedded to this schedule. Stuff happens.” His words rolled around in my head as I assessed the waning day that barely held twilight at bay. There were still 4 miles between me and Lake Augusta. On good trail, I could cover that ground relatively quickly, but if the next few miles were anything like what I had already experienced today, there was no telling when I would arrive. Here, I had a flat spot to pitch my tent and easy access to water. It had already been a mentally and physically taxing day, and more of the same rigor was not wildly appealing at the moment. For a classic Type-A figure such as myself, veering from the Master Plan was difficult, but common sense told me it was better to call it a day in this good location rather than attempt the unknown. In my journal that night, I would humbly acknowledge that “adapting is part of the adventure.”

Finding a flattish spot, I made camp and felt the tension slowly leave my body as I put my energy into creating a home for the night. I marveled at how truly remote this place was. My guess is that this was the farthest I’d ever been from the next closest human. There was something special in that knowledge, and it was remarkable to feel a sense of comfort and pride in that remoteness rather than fear. I did have a sense of other forest occupants being nearby, and I thanked them for tolerating this interloper crashing into their home.

Camp 6: flat + near water = good enough

After dinner, I wandered across the creek in search of a good tree from which to hang my food. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I found an established campsite on the other side, complete with log “chairs.” Oh well, I was already set up in my impromptu site. Food secured, I settled in for a hard-earned sleep, drifting off with thoughts of all that the wilderness had taught me this day.

Day 7: Cabin Creek to Lake Edna

Mileage: 11.1 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +5392’ -3629’ /Highest Elevation: 7304’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “First day of not seeing another human.”

It was a slow-moving morning. I was worn out from the previous day and felt like I was coming down with a cold. Admittedly, I was also stalling a bit, not quite eager for more thrashing and bumbling about. According to the map, I would now be back on trail, but the information I’d gleaned from other trip reports suggested otherwise. The established campsite with its log chairs gave the impression that others made their way down here, but how they did so escaped me. Their route, if there was one, eluded me.

On my way out of camp, I dodged endless bear scat landmines all over the place. Looks like I had spent the night in bear heaven. There was about 50 yards of boot track leading out of camp, and a couple of pink flags, but these quite quickly disappeared, replaced by the most insane thicket I’d ever encountered. Today was going to give yesterday a run for its money.

How do I even begin to describe the impenetrable wall that stood like a fortress before me? I don’t know what species of tree or bush it was built of. I kept referring to it as slide alder, but that’s not correct and doesn’t come close to the size and challenge of this stuff. It resembled slide alder in that it was like a tree masquerading as a bush, but the branches were much thicker and taller. Most were about twice the circumference of my arm; others were even thicker. The branches burst out in all directions from a low, central trunk, then drooped down to the ground. They stood so close together that they became one blurred mass of bark and leaf. Going around, over, or under appeared impossible. My breath caught in my throat, and then I laughed out loud. What else could I do? The task of going forward felt so incredibly absurd, and I absolutely could not imagine how I was possibly going to get through it. All I knew for sure was that I would have to figure it out.

The Fortress of Foliage.

The tree bush fortress extended as far as I could see in either direction. Again, a laugh of complete exasperation tumbled out of my mouth. “I don’t know what to do.” I stammered this out loud several times. My options: go back to Cabin Creek and call for help, or find a way through. Once again, the situation pressed upon me my complete isolation. Going back wasn’t a real option. What help could anyone else provide? The only way I was getting to the other side was to rely on myself and get myself through. Thrashing through the thicket would have been difficult even without a pack, but having all of that camping gear and water on my back made it all the more challenging to negotiate. Add to this the sharp incline, and I was in for the bushwhack of my life.

Abandoning the useless GPX tracks, I dove into the chaos of flora and chose whatever path offered the least resistance. “Least resistance” was relative. At times, the tree bushes gave way to tightly packed evergreens, which, ridiculously, felt like a brief respite. At times, I paused and again muttered, “I don’t know what to do!” but always I forged ahead anyway, understanding that there was no other choice. Another wilderness lesson.

Over two hours later, I crossed to the other side. Standing above the fortress of foliage, I stopped to catch my breath and marvel at the accomplishment. I whooped in joy and laughed somewhat maniacally. The adventure of the day before had prepared me for this mentally, even if the physical test was new. My sense of self-reliance and confidence in my ability to navigate the challenges of the wilderness on my own surged. Now if only I could apply that to the trials of everyday life.

From here, I could see across the valley to the burn on the other side that I’d traversed the day before, and the meadow of Cabin Creek nestled lush below. Turning around and confronting the route to come, I could see that I was now on another burn, consisting mostly of a sandy slope even steeper than yesterday’s. At this point, there was no need for trail or tracks. The main objective was to gain the ridge. From there, I could navigate more easily over to the Hatchery Creek Trail junction. So, I made my way up, sometimes sliding backwards on the loose sand but not really caring after the trials of the tree bushes. Occasionally, I even saw my buddy’s footprints, which allowed me to believe there wasn’t actually a trail up and out of Cabin Creek that I had somehow stupidly missed.

Looking across the valley, back at the burn I’d traversed the day before. Camp 6 was in the forest on the edge of the meadow, on the right.

Three hours, and a mere quarter mile, after leaving camp, I reached the top of the ridge. I stopped for a quick rest and lunch, then moved cross country through the austere landscape. Trying to find the trail seemed like a waste of time and energy, so I simply pointed in the direction I needed to travel and kept to the top of the ridge, snaking through the burn and happy for the open country it provided. 

Reaching the junction with the Hatchery Creek Trail, there was promise of good trail onwards to Lake Augusta. I tripped merrily along the easygoing path, coming out of the burn and winding down into meadows of the Dr. Seuss-like Western Pasqueflower. What a study in contrasts! I soon arrived at Lake Augusta, where I stopped for a snack, refilled water, and consulted the map to assess my options.

The Western Pasqueflower looks like a bloom straight out of Dr. Seuss.

The tourmaline water and comfortable solitude of Lake Augusta tempted me to stay. The off-trail travel was wearing on me, and this tranquil shore sang like a siren to my fatigued body and mind. Stopping now would further derail my schedule, though, so onwards I must go. Lake Edna seemed like a worthy goal. There would be an alpine lake to call home for the night, and I could make up some lost ground by continuing on. It was roughly 6.5 miles away, and, presumably, good trail would take me there. Be careful what you presume in the wilderness.

Quiet solitude abounds at Lake Augusta.

Topping the pass above Lake Augusta, I paused to appreciate one of my favorite types of mountain experience: looking backwards, forwards, and to the present in one 360-degree rotation of the body. Here I stood, on an unnamed mountain pass nestled between two unnamed peaks. My present. Slowly spinning round, the past of steep burn and blowdown that led down into Cabin Creek came into view, followed by the emerald oasis of the meadow. My eyes then scanned up the fortress of foliage and stark slopes that I’d traversed this morning. There was the relatively easy-going ridgeline leading to the Hatchery Creek Trail junction. Lake Augusta was just out of view below, while Big Jim Mountain stood sentinel above. Here’s an unnamed peak beside me now, dissolving into focus  that which lies ahead in my near future. Far in the distance, Mount Daniel’s snowy head caught the sun. In the foreground, the ridges and peaks of the Chiwaukum Mountains unfolded like layers of a fringed, vertical cake.

This span of Icicle Ridge seems not to draw many visitors. Folks sure are missing out. I ambled through alpine meadows where wildflowers held on to summer and rambled past lonely alpine lakes embraced by evergreens. Wetlands absorbed the trail in places, once again calling on me to aim in the right direction and hope for a path to emerge. I climbed rocky slopes, rising above tree line, only to crest the ridge and contour along the sides of mountains that loomed over forested valleys.

One reason to visit this section of Icicle Ridge: traipsing through meadows ringed by peaks.

Descending into one valley, I heard the squealing alarm whistle of marmots below. It reminded me that, as connected as I might feel to the wild, I’m still an interloper here. I’d never heard marmots express such terror at a human’s approach. Some stood tall on boulders, alerting others to my presence in a frenzy of shrieks. I whispered that I meant no harm, that I was only passing through, and picked up my pace in order to exit their home with haste.

Descending into the Valley of Marmots.

After leaving the marmot village, the trail entered a forest, where it promptly abandoned me. The day was growing short, and heavy brush overwhelmed the once blank space where trail had been broken. Here I was again, in the thick of bear country with only a wisp of trail to guide me. While swimming through shrubbery, I sang out loud to signal my presence to bears. In my hurry, I tumbled and somersaulted down a slope, catching myself with a veggie belay from a tree. Shaken, I admonished myself to stop rushing around like an idiot and to try and calmly, yet briskly, move forward. There was something about the deep, dark forest that made the hair on my arms stand to attention, some ungraspable phantom that I could neither name nor see but only sense.

At the junction with the Index Creek Trail, it was decision time. Sunset was closing in, and there were 2 miles, and a monster climb, between me and Lake Edna. Here, there was a flat spot to pitch a tent and a water source. I could be forgiven for stopping; it had been a long day already. Something inside me wanted to go for it, though. I wanted the satisfaction of meeting my goal and the reward of an alpine camp. Plus, something about this forest made me uncharacteristically uneasy. Onwards, and upwards.

Back above treeline before dusk.

I’m a notoriously slow climber, but the waning daylight, coupled with the drive to finish the day as imagined, spurred me up that mountain. There was a bit of a thrill in racing the sun, and a giddiness overcame me as my feet flew up above tree line. Views obscured by evergreens gave way to ridges washed in magic hour alpenglow. Even in this haste, it took me 90 minutes to cover these last 2 uphill miles; in this particular moment, that felt like a triumph. All told, it took me 4.5 hours to hike the 6.5 miles between Lakes Augusta and Edna, which says all you need to know in order to comprehend the rugged path that lay between.

Lake Edna greeted me with the peace of dusk. With no camping permitted within 200 feet of the lake, I found a spot just below it. The wind was rising, so this perch would offer a bit of a windbreak, not to mention a panorama of peaks to steal your breath. A summit shadow rose on the flanks of a neighboring ridge. The sunset played rose and purple in the sky. I ate my dinner and reveled in the relief, and pride, that comes with the conclusion of a tough day in the mountains, and in the sense of wonder that comes with laying down to rest cradled in the arms of such unfathomable beauty.

Camp 7, below Lake Edna. One of my favorite camps of the trip.

Day 8: Lake Edna to Lower Doelle Lake

Mileage: 7.3 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +2228’ -3097’ /Highest Elevation: 7062’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “This feels like true wilderness these past 3 days.”

A fiery orange sunrise awoke me. Nestled in the coziness of my sleeping bag, I lay there and reflected on just how fortunate I was to be witness to such a stunning opening of the day. Sunsets are great, but they simply can’t compare to the miracle of dawn breaking over mountains. You feel the sun’s approach, the swirling colors on the horizon subtly shifting each moment from deep and rich to light and bright. You sense the sun’s coming presence, but also have this in between space in which it has not yet made its appearance. That moment of promise, of anticipation, of hope, lights me up inside. This was going to be a great day.

Watching sunrise from the comfort of my sleeping bag.

The night before, I’d done some calculations and thought through a reroute, given that I was behind schedule. This would entail skipping two elements of the route that I’d most been looking forward to: the Doelle and Thunder Mountain Lakes. It pained me to alter my course so drastically, but trying to cover all of that planned ground would lead to days of such great length and distance that it could very well detract from the pleasure of being out there. Plus, my off-trail shenanigans had wiped me out, and the prospect of more wasn’t appetizing. From what I had read, the trip down to the Doelle Lakes would be largely off trail, tricky, steep, and seldom done (especially heading down to them instead of up and out from them.) Therefore, at Frosty Pass, instead of taking the boot track over to the Doelles, I would head down the Frosty-Wildhorse Trail and over to Josephine Lake.

Leaving Lake Edna.

The trail was eye-popping gorgeous right out the gate. In the moment, this was my favorite day of the entire trip, and this stretch of trail is unrivalled by anything else I’ve ever trekked. When I reflect on this adventure, and dream of going back, it is to this section of Icicle Ridge, in the vicinity of Ladies Pass, that I long to return.

Life is best in the high country.

The trail ambled up and out of the Lake Edna basin toward Cape Horn, to which I whispered a promise to summit next time. It wandered along the sides of slopes, contouring below jagged peaks. The trail then followed the crest of the ridge through the most spectacular high country of the Cascades. Alpine meadows took on the russet reds, golds, and oranges of autumn as streams meandered through them in lazy, looping curves. Rounding a bend, Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) came into view for the first time on this journey. The sweeping view encompassed everything from Mount Daniel in the north to Mount Stuart in the east. “This is what I came for,” I reverently said into the voice recorder app on my phone.

The snowy summits of Tahoma (left) and Mt. Daniel (right).
High country panorama. At the junction of Chiwaukum Creek Trail.

There was no other option but to pause after gaining Ladies Pass. It was all too much. While there was a big day ahead, I decided that there’s always 5 minutes to stop and appreciate a great view. I had also developed the habit of eating a second breakfast, so I pulled out the trail mix, took a seat, and marveled at this remarkable vista. I determined in that moment to return here and share it with others; it was too beautiful to keep to myself, and it’s the type of place that you want to experience with people you love. Those 5 minutes sitting at this pass will stand as a highlight.

The view from Ladies Pass. It is absolutely beautimous (thanks, Tim Scharks, for that word.)
Ladies Pass is so pretty, it gets two photos.

From there, the trail contours along the flanks of Ladies Peak (another summit I promised to come back for), with a view of Lake Florence below. This alpine lake appears to have the best vantage point of any lakeside camp in all of Washington. Yet another promise to return and enjoy it. It was here that I started to notice a lot of cougar tracks and scat. It wasn’t something to fear, but I did take note. Not having seen another human in days—not even human tracks at this point—it did underscore my remoteness. It was just me and the cougars out there. Channeling Cheryl Strayed’s mantra—and understanding full well that humans are not on the menu for cougars—I told myself that fear was not an option.

I’m definitely coming back for you, Lake Florence.

At Mary’s Pass, Dakobed (Glacier Peak) came into view. All the mountains were out! I took a seat to relieve the weight on my sore shoulder for a moment and enjoy the view when three older men rambled up the trail. They were headed back to Lake Flore after a night at Lake Mary, claiming Flore was the best camp they’d ever had in their decades of hiking the Cascades. Duly noted. The trio asked about my route and were impressed by it, never once asking a remotely condescending question. After describing my harrowing experience of Cabin Creek, and based on what they’d heard about it, all three laughed and agreed that it wouldn’t be a failure if I skipped the cross-country section to the Doelles.

View of Lake Mary from Mary’s Pass.

There were many pauses over the next mile to snap photos and gasp out loud at the magnificence of this section of the trail. I feel that I’m out of fresh superlatives at this point in my recounting. As I walked, the thought of rerouting nagged me. Finding the route down to the Doelles was probably the section I’d most been looking forward to. By the time I reached the junction at Frosty Pass, I’d made a decision: “If it’s less than 18 miles tomorrow to reach Glacier Lake from Lower Doelle, then I’ll stick to the original route.” A quick consult of the map, and the math added up: 17.9 miles. Ha!

There was plenty of daylight left, so even if the next few miles entailed more insane bushwhacking, I’d have time to reach Lower Doelle Lake before dark. My heart beat wildly, drawn to the Doelles and the adventure that getting there promised. I sent a quick message to Al and Rich to let them know I was scrapping the reroute and forging ahead as planned, regardless of what lay ahead. After Cabin Creek and the Fortress of Foliage, I could do anything.

I would have missed this view had I re-routed.

You might say that the result was anticlimactic, as there was good trail most of the way and little route finding or bushwhacking, but this would fail to characterize this last stretch of Icicle Ridge. It was less traveled, but not impossible, and it continued in the same vein as the rest of the day: contouring trails, sweeping vistas, mountains galore, and autumnal alpine meadows.

Dropping down into a forest, the sound of a creature coming around the bend startled and stopped me. At first, it registered as a bear, but soon I realized it was a man and his dog. He’d also been surprised to see me there; it’s not a trail on which you expect to encounter others. He asked, “How long you out for?” but seem deflated when I replied, “Two weeks.” “Oh,” he said almost sheepishly, “I’m just out for one.” It was a bit of an awkward exchange. He advised me to be careful coming down the mountain, as there were many little tracks and some cliffed out. I thanked him but never actually found out what he was referring to, as I didn’t encounter this myself.

The meadows below the Doelle Lakes.

The meadow below the Doelles lost the trail here and there, so I headed in the general direction and then started making my way up a rocky section, where I beheld Upper Doelle Lake. It was surprising to see a large horse camp here. I scouted around for other sites and decided to check out Lower Doelle before committing. It was an easy decision after I dropped down to the lower lake. It lay nestled in a bowl beneath the scree slopes of Bull’s Tooth and Chain Lakes Peaks. The aquamarine water was crystal clear and so inviting. Giddy, I pitched camp up above the lake amongst a stand of firs. Thanks to the low mileage and relatively easy trail, I had most of the day left for relaxing and attending to things like solar charging, laundry, reading, eating, and…a bath!

The crystal clear waters of Lower Doelle Lake, with Chain Lakes Peak as backdrop.

Washing up in a creek or lake outlet each night was refreshing in its own way, but nothing compares to a full-on submersion in an alpine lake. Tossing clothes on a rock, I dove in and luxuriated in my first real bath of the journey. The pleasure of plunging into those crisp waters after more than a week on the trail is beyond description. Floating on your back in a lake you claim all to yourself, as the sun warms you and the mountains cup you, that is the ultimate privilege of the wild, and it is sheer bliss.

I was grateful for this day of beauty and rest.

Camp 8, at Lower Doelle Lake and with the Bull’s Tooth in the background.

Day 9: Lower Doelle Lake to Glacier Lake

Mileage: 17.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +4210’ -5291’ /Highest Elevation: 6240’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Got to use Eagle Scout privy this morning. Great view!”

Well, that day of rest closed with restlessness. I fell asleep to the soft sounds of robins welcoming the evening. It’s always a surprise to see them in the mountains, as I think of them as Midwestern backyard birds. It was so comforting and peaceful to drift off to the notes of their song. Later that night, another sound wrenched me from sleep. I couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t a growl, and it wasn’t a grunt, but it was something in between, and it came from what sounded like a very large nonhuman animal. Cougar tracks and scat ran rampant around the Doelle Lakes, so it didn’t seem like a stretch to suppose that was who called now. I fell back to sleep, only to be shaken awake again by the same eerie cry in the dark. The third time it sounded, I was still awake, and knew that it hadn’t been a dream. Admittedly, I was a little nervous. It was a chilling sound, and the mammal making it was nearby. I reassured myself that never in the history of the world had a cougar ever attacked someone sleeping in a tent. A bit on edge, despite having statistics on my side, I blew through some precious battery power by playing a podcast in the hopes of lulling me to sleep. While I never heard the cry again after the third time, sleep came only in fits and starts that night.

Thanks to the Eagle Scout who built this privy.

Robins returned to wake me in the morning. Shrugging off the restless night, I readied for the big day. It was a real treat not to begin my day by digging a cat hole. Instead, I was the beneficiary of an Eagle Scout project privy. It sat on a rise above camp and faced the Chiwaukum Mountains. You couldn’t ask for a better view while taking care of your morning business.

Morning at Lower Doelle Lake, with the Bull’s Tooth and Chair Lakes Peak above.

As I climbed out of the Doelle Lakes basin, Dakobed came back into view. Wildfire smoke started to roll in, but it wasn’t too thick at this point, and the vistas on the ascent were just stunning. I waved farewell to these gem lakes, glad to have had the opportunity to meet them. Coming over the gap, the Chain Lakes appeared below, the shores lined with tents and hammocks. It’s the extra climb up from there to the Doelle Lakes that keeps the latter a more private experience. There were several parties camped at the Chain Lakes, and the scent of their hot breakfasts and coffee teased my nose as I passed through.

Hiking up and out of the Doelle Lakes Basin. You can see the faint, snowy summit of Dakobed peaking its head above the ridge.
Descending to the Chain Lakes.

On the Icicle Creek Trail, I encountered two bear hunters with bows and arrows. It pissed me off to no end. Who kills a bear? And what particular breed of asshole does it with a bow and arrow? Surely that’s not often a one-arrow-clean-shot kind of kill, and it seems unlikely that these boys planned to eat the meat. The endeavor struck me as a macho, ego fueled, trophy hunt. I shot a snarling look in their direction, and then made as much noise as possible along the trail. Salmon berry patches, loaded with fruit, lined this section of trail—a bear’s paradise of plenty. I hoped that today they would grab lunch elsewhere and evade these hunters and their arrows.

Hiking down from the Chain Lakes. Not all trails were high alpine rambles. A lot of my journey was spent on forest trails such as this.

The Icicle Creek Trail deposited me onto the Pacific Crest Trail. My objective for this journey was to avoid the PCT as much as possible, choosing instead less traveled trails, but this part of the route necessitated it. While I would cross paths with many more people here, it was nevertheless a gorgeous section of trail. As I made my way past a series of lakes and climbed to Trap Pass, the day grew strange. The smoke descended and thickened, blotting out the sun and mountains alike. You could tell that the sun was there, but the smoke filtered it, making high noon feel more like dusk. No birds chirped. It was quiet and still and spooky.

Along the way, it struck me that I was living my dream. “I’m doin’ it!” I stammered out loud, almost in disbelief. What had been lines on a map and calculations in my brain was now my reality. It seemed a bit funny that this only now occurred to me, but there I was, regaling in the fact that my footsteps carried me down paths I had only known as names on maps and as figments of my imagination.

Perk of the PCT: boulder fields have trails through them.

My anxiety about finding a campsite kicked in with each party I met. PCT hikers were grouped around each lake I passed, and I worried that Glacier Lake would be crawling with them. At the top of Trap Pass, I passed a party heading my way; after a few brief pleasantries, I hightailed it down the other side. I was in such a hurry that I didn’t even think about the fact that my original plan had called for turning off on a boot track here and climbing up to camp at the Thunder Mountain Lakes (Next time!) It’s interesting how my shoulder pain always faded in moments like this. I raced with some urgency down the switchbacks, at times catching the other hikers’ voices above me, which only spurred me on faster.

Reaching Glacier Lake, I found a large party of loud young men camped at the south end of the lake. I picked my way along the eastern shore, hoping for some privacy. I managed to tuck my tent into a tight little spot right on the bank of the lake. The young men, thinking they were alone, let out wild, primal yells, each trying to outdo the last. Then, they discussed in earnest where to stash their bear barrels. It seemed like it was their first night out in the backcountry, so I cut them some slack and hoped they were enjoying it. One of them stumbled into my camp with his bear canister in hand and startled when he saw me. He became incredibly polite, asking me about where I’d stored my canister (“I hang my food.”) and where I thought he might put his. I gave him some tips on securing food, we exchanged some pleasantries, and then the boys were much better neighbors once they realized they were sharing the lake.

Look closely to see a smoke-filtered sun disk reflected in Glacier Lake.

Another hiker and her partner showed up soon after, asking me about a site for them. I gestured toward one on the other side of me that seemed promising. They were taking a week to hike the J Section of the PCT, and this was their last night. “I’ve been out for 9 days and have no idea what is going on in the world!” I said. She was in much the same position, and we were both grateful for this brief escape from the rest of the world.

After cleaning up, I settled into my tent, hopeful for a good night’s sleep. I’d busted my butt to get there, covering the 17.9 miles in 8.5 hours, and was worn out. Sleep came fast and deep.

Camp 9, on Glacier Lake.

Day 10: Glacier Lake to Fisher Lake

Mileage: 12.35 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +3428’ -3462’ /Highest Elevation: 5939’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Did my best thin log river crossings ever.”

Morning found me hiking toward the Surprise Gap Trail, where I would leave the PCT and climb up and over Surprise Gap. I’d originally planned to camp at the summit of Surprise Mountain, which I’d visited earlier in the summer. It has the perfect little platform to pitch a tent and enjoy expansive views up into the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Alas, that, too, must wait for another day. So, too, would the Surprise Gap Trail, it turned out. Where the junction should have been, I saw nothing but talus. It was clear that a trail work crew had obscured the trail and lined the junction with large boulders that discouraged you from leaving the PCT. I knew this was a decommissioned trail, but I thought there would still be traces of it.

After lots of looking, no sight of trail or boot track materialized. The going would be rough, boulder hopping and talus whacking up a steep slope to the Gap. I needed to reach the Tonga Ridge trailhead by 11:00 a.m., so I reluctantly gave up on the planned route and regrettably stuck to the PCT. My disappointment made the climb to Piper Pass even more challenging. Even Rich, who hadn’t messaged a peep on this journey, sent one saying, “You missed the Surprise Gap trail!” Sorry, Dudefriend. Next time we’ll go find it together.

Surprise Gap, minus trail.

Along the way, frantic NOBO (northbound) PCT hikers stopped me, pumping me for information about smoke to the north. They could not compute my reply that I hadn’t been on the PCT for very long and didn’t know about conditions further to the north. That there were other trails in the area that one might choose to travel seemed not to register with them. Some repeated the question, clearly confused. All of them seemed a bit panicked. They struck me as quite needy. They wanted as much information as possible in order to continue their trek. This is partly why I wanted to avoid the PCT; being remote and self-reliant was more appealing to me than engaging with others on the trail. Admittedly, I had my own personal fireman keeping an eye on the wildfire situation for me (that morning, Rich also sent an update saying no fires were near me), so I shared that info with the thru-hikers.

I pressed forward to get off the PCT in the hopes of not being further accosted. The Deception Creek Trail was just the remedy, as I didn’t encounter another person. It’s a lovely trail that winds through a deep forest along the banks of the creek, which I crossed several times using some exceptionally narrow logs (having terrible balance, this is always precarious for me.) Someone has been showing this trail some love, as the blowdowns had all been sawed and there were nice little camps along the way. Most of the trail was cushy, cruisy, and downhill, so I made good time. When the trail began to climb up toward Tonga Ridge, I saw a memorial to a woman named Faye Ogilvie, who had been an active member of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Protection Society and who had worked to preserve these wild lands. I’d love to learn more about her.

One of several thin logs crossed on this day.

At precisely 11:00 a.m. I popped out onto the forest road at the Tonga Ridge trailhead to see a white VW Westie waiting for me. The decision to meet up with Seth was made a few days into my trip. At the time, I was trying to determine whether or not to return to that relationship. If I was going to, then I wanted him to support me in my endeavors, so I made the decision to allow him to join me for a night on the trail. I turned down his offer to bring me anything specific (I would have loved to ask for new socks and band-aids, but I resisted because I wanted the trip to be self-supported.) I decided anything he chose to bring would be considered “trail magic,” which I would accept. He had chips, salsa, and bubbly water waiting, all of which I gladly partook.

While Seth cooked up a veggie burger, I retrieved my second food cache, which was exciting to find exactly where I’d left it over two weeks earlier. I demolished the burger as well as some nondairy ice cream. Both were fantastic, but the tastiest treat was actually an apple. It was so fresh and juicy and apparently what I had been craving for so long.

Appetite sated and my food stores replenished, we hiked up the Tonga Ridge Trail. My original plan had been to sleep out under the stars on top of Mount Sawyer, but the smoke and lack of water led me to change plans. While it would add a few extra miles, I chose Fisher Lake as a good alternate. There would be water, and you can’t go wrong calling an alpine lake home for the night. There was no one else there, so we chose a nice site by the lake and had the place to ourselves. We read in the hammock and tested out the echo on the surrounding cliffs.

Camp 10, on Fisher Lake.

That evening, my gut came to realize, even if my heart wasn’t quite ready to believe it, that this would likely be our last night out camping together. Having a supportive partner was incredibly important to me, so I felt like it was the right decision to give it a try and see how this went. Ultimately, it wasn’t going to work, though. I could feel that in this moment. There was part of me that wondered if I should have broken the 100% solo aspect of my adventure, but the fate of this relationship was something I had needed to find out for myself.

Fortunately, this journey had already shown me how truly happy I can be wandering through the wilderness and sleeping in a tent alone.

Day 11: Fisher Lake to East Fork Foss River

Mileage: 19.2 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +1654’ -4322’ /Highest Elevation: 5197’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Shows I have developed my own way to do things [when setting up camp].”

Rain clouds broke open the morning and sent us scrambling to pack before the drops soaked our gear. After a quick concert on our recorders (the only time I played the thing this entire trip), we parted at the Tonga Ridge Trail junction, me heading west and he east. There was a multi-layered sadness in the parting. I was happy to be up on this ridge, though, even if I was sorry to miss Mount Sawyer. “Next time!” became my refrain on this adventure. The fall colors were coming on strong, and the trail made its way along the spine of the ridge, offering occasional views of the surrounding mountains. The smoke obscured these vistas but still left a sense of the grandeur a clear day would reveal.

Parting shot, Tonga Ridge Trail. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Much of the day would entail a road walk. At least it was all downhill, so I could make good time, but it was nevertheless a bit boring, zigzagging down endless ruts of gravel and dirt. At a road junction, I found a bit more trail magic. A cairn led me to a Bodhizafa beer, hidden beneath a swath of tree bark. I pocketed it for later. Soon after, Seth drove by and asked if I wanted another burger. “Is that a real question?” Of course I did. He met me another mile down the road, lunch prepared. I also accepted a parting gift of an apple and some chocolate peanut butter cups, and then we waved a final farewell.

The road eventually led me to the Necklace Valley trailhead. My goal was to make it another 5 miles up the trail to a riverside camp. It was going to make this a 20+ mile day, but I figured it was far enough away from the trailhead that I could avoid any people of ill intent (although it seems like most of the problems stay at the trailhead, with car break-ins being a notorious issue here.)

Sometimes, there’s a sturdy bridge!

About three miles up the trail, rain seemed imminent, and I was tired. Right when I needed it, a footpath materialized, leading down to the banks of the East Fork of the Foss River. There, I found a nice camp with a river view. Below it, the clear mountain water cascaded over large boulders, sounding like small thunder. I’d covered over 19 miles, so it seemed fair enough to call it a day.

East Fork Foss River, right below my camp.

Not having touched alcohol in months, that one IPA gave me quite a buzz. I sipped it riverside, luxuriating in the cascading current and the warmth of the hops. From there, I made my way over to a throne made out of stones, where I sat to enjoy some vegan cheese-its, my camp-making reward. Toss in the extra apple and peanut butter cups, and I felt like a queen there on my stone throne.

The rain came at last, so I crawled into my cozy tent and listened to it patter on the fly from the comfort of my sleeping bag. There was a lot to occupy my thoughts, but I chose to return my focus to my solo journey and leave the rest to be dealt with upon my return.

Camp 11, above the East Fork Foss River.

Day 12: East Fork Foss River to Emerald Lake

Mileage: 5.7 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +3435’ -814’ /Highest Elevation: 4879’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “This truly is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Lingering rain called for a lazy morning in the tent. There wouldn’t be many miles to cover today, so taking it slow was permissible. Recalling the hike down and out of the Necklace Valley a year prior, I also knew that it was going to be a day of nothing but climbing going up valley. The humidity didn’t help, and this leg turned out to be a bit of a slog. Fortunately, the vine maples were showing off their autumn coats, and Bald and Silver Eagle Peaks soared in the distance. I stopped a lot to take it all in (and to catch my breath.)

Sulphur Shelf mushrooms (aka Chicken of the Woods).
Sometimes, there’s a rotting log.
Autumn arrives in the Necklace Valley.

The Necklace Valley must surely get its name from the aquamarine lakes that string its length like liquid gems. At the eastern edge, Mount Hinman stands sentinel. Typically, it’s jam packed with campers, but arriving the Tuesday after Labor Day meant I’d probably have the place to myself. The goal was to reach Al Lake, in honor of my brother Al, who was my nightly emergency check-in. I followed a boot track in its direction, but to no avail. It was kinda rough going, and farther out than it appeared on the map, and there was no guarantee of a campsite there.

Entering the Necklace Valley, with Mt. Hinman in the distance (Next time, Mt. Hinman!)

I retraced my steps and headed over to Opal Lake, making my way around its banks to the far side. When the trail gave way to boulders to hop, I gave up and turned around. Having noticed a nice site above Emerald Lake, I backtracked, feeling a bit defeated. At least I’d have a nice flat spot on a ledge above an alpine lake, even if it seemed to have earned its name from the green algae that blanketed its surface. My brother’s birthstone is the emerald, so it seemed like a fitting enough tribute.

It was amazing how much the day had taken out of me, with the climbing and humidity. I’d also taken a nasty fall along the way and had a killer blood blister on my hand where I’d broken the fall. At least I didn’t hit my head. A young man startled me as I was settling in to prepare dinner. He encouraged me to break camp and head over to the prettiest site in the valley above Opal Lake. It seemed that I had turned back just shy of this perfect place. My new friend kept insisting that I go there, for both its idyllic setting and its distance from the trail (and the privy.) I appreciated his suggestion, and on any other day I’d probably have followed his tip, but I was just done for the day.

Camp 12, above Emerald Lake.

We had a nice long chat, and he repeatedly expressed admiration for my route and journey. He asked, “What’s the name of your book, so that I can look for it when it’s out?” Flattered, I explained that it was a work in progress without a title yet, but I gave him my name so he could look it up. His name was Justin Birch, and he was delightful company. We exchanged some of our favorite secret places in Washington (for some reason, it felt right to share some secret spots with him; he was one of those people you just instantly trust and like.) Once again, a positive interaction with a man in the wild helped me to feel that there are men out there who aren’t going to mansplain or condescend to a solo woman. As Justin turned to make his way up to the Tank Lakes we waved goodbye, and I hoped that our paths would cross again someday.  

Sitting on a ledge perched above Emerald Lake, I ate my dinner and noted with a tinge of sadness that my nights were few in the mountains. In fact, the next night would be the last of this adventure. I reflected that the journey had both gone by quickly and also felt like a small lifetime. I smiled, feeling already this had truly been the greatest experience of my life, and I warmed with the knowledge that it would be the first big adventure of many more solo wild experiences to follow.

Day 13: Emerald Lake to Lake Ivanhoe

Mileage: 5.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss:+2251’ -2331’ /Highest Elevation: 5979’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “I will miss the life I’ve led on this adventure, but I also know that it isn’t over. It is just beginning.”

When I’d gained the top of Aasgard Pass, I told my brother Al not to worry, that I had navigated the crux of the route and all was good. Icicle Ridge forced me to reassess what, exactly, the crux of this journey was. La Bohn Gap made me realize that there was not one crux but several cruces to confront. Approaching the Gap was one of the most intimidating experiences of this entire adventure. La Bohn Gap sits at the top of a steep, shitty, scary-ass gulley; there is no other way to say this. It shook my nerves.

Going up the gulley of doom to La Bohn Gap.

According to the map, there’s a trail up to the Gap, leading to the La Bohn Lakes. A short, trailless section follows, and then, apparently, there’s a trail leading down the other side to the Chain Lakes and on to Williams Lake. If this journey had taught me anything, it’s that trails on maps don’t necessarily guarantee trails on the ground.

Cautiously, I picked my way up the gulley, showing off my uncanny ability to choose the loose boulders to step on. My footing options were loose scree, medium-sized talus, or larger boulders. When possible, I went for the larger boulders, as they seemed to offer the surest footing. Knowing this was ankle-turner territory, I moved slowly, each step careful and deliberate. Pausing to look up toward the Gap, my heart leaped into my throat. “How can this possibly be the way up?” It was so stupidly steep, cliffed out in some places and just generally treacherous in others. With a number of trail runners having completed the La Bohn Traverse, I knew this route would go and that it saw its share of people, but it boggled my mind that they had gone up and over this thing. A friend had done so just a few weeks prior, but I’d intentionally not asked him for any beta, wanting instead to find my own way.

Feeling isolated, knowing the closest person was Justin Birch up at Tank Lakes—and that he wouldn’t hear a cry for help—I decided to send Seth a message and said I’d let him know when I got down the other side. I just wanted someone to know where I was at that precise moment and to have some eyes on the tracker, and I didn’t want to worry my brother. That I did this speaks to how much this gulley sketched me out.

Pausing on a rare flat spot to look back and catch my breath.

Soon, some trees edged the field of boulder and talus. Thinking this would be better footing, I made my way over there. It was still steep, but there were trees to offer a veggie belay, and it didn’t feel as dangerous as the gulley. At times, I caught whiff of a boot track, but mostly it was a bushwhack up. While still sketchy, it felt safer. On the rare occasion, a cairn pointed the way. I kept looking for the La Bohn Lakes and could not imagine how a lake could possibly perch on a slope like this. A hard turn to the northeast, and away from the gulley, brought with it a tremendous sense of relief. The going was still tough, but it became clear that I would skip the worst of the gulley as I made my way over to the La Bohn Lakes.

At the La Bohn Lakes (left) with Bears Breast Mountain in the hazy distance.

Reaching those crystal pools, I paused for lunch and to calm my nerves. The wind blew fiercely, but I was so happy to be sitting down on relatively flat ground, that it hardly bothered me at all. Of course, in true Ellen fashion, I began congratulating myself much too soon. Catching my mistake, I said out loud, “Remember: the mountains have big ears.”

Reaching a notch that would deliver me to the Middlefork Valley, a sea of boulders sat waiting for me. It should not have been such a surprise that the Chain Lakes Trail no longer existed (note that these are a separate set of lakes also named the Chain Lakes.) There was no veggie belay by-pass on this side, so down I went, one boulder at a time. The scrambling was in many ways much more difficult on this side of the Gap, even if it wasn’t quite as steep. The boulders were much less settled, and they rocked under my footsteps. At times, I had to just laugh at how ridiculously difficult and dangerous it all was. At others, I felt a tinge of pride in the fact that I was figuring it out and making my way through on my own. I realized that going solo means that sometimes you have to go even slower, because a bad step can have even bigger consequences.

Dutch Miller Mine

The Chain Lakes offered another brief respite. Here, I found an old mine (the Dutch Miller Mine, I learned later, which held a range of metals and minerals, including “a small bonanza of rich copper ore.”) My guess at the time was pyrite, given the golden rocks that littered the ground. Some previous visitor had lined up a display of minerals and mining tool specimens. It was strange to see this scar on the land in such a remote spot. Apparently, it was the remoteness of this mine that ultimately made it not profitable to prospectors.

Minerals from the Dutch Miller Mine on display. You can see my route down from La Bohn Lakes in the background.

While the wildfire smoke lay thick in the Middlefork Valley, the distinctive spires of Bears Breast Mountain emerged in the distance, quite striking despite the hazy filter. A light boot track led me optimistically onwards, until a cliff stopped me in my tracks. Below, Williams Lake beckoned. This cliff would not go, though, so I retraced my steps and continued down the boulder field. This went on for hours.

The endless boulder field.
Williams Lake below. There’s a cliff between me and it, so back to the boulders I go.
Looking back at my route. I came down the boulder field to the right side of the area with trees, and before that had scrambled down the gulley that wraps around behind there.

At long last, I reached another light boot track in a small forest. While still steep, the veggie belay offered some comfort, and walking on dirt was far less taxing—both mentally and physically—than boulder hopping. Of course, the wild always reminds you not to get too cozy. Enormous piles of bear scat littered the trail, and I sang out loud to let them know I was just passing through and wouldn’t eat their blueberries. I’d expected some relief, and a trail, at Williams Lake, and I’m not sure why I was once again surprised not to find one. There was another mine here, complete with rusting rail car tracks. At this point, I just wanted to find a trail, so I didn’t linger to investigate.

The mine above Williams Lake.

While the slope had leveled out, I now found myself on the north side of the lake in a marshy meadow that also had giant boulders strewn about. I felt a bit at my wits end and longed for a trail—this coming from the woman who once proudly boasted, “Bushwhack is my middle name.” I guess there can be too much of a good thing. Still singing to the bears, I waded through this mucky maze for quite some time before finally reaching the west side of the lake, where I found a decent boot track. By the time I was on the south side of the lake, I was on a bona-fide trail. My tune changed to a new song, dubbed, “the happy song you sing when you find a trail.” I belted it like a maniac.

It had taken me 6 hours to travel these 3.5 cross-country miles. Happy trail song, indeed.

Soon, I intersected the Dutch Miller Gap Trail and was now in familiar territory. I’d come down from Dutch Miller Gap the year before on my Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop. Here, you find the source of the Middlefork of the Snoqualmie River, just a meandering trickle that you can leap over in an effortless hop. I ascended toward Dutch Miller Gap with a new spring in my step, knowing Lake Ivanhoe waited just beyond.

Regardless of the revisions to this route, I always knew it would end with the final night at Lake Ivanhoe. The lake had captured my imagination when planning my Bonkers Loop the year before, and it had not disappointed when I made its acquaintance in real life. I’d arrived at that magic hour, with the soft light of dusk kissing the cliff walls and peaks mirrored in the unreal blue waters. I’d longed to return and spend the night at this beautiful place, and now here I was. Lake Ivanhoe was as stunning as remembered.

Lake Ivanhoe comes into view.

I found a sweet site on a peninsula that juts into the lake and made camp one last time. The blue of these waters was unlike anything else I’d encountered, and I sat on its shore, reflecting on my journey. I wondered what it would be like to reenter the other world, as I’d come to think of it. What would it be like to take a hot shower? Sleep in a bed? Have instant, potable water with the turn of a tap? Eat ice cream? Have a conversation with humans? Hear world news?

The immensity of my journey, both internal and external, pressed itself upon me. It was the accumulation of everything I’d learned in the past three years, put into practice. The route asked me to think on my feet and keep my head when things got sketchy. I learned to trust my gut and believe in myself. The journey revealed to me the pleasures that come with going solo. My confidence grew, yet I came to appreciate the difference going solo makes and understood the need to move with a larger dose of respect for the wild.

Of all the lakes I visited, Lake Ivanhoe has the most beautiful, jade green water.

I knew in this moment that my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation would be a touchstone for me, that it was, and would always be, one of the most important and profound experiences of my entire life. At the same time, it would also take time to process it more completely.

These thoughts swirled around in my head as I lay down to sleep, content and full.

Camp 13, on Lake Ivanhoe.

Day 14: Lake Ivanhoe to Cathedral Trailhead

Mileage: 18.55 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss:+3124’ -4415’ /Highest Elevation: 5607’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: Alas, I did not write a journal entry on the last day.

Breaking camp, one last time.

After sharing some heartfelt words of gratitude with Lake Ivanhoe, the creatures whose homes I’d traipsed through, and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was time to head home. My final night wasn’t quite as restful as hoped. The local pikas were squeaking wildly well after dark, which unsettled me. Typically, they cry out when alarmed, so the fact that they kept doing so led me to wonder if there was something lurking around that spooked them. This, in turn, spooked me. The mystery remains unsolved, but I learned that it is possible to grow tired of the adorable peeps of pikas.

Still crossable!

I crossed the dilapidated bridge over the headwaters of the Waptus River and began the long, switchbacked descent to Waptus Lake. A year prior, I’d struggled up this endless zigzag, and it was a nice change to be cruising downhill instead now. Enjoying the assist from gravity, and lost in my thoughts, I was caught off guard by the unmistakable sound of a bear crashing through the thickets. My first bear sighting of the trip! I’d wondered if a bear and I would ever cross paths along this route. There’d been plenty of scat but no visible bears until now, my last day on the trail. This one was small, probably a yearling newly off on its own. In true black bear fashion, the only thing I saw was its cute little butt as it fled down the mountain through the trees. Given that the trail would switchback for the next few miles, I laughed at the potential comedy of errors if the bear continued to run down to the next turn in the trail, and we played this game all the way down the mountain. It must have altered its course, as I never saw it again. I’d always wondered what it would be like to encounter a bear while solo. Now I knew; in this case, it was exciting but also not scary at all.

Eventually, I reached the PCT. After some thought, I decided to alter my route at the last moment. Originally, I’d planned to leave the PCT at the far end of Waptus Lake and take the Trail Creek Trail. The thinking was that Trail Creek was the path less traveled. Having run that trail the previous summer, I knew that it would offer solitude but not the most interesting scenery. The PCT, on the other hand, is quite beautiful along this leg and worth the extra mileage. I also planned to run Trail Creek the following week with Rich on another adventure, so that sealed the deal: I would change course and take the PCT to Cathedral Pass.

Wildfire smoke continued to engulf the valley, and its effects on my breathing started to compound. Nevertheless, the dramatic scenery, and the thrill of soon completing such a significant goal, propelled me forward. Along Waptus Lake, I saw two deer and found a giant wild turkey feather; these seemed like good omens. I took the feather as a souvenir. The blueberries were at their best ripeness, and I gleefully snacked along the way. An electric excitement buzzed through my entire being.

Happy hiker. I took a rare selfie in the hopes that a photo would capture the electricity flowing through me.

The climb up to Cathedral Pass was a bit of a slog. I remembered how much fun it had been to run down it the year prior, but climbing was a different matter. The spire of Cathedral Rock came into view and pulled me forward. I sent a message to Rich letting him know I was about 2 hours out and proceeded to daydream about the ice-cold bubbly water and root beer I knew he’d have waiting. I tried not to allow myself to imagine him also bringing a veggie burger and waffle fries, but after the thought emerges, it’s like saying, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the pink rhinoceros on the other side of the room.” Of course, you look.

On the pretty PCT near Deep Lake.

Reaching Cathedral Pass was a bittersweet victory. There were now only 4.9 mostly downhill miles between me and the end of this journey. The heat and smoke had taken a bit out of me, but, smelling the barn, my legs rallied and rolled down the trail. I’d only seen two hikers on the PCT—the first people I’d seen in two days—so the reroute still provided solitude and felt like the right choice.

Nearing Cathedral Pass, with Cathedral Rock welcoming me.

At Squaw Lake I encountered a small crowd of campers. One man gestured to me and said, “Ask her; she looks like she’d know.” The two hikers he’d said this to asked me about campsites further up the trail, and I encouraged them to check out a nice little spot up by Cathedral Pass. It felt a little odd to interact with people.

Really smelling the barn now, I trotted down the trail and chanted a mantra of “Root beer! Root beer!”, rolling my Rs and rocking into an easy jog. I knew this section of trail quite well and the anticipation of emerging from the forest to find a friendly face waiting built to a crescendo. When the trail bottomed out and turned flat, my feet kicked it up a notch. After crossing the bridge, I let out a coyote yip and leaped when Rich’s call came in reply. The trees cleared, and the trail deposited me right back where I’d started two weeks earlier. I’ll never forget the first sight I saw: Rich grinning big as he raised his arm high in the air to display the takeout bag that surely contained a burger and fries.

Back to the place from where I started, but as a new person. Photo credit: Rich White

Jubilant, I came in for a big hug and shed a few tears of pure joy. Rich handed me a moist towelette to clean up and offered me both a bubbly water and a sarsaparilla (which I love even more than root beer.) The bag contained an Impossible Burger with vegan cheese, waffle fries, and BBQ sauce. He even brought a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I dove into this delectable feast. You perhaps have no idea how delicious this meal was, and my words will fail to convey the depths to which I enjoyed it. It might seem strange, but the lettuce on the burger was the best part. After a couple weeks of dehydrated food, the crisp freshness of the lettuce was out of this world.

One of the greatest meals of my life.

I was happiness personified, and sitting with a great friend and munching this wonderful meal was the perfect conclusion to this epic adventure. Well, let me correct that. The shower that I took a couple hours later was the perfect conclusion. Rich said, “You’d better not come out of that shower in less than a half an hour.” He handed me a scrub brush (much needed), and I marveled at the incredible scent of the bar of soap. Being out in the wild, rinsing off in creeks, and wearing the same clothes for two weeks helps you to appreciate the little things in life. Like the simple, clean scent of soap. I can’t imagine that any shower in the rest of my life will ever compare to that one. Clean and content, I curled up in front of the wood stove like a cat and fell fast asleep.

Acknowledgements

It is important first to acknowledge that this land known today as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is the unceded territory of several Coast Salish Tribes and the P’Squosa (Wenatchi), who have been its historical stewards since time immemorial and who continue to be so.

You will have noticed that wildfire smoke ensnarls nearly every photo here. It is important to acknowledge that the increased frequency and severity of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) are a direct result of human-caused climate change. As humans, we will need to confront this global crisis head-on, and immediately, if we don’t want to hike exclusively through burns in the future.

If you’d like to get out into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I highly recommend Nathan and Jeremy Barnes’ excellent guide to this area. They provide all the info you need to get out for a great day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip.

Thanks to everyone who worked to establish the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and who continue efforts to conserve it, particularly the Alpine Lakes Protection Society. The ALPS publishes a great map of the area, as does Green Trails Maps (east and west maps.)

Big thanks to my brother, Al, for being my Safety Captain throughout this journey. He was there each night to make sure I checked in to confirm that I was still alive. Thanks for being there for me when I needed you, bro.

Thanks to everyone who followed along on my inReach MapShare and for your kind words of encouragement. It was comforting to know others were watching from afar and cheering me on. I felt your good energy out there.

Sorry, Terry Parks, that I wouldn’t let you join me at Lake Ivanhoe! I hope our great Pasayten adventure was an acceptable substitute.

A heartfelt thanks goes to Rachel Pargeter for taking care of my kitties while I was away on this adventure (and others that followed.) It was a relief knowing they were in good hands.

Special thanks to my Mom, who knew I wanted the solitude. It must have taken everything in her not to send me messages. (Sorry, Mom; I didn’t realize others would send me notes!)

My deepest gratitude goes to the best Dudefriend out there, Rich White. He was there with me at Roslyn’s Basecamp in April of 2019, sipping chai and dorking out over maps, when the idea for this route first came to me. He graciously offered his advice, support, and encouragement from day one. He looked over each draft of the route and gave his insights; shared in and fostered my excitement throughout the planning process; talked me through resupply options; dropped me off at the trailhead; kept an eye on wildfires; waited with burger and bubbly stuff in hand; and drove my smelly butt home at the end. I couldn’t ask for a better friend.

Gear List

All of my gear, minus the food in my two caches.

It’s pretty incredible that you can carry on your back everything you need to survive in the wild, plus a whole host of other things that make your time there more comfortable, including a few luxuries that aren’t necessary but are oh so appreciated. I have my students create gear lists in which they label each item as either a necessity or a luxury, and it’s always fascinating to compare what one sees as a necessity and another sees as a luxury. I spent the summer of 2020 honing my pack and feel that I really got it dialed in. There are perhaps a few luxuries on here, or a few things I might not pack again, but overall, I’d say that I kinda nailed the gear list for this trip. What follows is everything I carried on my back through my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation. Rich’s guestimate of the fully-loaded weight was 35-40 pounds.

The entire contents of my pack, ready to make camp at Little Lake Caroline.

Sleeping

  • Nemo Azure 20 sleeping bag (I absolutely love this bag!)
  • Therma Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad (this pad is awesome!)
  • Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 20-litre compression dry sack (carried my sleeping bag and doubled as a food bag at night. Probably not the best thing to hang food in, but it kept my pack lighter.)

Tent

  • Big Agnes Tiger Wall Platinum 2 tent (with footprint and fly, plus stakes and poles. I love this tent so much!)

Pack

  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (55 liters) (my go-to pack.)
  • Hyperlite Versa (don’t call it a fanny pack! Clipped into the belt of my pack. Perfect for stashing snacks, phone, GPS)

Clothes

All clothes not being worn were packed into a Hyperlite stuff sack pillow which, you guessed it, doubled as my pillow.

  • 1 Patagonia Solar Hoodie (my new favorite summer clothing item; treated with Permethrin to repel bugs; wore it every day)
  • 1 Patagonia tank top (pretty much wore it the entire time)
  • 1 Patagonia short sleeve running shirt (barely wore it; probably wouldn’t bring again)
  • 1 Oiselle running shorts (mostly wore these)
  • 1 Arcteryx softshell pants (wore these a bit, sometimes over my shorts so I could take them off once I warmed up. Treated with Permethrin.)
  • 2 pairs Brooks Ghost midweight running socks (never again! These socks are great for road running; terrible for trekking. Learned this on Day 1 and regretted this gear choice more than any other. Almost brought only one pair; glad I at least could swap between two.)
  • 1 pair Darn Tough synthetic hiking socks (for wearing around camp; should have switched to them while hiking.)
  • 1 pair Patagonia underwear (yep, just one pair, laundered in streams)
  • 1 Patagonia sports bra (barely wore since the tank top had one built in)
  • 1 Patagonia midweight base layer bottoms (barely wore but good to have)
  • 1 Patagonia midweight base layer top (barely wore but good to have)
  • 1 Buff (the most versatile piece of clothing, now serves as a face covering as well)
  • 1 Patagonia Houdini jacket (good for cool mornings)
  • 1 Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody (wore at camp each evening)
  • 1 Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket (mostly good for added layer and against wind)
  • 1 Marmot Precips rain pants (good for starting with a warmer layer in the morning that was easy to peel off and have shorts underneath once I warmed up)
  • 1 pair Lululemon lightweight gloves (barely wore)
  • 1 pair OR midweight gloves (overkill)
  • 1 Patagonia winter hat (barely wore)
  • 1 ball cap (my Cascade Crest 100 hat, of course. Wore it pretty much always.)
  • 1 pair Goodr sunglasses
  • Timex watch

Shoes

  • Altra Lone Peaks (out of the box and onto the trail. They were solidly worn in by the end. My go-to trail shoe.)
  • Crocs (perfect for wearing around camp even if they look ridiculous. Thanks to Jen for gifting me a pair in my favorite color, Sea Foam Green.)

Essentials Bag

Everything fit in a medium Hyperlite stuff sack.

  • Compass
  • Gerber mini Paraframe serrated knife
  • 2 Lighters
  • Waterproof matches
  • Headlamp (Black Diamond)
  • Extra batteries (6 AAA for headlamp and 4 AA for GPS)
  • Gorilla tape
  • Gear Aid tape
  • SOL emergency bivvy sack (unnecessary since I had a sleeping bag)
  • Phone cord
  • USB cord
  • Battery bank
  • Small first-aid kit (hadn’t broken the seal until this trip, after 5 years)
  • 1 pair Latex gloves
  • Pills (Tylenol, Imodium, Benadryl)
  • Katadyn water filter (just the actual filter, not the bag. I’m done with these things; they clog too quickly.)
  • Aqua Tabs water purification tablets (one sleeve as backup water treatment)  

Personal stuff

A few luxuries. All packed in a large Hyperlite stuff sack; could have used a medium size sack.

  • Book (a collection of essays titled Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, edited by Susan Fox Rogers. I rationed the essays, one per night, with a few nights that allowed me a real treat of reading two. The perfect book for this journey.)
  • Glasses and hard case
  • Toiletries (quart-size ziplock containing small bottle of contact solution, contacts case, travel-size toothpaste, folding travel toothbrush. Regretted not bringing lotion.)
  • Maps (the route required two maps. I picked up the second map from Food Cache 1.)
  • Rite in the Rain small field journal
  • Fisher space pen
  • Recorder (as in, the obnoxious instrument you played in kindergarten. Used once.)
  • 12 wilderness wipes (to supplement creek and lake baths)  

Water and Cooking Supplies

Water mostly came from streams or lake outlets. I had two one-gallon jugs of water stashed with each food cache because both were located on dry ridges.

  • Jetboil
  • 3.5 ounce can of fuel (did lots of research to reassure myself that one can would last two weeks)
  • Sea to Summit titanium spork
  • 32-ounce Nalgene bottle
  • 50-ounce water reservoir
  • 2-liter Hydrapak collapsible bottle (compatible with the Katadyn filter)
  • Rope for hanging food bag at night (~50’)
  • Gallon-size ziplock for trash (3 total; left old, picked up new at both food caches)

Food

Carried 4-6 days’ worth of food at a time, contained in a Hyperlite pod. I had two food caches stashed en route.

  • Breakfast was either a Pop Tart, Clif Bar, or Pro Bar Meal.
  • Snacks included a rotation of trail truffles, Swedish fish, dried mango and apricots, trail mix, dark chocolate (Endangered Species and Theos), vegan cheese crackers, roasted & salted almonds, Cocomel caramels, Hippeas vegan white cheddar puffs, nut butter filled Clif bars, fig bars, Oreos (regular and mini).
  • Lunch was a Justin’s maple almond butter packet and a vegan Jerky (Thai peanut or mesquite lime). Attempted to make ramen for lunch once; spilled all over the ground when cooked.
  • Dinner was a dehydrated dinner (a rotation of Backpacker’s Pantry’s Pad Thai, Three Amigos, and Kathmandu Curry, and Outdoor Herbivore’s vegan cheddar mac, pesto noodles, African peanut noodles. My favorite? Cheddar mac!)

#2 Bag

Everything contained in a small Hyperlite stuff sack

  • The Deuce ultralight backcountry trowel
  • 4-ounce hand sanitizer
  • Quart-size ziplock with 4-6 days’ worth of TP (12 squares per day. Oof. Won’t go so minimalist in this department in the future!)
  • 2 quart-size ziplocks, one inside the other, for carrying out used TP (leave no trace! I packed out all of my TP, even if there was a privy.)

Miscellaneous Other Stuff

  • Black Diamond Carbon Z trekking poles (best poles out there)
  • Anker 21W Solar Panel (worked great!)
  • Garmin Etrex 32x GPS (still learning how to use it but fun to add to my navigation quiver)
  • Garmin inReach mini (don’t leave home without it)
  • iPhone 8 (mostly for taking photos but also used for Gaia GPS app)
  • Small camp towel (not sure I really needed it)
  • Bear spray (more to protect against bad humans, not bears)
  • 4-ounce hand sanitizer
  • Sun Bum lip balm and travel-size sunscreen

Food Caches

It was exciting to set up the two food caches, something I’d never done before. I set out on September 1st, heading north toward Highway 2, where I turned east. A very long and winding forest road led to the Fisher Lake trailhead. There was no one around, and I made my way down the Deception Creek trail until I found a tree stump that would make for a good landmark. I jumped off the trail and hid the bear canister and water jug under some fallen pine boughs, taking photos and a brief video as reminders of the location. Looking at the photos now, the trees look completely indistinguishable. It was exciting to think that, two weeks later, I would hike past here and retrieve my second food cache.

View en route to dropping off Food Cache 2. Not a bad way to spend a day!

From there, I continued east over to Leavenworth, where I stashed Food Cache One near the Icicle Ridge Trailhead. There were quite a few people around, and I was pretty nervous someone would see me. I went way off trail and disguised the cache with dead leaves and branches. This one was a bit nerve wracking, and instead of excitement, I felt a bit anxious that it wouldn’t be there waiting for me in a week.

Food Cache 2. The dead branch over the buried cache was my fool-proof landmark.
The dead tree stump along the side of the trail was a better landmark for Food Cache 2. The cache was a ways off the trail from here.

I drove home on I-90, completing an 8-hour driving loop. Without setting up the caches in this way, I would have to carry 2 weeks’ worth of food or have someone meet me along the way. I wanted to go self-supported, so this was the only viable option, as carrying all of that food at once was not appealing.  

Food Cache 1 (bear barrel and gallon of water already buried.) At the time, that dead wood over the rock seemed distinctive.
Trail above Food Cache 1. That big rock and two trees are really good landmarks, right? No. The cache was quite a ways off the trail from here.

Happy Camper: A Photographic Tour of Wild and Wonderful Campsites

Introduction

When I was a kid, my family’s annual vacation entailed driving north to the shores of Lake Erie, where we would spend a week camping at East Harbor State Park near Sandusky, Ohio. My Uncle John, who lived nearby in a tiny carriage house in the small harbor town of Vermillion, would join us with his orange triangle tent pitched next to my family’s giant blue high-domed tent. We did all the usual family camping activities: built a camp fire, roasted hotdogs, made s’mores, lounged in camp chairs, told stories. During the day, we would go to the beach and swim in the great lake. We always took a trip to Cedar Point for a day of roller coasters rides as well. I was a very happy camper, indeed.

Oh, 1980s fashion. I love our poses, too. Not sure who took this photo of me and my brother Alex.
Two happy campers. Thanks to my Mom for digging out these photos for me.

I remember the warring sensations of thrill mixed with fear as I followed at night one of the many social paths leading from the tent sites to the restroom. The tall trees loomed above, and who knows what lurked in the dark. Moving quickly toward the beacon of the shower house’s light, I would hurry through the woods, both loving and fearing being alone there at night. Once, on my return to our site, a small, black creature ambled past. Animal lover that I am, I went toward it, for some reason thinking it was a cat. Upon closer inspection, the cat turned into a skunk, and I scurried away to the safety of the tent.

My brother Alex and I playing in Lake Erie at East Harbor State Park.

Later in childhood and into young adulthood, after my parents’ divorce, those trips morphed into a yearly camping vacation with my Dad, our extended family, and our horses at Brown County State Park in southern Indiana. What an enchanted childhood it was, to pitch a tent and have your horse tied outside. Through the fabric of the tent, I could hear my horse, Whisper, chomping hay and giving a big horsey sigh as he lay down to sleep. We would spend the day riding through the forest, racing up and down hills, urging our steeds over fallen logs, and galloping with wild abandon down the straight stretches.

At night, my aunts prepared dinner as us kids groomed our mounts then rode them around the campground, showing off for all the other horse folk. Each night ended with a family jam session around the campfire, singing and playing guitar. Neighboring campers always found their way over to join us, drawn by the music and mirth.

Those were even happier times. I recall sitting in school, oblivious to the teacher’s voice, lost in day dreams of being at Brown County. If we were lucky, we’d sometimes return again in the fall or spring for additional trips with our Dad and neighbors. Those were smaller, quieter trips, often in the “primitive” campsites which lacked electricity, but I loved it all the same. Not many kids have the good fortune to grow up camping with their horse. It truly was a childhood dream come true.

These experiences instilled in me, at an early age, a love for camping, and I’m grateful to my parents for choosing this as our big family vacation each year. True, it was car camping in parks with sites cordoned off and all the amenities of electricity, water, and showers at hand, but it felt wild to me at the time. I liked being out in the woods, falling asleep to the sound of the whippoorwills and Bob Whites in the trees, the smell of campfire in my hair for days. The hikes, the music, the laughter, and the sense of freedom that comes with being in the great outdoors was a formidable, and formative, component of my childhood.

As I grew older, I still sought out opportunities to camp, but they seemed fewer and far between. Somewhere along the line, I also developed a fear of being out in the woods at night and had trouble sleeping. On a trip through Quebec and New England during graduate school, it rained relentlessly and deluged my leaky, borrowed tent. Pitching it one night under a lean-to on Burton Island in Vermont, I lay awake all night convinced that rabid raccoons were trying to claw their way inside (I had seen a poster on the outhouse warning of rabid raccoons, with a picture of a raccoon with wild, bullseye red eyes.) On a trip to the Pacific Northwest, shortly before I moved here, I camped at the Cougar Rock Campground at MORA. I had purchased my first tent and sleeping pad from REI for the occasion. One night, I fidgeted in discomfort, waiting for sunrise to come because I was too scared of having a rogue bear encounter if I walked alone to the privy at night. I was 34 years old.

Writing this now, I laugh at that camper. Over the past three years I have evolved into an entirely new camper, someone who sleeps soundly in the backcountry and pitches a tent far from cars and crowds, or who even plops down on the trail in the middle of the night for a dirt nap, no need for a shelter. My camping life these past three years has been rich and full, and I have awakened in some incredibly beautiful places, as well as in some exceptionally strange ones. In all of these places, I also awakened next to Seth Wolpin, who taught me nearly everything I know about life in the backcountry.

With Seth as my wilderness guide, I have learned to be discerning and snobbish in all matters of gear, choosing the best and lightest options and doing the research to know I’ve made the correct choice. Seth instilled in me the importance of walking just a little bit further, scouting just a little bit longer, to ensure that we have indeed selected the absolute best camp site in the area. Or, how to gently carve one out for ourselves if no sites exist. Seth showed me how to seek out stunningly beautiful and remote locations that no one else seemed to know of. He taught me to paint routes in Caltopo and not to leave home without the GPX tracks. His attention to safety protocols shaped my approach to arranging an emergency contact who knows when and how to contact the rangers if they don’t hear from us, and to carry an inReach for added insurance. I learned how to hang a bear bag, tie a variety of knots, position a tarp, and that there’s no reason to pack anything other than Pad Thai for dinner. I learned how to use dryer lint to start a fire in the pouring rain and that thick plastic bags are great for wrapping up your feet in cold, wet weather. He showed me the value of having a tent for any and all occasions. When it comes to gear, Seth has a quiver of everything, and I am following in his footsteps as my gear closet expands. He insists that chocolate is the 11th essential and that, no matter how light we’re going, that there is always room to carry more. Along with a dromedary bag full of water, it’s also essential to tote ukuleles and recorders up mountains so that we can serenade the stars. He fostered my love for puff and showed me the importance of having an array of layers to prepare for whatever the weather throws at us, and to toss wet socks in the sleeping bag to dry when the skies soak us. Upon departure, one must always fold hands in supplication and say, “Thank you, Campsite.” I have learned all of this from him, and so much more. Most importantly, with Seth by my side, I learned to fall fast asleep in the woods, completely at ease and content.

I have shared with him three years of learning and growing in the woods, and it has been the most transformative and happy time of my life. I would like to think that perhaps I also taught him a thing or two along the way.

What follows here is a look at some of the highlights of our camping adventures. Seth and I have shared more than I can possibly include here, and the following must serve as representatives of a much larger quiver of experience. They also represent some of the happiest moments of my life.

I have organized the rest of this post based on the type of camping excursion and have chosen some highlights from each to share. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of all of our great (or weird) camping locations, but there’s enough to offer a taste of this part of our life together. To keep things manageable, I tried to limit myself to only including photos of the actual campsites or the view from the tent. That’s tough, because most of these trips were part of larger adventures that I would love to document here, so in a few cases, I allowed myself an extra photo or two. I also tried to keep the narrative component brief and will instead allow the photos to do most of the talking. That’s also difficult, because each of these experiences comes with its own unique and special story in our life. I hope you will enjoy this photo journey and the wild and wonderful campsites it takes you to.

Alpine Lakes

Horseshoe and Goat Lakes

This was my first wild camping experience, and it will forever remain my favorite. It was September of 2017. I had no real backpacking gear and had to borrow things from a friend so that this incredible guy I was falling in love with wouldn’t think I was a wilderness imposter.

It was a magical journey up a boot path to a hidden lake, where we plucked blueberries to toss into our tsampa, made s’mores over the flame of a gas stove, ate the most delicious risotto out of a pouch, bushwhacked up to Goat Lake, and fell asleep to the most peaceful and profound quiet I have ever experienced. You can hear more about it in this story I shared at Boldly Went.

The next year, icebergs on Goat Lake halted our plans to complete our Middle Fork Mega Loop. As consolation, we returned to our first campsite at Horseshoe Lake for another night at this special place.

In October, I will pass by these lakes once again, as I return with my packraft to complete the Middle Fork Mega Loop on my first solo packraft adventure. While I won’t camp on Horseshoe Lake, I will be sure to fold my hands in thanks as I pass.

I’m pretty sure he is saying, “One day, all of this will be yours!”
We watched videos on how to set up the Echo II tent for the first time.
Horseshoe Lake meditation.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Post-bushwhack respite on Goat Lake.
Coming down the “trail” from Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Seth’s forest ballet.
Water whacking to our campsite on Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Goat Lake iced over during an attempt at our Middle Fork Mega Loop in June 2018.
Returning to our special spot on Horseshoe Lake is not a bad Plan B.

Ancient Lakes

Technically, these aren’t alpine lakes, but camping here was just as splendid as any lake we’ve encountered in the mountains. We first visited Ancient Lakes, in eastern Washington, for a day of running through the coulees of columnar basalt in March of 2018. The landscape is so striking, and so completely different from the verdant west. We returned that May for camping and were treated to a great spot above the lake. It was warm enough then for the rattlesnakes to be out, and I had my first encounter with one and ran the scariest 10 miles of my life with rattles rattling from every bush it seemed. Shell shocked, we spent the rest of the day flying a kite and practicing the Riptide strum pattern on air ukuleles, repeatedly saying out loud, “down down up up down up.”

The coulees of Ancient Lakes.
View of Ancient Lakes from above.
Ancient Lakes tent view.
Tough to beat that backdrop.
Camped above Ancient Lakes.
Dusk on Ancient Lakes.

Alpine Lakes High Traverse

We explored this route through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in August of 2019. We took our time and lingered at three lakes along the way, where we enjoyed solitude and sweeping views. We gave the recorders a good workout, blazed through books, navigated by bearings, and, of course, ate a lot of chocolate. It was definitely a highlight of the summer.

View from our camp at Lone Duck Lake, named for the solo duck swimming around by itself. We promised never to reveal the location of this secret lake.
Perfect sun napping rocks on Lone Duck Lake.
Setting up camp at Lone Duck Lake. A good example of making a space workable for the tent.
A picture postcard alpine lake.
It’s recorder time!
We spent night two perched above a lovely little tarn.
Following a bearing across the talus.
View from our awesome camp on night three. We dozed in the sleeping bag, opened our eyes to this view, read, dozed some more, then ate Pad Thai.
The route lives up to its name with being up high and dotted with alpine lakes. We were happy to just lay there and take it all in.

The Coast

While alpine lakes have their special place in our hearts, it is the wild Washington coast that we love most. I recently wrote about our last trip there, and in that report I talk about our many experiences on the coast and explain why we cherish it above all other places. A trip to the coast means we also have the privilege of visiting our dear friend Mary, and stopping at her lovely home overlooking Discovery Bay is an important part of our coastal escape tradition.

We have made camp in the most spectacular places along this pristine stretch of coastline running from Oil City in the south to Shi Shi in the north. We have our favorite sites to which we return time and again, and on each visit we also discover new places to pitch our tent. Please permit me to indulge myself with more photos in this section, as we’ve had the pleasure of calling so many lovely spots home for the night along the coast, and it would be a shame not to share them with you here.

December 2017: First Trip

Seth proudly presenting our very first coast camp, north of Rialto Beach.
The kitchen at our first coast camp.
We called this the Huck Finn camp, as it had lots of platforms and hammocks made of driftwood and hemp ropes. Due to a deluge, we stayed here for a few days. We didn’t mind.
View from our tent along Toleak Point, on the southern end of the coast.
Seth taking it easy at our Toleak camp.
Sunset at Toleak Point.
Soaking it all in before we depart our beloved coast.

November 2018: With Sudeep

Our friend Sudeep came to visit from Nepal, and since he had never seen the Pacific Ocean, we felt obliged to make the introduction. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday playing in tide pools, introducing Sudeep to s’mores, singing songs, sharing stories, contemplating the enormity of the Pacific, and being the sole spectators of the world’s most breathtaking sunsets.

Breaking camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All three of us crammed into my 2-person Half Dome tent.
Sudeep’s first s’more! He very politely humored me, but I don’t think he was impressed.
Playing in the tide pools.
Just another superlative sunset.
Love on the beach. Photo credit: Sudeep Kandel

View from our camp just north of Hole-in-the-Wall. This site has become a perennial favorite.
Sudeep races against the waves.
Showing Sudeep the ropes of overland trails. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Sudeep and I contemplate the enormity of the Pacific. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All smiles after an alpine start in a successful race against the tides.
Seth’s bathroom typically looked like this after a wet beach adventure. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

December 2018: New Year

After our insane Christmas paddle trip on the Skagit (see details on that in the Rivers section below) we headed back to the coast to ring in the New Year. We returned to what would become one of our favorite camps on the southern section of coast. On our way there, Seth said, “I want you to spread my ashes here when I die.” I feel the same way about this place.

We did have a wild night there when an unexpected wind storm blew in. We stayed awake all night trying to hold the tent in place, and it seemed at any moment a tree would fall and crush us, or the rising, raging tide would swallow us. I must admit that it is the most scared I have ever been; the stakes felt real, and high. The situation was largely out of our control. We waited until the tide was low enough to get around the headlands, packed in a flurry, and fled. It was definitely a most memorable night in a tent!

It doesn’t get cozier than this. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

November 2019: A Holiday Tradition

A trip to the coast was now firmly a holiday tradition for us. This time, we made camp at Hole-in-the-Wall and spent our entire time there relaxing and feeling happy to be in our place.

I will never tire of this view.
Of course we brought the recorders!
The tent tucked behind driftwood. We tried to bushwhack to the top of the hill behind it, after speculating for a couple years as to what was on the other side. It will remain a mystery.
Reading by a campfire, another favorite pastime. Note the obligatory Pad Thai staying hot near the fire as it rehydrates.

March 2020: Isolating

I wrote a detailed report about this trip, which we took as a consolation after Covid canceled our trip to Nepal. This time, we went north of Ozette to Shi Shi, the only section of the coast that I had not traveled. As you might imagine, it did not disappoint. I’ll include here just a few campsite photos, as the trip report includes a full album of stunning photographs.

Our first camp on this trip, above Seafield Creek.
This goes down in history as one of the best campsites ever. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
This is the life! PC Seth Wolpin
Hangin’ loose at our coastal high camp.
We had to clear a spot of rocks to make it work, but it was well worth the effort.
Site cleared, tent pitched, fire burning, and everything in its place.
One last sunset at Sand Point.
Saying farewell to the coast from the top of Sand Point.

Mountains

The Cascades have been our playground, and we have spent many a night camped on the flanks or the summit of a beautiful mountain. What a life, indeed! Here are a few with particularly stunning views.

Earl Peak

True, we had to haul water up the steep trail to the saddle below Earl Peak, but the views of the Stewart Range and Teanaway Country rewarded the effort. We brought our ukes for a mountaintop jam session, scrambled a fun ridge traverse, and outran a thunderstorm.

Camped below Earl Peak.
Mountaintop serenade.
Sunset from camp with Mt. Stewart as a cinematic backdrop.
Twilight falls on the tent.
A most memorable ridge traverse with big views of the Stewart Range.
Nice spot for a mid-traverse nap.

Cascade Pass

The fabled Cascade Pass lived up to its reputation for being one of the most stunning locations in the North Cascades. We had planned to explore part of the Ptarmigan Traverse, but I had some trouble crossing a washout, so we decided to pitch the tent in a picture-perfect spot and call it good. I remember thinking, as the sun set over the jagged peaks, “I can’t believe we live here.”

After seemingly endless switchbacks, the view from Cascade Pass greets you.
How many people get to open their tent to a view like this?
Sun sets over the North Cascades.
The next morning, the world was socked in.

Revolution Peak

While we didn’t make it to the summit of Revolution Peak, we nevertheless scored an incredible campsite from which the Central Cascades unfolded before us. It was one of the most spectacular mountain sunsets I’ve witnessed. This was October of 2018, and the fall colors were on point. On the way back to the truck, I lost both my hat and recorder, so keep your eyes open for them if you find yourself in this sweet little spot.

Central Cascades panorama, Tahoma in the distance.
Tahoma tent view.
Crisp autumn evenings call for campfires.
Twilight mountain magic.

Mt. Ellinor

Spending the night on a mountaintop and awakening to the sun striking summits hovering above the clouds is about as magical as life gets. This will forever rank among my favorite campsites. While I wrote a lot of words about the experience of camping atop Mt. Ellinor in a previous post, all you really need is to look at these photos to see why it was so awesome.

The stoke is high. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Peaks of the Olympics peek above the clouds at sunrise.
Photo taken from inside the tent. Pinch me.
Reluctantly breaking camp. Photo credit Seth Wolpin.

Harvey Manning’s Absolute Last Chance Promontory

Besides having a great name, Seth had been talking about this as a nice campsite since I met him. With the purchase of my very own ultralight backpacking tent this spring–the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum–it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally give old Harvey Manning’s Promontory a visit. With its sweeping views of the Middle Fork Valley, a place we spent a lot of time exploring, it was a fitting location for what turned out to be our last tent camping adventure together. While the evening included a serene sunset over the Central Cascades, the night provided an opportunity to see if the Tiger Wall would pass a wind and rain test. It did.

Promontory Panorama.
My Tiger Wall seems right at home nestled on the Promontory.
Taking in the Middle Fork valley from our camp on the Promontory. We enjoyed one of our favorite pastimes, pointing to and identifying all the peaks in view.

Rivers

Exploring the wild via watercraft has replaced running as my favorite way to experience the world around me. As a kid, I grew up swimming my horse up, down, and across the Whitewater River in Indiana. My brother, myself, and our friends would find ourselves miles upriver from home, riding bareback as our mounts splashed through the water and loped along sandy beaches (apologies to my mother who is learning of this only now by reading this post, but it was the absolute best part of our childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.) We also made a yearly canoe trip on the Whitewater, and later I made a yearly canoe trip on Sugar Creek in central Indiana.

Despite all this time on the water, I had never actually camped on a river until Seth and I made our first canoe journey on part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the Adirondacks. The experience tapped into my nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in the river and whet my appetite for the many river adventures to come (stay tuned for a separate post that highlights some of my favorite paddling experiences over the past few years and a few that I’m planning for this fall.)

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

For our first big vacation, Seth and I traveled to the North Country to visit his Mom, Stepdad, and Sister at Camp High Skies near Potsdam, NY. Wanting to show me the Adirondacks while also trying something new, we borrowed a lightweight canoe and other paddling gear from a family friend and set off for an incredible adventure. Starting at Long Lake and paddling a series of rivers and lakes on our way to Saranac Lake–including going through locks!–we had the opportunity to camp in a lean-to each night. With a roof over our heads, there was no need for the tent, save for the night we spent on an island–which we had entirely to ourselves. It was an unforgettable experience, and I would love to return one day to complete the entire 740 mile route.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

Starting our journey on Long Lake. Can you tell by looking at the photo that we were total noobs who had no idea what we were doing? Photo credit: Tammy (who also gave us a lift to the put in)
Recorder practice in the lean-to at Long Lake.
View of Long Lake from the lean-to.
Still practicing the recorder by headlamp as the sun sets over Long Lake.
There was much reading in the hammock on this trip. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
All smiles making camp at our next lean-to. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Basking in the joy of having an island to ourselves.
Sometimes we paddled hard… Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
…and other times we enjoyed a lazy float. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
The route included several portages, over which we carried our gear and the canoe.
Not wanting this trip to ever end, we lingered for hours on a deserted island before concluding our journey in Saranac Lake.

The Skagit River

Our paddle of the Skagit River in December of 2018 will likely go down as the most bone-headed outing of our relationship. Allow me to set the scene: It is late December. The water is beyond ice cold. We have no whitewater experience. The river is high and swift. We don’t have dry suits. We have only a hodge podge collection of wet suit parts. I have never paddled a kayak on a river. Seth has never paddled a packraft on a river. What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately for us, we survived this excursion without incident. The universe repaid our foolishness with lovely campsites on gravel bars and beaches, more bald eagles than we could count, the thrill of Class II+ rapids (and not going for a swim through them), and a taste of what river camping in the great Pacific Northwest holds.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

A tad bit intimidated by the swift current at the put in. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our Skagit paddle adventure was, fortunately, more beautiful than terrifying. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our first camp on the Skagit. Note the snow on the driftwood. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Skagit tent view. We thought people were throwing large rocks in the river that morning but soon realized it was the bald eagles diving for fish.
Enjoying a calm yet swift section of the Skagit.
After clearing out some rocks, we made a lovely little camp here on our second night.
Gravel bars and mountains, the standard backdrop to river camping in Washington.
With wet, frozen fingers and a ridiculous amount of layers piled on over a wetsuit, this pee break took me 30 minutes. I timed it. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Skykomish

After a nerve-wracking weekend of paddling a tippy kayak in a “whitewater fever” course I took on the Snoqualmie River, I gladly traded that terror for the pleasure of paddling a packraft. We made our way to the “Sky,” me in the small little Scout and Seth in his Alpacka packraft. We had a blast in the big-enough-to-be-fun-but-not-too-scary wave trains and rapids, and pitched our tent on a perfect gravel bar before enjoying a stunning sunset over the mountains.

Making camp on a gravel bar along the Sky. We often manage to find a camp that includes a giant log that can be used for hanging gear to dry.

Sunset over our Skykomish camp.
Surrounded by mountains at our Skykomish camp.
Packrafts double as camp chairs.

The Wenatchee

This was a nice break from some seriously hot August weather. Our friend Jessica met us at Lake Wenatchee, where we paddled around a small island before heading down the Wenatchee River, which emerges from the lake. This section of the Wenatchee was an easy paddle, and Seth and I camped on a river island along the way to extend the trip. This was the first (and, so far, only) time that I had to paddle across a river and back in order to take care of personal business, which was quite an experience in itself.

Since I was in the tiny Scout, we strapped most of the camping gear to Seth’s raft. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Kicking back on our river island in the Wenatchee. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

Paddling back to the island after seeing a man about a horse on the mainland. Maybe TMI, but it was certainly a memorable camping first. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Yakima

We had learned a lot in the year since our first December river camping trip and felt good about making another go at it. This time, we were equipped with more paddling skills, more river knowledge, and dry suits. I even had my own packraft now. This was our first real packrafting trip, which included both packing our camping gear on our backs and rafting down a river. We started by bushwhacking up to the Yakima Skyline ridge, where we spent two nights camping with the coyotes. We were at the edge of comfort in those cold temps, but the beauty and solitude made this a most memorable Christmas camping trip. On the third day, we made our way down to the Yakima, which swiftly and sweetly carried us back to the car.

We first had to ferry across the Yakima in order to access the ridge.
We’re real packrafters now!
After a wild bushwhack, we camped at the crest of the ridge. At night, the coyotes yipped, their voices ringing through the crisp Christmas night.


Setting up camp the second night. We were in the tent before 5pm, thanks to the cold, short day.
Watching the sun set from inside the tent.
Frosty grass at dawn.
Hotel takeover, Ellen and Seth style.
Drying gear and thawing ourselves before attempting another leg of the Yakima.
Typical post river camping scene.

Random and Bandit

This post has, to this point, featured jaw-dropping campsites that we intentionally sought out or worked hard to find. There have been plenty of times, though, that we just needed a place to lay our heads for the night. The campsite wasn’t so much the destination as it was a waypoint. We’ve called flat spots (and some not-so-flat ones) on abandoned logging roads, in clumps of bushes, urban forests, and off-trail patches home for the night. I wish that I had more photos of this type of campsite, some of them random spots in the woods, others stealthy bandit camps, because they represent some of the more creative places we’ve spent the night. While they might not have the big views, they are nevertheless memorable because of their unconventional nature.

Granite Lakes Trail

This was an early camping trip during which we left autumn and walked into a winter wonderland. We had planned to camp up at the Granite Lakes, but given the deep snow, we had to abandon that plan. With daylight waning, we headed down to a lower elevation and happened upon the perfect little patch along the trail to pitch our tent. We could hear Granite Creek roaring below and we prepared dinner in the vestibule while laying inside the tent. That night, a loud thumping noise awakened us. It sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at the tent. Turns out that it had started to snow even at this lower elevation, and giant clumps of fresh snow plopped down from the branches above us.

Walking into winter.
Winter was in full effect by the time we reached the Granite Lakes. Not having the snow tent with us, we had to leave this winter wonderland.
Our little trailside home, nestled in the first snow.
We hadn’t expected to wake up at the snow line.
Waking to winter on the Granite Lakes Trail.

Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens

Not long after our Granite Lakes adventure, we had another weekend of carving campsites out of thin air. The first night, en route to Mount Gardner, we chose a flat spot near a mountain creek (where I explained to Seth the difference between a river and a creek). It was by no means an exceptional site, but I enjoyed the experience of looking for a place that was good enough to call home for the night. The next day, deep snow prevented a summit of Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens. We were moving slowly, and getting cold. It was dark by the time that we found a passable place to camp. Since young hooligans frequented the forest road at night, we made our way down a decommissioned forest road until we were far enough into the bush to be out of sight, no reflective components of the tent detectable by headlight (unfortunately, I have no photo of this spot.) By this point, I was an ace at making dinner and s’mores in the vestibule while wrapped in the warmth of the sleeping bag inside the tent. We were both a little on edge as vehicles passed by in the night, but ultimately we went undetected.

This spot will do. Calling an unused forest road home for the night.
Ditching our summit plans and searching for shelter.

Snoqualmie Falls Urban Bandits

Seth and I were working on a project to cross the state of Washington on foot while pushing our camping gear in a baby jogger, and the first piece of this was our epic Hyak to Lake Forest Park run. We broke this 75-mile route into two days, and we found ourselves looking for a place to land as we left the warmth and comfort of the brewery in the town of Snoqualmie Falls. We had even contemplated dishing out a ridiculous amount of money to stay at the lodge by Snoqualmie Falls (of Twin Peaks fame), but no one answered at the front desk. We were perhaps a bit on edge after learning that a mountain lion had killed a cyclist not too far from our route earlier that day. Polishing off the last of the garlic fries, we made our way into the twilight in search of an indiscreet place to camp. Down the road a bit, we found a small copse of trees, just off the main road. We waited until no cars were passing and then dove in. There were many informal footpaths crisscrossing the woods, and we feared we were imposing upon a camp used by people experiencing homelessness. This sparked a long conversation about the incredible privilege we had to be doing this by choice. While I don’t have a photo of that bandit camp, the following pics show the baby jogger in action.

The baby jogger shredding the trails.
One of the many perks that comes with pushing your gear in a baby jogger: you can bring gourmet vegan cheese and the soda stream. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

South Cle Elum to Hyak

On yet another baby jogging adventure, we once again needed an inconspicuous place to pitch our tent for the night. We definitely put into practice Seth’s method of keeping up the search until you find just the right spot. This time, we scrambled up and over a boulder field, down to the banks of the Yakima River just west of Lake Easton. In higher-trafficked areas like The Palouse to Cascades Trail, we always seek places that are out of sight in an effort to avoid catching the eyes of passersby in the night.

Baby jogging our way across the state.
Boulder scrambling rewarded us with this riverfront view.

Columbia River to South Cle Elum

Continuing our run across Washington project (which I must now, sadly, complete on my own), we ended up in perhaps our most unconventional bandit camp. You can read the full trip report here, but the short version is that we had spent an absurdly hot day running across the semi-arid desert of eastern Washington and were desperate for a campsite as we raced against the setting sun. Running along an access road that paralleled I-90, we scanned the horizon in what appeared to be a futile search for shelter in this flat and treeless landscape. Growing anxious, we lucked into a spot on a small rise above the side of the road. We followed a faint game trail, littered with coyote scat, which led us to a small spot concealed by sagebrush. We were out of view and safe for the night. It was such a neat feeling to have created a home out of thin air, and we thanked the coyotes for allowing us to crash there. In a weird way, this is another one of my favorite camping experiences. It was just so unexpected and showed up exactly when we needed it. By being bandits in the bush, it felt like we were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to do.

You’d never guess that a busy interstate highway was just on the other side of the bushes.
Sunset at our coyote bandit camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
We camped near the river on the second night, choosing this spot after backtracking nearly a mile because it was the only place to access the river for water.

Lake Nadeau

This was another randomly selected site that came with some little surprises. We had started in the Middle Fork Valley and came up over a pass near Moolock Mountain. On the eastern side of the pass, several lakes lay nestled below. We chose the central one, Lake Nadeau, as our goal. We spent quite a long time walking around looking for an ideal spot, but we were met only with brushy brambles and steep shores. We finally had to settle for a flat spot in the middle of the trail. As for the little surprises: first, this location had the most incredible echo I have ever heard. We spent much of the evening calling out words and sentences, only to have it repeated back to us. It was uncanny, and I’d never experienced anything quite like it. Later that night, we spooked at the sight of what we thought was a headlamp coming over the pass. Who would be coming out here at this hour? Our nerves eased when we realized it was the moon cresting the ridge, and what followed was one of the most spectacular moonrises of memory. It goes to show that even a random campsite that lacks the grand views still has the potential for some natural magic.

Looking down at Lake Nadeau (left) from the pass.
Our little site carved out of the rocky trail.
We still had a great view from the tent, and that echo off the surrounding rocks was simply amazing.

Blanco

In April of 2019, El Blanco Beasto, a VW Westfalia, entered our life and added an exciting new way to camp. Seth put a lot of work into rigging out the Westie, adding burly tires and bumpers, a solar panel and batteries, tables he built himself, an awning, a propane heater, and a fridge, to name just a few of the personalized touches. Words cannot express how much I loved our travels with Blanco. As wonderful as tent camping is, there’s something to be said about having the creature comforts of a van. We could make dinner on the stove, curl up with books on the couch in front of the heater, look out the window at a picture perfect vista, and then climb up into the loft to sleep. Much like searching for the perfect tent site, we also wound our way down forest roads looking for a good pull out to park for the night. We sure did find some real gems. We also had the tent camping equivalent of bandit and random camps, parking at trailheads, in horse pastures, in parking lots, on the street in front of friends’ houses, and in dirt turnouts we’d hoped would see no traffic. I’ll never forget our first night in Blanco, parked way back on the Middle Fork Road. We weren’t accustomed to sleeping somewhere in the woods that saw vehicles passing throughout the night. It was a tense night, but over time we became experts at finding quiet places off the beaten track. After a long day on the river or in the mountains, it was such a wonderful reward to have Blanco waiting there for us. During the shutdown this spring, we even slept in the loft while parked in my driveway, just to feel like we had made a little escape. While folks move toward the van life and trick out Sprinters with all the fancy accoutrements, I will take the classic simplicity of a Westie over any other ride. Thank you, Blanco.

Camping by the Sauk River with our new packrafting friends. I was making mac and cheese in the van (our standard Westie dinner) while the rest of the group jammed by the campfire.
Crewing friends biking the Lewis and Clark trail. We had a nice jam session that evening that included the classic musical combo of a recorder, a ukulele, and a harmonica.
This was one of our best turnout sites, located near the Glacier View Wilderness. It wasn’t too far from home, and we had a front row seat to watch the alpenglow on Tahoma.
Nothing beats looking up from a good book on a comfy couch in the warmth of a Westie to see a view framed like this.
Watching the sun set over the San Juans near Oyster Dome. We were maybe not supposed to be there after dark.
Not bad, Blanco.
Blanco waiting patiently for us at the Ozette Trailhead. Note the new bumpers!
Going stir crazy at home during the shutdown, we found a local forest road to escape for a night in the woods (or what was left of them here.)
Seth admiring Blanco. We might have loaded up some of those rocks to use as a garden border.
Blanco is the epitome of coziness.

Cimaise

After months of searching and looking at a dozen boats, Seth and I found the absolute perfect sailboat. Cimaise, which roughly translates from the French to something like a picture frame, is a 34′ Jeanneau Melody and is one stunningly beautiful boat. A sailboat is similar to a Westie in that your home for the night is mobile, and you have the opportunity to moor it in some incredible places. This opened up another thrilling new way for us to camp. I also started learning to sail and was amazed by how much I truly enjoy it, and that I’m actually pretty good at it, too.

We mostly spent nights on Cimaise docked in a marina, but even that felt like an adventure. The first taste of what it would be like to sail from island to island and camp in hidden coves came when we sailed (well, mostly motored, due to lack of wind) from Anacortes to bring Cimaise home to Tacoma. The previous owner, Mike, came with us to help us learn along the way. It was a thrill to know we had an idea of where we would dock for the night, but that the possibilities were also open. It was the sailboat equivalent of looking for the perfect site. We ended up pulling into the public docks on Bainbridge Island. It was like showing up at a car camping site, where you pay at a pay station and put the receipt on the “dashboard,” except it was a million times more exciting. We joined other boaters as they walked into town to resupply and daydreamed about our own sailing adventures. I will never forget these nights sleeping on the water and hope to one day have the experience of anchoring off islands around the world. Thank you, Cimaise.

Setting sail from Anacortes and heading toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Leaving the San Juans and sailing south. I thought being far off the coast would be scary, but instead it was exhilarating.
Our first docking at a marina en route, at the Bainbridge Island public docks. It was like car camping, but with a sailboat, and way more exciting.
Walking back to the public dock from town. You can see other boaters carrying provisions back to their boats.
Sailing wing on wing.
We’re sailing! Note that I’m smiling even though Cimaise is heeled out a bit. Photo credit: Mike Bancroft
Motoring into Tacoma after going through our first squall.
We made it!
“Camping” on Cimaise, docked in Tacoma.
The Skipper looks quite relaxed even though this was our first time taking Cimaise out on our own. We did great!
Enjoying being at the helm on our first trip out to Commencement Bay with Cimaise. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Even Buster enjoyed chilling on Cimaise.
Sparkimus loves tents, but Buster prefers boats.

Solo

Gem Lake Femquest

I took my first solo camping trip in October of 2018. While I had car camped by myself before, I had never actually walked out into the woods on my own and stayed the night. Seth went on a “Manquest” solo camping trip, so I went on a “Femquest.” Initially, I wanted to hike out to Upper Wildcat Lake, as it seemed remote enough that I might have it all to myself. After seeing a video of a spot above Gem Lake, which was on the way out to Wildcat, I decided to aim for that. While I had the knoll to myself, there were other parties below on the lake. All the same, I had a little taste of solitude. I was, admittedly, a little nervous that night and listened to podcasts to help me fall asleep. I spent the next day using the map to identify the surrounding peaks, scrambled up Wright Mountain, and sat in the nook of a tree to take in the views.

The approach to Gem Lake. I camped at the top of the boulder field above the lake.
Nice view from the tent!
View of Gem Lake from my camp.
Looking down at my camp from the summit of Wright Mountain. If you zoom in, you can actually see my tent on the ridge above the lake on the right.
What a great spot for my first solo camp.

Lake Terence and Moonshine Lake

My second solo camping trip came this summer. I made my way out to Lake Terence, a seldom visited alpine lake below Davis Peak. It lived up to this reputation, as I didn’t see another person until the afternoon of my second day, when a forest ranger came out to destroy illegal campfire rings. This was my first experience being entirely alone in the woods; the next closest person had been the ranger camped 6 miles away. It was an excursion that entailed a range of emotions, but I felt braver, more skilled, and more confident than on my Gem Lake Femquest. I thoroughly enjoy the work entailed in making camp, and on this trip it served as a welcome distraction from the thoughts clouding my mind. The second night, I hiked to Mooshine Lake, which was surrounded by meadows of wildflowers. The entire outing led me to reflect on just how far I had come in my three years of rambling through the backcountry.

Lonely Lake Terence.
My first truly solo campsite, near Lake Terence.
The wildflower meadows surrounding Moonshine Lake.
Camped near Moonshine Lake.

Alpine Lakes Circumambulation

I embark now on a solo journey. This new life will commence with my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation, a 145 mile, 14 day loop through the part of the Washington wilderness that has been such a tremendous influence on my development as a camper, and as a person. It will be the longest amount of time I have spent in the backcountry, and the longest amount of time I have spent alone. Look for a full trip report later this fall.

Going solo is not a path I have chosen for myself, but it is the only way open to me. There is nothing else I can do but strap my gear on my back, enter the wildness of this new landscape, and try to find my way.

Tent Credits

A number of tents sheltered us on these wild excursions. Thank you, Tents.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2

Big AgnesTiger Wall Platinum 2

Black Diamond FirstLight

REI Half Dome 2 Plus

My new Tiger Wall Platinum 2 getting a full cat inspection.
Sparkimus and Max on a backyard camping trip in the FirstLight.

Antidote for Despair: A Much-Needed Day in the Mountains

On May 5th, 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee opened up some state public lands, as a means for helping residents to access the natural world as an antidote to the despair of being on lockdown for two months. This news offered a tiny ray of hope, something to look forward to in an otherwise bleak spring. Upon hearing it, I decided to take a much-needed mental health day and escape to the mountains.

Scanning the list of lands that would open, I decided on a loop around Change Peak and Mt. Washington, both of which are accessed through Olallie State Park. You may recall my earlier report on this loop, which was an early part of my 40 Peaks for 40 Years project last year. My wishful thinking presumed that most people would wait until the weekend to hit the parks, and that few would be making their way to the Mt. Washington trailhead early on a Tuesday morning. Ha.

I arrived at the Mt. Washington trailhead at 7:00 a.m. to find a dozen cars already parked in the lot. Wanting to avoid crowds, I moseyed down the road to the parking lot for the picnic area, where there was only one truck. Being a map geek, I knew there was a back door entrance to Change Peak, so I would take that route in hopes of some solitude.

The effect of lush green vegetation and the distant whoosh of cascading creeks on my spirit was almost immediate. Months of stress and anxiety took a back seat, and I felt the tension in my body begin to release.

Lingering on the bank of Hall Creek, taking in a deep breath of mountain air.

After soaking in the joy of cascading water, I made my way up to the Palouse to Cascades trail, from which I would link up to the Change Creek Trail.

High trellis of the Palouse to Cascades Trail, with Hall Creek below.
Gazing down from the trellis as Hall Creek crashes below.

Soon after joining the Palouse to Cascades Trail, I encountered a man and a woman sitting on a bench. I pulled up my buff to cover my face and stepped to the far side of the trail as I passed. “Happy independence day!” the man said. I laughed and said, “Yes, enjoy it!” He then proceeded to launch into an absurd conspiracy theory, arguing that “99% of COVID deaths could have been prevented if we hadn’t gone on lockdown. The lockdown is the reason for so many deaths.” All I could manage to respond was a long, dissenting “ehhhhhhhhhh” as I continued on my way. There’s no use arguing with a lunatic. Fortunately, that would be my last human contact for a while.

The Change Creek Trail is a bit of a secret, and I walked right past it. Looking at my map and realizing I’d somehow overshot it, I retraced my steps and found the hidden entrance.

The secret trail was easier to spot when heading eastbound.

Once you’re on the trail, it’s well marked and maintained. I suspect that the Change Creek Trail has a custodian who has taken it upon themselves to maintain it and add nice little touches along the way. Once on trail, there are handmade signs, wooden benches, and other details that are clearly a labor of love for someone out there.

Exactly one mile later, I encountered another sign that said Mt. Washington was still 5 miles away. I never saw another sign for Songbird Peak, unfortunately.

The trail gets right down to the business of climbing, winding its way through the forest. There are rocky outcrops with lovely little benches for breaks, scenic overlooks to stop for snacks, and the sound of whitewater works to drown out the hum of traffic on I-90. I was just so grateful to be there after being away from the woods for so long. To have the trail to myself made it all the more perfect.

One of the many scenic vistas along the way. The lush green trees cloaking steep mountainsides, with streams surging down from snow, was a most welcome sight after months spent within a 2-mile radius of my house in the city.

A perfect resting spot is most welcome after all those switchbacks.

Since I was on a hike, not a run, I took the opportunity to linger along the way, stopping at the “Change Creek Vista Point” and the “Change Creek Rest” (both spots labeled); going a little extra distance to check out Hall Point (which, despite traffic noise, would be a great little campsite); or veering off route to follow the MMM Ridge (I don’t know if the Ms are initials for something else, but you know I can’t walk away from any arrow pointing toward a ridge.) I kept reminding myself that it was ok to slow down, to check out where the trail leads, to detour, to stop and rest. All of this added up to make the entire excursion feel like a true adventure. There was much smiling.

Lovely view of a lovely ridge, from Hall Point. From left to right on the ridge you can see Mailbox, Dirty Box, Dirty Harry, Webb, Putrid Pete, Defiance, and Bandera, with Dirty Harry’s Balcony down below. I’ve had my eyes on this traverse for years.
View of Mt. Si, Tenerife, and Green Mountain from the Change Creek Vista Point.
Don’t mmmind if I do.
The sign reads, “Change Creek Rest.” It’s a sweet little spot above the creek babbling below, complete with wood benches for taking a load off.

Soon after my stop at the Change Creek Rest, I hit the snow line. There was one set of boot tracks, so I tried to walk in that hiker’s footsteps to make the going easier. Since it was pretty deep forest, and not much sunlight filtered through, the snow was often pretty well packed. In other places, it was starting to become rotten, and I postholed down to my waist in some places, despite my best efforts.

The snow travel begins.

Not long after I hit the snow, some rather large tracks caught my attention. Reading tracks isn’t my strongest suit, but I’m always curious about them and hope to learn more. I paused to take in the details and knew that they belonged to a dog, a coyote, or a cougar, but I wasn’t sure how to determine which one for sure. I had seen some scat shortly before this that I thought belonged to a coyote, but now I started to second guess it. My gut was saying “cougar.”

Following in the footsteps of a mysterious creature.

As the tracks continued down the trail, a battle between reason and irrational fear took hold. In truth, the man’s boot prints were as unsettling as the animal tracks. I don’t like encountering men on remote trails when I’m alone. At the same time, the unidentified tracks also raised the hair on my neck a bit. While my rational brain knows that the chances of seeing a mountain lion, much less being attacked by one, are minuscule (cougars have killed only 2 humans in Washington State–ever), it’s one thing to know the odds, and another to be the only human within miles while walking alongside large predator tracks. The woods were dark, deep, and close, and even though the prints suggested that whatever this animal was, it was ahead of me, I nevertheless felt watched.

I forced my thoughts toward reason: “Cougars hunt at dawn and dusk, so it’s not hunting now. I’m too big for prey, and humans aren’t on cougars’ menu anyway. Only 2 humans have been killed by cougars in Washington. In the rare case cougars attack, humans typically fight them off. Whomever these tracks belong to has already gone ahead of me and are well on their way elsewhere. Just because my trail name is Cougar Snack doesn’t mean I’m actually going to live up to that moniker. Plus, this might be tracks from the hiker’s dog, anyway, because I don’t know how to tell the difference and might be making something out of nothing.” And so on.

Reason prevailed, but as much as I like to think of myself as a friend of the apex predators who get an undeserved bad rep and about whom hikers have very little to fear, I would be remiss if I didn’t own up to feeling a little creeped out. I don’t want to be afraid when alone out in the wild, and I thought in this moment about Cheryl Strayed choosing to tell herself a new narrative about fear, which she explains in her memoir, Wild: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.” For myself, while I remained aware of my surroundings, I resolved not to let fear of this environment or its inhabitants overpower my experience there. Like Strayed, for the most part it worked for me, too.

[As soon as I got home, I used this very thorough tutorial to learn how to distinguish between dog and mountain lion tracks. For the record, it was most definitely a mountain lion.]

Reaching a junction marked by a wooden sign, I opted to take the more direct route instead of circling around a small pond. It appeared that my booted predecessor went around the pond, and I soon lost his tracks. The cougar seems to have gone its own way here as well. What followed was some high adventure, as there was no sign of the trail, and I trashed through thickets and postholed like mad. Far above, I could see sunshine, which suggested that the trees broke. I knew there was an old logging road above me, so I decided to just make a line for the clear skies above and reassess once I was in a better location. Of course, this all added to the fun, as I bushwhacked up a steep slope, off trail but with a good sense of where to go. My hypothesis paid off, and before too long, I was above tree line on a wide logging road.

As I walked up the road, complete with logs carved into thrones for sitting down to survey your domain, the sun’s rays warmed me both physically and emotionally. My smile was at its toothiest, and the mountains lit me up on the inside. “I’m out in the mountains today! I’m out in the mountains!” More smiles; big damn smiles. After months of personal struggle and feeling mired in despair, this was a welcome respite from the new normal of my life.

I spy McClellan Butte! Bandera! Mount Defiance! Putrid Pete Peak! I’m out in the mountains today!
A throne fit for a happy hiker.
Safely through the sketchy, snowy slope. Pictures never do justice to these things.

After very carefully traversing a steep, sketchy snow slope (of the “I wouldn’t have died but could have gotten messed up if I slid” variety), I reached the junction with the trail that circles up to Change Peak, or down to the Mt. Washington trailhead. This would all be familiar ground now. This ground would also become irritatingly difficult to walk on, thanks to the condition of the snow. It felt akin to walking through quicksand, but I was just so damn happy to be exercising someplace other than the blocks around my house that it didn’t bother me at all.

Soon, I founds myself angling up the spine of a ridge that leads to Change Peak. I had the place to myself and yipped out loud with glee. I dropped down off the north side of the summit to take in the view and eat lunch in the sun. It was glorious. After months trapped in my house and neighborhood, it was just incredible to be eating a Twilight bar on a mountaintop kept all to myself.

Nice little spot for a solo picnic. Joined by McClellan Butte and Bandera Mountain in the distance.
You can just make out the snowy bottom of Tahoma below the clouds, in the center of the photo, on the left side of the saddle.

While my brain told me it was probably a bad idea, I’m such a sucker for loops that I couldn’t resist heading over to tag Mt. Washington and then return to my car via that trailhead. I was clearly the only person who had done so for some time, as there were no tracks heading in that direction after I left Change Peak.

My footprints are the only tracks in sight. Looking back at Change Peak (center) with my next destination, Mt. Washington, to the left.

After quite a slog through the snow, I reached the ridge that leads up the back door entrance to Mt. Washington. As I crested the top, I saw groups of hikers sprawled across the grassy clearing below the summit. They were everywhere. They were not wearing masks. Realizing, too late, that I should have left well enough alone and not come here, I pulled my buff over my face and for some stupid reason still went up to tag the summit, where more unmasked and not-so-physically-distanced hikers hunkered down.

View of the Cedar River Watershed, just below the summit of Mt. Washington.
Look familiar? You may recognize this view from the banner on my website. Same location, but less snow and no view of Tahoma today.

Feeling anxious about the summit crowds, and dreading the possibility of encountering droves of hikers on my descent, I made haste to get out of there. The descent was a mixed bag but erred on the side of stress-inducing unpleasantness. First, I should have taken a moment to put on my microspikes, but my desire to get away from these people overrode the inconvenience of falling on my ass in the icy snow every 50 yards.

Pulling off trail to provide a lot of room for an unmasked uphill hiker to go past. Nice view of the Middlefork Valley, with Tenerife, Green, and Bessimer visible along the ridge and Mailbox to the right.

Some hikers did make an effort to follow public health guidelines and statewide rules for recreating outside. As per state mandate, we were directed not to recreate with people outside of our households; to keep at least 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others; and to cover our faces, if possible. Some hikers really made an effort. They wore buffs or bandanas (I chose a buff instead of mask thinking it would be easier for hiking; next time, I will wear a mask instead because the buff doesn’t offer much protection and kept slipping down.) Only one woman wore a mask. Some hikers gave me a wide berth (although it was mostly me giving way and creating a lot of space.) My encounters with such hikers were relatively pleasant, and I said thanks and was friendly. Unfortunately, this does not represent the majority of hikers that day.

I was disappointed to see so many hikers not covering their faces; not creating physical distance with me; and clearly recreating with people they didn’t live with (while also not wearing face coverings or keeping 6 feet of distance.) My stress spiked exponentially with each encounter that tipped the scale toward encountering more of these types of hikers. This provoked my anxiety for several reasons. First, this was “opening day,” so to say, of some state lands. It was a test run to see if the state would open more, if people would behave. People were clearly not behaving, and I feared what it would mean for this “experiment” (as the governor called it) with allowing us to recreate on state lands. The rules were put in place for a reason; not to limit us, but to keep us all safe. To see people recklessly flouting that was quite upsetting, even if for personal reasons. For one, it could lead to a loss of our privilege of accessing public lands. Two, it could also lead to another spike in infections, possibly overwhelming our healthcare system. I didn’t even acknowledge hikers who took this tack, offering only a scowl in passing. Their decisions could end up affecting others, and, quite frankly, I was pissed. Yes, I was judging. This opening of state lands was being closely watched, and it was people like this who jeopardized it for the rest of us.

The entire trip down the mountain was one long coronavirus nightmare. Cars spilled out of the Mt. Washington trailhead and lined the road as far as you could see (the directive to move on to a new location if the parking lot was full clearly didn’t register with these folks.) Things didn’t get much better once I hit the Palouse to Cascades Trail, where gaggles of climbers clogged the trail, CDC guidelines be damned.

To distract myself, I tried to focus on the wide variety of spring flowers that bloomed along the trails. Ah, so pretty.

The skies opened up and showered as I reached my car. Reluctant to return home after this too-short respite from lockdown, I sat in my car, ate some snacks, and stared through the rain at the mountains that surrounded me. While the Mt. Washington portion of my day was not really enjoyable in any way, I decided to train my focus on the Change Peak portion, which was simply wonderful. There’s nothing like a global pandemic, and a shelter at home order, to make you realize how fortunate you are to have access to the natural world. I don’t think that I take my access for granted; in fact, I’m quite consciously grateful. What I came to recognize, though, was how essential it is for my personal well being. Cut off from the mountains and forest, my mental health has deteriorated. This brief excursion did much to make things right, if only for a little while.

Governor Inslee was right to prioritize getting Washingtonians back into the wild. As Thoreau noted, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Personally, I realize now how essential the wild is to my own well being, and I vow to spend as much of my life in wild places as is possible. There’s no telling where our world is headed and what the new normal will look like. That’s what is so troubling about this pandemic: so much is unknown. All I know now is that I need to find a way to connect with the wild as much as possible. I believe it is, quite frankly, my only means of self-preservation.

Head over Heart: Self Isolation on the Olympic Coast

[Nearly six months after beginning to draft this trip report, and I am reading back over it before hitting the publish button. It’s remarkable what a radically different world this has become in such a short span of time. The introduction feels embarrassingly quaint now, but I’m preserving it here as a record of how the new world of COVID evolved in my personal experience.]

Head vs. Heart

The Panch Pokhari Puzzle will remain unsolved, for now. After much back-and-forth, Seth and I decided to postpone our trip to Nepal. At the time, we weren’t so much worried about the possibility of picking up the coronavirus ourselves, nor were we concerned about the possibility of getting stuck in Nepal or Thailand indefinitely. The one thing holding us back was the possibility that, traveling from the then-epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, we might inadvertently spread the virus to remote villages in the Himalayas. I couldn’t shake this thought, and my gut said, “Don’t go.” Talking it through with my brother and a friend reinforced this feeling. An article about a British couple unknowingly spreading the virus all around Vietnam made me cringe at the thought of being the subject of a similar headline: “Two Idiotic University of Washington professors spread the coronavirus all over Nepal, infecting villagers with no easy access to health care.”

And yet, Nepal tugged. I spoke with our Nepali friend, Sudeep, and expressed my concerns. He sent back a thoughtful reply, to which my heart overrode my head. Ignoring the sentence in which he said, “not traveling is the best possible course right now,” I latched onto his statement that, “there are still trekkers out in the mountains.” Sleep evaded me, as head and heart battled through the night. In the morning, Seth and I had an online meeting with Sudeep. I was ready to call off the expedition, but our conversation somewhat allayed my concerns. We decided to camp the entire time so as to avoid interaction with locals and mitigate the risk of possibly spreading the virus. I could sense the hesitation in Sudeep’s voice, but, again, willfully ignored it. We spent the rest of the day finishing up packing. My movements were slow as I placed items in my pack, weighted with doubts. I knew not going was the right thing to do, but it was so difficult to make that call. I’d been waiting years for this moment, and I selfishly could not let it go. Another restless night followed.

On our scheduled departure day, we woke to news that Sudeep’s grandfather was gravely ill, and Sudeep would need to withdraw from the expedition to be with his family. While Seth and I could have continued without him, we weren’t eager to do so. It was an adventure for the three of us and wouldn’t be the same without Sudeep. While I was sorry to hear of his grandfather’s condition, ultimately, it was the final thing that pushed us to make the right decision and postpone the trip. I’m sorry and embarrassed that it took that circumstance to really push us there. I would like to think that we would have arrived at that decision before leaving for the airport later that night. I’m fairly confident that we would have, the recognition that going would be selfish and unethical winning out before we stepped onto the plane.

We were scheduled to fly from Bangkok to Kathmandu on March 14th. On the 13th, when we would have been soaring over the Pacific toward first Taiwan, then Thailand, the Nepali government decided not to issue visas on arrival, starting the 14th. We would not have even made it into the country. A few days later, Sudeep’s grandfather passed away, and he went home for 12 days of funeral preparations and festivities. The universe was very loudly reassuring us that we were not meant to go to Nepal at this time.

It’s incredible what the mind can rationalize when we want something badly. It’s one thing to pursue a dream at all costs, but when the costs could cause harm to others, that’s an entirely different matter. We very nearly made a terrible mistake simply because I wanted to fulfill a heart’s dream of going to the Himalayas with Seth. That the trip was meant to begin laying the foundation for my sabbatical project and book manuscript leant further legitimacy to my warped perspective. Others are sacrificing far more precious things during this pandemic, and Nepal will be there. I take a breath of relief knowing that we ultimately came to the right decision before it was too late.

Consolation and Isolation on the Olympic Coast

Since I’d already submitted grades, hired a cat sitter, and had my auto-reply email set, we decided to make a getaway to the Olympic Coast, as consolation. This was prior to the shelter-at-home order; the coronavirus situation was still relatively new, but we understood that things were getting serious, and it seemed like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get away from town and self-isolate in the wilderness. Like most Americans at the time, we still didn’t fully grasp how quickly the situation was evolving. On the day we hit the trail, there were only 1,678 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Today, nearly that number of people are dying in the US each day. Back then, we could not fathom such a tremendous and rapid change of the world.

Seth and I have talked for a couple of years about working on a travel guide to the Olympic coast, so this seemed like a good opportunity to begin that project. The coast is a special place for us. It is wild and rugged, yet peaceful in its own way and stunning beyond compare. We typically go during the winter, when there’s reliable water sources and few to no other humans in sight. You pitch a tent near the shore and have the Pacific Ocean as your front yard. The sunsets are devastatingly beautiful. Maybe you see a headlamp or two on the next headland over the course of a week. It is glorious.

This is what your typical Olympic Coast camp looks like. This shot taken on a 2018 trip to a great site just north of the aptly-named Hole-in-the-Wall.

I studied tide charts and maps to determine our route. Trekking up the coast does entail some thought and timing. Certain beaches and headlands are only passable at a certain tide height, which the maps indicate. You have to line up the tides with your route so as to be able to proceed up the beach without crawling over dangerously slick logs or to round a headland without racing the tide and potentially getting stuck on a precarious perch–or worse. I like puzzling these things out. Since I’d never been to the famed Shi Shi beach, the northern terminus of the Olympic Coast Trail, I decided that we would yo-yo from Lake Ozette to Shi Shi.

Detail from the Custom Correct North Olympic Coast map, illustrating the tides at which headlands are passable, and where overland routes are available. If you’re going to the coast, be sure to purchase the Custom Correct Map, as others don’t include tide information.

One hazard we would confront was the Ozette River. Our map says, “No bridge; not fordable in winter.” It was nearly spring, but the foreboding of the map gave cause for some concern. We decided to bring Seth’s smallest packraft, the Scout, and we would paddle across the river. Of course, this meant extra weight to carry (including a paddle and throw rope), but it seemed worth it to ensure safe crossing of the river (plus, it’s exactly what the Scout is meant for.) Logistics in order, we swapped out some gear, loaded up the Westie, and headed out.

Day 1: Ozette to Seafield Creek

After a night spent at the Ozette trailhead in the cozy comfort of the Westie, with its newly-installed heater, we hit the trail. The weight of my pack stunned me. I made the mistake of weighing it before we left. It came in at 42 pounds, and it wasn’t entirely loaded with all of the gear yet. My best guess is that it was easily in the high-40s once fully loaded. It can be tough to pack for the coast, because you have to be prepared for a range of weather, plus the use of bear canisters is compulsory. Add in 6 nights and 7 days of food, and you’re looking at one heavy pack. This came in just under the weight I carried to Camp Muir up Rainier. At least I wasn’t wearing plastic mountaineering boots here. All the same, I was surprised at the need to take breaks along the way as I staggered under that behemoth.

The trail leads from Lake Ozette through a coastal forest of cedars, along precarious boardwalks, through two expansive prairies, and out to Cape Alava.

Hiking the boardwalk out to Cape Alava. PC Seth Wolpin
Leaving the forest, the boardwalk continues through a prairie. PC Seth Wolpin

The tide was far out, so we couldn’t hear the ocean as we broke through the trees and spilled out onto Cape Alava. We turned north, and everything from there on out would be new territory for me. We passed a slew of campsites and the summer ranger station, and we encountered a couple of deer who didn’t seem bothered by our presence.

Taking it all in on Cape Alava. PC Seth Wolpin
Traveling north from Cape Alava along the beach. You can barely make out the water in the distance, and you see tide pools to the left.

At the first headland, which requires a 5 foot tide, we were able to skirt around it by hopping from wet boulder to wet boulder. Going around headlands is always difficult, but some are more treacherous than others. You can always count on navigating over rock of some sort, sometimes coated with slippery sea weed to make it even more precarious. Sometimes you have smaller boulders that wobble under foot; at other times, you have giant rocks that require some scrambling; at others you have craggly rock surrounded by small tide pools. No matter the type of headland rock, you can always, without fail, count on it being wet and slippery, the promise of a rolled ankle or broken femur always within the very close realm of possibility. All of this while balancing a heavy pack on your back to boot. If you’re racing against an incoming tide, things get even more dicey and nerve-wracking. We’ve definitely been there, but, fortunately, the tides aligned quite well for us on this trip, and it was always on the way out as we rounded headlands. Yes, I am a great solver of tide puzzles.

Ah, sand! This is a welcome sight after hopping boulders around the headland.
Using the rock to take some of the weight off my back for a moment. PC Seth Wolpin

At the second headland, which calls for a 4 foot tide, we opted to take the overland route. One accesses the overland trails along the coast by climbing up steep cliffs. Good Samaritans have scavenged rope washed up on shore and soundly secured them (one hopes) for others to use as an aid in ascending and descending the overland routes. The ropes have always been a challenge for me, mostly due to the heavy pack being part of the equation, with my vertigo and fear of heights rounding things out. The ropes on the northern section win “Scariest on the Coast,” handily. This first one was a doozy. In these moments, my pride sure does come in handy; since two other hikers were watching our ascent, there was no way that I wouldn’t get up this thing, and I certainly wouldn’t let Seth carry my pack up for me. It’s frustrating, because I’ve become a pretty decent climber, but that heavy pack absolutely derails me. The truth of it is, if the pack throws off your balance, and you fall over backwards, you’re dead–literally. Oh, the things we do for fun.

Pics never do justice to these overland cliff climbs. PC Seth Wolpin

Descending the rope on the other side brought us to the mouth of the Ozette River. We assessed the situation and made a plan for crossing. On the south side, there was a nice, big eddy, perfect for hopping into the Scout and preparing to paddle across. On the north side, much of the bank was steep and composed of loose rocks, but slightly down river there was a small sandy patch, perfect for landing. We could see two swiftly-moving channels in the deep river, one on the south side, the other on the north. That could make crossing difficult, as those currents could quickly sweep us out into the Pacific Ocean, where we were unsure of how the undertow and other currents might affect our ability to get back to shore, should the river carry us out. Typically, a river crossing wouldn’t give us pause, but toss in the gaping maw of the wide ocean, and it certainly intimidates.

Seth inflating the Scout, with the Ozette River in the background.

More confident in my paddling than in my throwing skills, I opted to go across the river first, The plan was for Seth to then toss the throw bag over, which I would attach to the raft, and he would pull it back over so that he could cross. We staged in the eddy, securing my pack, which took up most of the raft, and then I awkwardly wrapped my legs around it. I left the eddy facing upstream and paddled at an angle, pumping my arms vigorously against the current. It was as if I was standing still; the current was too strong and I couldn’t make progress across. I decided to turn downstream and hoped that I could paddle fast enough to reach the other shore before the current could hurl me into the ocean. The current on the north side was equally fast, but I was able to push through it and onto the sandy shore.

Looking at the photo above, you’d think that it would be an easy toss of the throw bag across. This proved otherwise. There is 75′ of rope inside the bag, to which Seth added an assortment of other ropes to extend our total to probably around 100′. This was just long enough to get to the other side, but it was difficult to actually get the bag all the way across. Seth tried valiantly to reach the far shore, but the light weight of the bag made it impossible to get the needed distance. After each toss, he had to recoil the rope back inside the bag, a lengthy process itself. After repeated attempts and no luck, the only option remaining was for me to paddle back across, take the throw bag with me as Seth held the other end, and then I would send the raft and paddle back to him.

I launched from upriver and easily paddled into the eddy. Seth handed me the throw bag, which I secured under my arm. The rope would be just long enough to reach the other side, and the current would eventually pull it downstream. As such, we couldn’t tie the rope to the raft. Instead, I would need to quickly hop out on the other side and secure the rope to the raft before it started to pull downstream. Things went well at first; I made it to the north side and was right up against the bank. It was the steep bank, though, so I waited to get down to the sandy part. All of a sudden, the current grabbed me, and I went charging downriver. The rope reached its end, and I felt the throw bag start to tug under my arm as the raft began to pendulum around. I made the split-second decision to jump out of the raft into the river. Recalling the lessons from my “Whitewater Fever” kayak course, I understood this was potentially a bad idea, as the current could have knocked me off my feet and sent me out to sea, but it was just shallow enough for me to stay vertical. In a blur, I was in the water, secured the rope to the raft, and tossed in the paddle. We hooted in triumph as Seth pulled the raft back to his side.

“You got the packraft all wet!” he says.

Seth made easy work of his crossing, and we took a break together on the north shore to celebrate this little victory. Our crossings of the Ozette would prove to be a highlight for me on this trip. It entailed an element of danger, but there was also a thrill in that. It’s strange how that works. For me, climbing and mountaineering are Type 2 Fun, fun only after the fact, because I’m so focused on the danger of it in the moment. With paddling, though, it’s Type 1 Fun, fun in the moment, even if it’s also a bit scary. I’m not sure what creates the distinction here for me. Perhaps it’s the years spent on the Whitewater River throughout my childhood (on horseback) that makes me more comfortable with the risks involved on the river.

Reveling in our successful crossing, we contemplated pitching camp on the north shore and calling it a day when a couple walked up to the banks of the south shore. They were a bit farther downriver, right at the mouth. It’s a much wider crossing there, but also shallower. We stared in disbelief as they took off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and waded in. While the tide was going out, the river was still moving incredibly fast, and the man was in above his knees. They had no poles and were trying to walk barefoot across rocks in ice cold water. I can tell you from first-hand experience that fording cold, rocky river bottoms barefoot is not easy. The woman hesitated on shore, but her partner continued on, so she eventually followed. Not far in, she paused, as if frozen. He coaxed her on, and eventually she started forward again. It took a long time for him to get all the way across, and she was once again frozen about a third of the way across. He came back, took her pack, and helped her to the other side. It took them about 20 minutes to cross, compared to our hour and 20 minutes. Reaching the north shore, the woman fell into her partner’s arms, and he hugged her long and tightly. She was clearly done for the day, so we decided to press on and leave them to enjoy the North Ozette campsite. We briefly reflected on whether we should have just forded it instead of dragging out the extra gear, but, in the end, we didn’t know for sure that we could ford the river this time of year. Plus, the paddling and the adventure it entailed was more fun, and more memorable.

We stashed the packraft, paddle, throw bag, and a bear canister with the second half of our food in the woods before trekking north. I’d expected this to make a difference in the feel of my pack, but it seemed just as heavy. We pushed on to Seafield Creek, two miles north of the river. There, we knew there was a campsite and good access to water. The going was fairly easy, as far as beach walks go.

The words “beach walk” might conjure for you a lovely stroll along firm sand, but this is rarely the case on the Olympic Coast. You get that occasionally, but the footing ranges from unpacked sand that you sink into and move as if you’re fleeing a monster in slow motion in a nightmare; to small pebbles that provide about the same footing as that unpacked sand; to bigger pebbles; to small boulders; to any combination of these. Often, driftwood lines the shores, and by driftwood, I mean gigantic dead trees that you have to scramble over, under, or around, depending on the case. My notes from this 2-mile stretch on the quality of the beach go from “sandy butter beach” (very easy), to “small rocks beach some sand,” to “slightly bigger rock Seth not a fan,” to “smaller rocks,” and back to “sand” as we neared Seafield Creek.

We made camp on a rise above the creek, with a view of the ocean beyond. We’d logged just over 8 miles but were completely exhausted. Camp established, Seth built a fire, I made Pad Thai, and we settled in to watch the sun drop out of sight. The stars emerged in sparking splendor, far from the light pollution of civilization.

Home for the night at Seafield Creek.
The first of many glorious sunsets. Below, Seafield Creek, choked up with driftwood, empties into the Pacific.

Day 2: Seafield Creek to Camp Aerie

The tides worked in a way that allowed us to have a lazy morning in camp before heading north in the early afternoon. Our lives are typically so rushed; it’s go! go! go! from our morning alarm until we collapse, exhausted, in bed that night. To have a morning of no alarms (including feline alarms demanding breakfast), no work, no expectations–that’s a real gift. We sipped hot cocoa, read books, dozed, talked, and took pleasure in doing nothing. We don’t do that enough.

We usually plan for an hour to break camp and get moving. I was able to stash a bit more gear in a cache here. Unpacking the evening before, I found that I was carrying a bivy sack we had packed along with a tarp for Nepal, which one of us had forgotten to remove from the sack (I won’t say who.) Despite losing about 2 pounds, my pack didn’t feel much lighter, but I was growing accustomed to its bulk.

The sandy-ish beach turned to boulders, then back to sand, then to “stepping boulders,” in the typical footing dance of the Olympic Coast. I have a talent for finding the loose boulders but have perfected my precarious wobble dance. In some ways, the stepping boulders are easier than some of the types of sand, as you can hop from rock to rock and be on firm footing. The wobbly ones keep it interesting.

Boulder hopping as we go around the headland. You can see Seth far ahead of me (as usual when going around the headlands.) I have learned to accept being slow here.
Slowly making my way around the headland. PC Seth Wolpin
Seth waiting for me to catch up as boulder hopping turns to scrambling.
Made it to the next beach!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The next section entailed three overland trails, which meant three rope climbs, and three descents. All three rope climbs were steep and scary. As with the others, as long as you keep your weight forward on your toes, you’re good. The possibility of losing your balance and falling backwards, though, looms over you as you ascend. Without a pack, you could zoom right up with little concern. Seth always offers to carry up my pack, saying there’s no shame in it. Of course, I am too proud, and stubborn, to accept. The first rope was particularly gnarly, to the point that we stopped to take a mental breather at the top before proceeding to the overland trail. I look forward to the day when I completely obliterate my vertigo and fear of heights.

Up and over the headland. PC Seth Wolpin
Taking a mental breather at the top of the first rope, looking down at the cove below. I like how you can see our footprints in the sand.

Fortunately (at least when you’re northbound), the descent is never quite as tough as the ascent. Coming back down to the beach, we continued on to the next headland, which we went around, then reached another dizzying rope climb. This one led to a longer overland trail. About halfway through, we stopped for lunch in the forest and noted that there was a good camp spot there, just in case we were in need of options for the night. Sitting on two conveniently located logs, we rehydrated some dried hummus and enjoyed a humble repast. Not far past this, we discovered a little eagle’s nest overlook, where we plopped down in the sun to enjoy its warmth. While we have talked of doing the entire coast in one push, we were glad to be moving at a slow pace now, being able to stop and enjoy the feel of sun on our skin at will.

View from the little eagle’s nest.

The trail took us back down to a little cove, and then up the ropes we went again. My research noted a spot with a great view along this overland trail, so we stopped to take a look before descending back down to the next cove. We followed a narrow trail along the spine of a cliff, which led out to a most spectacular view. The cliff was a airy peninsula of sorts. There was a secluded cove behind us, with startling blue-green water that crashed against the rocks that rimmed it. On the other side, views opened out onto the vastness of the Pacific, with a small island near the cliff, which created a protected mini-cove behind it. On the north side, you could see the next beach. Seth described it as ocean surround sound, as we had waves crashing on three sides. We paused for a break to enjoy it all, and I secretly hoped we would call it a day and stay here forever.

Traversing the spine out to Camp Aerie, which we pitched in the small copse of trees on the cliff.
Standing at the edge of the cliff at Camp Aerie. To the left is the opening of the cove behind us. To the right, the Pacific Ocean.

As we sat there smiling, I noticed a small, flat spot where we could conceivably pitch the tent. Reading my thoughts, Seth said, “We could press on further for Shi Shi, or, we could just camp here.”

“Let’s camp here!” I said, not skipping a beat. He smiled in agreement.

View of the small island and the protected waters behind it. I took this photo while standing in the tiny flat spot that would become our tent site.

After working out a safety protocol for separating, Seth went north to collect water (the one downside of this campsite is that there’s no water nearby), as I made camp. Making quick work of my task, I kicked back to revel in the sun. After a long winter in Washington, to feel the sun’s rays on your bare arms is a luxury beyond compare.

Camp Aerie, named for the many eagles soaring around and the sense of being perched up high like an eagle.
This is the life! PC Seth Wolpin

Surprisingly, we both had a cell signal from the top of the cliff; this was certainly unprecedented out on the coast, and, admittedly, a bit disappointing. I resolved not to check the headlines and instead sent the above photo out to a few friends and wished them well before putting my phone back in airplane mode for the remainder of the trip. We had gone to the coast, in part, to escape the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation. I had been obsessively checking headlines, growing more anxious each day, so we intended this trip as a bit of a respite from the world. Of course, our escape was the epitome of privilege, which we certainly recognized. Not everyone had the opportunity to step away and say, “No thanks, not now.”

The coast could certainly lead you to a false sense that all was well in the world. A few days later, as we made our way back south, I gestured toward the gorgeous panorama spread out before us and said, “You know, being out here, you would have no idea that civilization was crumbling not too far away. The birds are winging, the waves keep crashing, and every day ends with a spectacular sunset. The natural world just keeps on keeping on, despite what’s going on in the world of humans.” On the one hand, this is true; the natural world is indifferent to the worries of humans and will continue to perform its natural processes without regard to what is happening to us. That said, I was tense throughout this entire trip, the state of the world looming over me like a pall. I knew things were getting rapidly and progressively worse, and while the remoteness of the coast offered some comfort, this undertow of anxiety exerted a palpable force.

Making camp and the chores that come with it offered a welcome distraction. When Seth returned from collecting water, we went about filtering some water and setting up the hammock. There’s truly nothing better than swinging in a hammock built for two, the sun kissing your skin, and a beautiful scene wrapped around you. Huddled in the sleeping bag, we rocked with the sea breeze, alternating between reading, playing the recorder, and dozing. It was a pretty good day.

Seth brushing up on his recorder skills from the comfort of a hammock.

After watching the sun dip below the horizon, we settled into the tent to read and listen to podcasts. In the morning, I learned that we had both awakened a few times during the night with the sudden, panicked thought that we were perched a tad too close to the edge of the cliff. The tent’s foot did come within a couple inches of the cliff’s edge, but it has been the only feasible flat spot around. For me, what woke me was the possibility that “the big one” would hit, and the tremors would crumble the rock beneath us. The odds seemed pretty low; it really didn’t cause me to lose too much sleep, and we decided to stay put for another night.

Day Three: Shi Shi

Unencumbered by heavy packs, we made our way north to the famed Shi Shi beach with ease. Rounding the headland at Point of the Arches, we marveled at the sea stacks and wondered about the origin of its name. On the other side, Shi Shi unfurled before us–two miles of the most buttery sand beach. We strolled along in silence, smiles beaming, searching for sand dollars. After nearly six years, I’d finally made it here.

Coming around the headland and dodging tide pools near Point of the Arches. PC Seth Wolpin
Negotiating tide pools and slippery rocks as we round the headland at Point of the Arches.

Save one couple who soon broke camp and headed south, we had the entire beach to ourselves, for the entire day. This was surely a rare treat, as Shi Shi is among the most popular coastal destinations. Later, it would all make sense, when we learned that the Makah Reservation, the main access point for Shi Shi, was closed to all visitors in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from reaching the Makah community.

This beach scores a butter factor of 11. PC Seth Wolpin
Shi Shi, at long last! Looking back south at the sea stacks of Point of the Arches.
Shi Shi is a two-mile crescent of buttery sand beach.
Smiles all the way. PC Seth Wolpin

Reaching the northernmost tip of the beach, we scrambled up a small headland for a sweeping view. I had now hiked every inch of the Olympic Coast Trail, which runs from Shi Shi in the north to Oil City in the south.

Taking it all in from above.

Climbing back down to the beach, Seth opted for a post-lunch nap in the sun, while I ventured out to explore the tide pools. There was a plethora of giant, sea foam green anemones as well as tiny pink ones. Small, iridescent purple crabs scuttled under rocks; tiny fish swam for cover; and clusters of mussels lay calmly in wait for the water’s return. Hopping from tide pool to tide pool, peering into these secret worlds, I felt full of the wonder of a child. I also recalled passages from Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea: “In this difficult world of the shore, life displays its enormous toughness and vitality by occupying almost every conceivable niche. Visibly, it carpets the intertidal rocks; or half hidden, it descends into fissures and crevices, or hides under boulders, or lurks in the wet gloom of sea caves.”

Sea anemones, although ubiquitous in the coastal tide pools, are nevertheless always a magical sight.
Peering around the headland for a glimpse of the seemingly endless tide pools that lie north beyond Shi Shi.
Mussels patiently await the flood tide. It’s always a delicate dance around the tide pools, making every effort not to step on the tiny lives exposed by the ebb tide.
Tiny pink anemone and friends in a tide pool.

Reluctantly, I returned to the beach and woke Seth from his brief slumber. It was time to head back to camp, although I half hoped we might just stay for the night and sleep on the beach under the stars.

Shi Shi panorama.
Approaching Point of the Arches on our return to Camp Aerie.

On the return, it was now easy to see how Point of the Arches earned its name. Many of the sea stacks had small holes carved out by centuries of waves and wind, creating tiny arches in the rock. It was like Hole-in-the-Wall turned up to 11.

Enormous root ball trapped within an arch.
Passing through one of the many arches.

Returning to camp, we went through our evening ritual of dinner (I made the unfortunate blunder of not packing all Pad Thai and paid for it by eating a second rate meal of Chana Masala) followed by toasted marshmallows with chocolate (how did we forget the graham crackers?!) Since we didn’t build a fire on the cliff, we impaled our marshmallows on sporks and hovered them over the open flame of our gas canister. After yet another lovely sunset, we drifted off to dreamland to the accompaniment of waves.

Why oh why did I not pack all Pad Thai? PC Seth Wolpin
Watching the sun sink into the sea never gets old.

Day Four: Camp Aerie to North Ozette

It was time to start making our way back south. I wasn’t all that excited about having to descend the south side ropes, but there was no getting around it. Having descended one of the more gnarly ropes, we paused in the cove for a brief rest and to let the tide ebb a bit more. Frustrated at how difficult that descent had proved, I kept insisting to Seth, “I’m actually a pretty good climber! I really am!” He suggested that I go up and down without the pack to build confidence. Sans pack, I proceeded to zip up and down the rope without batting an eye, proving to myself that I wasn’t completely hopeless. It really was just the added awkwardness and weight of the pack that was giving me fits.

Continuing on, we reached a headland that wasn’t entirely passable, the water still just a bit too high. To our great fortune, we were able to scramble up to a perch above the water where we could wait out the tide. Seth made lunch, and we resumed our daily activities: reading, playing the recorder, and napping.

The perfect perch for waiting out the tide. Once it had ebbed enough, we would traverse the rocks on the left to the next beach.
Not a bad place to be stuck for an hour.

Two men came across the rocks and told us it was all clear from there down to Seafield Creek. We suspected as much, but it was so nice to be perched up above the water, that we had lingered after the tide was out. Packing up, we continued down past Seafield Creek to our food and gear cache just north of the Ozette River. After some discussion, we decided to stay north of the river for the night, even though others were camped nearby. We found a good camp site that just needed a little TLC to make it homey, and we had enough space between us and the next party that we barely knew they were there (except for when two young men came awkwardly scrounging through our camp looking for firewood.)

We went through the usual rhythms of making camp: clear a site; pitch the tent; set up a small kitchen area; build a fire; procure and filter water; change into camp clothes; relax on the beach. I love this simple routine. We carry on our backs everything we need to make a home, including luxuries like chocolate and books. Camp chores completed, we retired to the beach for some afternoon reading and sun-drunk dozing.

Final task of the afternoon: reading on the beach.

We timed dinner perfectly each night so as to dine while watching the sun set.

Day Five: North Ozette to Sand Point

Needing to cover a good distance today, we broke camp earlier than usual. Since we had the Scout, the tide didn’t limit our choices for when to cross the Ozette. We stepped onto the north shore and an entirely different scene presented itself to us. The tide was quite high, and the river was deep and expansive. It was a bit unnerving, but we trusted that it would still be about as straightforward as it had been for me paddling southbound a few days prior. Seeing the line between river and ocean more blurred with the high water did give us pause. Before I launched, Seth grabbed my arms and said in a very serious voice, “I love you.” In my mind, I thought, “He said that as if he might not ever see me again and wanted this to be his parting words, just in case.” I tried not to think about it and readied the packraft.

The south-side eddy had shifted a bit, but it was still the plan for me to land there, hop out, and then send the raft and paddle back to Seth. In my mind, I walked through the steps: keep the throw rope under my arm and also tied to me with a quick-release (slip) knot; land; hop out; toss my pack on shore; untie the throw rope from me; secure it to raft; send it back to Seth. Do you notice anything missing from this process? Look closely! [foreshadowing]

I launched into the river and paddled across to the eddy on the south shore. As I neared the shore, I heard Seth shouting something. It took a moment to register: “You’re out of rope!” I was still in deeper water, but the eddy would protect me. My legs were wrapped around my pack, and I started to panic as the throw rope tugged me backwards. I tossed the paddle on shore and tried to get out without tipping my pack into the water, which seemed imminent. I managed to haul myself out into the water and lift my heavy pack to shore. Tugging the rope from my waist, the knot slipped clear, I tied the rope to the raft, and sent it off. Just when it was out of reach, my jaw dropped in the realization that I hadn’t put the paddle in the raft. Seth called out, “The paddle!” but it was too late. I gasped repeatedly and kept stammering, “Oh my god I effed that up! I effed that up! I really effed that up!” In my mental preparation, I had neglected to include this very essential step in the plan.

After we both gasped and laughed uncomfortably for a few minutes, in total disbelief of my blunder, we yelled ideas back and forth over the roar of the river. We’d already learned that the throw rope wouldn’t be of help. I offered to swim the paddle across, and Seth had thought he might do the same. The water would have been so ridiculously cold, but we could have managed. We had dry clothes to change into, and the day was warming. Seth walked upstream, looking for something to use as a makeshift paddle. He found a flat piece of wood that seemed like it would do the trick. It was worth a shot.

Since his pack would have complicated things, he decided to leave it on the north shore and focus on using his driftwood paddle to get across safely. Launching far upstream to give a little more room for error, Seth came around the bend, in perfect control of his craft. I sighed a breath of relief. Seeing all was good, we laughed and hooted as he paddled across. Giving me a gentle “you are in so much trouble” smile, he gestured for the paddle and tossed his wooden oar aside. Over and back he went to collect his pack. In the end, we had both completed an extra, unexpected paddle across the Ozette. I suggested that it was much more memorable this way than if everything had run smoothly. Seth agreed.

Seth masterfully crossing the Ozette with improvised paddle.
The driftwood paddle that saved our butts.
Seth returning for his pack, this time with the paddle.

Crisis averted, we found a trail through the woods and continued on toward Cape Alava. The tide was still high, so we made use of overland trails most of the way.

Because it is relatively accessible, Cape Alava sees a lot of people. On this day, it was absolutely crawling with them. We tensed up, not being accustomed to seeing other humans on our journeys along the coast. A strong sense of feeling territorial overtook us. “This is our place.” We picked up our pace in order to make it to Sand Point before the hordes of humans headed in that direction. It seemed as if the idea of self-isolating on the coast had become more popular, and isolation was becoming less possible as a result.

A deer ambles over to the sea at Cape Alava. Maybe it was the same one we’d seen days earlier? We watched her walk all the way out into the water, making her way toward the island that was accessible at low tide.

The way was slow going, moving south from Cape Alava toward Wedding Rocks. The footing was mostly wet, slippery rock, and I maintained my daily streak of getting at least one foot completely soaked. We had passed through here on our first trip to the coast together, and I had scanned each stack for the petroglyphs that give Wedding Rocks its name. Now, as before, we still didn’t see them. We did spot a number of incredible, unoccupied campsites. According to the map, though, there was no water nearby, so we decided to press on.

Reaching the northern end of the beach leading to Sand Point, we started to look in earnest. The beach rewarded us with a lovely little campsite, close to fresh water and a good distance from any other sites. We claimed it for our own and went about the camp-making rituals that had come to feel like our regular, everyday life. Everything in order, we hanged the hammock and called it good.

Just another beautiful sunset view from our camp at Sand Point.
I’m running out of adjectives to describe these sunsets.
“Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

Day Six: Observing the Locals and Searching for Petroglyphs

Since we would be spending a second night here, we were left with a full day to explore the local environs. I spent the morning watching in rapt attention as the resident fauna went about their daily routine. It’s quite incredible what you can discover by sitting still and observing your environment. Monocular in hand, I studied the habits of shorebirds and seals, jotting down descriptions of their identifiable traits and behaviors and making up names for them. I hoped to collect enough detail to allow me to later identify the birds. It worked! My notes and drawings later revealed that my shoreline companions that morning included strikingly plumed Harlequin Ducks; loquacious Black Oystercatchers; and head-bobbing Hooded Mergansers.

Observational notes.
Trying my hand at sketching. Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.

After an educational morning of shore-watching, I decided to head north to Wedding Rocks in search of the famed petroglyphs. When we had walked through there a couple years earlier, we passed a young woman heading southbound and asked her if she had seen the petroglyphs. “Oh yes!” she replied. “Were they tough to spot, or were they right along the trail and obvious?” “Oh, they were obvious. You can’t miss them!” Well, we managed to miss them then, and we had managed to do so again yesterday. I was determined to find them today.

I spent a couple of hours inspecting every large rock from Sand Point past Wedding Rocks. The way points on my map seemed to indicate their location, but no such luck. I would approach a sea stack, convinced this would be the one, only to be disappointed. Of course, it’s hard to stay disappointed out on the coast. I hopped up on a boulder near a large sea stack and ate a chocolate bar, watching waves crash on the barrier islands off shore. I saw eagles lock talons and fall through the sky and a bob of seals sprawled over a tiny rock island. Tide pools held their usual wonders, and the sea breeze flitted through my hair.

No petroglyphs, but still many pretty sights.

Incidentally, a simple internet search suggests that these petroglyphs appear to be impossible to miss.

After a few hours of roaming, I wandered back to camp for one last evening of hammock swinging, fire building, Pad Thai gorging, sunset viewing, marshmallow toasting, and general happiness. Knowing there was more food waiting a short hike away in the Westie, I contemplated running out and back to resupply so that we could extend our stay. If the crowds hadn’t continued to grow, that might have been possible, but we saw more and more people each day, and it seemed wise to head out the next day as planned.

Day Seven: Sand Point to Ozette

Reluctantly, we broke camp and headed south to complete the “Ozette Triangle” (see the map above.) Before heading into the forest, we paused to climb up Sand Point to get one last sweeping view of the ocean. There were a few other parties there, and our interaction just goes to show how much has changed since then. Pulling out my phone, I asked a party of three to take a photo of me and Seth. They agreed, but as I handed a young woman my phone, the young man said, “I guess this really isn’t practicing good social distancing, though.” That term was, at the time, still a relatively new addition to the general lexicon, so it hadn’t occurred to me when I asked for the photo. My reply speaks to how new all of that was to us: “Oh, I used hand sanitizer right before leaving camp just now.” It’s wild to think of it, now. Of course, I could have touched my face between now and then. All the same, they took me up on my offer to take their photo as well. As I passed the phone back, I said, “Sorry, we’ve been out here for a week and are a little out of touch with what’s going on out there.” “Everything is shutting down,” the young man replied. “Bars and restaurants are closed, and a lockdown is sure to come next.” It was hard to process that information. We’d been gone 7 days, and the world had shifted into something entirely new to us.

Final moment of innocence: on top of Sand Point, failing in the social distancing department. I wonder if asking strangers to snap a photo for you is now a thing of the past?

We lingered a few moments to hold onto the view and the sound of waves breaking along the shore before making our way over to the inland trail. I was surprised to see a sign indicating that bears had been spotted in the area, and it warned campers to follow food storage protocols, or this area risked being closed to campers. I’d always thought the bear canisters were a protection against mice, so this came as a surprise.

We passed quite a few day trippers on our way out, as well as some rangers heading toward the coast to check in on park guests. It’s astonishing to reflect back on this. As we hiked along the boardwalks, we passed others with caution, but not with a 6-foot wide berth. We had masks in our packs, but we didn’t wear them. Today, this seems unthinkable. It’s incredible how much the world changed over the span of a camping trip.

The Westie was patiently waiting for us at the trailhead, now packed with vehicles of day trippers seeking escape from the world of COVID.

El Blanco Beasto, looking tough with its new beefy bumpers. You can see two members of the round of robins that flitted around the lot.

We still had a week of vacation time left, so I suggested we check out Cape Flattery, which is the northwesterly most point in the contiguous United States and is part of the Makah Reservation. Briefly within service range, Seth caught the latest headlines. “There are more than 15,000 known cases in the U.S. now.” That was staggering, and my mind honestly could not compute this number. It had been at 1600 only 7 days prior. The world was changing faster than we could imagine.

As we neared the Makah Reservation, an electric road sign indicated that Neah Bay was closed due to the coronavirus, but we naively pressed on thinking that this closure wouldn’t apply to Cape Flattery. Reaching a road block, Makah law enforcement officers said otherwise, and we felt a bit sheepish in our decision to continue on past the sign. Turning tail, we found a pull out near the water to hole up in the Westie for the night. The new state of the world wasn’t yet entirely tracking. We read books, and I watched a sea lion slap an enormous salmon from side to side, unsure if it was playing or just taking its sweet old time dispatching its dinner.

The next morning, as we drove toward Tacoma, we explored our options, even as we passed highway signs that read, “Stay at Home; Save Lives.” We decided to stop at home, swap out some gear, and then head out for some sort of baby jogger/packraft adventure. I think we both questioned how advisable this was, but we still didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. We decided to sleep on it. The next morning, we awoke to news that Gov. Inslee had imposed a shelter at home order. We complied.

Life in the Time of COVID-19

Fair warning, dear reader: things get quite bleak in the conclusion.

I’ve worked on this trip report in fits and starts over the past 7 weeks (I wrote that sentence in April and am only now publishing this report in August.) It’s just staggering how much has changed in this relatively short amount of time. I’m grateful to have had this brief respite on the coast, this short stay in the wilderness before being confined to my house. At the same time, I think about walking into the gas station at Clallam Bay to pick up snacks for the drive home and wonder if I ended up doing here what I feared doing in Nepal: unintentionally spreading the virus in communities other than my own. Probably not, but the possibility is there, and it forces me to reflect on my choices. True, the state wasn’t under lockdown yet, but it was clear we were headed in that direction. It goes to show how impossible it was to wrap our minds around this new reality. The day to day life that we lived was coming to an end for the foreseeable future, and, yet, we couldn’t entirely see that. Even then, I was already more cautious about what I touched, using hand sanitizer if I couldn’t avoid touching something, and washing my hands nearly obsessively. And, yet, the full force of this pandemic had not fully sunk in, even though the WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th. I suspect it’s the same for many of us in the United States. We’ve not experienced something like this for generations, and we are so accustomed to enjoying a wildly naive sense of being immune to something like a pandemic.

Since this trip to the wilderness, my own life has changed dramatically, although not to the extent of others less fortunate. I still have a job, for now, and I have a home. I have food, and my state allows us to go outside to exercise. On Tuesday, some state lands will reopen for day use. Things in my life could, most assuredly, be worse.

That said, the seven weeks since this trip feel like a lifetime, and like an entirely new life at that. I’m teaching online for the first time and am forced to learn as I go. My students are panicked and attempting to navigate unprecedented circumstances. I’ve not interacted with anyone in person, other than Seth, during this time, save for zoom happy hours and faculty meetings. After a few virtual happy hours, I’ve largely opted out of these new forms of social engagement. They feel like an echo chamber of anxiety, and it’s all too overwhelming for me.

I feel caged, cut off from the wild.

For weeks, most public lands have been closed. We’re asked to travel only for essential reasons, like picking up groceries. Health officials urge us to interact only with people within our own households, and I choose to follow this directive. I turn down invites for “social distance runs.” Going to the grocery store became the source of such incredible anxiety, that I now order online and use the free pickup service (only to be dismayed that the clerk putting the groceries into my trunk wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves.) I wear gloves to carry those groceries to my back step, where I remove the contents of the bags and carry them into the house. I come inside, wash my hands; put away the groceries; disinfect every surface in sight; and wash my hands again. I let the mail and packages sit for a day or two before touching it. I sanitize everything we touch with Clorox wipes that my mother mailed me from Ohio because there have been none in this state since sometime in February. These behaviors make me feel slightly insane. I hold my breath as I pass others on my runs. I run twice a day in a desperate attempt to keep my sanity. I try to manage my stress, which gets compounded by my students’ stress, and my total lack of preparation for teaching online. I spend 8-10 hours a day during the week trying to keep up with my courses, scarcely keeping my head above water. At the end of the day, I feel lobotomized.

I am 9 weeks behind schedule for sending out a book proposal and haven’t mustered the energy to notify the other contributors to this edited collection. I am depressed and full of despair. Hope is a very scarce commodity, and I have it good compared to others (which leads me to feel guilty for the level of anxiety and despair I am experiencing.) Faculty in the know indicate that we won’t get our measly 2% merit raise, and that I probably won’t get my promotion raise (which was to be the one and only actual raise I will get in my career); there’s talk of 15% salary cuts on top of this. I do the math and fall into a tailspin, wondering how I can possibly make ends meet.

Nepal slips further away. I was set to spend the fall and spring there, during my sabbatical, working on the book project of a lifetime. I have little hope of being there in the fall, and even the spring seems unlikely. I gasp inwardly in disbelief that this dream is vanishing. My sabbatical was my one shot at this experience, and there’s little real hope that travel to Nepal will be possible for quite some time. My book, and the experiences I’ve dreamed of using as its foundation, slip through my fingers. I mourn the loss of my life as planned, of this project and all that it entailed. It has kept me afloat through difficult times, and it’s been the beacon motivating me to continue. I am adrift without it and feel paralyzed by how difficult and impossible and hopeless everything seems. I remind myself, constantly, that others have it worse, and the guilt of my self-pity shames me.

All the same, I grieve what seems the inevitable loss of the year that was meant to revive my spirit and to propel me toward completing the book I’ve dreamed of penning. My sense of despair is, at times, suffocating. My motivation to do just about anything wanes. After a long day of putting out fires at work and accomplishing little else, I have nothing left to give. Lacing up shoes and stepping out for a run requires every shred of will. I just want to eat chocolate and skip workouts. Guilt set ins, and I loathe my apathy and inertia.

Repeat, for seven weeks, and counting.

I reflected on how proud of myself I’d always been for being able to endure physical and mental suffering. I could muscle through big pushes in the wilderness; I could finish 100 mile footraces and endure. I was mentally tough, I assured myself, and this was proof. But those were contrived circumstances, and entirely of my own choosing. I could opt out at any time; it was a game I’d invented for myself. I’m now getting a taste of emotional and mental suffering on a very real level. There is no opt out. There is no control. I am at the mercy of this new world and this virus, and these circumstances reveal my hubris and bend me before humility. I am breaking, and my mental toughness is no match for the uncertainty bred by this virus. How privileged am I that this is my first true taste of such utter helplessness.

This post concludes with a new state of mind to reflect a new state of the world. Previously, I’ve always found the silver lining; I’ve always found the lesson that my experience in the wilderness reveals to me, even if hard-learned. I’m left here with little else than a bleak perspective of the world that will emerge from this pandemic, a world in which my dreams are shattered, and in which I am not the strong minded, emotionally resilient person that I believed myself to be. I’m reduced to a human who is suffering emotionally, who will likely suffer financially, and who is coming to terms with the loss of everything that I thought the future held. We will all sacrifice something to this pandemic; some more than others; many more than me.

In this moment, my dreams, and my spirit, are slipping away. I grasp at them, wildly.

[I sat on this concluding section for over a week, thinking I would delete it. I’ve decided to retain it, because it honestly reflects what the past 8 weeks have been like for me. While many people are keeping “Quarantine Journals,” I opted not to. This conclusion will remain, then, as an artifact of my life from this time.]

[And now I’m proofreading this nearly 6 months later and decided to leave it all intact for the same reason.]

Sneak Peak: Posts-in-Progress and Adventures to Come

2019 was a tough year for me in many regards, and I simply didn’t find (make?) time to keep up my trip reports. It’s a shame, because writing them brings me such great pleasure. Work demands continue to stretch me thin, but I’m striving to complete my 40 Peaks for 40 Years trip reports, as well as adding some highlights from my favorite adventures of 2019.

Here’s a preview of posts-in-progress, coming soon:

My Loopy Summer Vacation Adventure, wherein I run lots of looped routes, tag peaks, swim in alpine lakes, navigate cross country, camp in the back country, and packraft! Highlights include Peak 22: Alta Mountain and Rampart Ridge/Lakes; Peak 23: Elbow Peak; Peak 24: Jolly Mountain; PCT Solo Run; Tuck and Robin Lakes; Pete Lake; Diamond Lake and Pollalie Ridge; Wenatchee River packraft paddle; and, the highlight, the Alpine Lakes High Route Traverse. What a vacation!

Heading back down the gorgeous ridge after summiting Alta Mountain.
Photo Credit: Seth Wolpin

Cascade Crest 100 Race Report, in which I return to the scene of my first DNF to get a monkey off my back. Plus, Peak 25: Blowout Mountain.

Running down to Silver Creek and on to the Cascade Crest finish line.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The Great Dolomiti Adventure: in which I thru-hike the Alta Via 2 in the Italian Dolomites. Includes a lot of peaks, passes, ponies, and polenta. If this report and accompanying photos doesn’t leave you dreaming of your own trip to the Dolomiti, then there’s something wrong with you.

There was much hugging of horses and cows on this adventure.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

The Barkley Fall Classic 2019 Race Report: Everyone’s perennial favorite race report. Bonus, this year, no crying! Includes Peak 35: Frozen Head Mountain and Peak 36: Bird Mountain.

Crawling up Rat Jaw, through the saw briers, inexplicably smiling.
Photo Credit: Misty Wong

Peak 37: Mt. Beljica, in which I explore a peak close to home, with front-row glacier views in the aptly named Glacier View Wilderness.

That’ll do, Beastie.

Peak 38: Teneriffe, in which I embark on a solo mountain adventure that reminds me to know when to fold em’.

Well hello there, Winter.

Peak 40: Mt. Catherine, in which I hold my breath and hope that I don’t cause my father to have a heart attack in the wilderness.

Making haste on the descent so as to get to Aardvark in time.

Peak 41: Snoqualmie Mountain Solo, in which I make up one Poo Poo Point deduction and celebrate the faculty vote in support of my tenure and promotion.

I enjoyed having the summit to myself for about an hour and reveled in the 360 degree views.

Yakima Skyline Ridge to River Packraft Adventure, in which Seth and I embark on our first true packrafting adventure that entails both packing and rafting.

Bushwhacking up to the ridge while toting all of our camping and rafting gear.

Peak 43 (or, 41, depending on who’s counting) Amabilis Mountain Solo, in which I conclude my 40 Peaks for 40 Years Challenge by snowshoeing (Official) Peak 41 and turning 41 years old.

The final approach to the summit of Amabilis Mountain.

Upcoming big adventures in 2020:

Solving the Panch Pokhari Puzzle in Nepal this March!

Spending nearly 3 weeks in the wild with students in June and July!

Wilderness Solo: My Great Alpine Lakes Circumambulation in August!

Stay tuned!

Confronting Fear on Peak 21: Tahoma

Peak 21: Tahoma (Mt. Rainier)

Elevation: 14,441’

Total Mileage: ~15

Elevation Gain: 9043’

Date: 26-28 July 2019

Introduction

The morning after my campus interview at the University of Washington Tacoma, in January of 2014, I pulled back the curtain of my hotel room to find an enormous, snowy volcano looming out the window. I gasped, breath caught in my throat. I had simply never seen anything like it. While I had visited Paradise the year before during a vacation, and saw the summit from Panorama Point, clouds had cloaked it throughout the rest of the trip. I never had that view of the mountain dominating the landscape. With such an impressive prominence (13,212’!!!), Tahoma rises significantly above the surrounding sea-level landscape. While many other mountains might be taller, Tahoma’s prominence lends it an awe-inspiring aura.

I never dreamed that I would actually stand on top of it.

For years, I told myself that I had no interest in climbing Mt. Rainier. I’m afraid of heights, have crippling vertigo, and simply never had the urge to catch the view from its summit. Nevertheless, the mountain held my imagination, and, to this day, I never cease to gasp when I catch a glimpse of it. I hope never to lose that sense of awe at its majesty. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think Tahoma is the most beautiful mountain in the world, and I deem it a privilege to live in its shadow.

As the mountains of the Pacific Northwest became my playground, occasional thoughts of summiting Tahoma crossed my mind, but never quite seriously. With some rock climbing and multi-pitch experience, the occasional thought grew to the faint tinges of an urge. By the time I started my 40 Peaks for 40 Years challenge, I knew that this summit had to be included. The prospect was equal parts thrilling and terrifying: the textbook definition of the sublime.

To prepare, I used other climbs (Loowit, Klickitat, and Ellinor, in particular) as training, and I took an Introduction to Crevasse Rescue course. It was important to me to come in as prepared as possible. Two friends, Harrison and Noel, would lead the climb and include a day of glacier school at base camp. I’m someone who likes to be fully prepared for any endeavor, to give myself a bit of reassurance that I can make it through. As summit day drew nearer, jitters set in, but the jitters-because-I’m-excited-jitters were still stronger than the jitters-because-I’m-terrified-jitters.

Paradise to Camp Muir

As I drove to my friend Jen’s house, the seat belt alert sounded the entire time. My pack, sitting shotgun, was so heavy that the sensors thought that it was a 49-pound human. It was incredible that I would soon be toting that thing up the side of a mountain. I had never carried anything remotely that heavy before, even on extended camping trips.

Embarking from Paradise with Jen.
Photo credit: Kind person at the Paradise Visitor Center

Setting out from Paradise, I staggered under the weight. It truly took my breath away to carry such a heavy pack. All we could do was laugh and keep going. Day hikers stopped us along the way to ask where we were heading and how much our packs weighed. They either told us we were strong and tough, or that we were nuts. One parent explained to their daughter what we were doing, and I thought how cool it would be if that image stuck with her and sent her into the mountains one day.

The trail to Pebble Creek.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

We caught the rest of our party at Pebble Creek, where we turned off the regular trail and moved up the snow field below Camp Muir. I was growing accustomed to the small-human-sized load on my back, and the views of the Tatoosh Range, with Klickitat and Loowit beyond to the south and east, and Tahoma rising to our left, served as a nice distraction.

Up the Muir Snow Field. Klickitat in the distance.
Looking back at the Tatoosh Range to the south, with Klickitat in the distance on the left and Loowit on the right.
Continuing up the snowfield after a short snack break, with Tahoma looming as the backdrop. You can see a glissade chute to the left of the person on the bottom left.

Camp Muir comes into sight long before you reach it, and descriptions that suggest this makes for quite a tease on the long final slog are accurate. Of course, you’re too excited at this point to mind. Our permits allowed us to camp at Muir, so we scoped out options upon arrival and began the work of making camp in the snow. Harrison whispered the happy news to me and Jen that there was room in the climber’s hut. We didn’t think twice and giddily ran up to stake out a spot. We didn’t mind not getting the tent camping at base camp experience. The weather forecast for the night—strong sustained winds with serious gusts—was enough to convince us that we had no qualms about sleeping indoors. Plus, the climber’s hut has its own charms and sense of adventure.

Ranger’s hut on the left, with the Climber’s hut on the right.
Shared sleeping platforms inside the hut.
Team camp with hut in background. Photo Credit: Justin
Savoring the alpenglow, with Loowit in the distance.
Team camp, with the hut in the background. PC: Marie M.

Since we didn’t have much set-up time, Jen and I helped the rest of the team make camp and boil water. Harrison carved out a kitchen, complete with snow bench and table for preparing food and boiling snow. We would spend most of our free time boiling snow, as this is the only source of water at Camp Muir and above. After pitching in for team chores, we headed back to the hut for dinner and to get a good night’s rest. We’d need it. We mingled with other climbers in the hut for a while, and everyone turned in early, but not before marveling at the alpenglow that bathed the mountains in magic hour pink. At 10,080 feet, Camp Muir was the highest elevation at which I had ever slept.

Jitters Meter: Excited Jitters > Terrified Jitters

The wind raged that night, waking me occasionally and instilling gratitude for the relative comfort of the hut. In the dark hours of the night, a team of climbers stumbled in and quietly claimed a spot on the floor. I couldn’t imagine what their trek up from Paradise must have been like in this weather but was sure they must have felt sweet relief finally reaching the hut.  

Over the Snow Bridge and into the Crevasse: Or, Doubts Emerge

Harrison encouraged us to sleep late into the next morning, as we wouldn’t get much sleep Saturday night. After a lazy morning, we trekked down to our team’s camp to help with the daily chores. The climbing ranger on duty stopped by to update us on weather and mountain conditions. If this little pep talk was meant to instill sheer terror in us, mission accomplished. The ranger explained that the freezing line was coming down to a lower elevation that night, which would create dangerous “slide for life” conditions. “The ground will be too frozen for your ice axe to do any good, making it impossible for you or your rope team to self-arrest.” He conjured visions of us cascading off the side of the mountain, futilely trying to gain purchase in the ice with our axes, dragging our rope team helplessly along with us, and plummeting to our bloody death below. He didn’t mince words, and he made it sound like our chances of ending up in a slide for life scenario were quite high.

Jitters Meter: Terrified Jitters. Period. (Excited Jitters not strong enough to even faintly register on the scale.)

Pep talk completed, the ranger ambled off to share the great news with other teams. A silent but very palpable tension hovered between my team for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I broke the tension in the only way I knew how, by making a joke of it: “Well, I’m terrified after that pep talk!” I said, laughing. Others nervously laughed and agreed. It felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one inwardly freaking out. I would say that I was figuratively shitting myself in that moment, but that metaphor is going to be much more apt a bit later in this narrative.

Harrison and Noel both reassured us that the ranger was just doing his due diligence by scaring us with the worst-case scenario, and that it was his job to remind us that we were undertaking a dangerous endeavor. Their calm cool and years of experience helped to quell some of our anxieties, but my nerves were definitely shaken. Doubts crept in, and thoughts of bailing began to form, but Noel and Harrison’s reassurances were enough to keep me committed to the climb. Noel explained that we would place pickets anyplace where a fall could prove fatal. It was enough to keep my fear at bay—at least far enough at bay that I wasn’t going to bail. With that, it was on to glacier school.

Harrison’s post-ranger-pep-talk pep talk. PC Jen S.

There’s nothing better for ensuring that your nerves continue to fray than to run across your first ice bridge. Noel demonstrated good crossing form, emphasizing the importance of building forward momentum and moving quickly. My brain simply could not compute that, and my body shook as I teetered across in the exact opposite way from what Noel had instructed. My nerves continued to unravel, but I worked hard to maintain a decent poker face.

Noel demonstrating how easy it is to run across a snow bridge. PC Jen S.

Finding a suitable slope, we practiced self-arrest from a few positions. I nailed the self-arrest but the ranger’s words echoed in my head, convincing me that my solid self-arrest skills wouldn’t matter in the slide for life conditions waiting above.

There’s nothing better for ensuring that your already frayed nerves continue to deteriorate than letting someone throw you into a (seemingly) bottomless crevasse. While I did take an intro crevasse rescue course, and I successfully hauled myself up and out during our practice runs, those practice runs were in a climbing gym, and the crevasse was just a bouldering wall.

I stalled by helping set up Z pulleys and hauling out the other brave souls. As each team member took a turn, my anxiety increased, knowing that soon it would be mine. Eventually, I turned to Harrison and said in a lowered voice, “Harrison, my nerves are just completely shot. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” In his characteristic calm and reassuring tone, Harrison said, “No problem. Do what you’re comfortable with.” As the last team member who wanted to go in emerged from the crevasse, I had a change of heart. Or, perhaps more appropriately, my ego kicked in. I wasn’t going to wimp out.

“OK Harrison, lower me down.”

Alright!!!”

Crawling to the edge of the precipice, another team member, Travis, gave me a safe word: “When you’re ready to come out, just say ‘Unicorn.’” The team lowered me into the abyss. When being lowered into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, it’s important not to look down, especially if you’re terrified of heights and your nerves are already frayed. As soon as I was over the edge, I looked down. It was the scariest sight thine eyes hath ever beheld. The walls of snow were tinged with blue, and my eyes traced them down as far as I could see before it dissolved to black nothingness. There was no visible bottom, just who knows how many hundreds of empty feet in the void below. I crammed my crampons into the side of the crevasse.

“Unicorn! Unicorn!! Unicooooornnnn!!!”

Harrison crawled out to check on me while Travis laughed, hanging over the edge and snapping photographic evidence that I really did allow myself to be lowered into a crevasse.

“Hey girl! How’s it goin’ down there?”

“Harrison, this is awful!” I laughed but was serious.

“OK, you’ll have to hang out for a few minutes while we get things set to haul you out.”

I morbidly looked down again. And again. I couldn’t help it. My brain couldn’t fully process the bottomlessness. While I had wanted to practice my self-rescue skills, I was too far gone to do so now. It’s one thing when you’re in a gym. Hanging above oblivion is quite another matter. I reassured myself that, if I actually fell into a crevasse, that I would be capable of getting myself out. Knowing that there was a team set up to pull me out now, though, zapped any motivation for practicing my self-rescue skills.

“Unicorn!” I’m smiling because the team is pulling me up. PC Travis

I heard voices shouting instructions, which Travis relayed: “OK, you’re going to drop a bit at first before they can pull you out.” I knew this was coming, having helped haul others out, but being on the other end of the rope put the matter in a different light. That drop felt like a giant lurch down into the gaping maw of the crevasse. Finally, the tension on the rope tightened, and I slowly ascended to the lip. It was a matter of seconds but felt like hours. Collapsing into safety, Harrison crawled over and slapped my leg with excitement. Everyone was laughing, because they could appreciate just how scared I’d been. Exasperated, I laughed and asked, “Why did I look down?! As soon as I got in, I looked down!”

She emerges from the abyss. VC: Travis

Calling it a day, we traversed back across the snow bridge and began making preparations for our summit bid. Harrison and Noel walked us through the plan. At one point, Noel mentioned that there would be some places that it would be too dangerous to take time to place pickets, because the danger of rockfall far outweighed the danger of a potential fall. My face must surely have blanched.

“How do we get through those sections safely, then?” I ventured.

Looking me dead in the eye, Noel explain, “In those places, you just can’t fall, Ellen.”

[Terror meter broken.]

I spiraled. We adjourned to eat an early dinner so that we could try to be in bed by 7:00 p.m. We’d be meeting up at 11:00 p.m. to get roped up and start our ascent by midnight. That evening was a blur at best. I don’t remember eating or talking. I just recall being gripped by thoughts of useless ice axes and replayed a looped video of myself sliding off the mountain. I wondered if I would scream as I slid, ice axe as useful as a donut in my hands, or if I would silently fall away over the edge.

By the time that I crawled into my sleeping bag, I decided to abort. I was convinced that the conditions were too dangerous, and that my chances of dying were larger than I’d accept. Reaching the summit wasn’t worth it. The possibility of dying on the mountain struck me as very real and very possible. I participate in risky endeavors, but I do my best to mitigate risk, and I don’t do things where I feel that my chance of dying outweighs my chance of survival. The ranger’s words, coupled with Noel’s hardly reassuring suggestion to “just don’t fall” were enough to send me over the edge. I was bailing on the climb, and I was just fine with it. A small sense of relief overtook me, calming me a bit, giving comfort in knowing that I wasn’t going to have to go up the mountain.

Summit Day

When our alarms went off, I went through the motion of getting dressed and eating breakfast. I loaded my pack as if I was climbing, but I had no intention to follow through. When I got to camp, everyone was getting tied into their ropes. I told Harrison and Noel that I just couldn’t do it. I was too scared and it didn’t seem worth it. They tread a fine line between trying to reassure me, while also letting me know that they wouldn’t force me to go.

“I don’t want to rope up, then get part way up and not be able to make it. I don’t want to ruin the rest of my rope team’s climb.”

“If you get up there and want to turn back, at any point, I will cut the rope and bring you down myself,” Noel offered. It was reassuring, but I would perhaps endanger the rest of the team by taking away one of our two experienced leaders.

I’m the figure in the center of the photo, and clearly the only person not tied into a rope. PC Justin E.

Everyone was roped and ready, and Harrison was doing some final checks. Without skipping a beat, he said, “Jen, I need you to take this extra water in your pack. Ellen, I need you to get tied into this rope. Justin, I need you to…” There was something in the way that Harrison said it, so matter of fact, so calm and collected, yet also like someone in charge whose orders you’re supposed to follow without protest, that I found myself tying into the rope. Within minutes, we were off.

Camp Muir to Disappointment Cleaver

We would follow the most traveled, and probably easiest, route up the mountain: the Disappointment Cleaver route. (Here’s a cool video overview of the route.)

The Disappointment Cleaver (DC) Route. PC: Travis

Heading out of camp, we passed under a wall of rock that would prove increasingly more dangerous as the day warmed, and even at night, we wouldn’t be able to stop through this section. In fact, we would need to move through it as quickly as possible to mitigate any risk of rockfall (rockfall being the most dangerous aspect of the DC route.) The large boulders strew about the side of the worn path in the snow served as a reminder of this risk as we moved briskly through this section.

View of route across the Cowlitz Glacier and up to Cathedral Gap. We would traverse this in the dark that night.

We traversed across the Cowlitz Glacier and up the pass to Cathedral Gap and Cathedral Rocks Ridge. Switchbacking up to the pass on dreaded scree, I kept my head down and focused on Noel’s heels in front of me. As we neared the top, two women came flying past us: it was Kaitlyn and Alex, working on their second summit of their Infinity Loop (climbing up to the summit, going down the other side, running half of the Wonderland Trail around the mountain, summiting again, going down the other side, and running the other half of the Wonderland. Wow.) I felt so impressed and humbled by them, but I reminded myself that it took all I had just to be going up once.

We took a brief break at the top of Cathedral Gap, and Noel checked in with me. He said, “Let’s just get to the next break stop, and we’ll assess from there and decide whether or not to turn back.” Having a small goal helped me to move forward. I wasn’t climbing to the top; I just had to get to the next rest stop. From there, we traversed the Ingraham Glacier past Ingraham Flats, which serves as a high camp along the DC route. Pins of light punctuated the curtain of darkness, as climbers zig-zagged up the mountain ahead of us. That’s one image that will remain forever etched in my inward eye.

We weren’t the fastest group on the mountain, and others overtook us. This included guides short roping their clients up. It was a little surreal to see these burly mountain guides dragging their clients up behind them. I’m certainly not in a position to judge, but the clients struck me as just having to hang on for the ride while the guide pulled them up. My team leader was very much responsible for mentally pulling me up the mountain, but I was glad that at least my body was doing all of the physical part.

As we traversed toward the foot of the Cleaver, a wall rose to our left; we followed a narrow foot path, and there was a drop to our right. Fortunately, it was pitch black, and I couldn’t see what lay below. I kept my headlight trained on the ground in front of me, focusing both my mind and eyes on the tiny circle of light in front of me. Breaking my trance, Noel called back, “Here’s our first crevasse. Ellen, just build up momentum and jump over it.”

Instead, I stopped dead in my tracks, digging in my heels and refusing, like a mule. Eff that. No way. There’s an enormous (to me) gap in the ground that drops into oblivion, and I’m not taking another step. No way. Nope.

“I can’t do it Noel. I can’t. I just can’t do it!” The panic in my voice made it unrecognizable to me, like it was someone else talking.

“One, two, three, go!” He tried.

Nope.

“One, two, three, go!”

Nope.

And then, inexplicably, I leapt. I don’t know how to explain what happened other than to say that for a brief moment, my brain compelled my body to move, and then my brain shut off so as to foreclose any counterarguments.

I’ll quit with the jitters meter and just say that my jitters were off the charts for the entire ascent. Never in my life have I been so terrified, and never have I been terrified for such a long and sustained period of time. This made my 5-pitch climb up Cat in The Hat at Red Rocks seem like a breeze. Every step was agonizing. I couldn’t imagine having to leap more crevasses along the way. I couldn’t fathom even making it to the next rest stop. I wanted to turn around and felt a leaden dread with each step forward. This was, without question, Type 3 Fun (that is, something that isn’t fun, ever; not even in hindsight.) I would never, and I mean never, do something like this ever again. That phrase looped through my mind for the duration of the ascent.  

When we reached the foot of Disappointment Cleaver, I was exhausted from the emotional toll of the climb. I was ready to quit, but Noel once again said, “OK, let’s just get to the top of the Cleaver, and then we’ll reassess. Just get there, and we’ll decide if we keep going or not.” It’s the sign of a good leader when someone, with a few simple words, can convince you to push past that which feels insurmountable. I agreed to keep going.

Then, he added, “Now, Ellen, there are a few places through here that are some of those ‘just don’t fall’ spots, so, don’t fall.”

I had already committed to going forward, so it didn’t matter how terribly those words rang in my ear. While I had been shitting myself figuratively up to this juncture, I now also had to refrain from literally shitting myself in fear. It is the first time in my life that I fully understood the source of that phrase. In addition to fighting the fear gripping every part of my being, I also had to scrounge every last shred of will and energy to avoid pooping my pants while tied on a rope connected to four other adult humans.

As we unroped to navigate the Cleaver, which becomes a rock scramble, Harrison took a celebratory moment to congratulate us: “You made it through what everyone says is the scariest part! Nice work, Team!” I tried to find comfort in that but had to make a big effort not to allow myself to dwell on the fact that we would have to go back through there again on the descent—and at that point, we would actually be able to see what was so scary about that section.

Scrambling up the Cleaver, I worked hard to keep up with Noel. I wanted to follow his footsteps and take the best path up through the rocks. He moved much faster than I typically would while scrambling, so it was a delicate balance of trying not to go uncomfortably fast while also not getting dropped behind. Occasionally, he would pause and say, “OK, Ellen, this is one of those ‘don’t fall’ spots. Just keep to the left, and don’t look down to the right.” Those words would send my nerves spiraling, but the only way was forward. Again, it was too dark to see what awaited if I went too far right, but I assumed it involved a very long drop down. After hearing this directive a few times, I started to wonder if ignorance might truly be bliss, and perhaps it would be best for Noel not to tell me “just don’t fall here.”

Ascending the Upper Mountain, One Snack Break at a Time

Cresting the top of the DC, we walked over to a flattish rocky area for a break. I felt completely frazzled and at my wit’s end. Noel and Harrison both came over to talk to me. Tears rolled down my face. “I’m just so scared, guys. I’m so scared. Every step is painful and takes everything I have to go forward.”

Trying to be helpful, Jen said, “What are you so afraid of?”

“Dying.”

“Why are you afraid of dying? It will be over quickly and then you’ll just be dead!” She said, laughing nonchalantly.

“Because I have too much to live for, and too many things left to do in my life!” I returned, anger rising in my voice. She realized her pep talk wasn’t helping, as my agitation grew.

“Look up there,” Harrison said, gesturing to the upper mountain. We can see the rest of the route from here. It’s just switchbacking up snow the whole way. Easy peasy. The hard part is over now.” Tears paused; my heart rate came a little more under control. I guess it didn’t look so bad from here.

Coming up the Cleaver, moon overhead and sunrise behind. PC Justin
Cresting the Cleaver, Little Tahoma below. PC Marie
Looking down from the top of DC. PC Marie
Reaching a rest stop after navigating the DC. PC: Marie

We took a snack break and watched the sun rise. Below, Little Tahoma stood like a spire, but it also seemed so tiny compared to the massive mountain on which we stood. My thoughts raced. I didn’t want to quit, but I was sincerely terrified of continuing. For good or for ill, my ego can be quite strong. In the end, it’s the main thing that prevented me from turning around. While the reassurances and support were key, when it came down to it, my irrational fear of failure and distaste for quitting are what ultimately convinced me to stick with it. I sensed that I would never forgive myself for quitting, strong as my fear was. Perhaps this is a character flaw, but I also knew that Harrison and Noel wouldn’t be taking us up here if they thought we wouldn’t be coming back. Of course, accidents can, and do, happen, but they felt the conditions were as safe as they were going to be (and the freezing line had not come down as low as the ranger had predicted).

In that moment, I decided to stop letting fear get the best of me. I had committed to the climb when I roped up, and I had to get myself together and carry on with confidence. Being deathly afraid wasn’t making the endeavor any easier, so I would simply will myself to be stronger.

Dawn breaks.
Dawn above Little Tahoma. PC: Jen S.
Made it to the next rest stop. PC: Justin E.

As the morning light illuminated the route, Harrison continued to express how pleased he was with the conditions. “Guys, this is going to be a great day to summit. These conditions are absolutely perfect. I have never, in all the times I’ve been up here, seen the route in such great condition. Usually we have to go way out of the way to switchback around crevasses, but this route is as direct as it gets.” Now that I think of it, I have no idea if he was actually telling the truth. In the moment, it didn’t matter. I believed him and tied back into the rope.

The sunrise swims on the horizon. PC: Angela
Morning light on the upper mountain. PC: Angela
Resting up for the next leg. You can see a team on the upper mountain in the distance. PC: Marie
Sundance. PC: Travis
Sunlight meets glacier. PC: Cole

Overall, the upper mountain wasn’t terribly bad. There are some steep, exposed slopes, but I kept my eyes on the path in front of me, ice axe ready, careful with each foot placement to dig my crampons into the hard snow. We leaped a few crevasses, sometimes going uphill, but I only paused momentarily instead of digging in heels. There was one very exposed and very steep section where others had clearly placed pickets. It was clearly a newer route, as the alternative was to negotiate a large crevasse that was apparently opening wider as the season went on. There wasn’t a great foot path here yet, and your feet were essentially at an uncomfortable angle. Of course, this was better than trying to get over the large crevasse, but it was one of the scarier sections. Once on the other side, I asked Noel why we didn’t use pickets there. “We will on the way back, for sure.”

Ascending the upper mountain. PC: Marie
Following the route up the upper mountain. PC: Justin
Taking a break in a precarious place. PC: Marie

We paused for one final snack break, perched precariously on the steep slope. Other teams had already summited and were making their way down. It was then that I realized that we were one of the last groups still ascending. We were, admittedly, probably the largest group (with 14 people), and our team ranged widely in fitness levels and experience. Since the day was slowly growing warmer, and conditions would become less ideal as a result, we didn’t linger long here.

Waiting while the team ahead of us jumps the crevasse. PC: Jen S.
Who is this smiling person? PC: Justin E.
Who’s crying now? PC: Justin E.
Oh, just a little crevasse to jump uphill. No big deal. PC: Jen S.

Shortly after this, we reached the vertical ladder we’d heard about. It served to bridge a widening vertical gap. Noel went up first to make sure it was secure, and the rest of us were prepared to arrest if necessary. I was next. For some reason, the vertical ladder didn’t scare me. Later, Noel would tell me that this should have been the thing to scare me, as it was one of the most dangers parts of the climb. Good thing he didn’t mention that before I placed my foot on the first rung.

The ladder. Doesn’t look scary, does it? PC: Travis

From there, it was mostly just switchbacks to the top. While still a tad anxious, my fear had largely subsided by this point. I could tell that my pace had slowed and my breathing became shallower. While I didn’t have any major warning signs of altitude sickness, I could feel the elevation and sensed that it was responsible for me feeling tired. Reaching the crater rim at long last, we had one final challenge: not falling into the gap that rings the crater rim. Hot air rising from the molten belly of this stratovolcano weakens the snow around the crater’s edge. You have to make one last flying leap from rock to the inner crater to avoid dropping down through warmed snow hiding the empty space below.

The Crater Rim and Summit

This wouldn’t be an honest report if I didn’t admit that the very first thing that I did upon reaching the crater was not a dance of joy, not a sigh of relief, not a round of high-fives with my teammates. No, the first thing I did was pull out a blue bag, run as far from the people assembled around the crater as possible without getting too near the edge, situate my pack as the best shield I could engineer, and, well, you know what blue bags are for, right? I was simultaneously humiliated and relieved. I’ve never gone to see a man about a horse so publicly in my life, so that was mortifying, but I’d used every scrap of will power not to shit myself on the ascent, so this felt like a tiny victory in comparison.

View of path across the crater from the summit register rock. PC: Marie M.

Meeting adjourned, I made the trek across the floor of the crater to gain the actual summit, which is still another quarter mile or so away. Partway up that last rocky climb, there’s a summit register. I wrote, “Thank you, Tahoma,” and signed my name. From there, it was just another minute to the true summit, known as Columbia Crest (the two other named peaks on the summit include Point Success, at 14,158’, and Liberty Cap, at 14,112’.)

As I walked onto the true summit, a hot surge of emotion overwhelmed my entire being. I sobbed, but this time with joy. My body shook, overcome. Two teammates, Angela and Kevin, walked over to me. “I never thought I would be here,” I said in a warbled voice through tears. “I never thought I could do something like this.”

Kevin smiled and said, “I can’t believe you made it. I thought for sure you would quit. I can’t believe you kept going, because I could see how scared you were. Can I give you a hug?” I smiled and went in for a hug. It hadn’t occurred to me that others could see how scared I had been. It was, honestly, quite embarrassing to hear someone say they didn’t think I could do it, but Kevin’s words also made it feel like he recognized what I’d had to push through to get myself there, and that he saw this in a positive light. Maybe I could try to look at it from his perspective.

I asked them to snap a summit photo for me. Forgoing the standard ice axe held overhead in triumph pose, I dropped to my knees and folded my hands in a prayer of thanks to the mountain.

Grateful on the summit. PC: Angela
Happy summit. PC: Angela

We lingered on the summit for some time, dancing, laughing, high-fiving, posing for photos, passing around a can of Rainier beer.

Celebrating with Noel.
PC: Angela
Celebrating with Harrison and Kongie.
PC: Angela
Obligatory summit selfie, with Noel and Angela.
PC: Angela
Yay Team!
PC: Travis

Stepping away from the team, I took the opportunity to look out in all directions and contemplated the view. The Cascades unfolded in all directions, and the other local volcanoes were in full view. Rivers, which emerge from snow and ice on the flanks of this mountain, meandered far below, making their journey to the Salish Sea. Scanning the valleys and waters below, my eyes sought one particular landmark: Tacoma.

For years, I have looked up at the mountain from below. I see it almost every day from my vantage point in Tacoma. Now, here I was, standing on top of it. I wanted the reverse view. Working my way along the Sound, my eyes made out the city for which I’d been searching. There it was, Tacoma. I was looking back at the place from which I typically stared up at the mountain. I sank to my knees and stared in wonder, smile pressed firmly across my face. I heard Noel whisper, “Let’s give Ellen some alone time on the summit.” The team made their jolly way back down to the crater, leaving me the sole human on the highest point in Washington.

How to capture my thoughts in that time? Perhaps it’s better described as a feeling than thoughts. A profound sense of accomplishment filled me, mixed with the thrill of being on top of this mountain, of having done something I never thought possible for me, and, above all, a feeling of gratitude for the privileged life I live and for the mountain allowing me to stand there. I kept whispering, “thank you, thank you.” It was all I could say. I stared down at Tacoma and the bustling world below and gave thanks with each breath.

Looking down at Tacoma from Tahoma. PC: Austen K.

As Seth always reminds me, “Going up is optional; coming down is mandatory.” We’d arrived at the crater around 9:30 a.m. and it was now going on 11:00. The sun was shining and the skies were blue, but this also meant that the snow was softening and the route would be at its most dangerous. We were one of the final parties left on the crater that day, which was a clear sign that we needed to start making our way down. With some urgency in his voice, Noel said, “We’ll need to pick up our pace on the way down.”

Before we departed, one team member came up to me and said, strong emotion audible in his voice, “Thanks for not quitting. It’s the only reason I didn’t quit. I told myself, if she can do it and she’s that scared, then I can’t back out. Because of you, I was able to make it to the top. Thank you.” It made me feel good to hear this, to know that I wasn’t alone in being scared. It also made me think differently about being vulnerable and showing my fear. By the end of the excursion, three additional teammates would tell me something along the same lines, that they only kept going because I did. One even mentioned that he was hoping I would quit so that he didn’t have to be the one to initiate quitting. In the end, he was glad that I stubbornly went on, not giving him an excuse to stop.

I try so hard to be tough, someone who fearlessly charges into the wild and shrugs off tough pushes. Crying and outwardly acknowledging my fear to a group of relative strangers is not my M.O. What this experience was showing me was that there is some value in admitting when you’re afraid. It’s something others can relate to, and perhaps your determination to push forward can help them to do the same. Outdoor adventures never cease to offer me life lessons, always challenging me to continue to grow. This was clearly no exception.

The Jogging Descent

Following Noel’s cue, we trotted down the mountain. The snow had turned from icy to slushy, giving crampons and ice axes less purchase. My fear had largely abated, and I wanted to get down as quickly as possible, understanding that the danger of rockfall increased along with the mercury. Noel laughed when we reached the first crevasse and I expertly, and with no hesitation, leaped over it. “Wow, look at you now” he cheered. It was a little easier to get over them going downhill, but I was also at a point where the urgency to get down was more compelling than my fear of falling into a crevasse.

Meh.
PC: Jen S.

Reaching the vertical ladder, Noel crept down to make sure that it was still stable enough to come down. The anchors were solid enough, which was a good thing, because I have no idea what Plan B would have been. I was the first one down. At the bottom, there was a fixed rope, which I anchored into while waiting for Noel to coach down the rest of our rope team. I stood on a narrow bridge between two gaping crevasses. There was a short wall of snow on one side, which I leaned over and stared into the blue abyss. Water droplets trickled from the melting snow, echoing in the hollow void. Strangely, I felt at ease, and was able to take in the impressive sight, marveling at its beauty and its quiet danger. That will remain one of my favorite impressions from this adventure.

Quick break before going down the Cleaver, looking back at where we came. You can see Harrison’s team descending.

As we arrived at the top of Disappointment Cleaver, we opted to remove our crampons for this rocky section. I find the downclimbing part of rock scrambling much more difficult than going up (which I think is pretty common), plus, now the daylight revealed the exposure along some stretches, and I could see how far down I would plummet in the “just don’t fall” parts. One team member, Travis, kindly helped me negotiate the downclimb, pointing out the best path and steps to take along the way.

Descending the Cleaver, Little Tahoma rising like a spire. PC: Angela

Regrouping at the foot of the Cleaver, we roped up and donned crampons again. We had reached the section that is apparently the scariest, and now I could plainly see why. We traversed along the edge of a cliff. To our right, was a wall of snow. To our left, was a sharp drop down to a glacier so heavily crevassed that my mind couldn’t process what my eyes took in. It was a sea of ice and snow, the crevasses like tidal waves. I had never seen anything like it. Similar to my experience in the crevasse the day before, in which I couldn’t help but look down, now I couldn’t peel my eyes away from this remarkable, albeit frightening, sight. It was quintessentially sublime.

Ingraham Flats high camp, seen from above, surrounded by a sea of crevasses. PC: Angela

We reached what Noel informed us was the most dangerous section of the route. Rockfall could be deadly here, so we needed to get through as quickly as possible. We waited at a relatively safe distance as Harrison’s rope team prepared to go through. Noel grew anxious as they lingered in a vulnerable position instead of making haste. He turned to us and said, “We are not stopping through there. We’re going to move through it as quickly as possible, with no stopping.” The tone of his voice conveyed the seriousness of the situation. According to Noel, this was one of the deadliest spots on the mountain. Fortunately, he told us this after we’d passed through, having given us only enough information as was necessary to reinforce that we couldn’t mess around here. After Harrison’s team was through, we quickly followed.

By the time we reached Ingraham Flats, we were jogging at a good clip. Coming down through Cathedral Gap, I slid on scree in my best imitation of scree dancing. We had one final sketchy section to negotiate, where once again rockfall was a concern. With that final push, we found ourselves back at Camp Muir. For the first time since I tied into that rope, the tension in my muscles fully relaxed.

This Way to Paradise

Our day wasn’t finished yet, though, as we still had to break camp and get back to Paradise. Fortunately, there were some great glissade chutes on the snow field, which saved a lot of time on the way down. Reaching Pebble Creek, Harrison stood sentinel, making sure everyone got down. Our team had spread out, and I linked up with Justin and Dan as we made our way down to Paradise. I was still wearing a rented pair of plastic mountaineering boots, regretting that I hadn’t opted for a little extra weight and carried approach shoes.

In our fatigue and the fallen night, we took a wrong turn, and ended up going the wrong direction on the Skyline Trail. I realized our mistake when the lights of Paradise came into view, but from the wrong direction. Fortunately, I had the map downloaded on my phone and had imported GPX tracks for the route, which I used to get us going back in the right direction. While I had been the scared, crying woman on the mountain, I was now in my wheelhouse and was glad that I at least knew how to navigate us out of there.

At this point, we were toast and had very little left to give. Justin tried to make small talk to distract us, but Dan and I could hardly reply. I had an iron focus on getting down to Paradise and out of these boots. When snow gave way to pavement, we picked up the best run we could manage. I wouldn’t let myself imagine what my feet were going to look like. At long last, we trotted into Paradise, where some other team members were waiting.

Jen was still on the mountain, helping a struggling team member to get down, so I put on all my layers and waited on the picnic table. Shivering, I climbed into my sleeping bag, too. I must have been a little out of it, because I didn’t realize that the table was soaking wet, and the moisture soaked through the sleeping bag as well as all of my clothes. Noel pulled up, and I climbed into his car with the heat blasting, trying to warm up. Jen was still up there, and everyone else was heading to Seattle. Had I been dry, I would have curled up next to her car and slept until she got down. Being soaked through and shivering, though, all I wanted was to stay warm. This long and taxing day just wasn’t through with me yet, it seemed.

In an odd coincidence, some climbers I’d met in the hut at Camp Muir pulled up looking for their friend, who was with Jen. They had to get back to Tacoma and were concerned about him. Reassuring them he was fine and that Jen would bring him home (somehow, Seth was able to deliver messages between me and Jen, although she and I couldn’t reach each other), I asked if they could give me a lift to Tacoma. They were more or less strangers, but they were so concerned about their own friend’s safety that I convinced myself they were good people who wouldn’t murder me. Noel reluctantly let me leave with them, and I assured him that they were ok.

Turns out, they were both very nice. We chatted to keep the driver awake, but we were all exhausted, and it took a lot of effort. I pulled the plastic boots off for sweet relief; my feet swelled terrible, but there was no way that I was putting those things back on. We pulled in front of my house around 3:00 a.m. and, barefoot, I dragged myself inside for some hard-earned sleep.

Reflections

Climbing Tahoma was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Like rock climbing and rappelling, I find mountaineering scary. I’m afraid of heights and have trouble with vertigo. It’s all very firmly Type 2 Fun. It’s really never Type 1 Fun, fun in the moment. Climbing and mountaineering don’t come naturally or easily to me; they take a lot of hard work, both mentally and physically. They require that I dig quite deep and push myself beyond my perceived limits and certainly out of my comfort zone. As much as I love to run, it doesn’t challenge me in this way.

And, yet, for some strange reason, I keep doing these things. They don’t bring the instant pleasure of a great ridge run or gnarly bushwhack, but they must provide something I need, or want, because before I went to sleep that night, I thought to myself, “I wonder what other climbs Harrison and Noel might lead next?”

Perhaps, in the end, I seek a means for breaking through a wall of fear. I don’t want fear to hold me back, whether that’s in taking a leap across a crevasse, or taking a figurative leap and starting a new life. Maybe rock climbing and mountaineering aren’t necessarily fun-fun, but they do embolden me in ways I’ve never thought possible. Turning 40, the inciting incident that led me to climb Rainier in the first place, forced me to reflect on what I have done with my life so far. I haven’t accomplished all that I’d hoped, or dreamed, and I feel a sense of urgency to make the second half of my life better, and more fulfilling, than the first half. Maybe forcing myself to confront my fears in nature will give me the strength to tackle the daunting prospect of starting a new life. Like jumping over a gaping maw in the snow, it’s frightening in the moment, and it’s hard to take that leap, but it’s quite a thrill once you get yourself to the other side. And, if you don’t quite clear the gap, then you can take comfort in knowing that you have a team there ready to catch you, and to help you pull yourself out from the void.

Many thanks to everyone who made this experience possible. To Harrison for putting together a great team and managing most of the logistics; to Noel for his guidance and support and for getting me up that mountain one rest break at a time; to my teammates for sharing the experience with me, and for providing many of the photos used here; to those guys who drove me home in the middle of the night despite my stinking feet; to my climbing partners, Terry, Charles, and Jim, for coaching me into a better rock climber; and to Seth, for helping me practice my mountaineering skills, teaching me how to self-arrest, and letting me borrow much of the gear that I schlepped up the mountain. Finally, thanks to the mountain itself, for everything.

Can you see me up there? Seth took this photo about 2 hours before I reached the summit.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Livin’ the Map Dream: Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop

Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop

Mileage: 56-60 miles (watch says 60; Gaia says 59; Caltopo says 56. The truth is somewhere in between.)

Total elevation gain: 14,839’ (Gaia) 15,248’ (watch) 14,134’ (Caltopo)

Elapsed time: 27 hours, 10 minutes

Date: 20-21 July 2019

Introduction: Dreaming up a Route

I like big loops. My eyes wander over maps, connecting dots, dreaming up possibilities that come full circle. Loops lead you back to where you started without retracing steps, leaving you with a sense of completion after having circled epic landscapes. Long, looped runs were a recurring character in my summer of 2019, and this one stands out as the best in every way.

A morning with Rich, spent ogling maps and sipping chai at the ultimate outdoor adventure bookstore, Basecamp in Roslyn, WA, planted the seed for this route. I needed a 50-mile training run leading up to Cascade Crest 100. After considering some of the great Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenge routes, I decided to create my own route. It emerged from the 2-dimensional map laying on the table, imagination connecting the dashed lines on paper into a circular tour of the Central Cascades Range.

Down the map and planning rabbit hole I went. Reading a range of trip reports, and speaking with friends, helped me to narrow my sights on this particular route. I would begin at the PCT trailhead on Snoqualmie Pass and head north toward the Kendall Katwalk. This was a classic PNW destination that had been on my list for some time, and I was excited to finally get there. In my “go big!” way, I envisioned tagging Kendall Peak and Alaska Mountain while I was at it. I would continue north on the PCT for about 34 miles before heading west on the Dutch Miller Gap trail. I just liked the name, and the idea of going through a gap in the mountains and down into the valley below. Dutch Miller would take me down to the Middlefork, an area I had come to know well, but not from this direction. Reaching the Goldmyer Hotsprings, I would ford Burntboot Creek, then take the abandoned Cascade Crest trail up and over Red Pass. This would bring me down to the Commonwealth Basin, which would deposit me back where I’d started. According to my figures on Caltopo, the run would total 56 miles, with more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Perfect.

The route, painted in Caltopo.

Initially, two friends plus a friend-of-a-friend were going to join me up to the Kendall Katwalk, and from there I would continue solo. For this reason or that, though, everyone bailed, but I was excited to go on such a big push alone. It would be the longest and most remote route I’d ever done by myself, and the prospect was quite exciting. At the last minute, though, Seth decided to join me. While I was slightly disappointed not to get my big solo experience, mostly I recalled some of the final words that Chris McCandless wrote: “Happiness only real when shared.” I’m still drawn toward developing a grand solo adventure, but I was happy to be able to share the experience with my partner.

El Blanco Beasto is always ready for an adventure.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

We parked the Westie at the trailhead the evening before so that we could get a little more sleep and avoid a middle-of-the-night drive there. Cozied up in the loft, we talked over the plan for the next day. I had researched all of our water sources, and Seth hand-drew an elevation profile. Looking at the row of sharp triangles, it started to occur to me that this was not going to be the most runnable route. There were a lot of big climbs waiting for us out there. It was a good lesson for me, albeit learned too late for this adventure: always consider just how runnable your route will be.

I had minimized the effort. Taking my slowest White River 50 finish time (12+ hours) and adding 3 extra hours, I initially predicted running my Kendall Dutch Red loop in 15 hours. Seth estimated 20. We identified 24 hours as the longest-case scenario. I brought enough food for 24 hours to be safe. As you saw above, it took us 27 hours.

In literary studies, we refer to this as foreshadowing.

Stepping into the Map Painting: Northbound on the PCT

Before dawn, we were up and at it, and the sun arrives early in a PNW July. We jogged through the ambient light filtering into the forest and passed a group of campers sprawled out on the ground in sleeping bags, fast asleep. It was a little strange to run past them, unnoticed, as they lay there in deep slumber, but there was also something incredibly cute about the scene. The rising sun met us as we emerged from shadows and the tree line. To the west, we could see Red Mountain, easily identifiable from its rusty red rock. How wild to think that before we slept again, we would climb over the pass below its western flank. What a different self we would be then, having seen and experienced so much in the space in between.

Yeehaw!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Early morning sun and shadow as we climb to the Katwalk.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
The dawn light kissing the summit of Red Mountain (center). We will come over the pass to its left over 20 hours later.

When I first learned of the Kendall Katwalk, it sounded like a most terrifying knife edge of a trail. Years later, and with a significant amount of exposed trail under my belt, the reality was a bit underwhelming in terms of the fear factor. In terms of beauty, though, it was every bit as majestic as promised. Jagged peaks loomed in all directions, while deep blue alpine lakes dotted the landscape. To the south, Tahoma stood in its snowy grandeur. In a week, I would, presumably, be standing on top of it.

The famed Kendall Katwalk.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Now north of the Kendall Katwalk, Seth is also in new territory.
Even from a distance, you can tell I’m smiling like crazy.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The scenery was absolutely stunning as we trod the PCT northbound. It’s easy to see why so many have remarked that the J Section is, hands down, the most spectacular stretch on the PCT. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and it was impossible to wipe the smile from my face as we traversed the slopes below Kendall Peak and Alaska Mountain (in the first instance of reason prevailing on this trip, I skipped summitting them.) Soon, summits to the north came into view, including Dakobed (Glacier Peak) as well as Whitehorse Mountain. I found myself stopping frequently to admire the views and snap photos; the landscape simply demanded it.

Tahoma in the distance.
Looking back at ground we’ve covered. If you look closely, you can see the trail contouring down below the peak at center right.
Contouring along wildflower-studded trail. You can see Seth up way ahead.
Seth stopped to chat with a local.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

One moment in particular stands out from this section. As we climbed up a pass and reached the top, another layer of mountains and lakes revealed itself. Seth and I gasped in unison, and a PCT hiker who was resting at the crest chuckled at us and smiled in agreement. This was one of those instances where you’re grateful for company, because there is something magical in sharing a sense of awe at the raw beauty of this place. In my mind’s ear, I can still hear our collective gasp of, “Wow!,” still feel the thump of my heart quickening at the sight. In that space and second, I felt true joy.

Seth running up toward the pass.
Wow! view from the pass.

Views and Smiles for Miles

Running down from the pass was thrilling, the trail traversing on the edge of rock while alpine lakes sparkled below. Above, summits soared, including a mountain that one of us dubbed the “Triple Dildo,” but which I believe is actually called the Four Brothers. Whatever the name, those spires would be in view for miles, and from multiple perspectives, serving as a landmark for understanding our progress and location. We were solidly on track for an 18-hour finish, and all was good.

Running down the other side of the pass, with views that don’t quit.
And back up we go.
I can’t believe we live here! What a fortunate life.

We reached a major water source that I had identified, but I had failed to note one key identifying feature: it was a waterfall! How wonderful, to be in need of water, and to have a surprise waterfall show up.

Surprise waterfall!
So delighted to see this cool cascade as the day grows hot.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

We paused to filter water and chatted with a PCT hiker doing the same. We learned that he was a SOBO, or South Bound, PCT thru-hiker. He had started a few weeks before at the Canadian border, which was a typical start time, we learned, for SOBOs. He also told us that, due to a heavy snow year in the High Sierras, many NOBOs (North Bound PCT thru-hikers) had “flipped.” They had started at the U.S./Mexico border, went as far north as the snow permitted, then switched directions by traveling up to the northern terminus and making their way back south to cover the ground they’d missed. In theory, by the time they reached the High Sierra, the summer sun would have melted the snow so that this section was passable. From there on, we would encounter many PCT thru-hikers, most (if not all) SOBOs.

As a stark contrast to the gushing waterfall, the trail entered a burn from a previous wildfire. It’s always interesting to travel through a burn, with its ghost trees and scorched earth. The mercury was also rising rapidly, heating the day beyond what we’d anticipated encountering high in the alpine air. Here, our different paces became more apparent, as Seth fell behind and I pulled ahead. In this sense, we were having solo experiences punctuated by reunions for breaks under the shade of alpine evergreens.

Sentinel ghost trees watch as the landscape rebuilds itself after the fire.

Climbing up and out of the burn, with the Four Brothers to my left, I marveled at water cascading down the mountainside and at the resiliency of wildflowers blooming among charred logs. It was hot, and the black flies were merciless if you stopped or slowed, but this was still firmly Type 1 Fun.

One of my favorite views from the adventure. I paused to take it in and trace the stream cascading down from snow and rock through shades of green.

Big Climbs, Big Views

The next section blurs together a bit (it doesn’t help that I’m writing this 6+ months later), but it was mostly uphill, hot, and buggy. I remember asking two PCT hikers, a mother and daughter I presumed, about a water source; they suggested that it wasn’t that great of a source and that it was a ways off. Of course, my concept of “a ways off” is quite different from that of a thru-hiker, who is carrying much more gear and covering far fewer miles in a day. This proved true in my encounter with a hiker who asked about the next water source and camp site. I replied, “I didn’t look at my watch, but I’d estimate that it’s only about 7 miles to a great water source.” The look on his face screamed deflation and disappointment. “Only” 7 miles is much more significant for a thru-hiker than a day runner. I realized my mistake after reading his face, but there really wasn’t a way to sugar coat the distance to water. I reassured him that he would be so happy when he arrived there, though. There was a thundering stream rushing with snowmelt, and a lovely campsite just above it. 

I remember reconnecting with Seth at the top of that very long climb for a short break in the shade of a circle of trees. It was around that time that I realized I had been eating more calories than I should have been, having miscalculated by eating both fig bars in a package at once, instead of over the course of two snack breaks. I’d done this a few times. I was supposed to have 200 calories per hour, for 24 hours. Thanks to my mistake, I would have fewer. This, coupled with the realization that our pace was slowing, resulted in my decision to begin rationing calories.

Finally, something runnable, after all that climbing!

We decided that I should run ahead and begin filtering water at the next source. It was yet another stunning section, and I thrilled in being up high with such grand vistas all around. After that killer climb, I rode the crest for a while before descending into a bowl that held our water source. A few PCT hikers were taking a break and swapping stories. I felt badly as I walked across what looked like a fragile alpine ecosystem in order to reach the stream. I tried to be as delicate as possible. The flies here were relentless. By the time Seth ambled into the scene, I was losing my mind with flies buzzing in my ears and biting my arms, neck, legs, and any other exposed skin they could find. They were so completely maddening that I broke down and applied DEET-infused bug spray to ward them off.

See ya at the watering hole!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Heading down to the water source, and into the land of biting black flies.

A Very Long Descent

From here, miles of switchbacks would lead us down to Waptus Lake, right before which we would leave the PCT for Dutch Miller Gap. Again, since I was moving more quickly, we separated for the descent. As I rambled down, I looked out into the distance, where yet another layer of mountains spread out before me. I believe Summit Chief and Overcoat were among the summits on view. On the other side of them was the Middlefork Valley, where this route was leading me. I passed more PCT hikers who were making their way up; some were more friendly than others. I guess a long day, with a big climb at the end, can affect one’s friendliness. Some flashed jealous looks at my gravity-fueled descent and small running vest.

The long descent begins.
Waptus Lake viewed from above as we wind down the mountain.

My stomach growled as I rolled down, switchbacking my way into the valley. I grew increasingly anxious about my food supply and had to bargain with myself to space out my calorie consumption. As the trail bottomed out and I ran through the darkening woods, my stomach grew angrier, and my body felt tired. Soon, I reached the junction for the Dutch Miller Gap trail. Across from it was a wide campsite. I noticed something sitting on a log in the deserted campsite: a bag of small corn tortillas and a can of black beans. Looking around to ensure I wasn’t stealing someone’s dinner, I snatched two tortillas and ate them ravenously. The tortillas were so incredibly dry and relatively tasteless, but to me they were little corn circles of heaven. I stowed two for later and grabbed four for Seth. When he strolled in, I giddily showed him my find. It was some PCT trail magic from a PCT trail angel, to be sure. It was, of course, also probably intended for a PCT thru-hiker, but I rationalized that we needed the calories badly and that no one else was in sight.

So many great options!

Up to Dutch Miller Gap

We said goodbye to the PCT, 34 miles into our adventure. We forded a few big streams that flowed down from the mountains toward Waptus Lake and took the opportunity to cool off, clean up, and refill water bottles. We took a short break to peel off our shoes, lay on our backs, and prop up our feet. It was such a relief after a long, hot day in the sun; the flies had apparently gone to bed. I remember this as a refreshing respite. There was a psychological boost in knowing we had turned off the PCT and were, in effect, circling back to the start line of this adventure.

Seth consults the elevation profile after having found the perfect rock for propping up our feet.

As we prepared to continue on, we discussed going back for the remaining tortillas and beans, eventually deciding that I would run back for the tortillas while Seth walked ahead. It took about 10 minutes to retrace my steps. I grabbed the bag of tortillas (still no other hikers in sight) and left the beans, as we had decided (they would be extra weight, and we’d have to mangle the can open with a small knife.) Back to Seth I ran, eating two more tortillas along the way. When I caught him, he wondered if we (meaning me) should go back for the beans since we were both low on food. I laughed, rolled my eyes, and said that there was no way I was running there and back again. The black bean ship had sailed.

After our respite on the valley floor, the Dutch Miller Gap trail climbed up, and up, and up. It was thrilling to be on a trail that gets very little foot traffic, after having been on a heavily trafficked trail all day. The evening set in and the sun sank lower. The forest at times broke with views that funneled through the valley below, Waptus Lake dominating the scene in the tree-cloaked V between the mountains.

Looking back at Waptus Lake as we ascend to Dutch Miller Gap.

For some reason, this was also the most difficult part of the entire excursion for me. The switchbacks seemed endless. I grew tired, my stomach not quite sated. My mind grew a bit fatigued as well. Seth pulled ahead as my pace slackened. He’d turned on some music, which was barely audible to me as our paths crossed, him above me on the switchback’s zig with me below on the zag. “I just want to get to him so I can hear the music,” was the desperate plea in my head. “C’mon, legs, just go fast enough to catch up so I can hear the music.” As if being able to hear the music would pull me out of this emotional valley. Eventually, I caught him, and the music served as a welcome distraction from my thoughts.

Slowly edging closer to Dutch Miller Gap.

The Gap drew nearer, and we passed crystal pools of water from which trickles emerged to course their way to Waptus Lake, now far below. Seth let out a “Whoa,” then said, “I almost stepped there, and it drops straight down!” It looked like a typical tree-lined side of the trail, but upon closer inspection, I saw that it did indeed drop straight down to eternity. I could tell we were getting a little delirious with fatigue because we laughed a bit wildly at this near miss date with oblivion.

Reaching Lake Ivanhoe lifted our spirits. The magic hour light softened the rock walls surrounding the still lake. It is such a neat feeling to step foot in a place that you’d been studying on a map for so long. For some reason, Lake Ivanhoe had stood out to me on various maps during my research, and it was fun to be standing there in the flesh now. It was as if the long-studied map came to life. We leaped across boulders and skirted around the side of the lake. It’s definitely a spot to which I’d like to return and spend a night. Yet another surprise waterfall delighted us as we navigated the rocky shore. The water reflected back a mirror image of the mountains encircling this little gem of a lake.

One of my favorite moments in the adventure: reaching Lake Ivanhoe as the day came to a close. I’m very excited to go back and camp at this magical place.
Lake Ivanhoe reflects the mountains above.

As the boulders turned back to trail, we picked up some boot prints. It felt strange to see evidence of humans here, at what I assumed to be a seldom visited spot. I’m not great at reading tracks, but these appeared to be fresh-ish. We never did catch up to the mysterious boot person, but it was fun to follow their tracks and wonder who they were and if they had enjoyed Lake Ivanhoe as much as me.

One of the highlights of this adventure was visiting the source of the Middlefork River. We’ve spent a lot of time playing in the Middlefork valley and have run along long stretches of the Middlefork River. How cool to stand at the headwaters, several small streams that you could leap across with little effort. I’ve only visited the source of one other river, the Whitewater River, which played a starring role in my childhood. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage that one must make: to visit the starting place of rivers that hold special meaning in our hearts, to see them emerge from rock and ice at the beginning of their great journey to the sea.

At the source of the Middlefork River, where it emerges in tiny rivulets.

In the waning light, we traversed marshy meadows of bear grass, their white, bristle blooms swaying in the late evening breeze. The Middlefork morphed from trickles to a broad creek, which we crossed on sturdy bridges, to a thundering mass of churning whitewater pounding over boulders and cascading down slides that we agreed would never be within our packrafting skill set.

Meandering down the Dutch Miller Gap trail, along with the tiny Middlefork, as the sun sets.
Bear grass meadow in the last moments of magic hour light.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
It was surprising to see so many bridges and boardwalks on a trail that doesn’t get many visitors these days.
Photo Credit: Seth Wolpin
The day grew quiet and still as we jogged down the Dutch Miller Gap trail.

I was startled to pass two different sets of campers, having expected not to see another soul on this trail. I stopped to chat with the second group, who mentioned that another runner had recently come through, apparently running the same route. It took a little wind out of my sails to think that someone else was on the exact same route, on the exact same day. I mean, it was a logical loop to attempt, but I couldn’t believe the coincidence. Something the campers said led me to believe this runner wasn’t on the exact same route, and my pride decided to believe that narrative.

Night Falls

From here, the condition of the trail deteriorated exponentially. I had expected rough trail, based on previous trip reports for this section of the Dutch Miller Gap trail, but this was just ridiculous. Tall grasses, soaking wet with evening dew, crowded out the trail. The trail was a narrow little trench, which you couldn’t really see through the grass, so you would take a step and lurch down farther than expected. The dew permeated our clothing as night fell. It was, admittedly, a rather unpleasant sensation. For a moment, the trail would widen, and we would sigh with relief, only to have it narrow again, the grasses clinging to our bodies as we started to shiver in the evening chill. We teetered on the sharp edge between Type 1 and Type 2 Fun.

Eventually we returned to a more trail-like trail that hugged the shore of the Middlefork, then crossed a bridge to the south side. As we meandered through the mossy river valley forest, fatigue took a firm grip of me. The promise of reaching another landmark—Goldmyer Hot Springs—pushed me onward. We caught occasional whiffs of sulfur, telling us we were close. I’d heard so much about these famed hot springs, so it was fun to finally be there for myself (although we wouldn’t actually be able to take a dip.)

Giant salamander chillin’ on the trail near Goldmyer.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

After that much time on your feet, I think there’s something of a psychological boost to know that you’ve reached a big landmark on your route. At the same time, reaching a big landmark can feel like you’ve accomplished a big goal, which, in turn, can zap your motivation for moving forward. By the time we reached Goldmyer, I could barely keep my eyes open. Seth agreed to a 10-minute dirt nap. Wrapping myself in a hoody, I set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and was instantly asleep.

It’s pretty amazing to me that I have reached a point where I feel entirely comfortable laying down in the middle of a trail, in the middle of the night, and falling asleep. It seems like such a vulnerable position—one that me of a few years ago would never have considered. It goes to show how much my relationship to the wild has evolved in a short time.

As you might imagine, that alarm went off much too soon, but it was enough to help us keep going. We moved toward the sound of crashing water and beheld what would be one of our greatest challenges of the journey: Burntboot Creek. In trip reports, others had mentioned finding a way across, but we saw nothing viable. Pacing up and down the banks, the whitewater roaring past, it seemed impossible. The creek was much too high and fast to ford. While there was a bailout route available, it would have been one very, very long hike out. We had to get across.

We finally found a tree that spanned most of the river. Seth walked across first and landed safely on the other side. I was so tired, and generally have bad balance, that I opted to shimmy across and not tempt fate. It was, admittedly, a little scary to scoot across the water churning below. Falling in would be bad, bad news. Alas, while not gracefully, I made it across.

Successful crossing of Burntboot Creek! You can see the tree bridge behind me.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Red Pass Ascent

All that remained was one pretty epic challenge: getting up to Red Pass. This entailed navigating up the abandoned Cascade Crest trail, traces of which still remained, albeit faintly. Trip reports made clear that there would be significant blowdown to deal with as well. You might wonder why we were doing this part of the route at night, instead of starting with it. I had spent a lot of time thinking this over. After speaking with two friends, Jessica and Brad, about their experience with this trail and Red Pass, both emphatically encouraged me to go up this trail instead of down it. Both agreed that the blowdown was easier to navigate going up, and that it was preferable to go up the scree on Red Pass instead of down. While I knew that meant saving the absolute hardest part of the route for last, their experience and insight was enough to convince me to go this direction.

It was tough. We’d be on the hint of trail, only to lose it at a switchback. Blowdowns sent us off route. Occasional ribbons helped mark the way. We had GPX tracks that I had drawn, which were useful, but, overall, this was a mentally fatiguing ascent, not to mention the physical challenges it posed as well. Nearly halfway up to Red Pass, I couldn’t go another step and begged for a longer dirt nap.

“Ok, fifteen minutes,” said Seth.

“Twenty-five,” I countered.

My friend Terry says that 23 minutes is the perfect nap length; it’s long enough that you actually fall asleep, but not so long that you drop into a deeper sleep from which it is more difficult to emerge. I have found this to be largely true, and this dirt nap was no exception. It was just what I needed to reenergize and complete this journey.

Dawn breaks as we rise above tree line on the old Cascade Crest trail.
There is something special about pushing all through the night, only to be greeted by mountains at sunrise as your journey comes to a close.
Easy ascending up the old Cascade Crest trail toward Red Pass, after a night of blowdowns and route finding.
Dawn breaks over the Cascades.

As we emerged above the tree line, Red Pass came into view. I will be the first to admit that I don’t do so well on scree and have trouble with exposure. Red Pass would clearly offer both. Admittedly, I was a little anxious heading toward the pass. Seeing the faint trace of switchbacks snaking up toward the saddle of the pass, my breath caught in my throat. I reminded myself that it could be worse: we could be going down it instead. With that thought, we pushed toward the final challenge of the adventure.

Lovely scree and exposure as we near Red Pass.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

I’ve learned to handle exposure and ascending scree by keeping my head down and focused on the ground. When rock climbing, I just look straight ahead at the rock, so I’ve applied that to exposed trail and scree fields, and it seems to be working. Of course, with more experience, my anxiety about the one-two punch combo of exposure and scree becomes more manageable, but I’m not sure that it will ever firmly establish itself as Type 1 Fun in my book.

Red Pass is in the top right of the frame. If you look closely, you can see the trail zig-zagging up it.

We ascended to Red Pass in the gray of pre-dawn. Reaching the top, I allowed myself to look up, and what a grand sight it was. Mountains flanked us on all sides, and the sky took on the swirl of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples of sunrise. What a reward after a challenging night, to emerge on the other side and be greeted by such great beauty in all directions. In these moments, I am so grateful to be alive, to live the life that I do. We took a brief rest and silently admired the awakening day.

Looking back from the top of Red Pass as the soft morning light colors the mountains.
Closing the loop, as we head down into the Commonwealth Basin, with Tahoma swirled in clouds in the distance.

Closing the Loop in the Commonwealth Basin

From there, we could smell the barn. It was only a matter of descending some switchbacks and then running down the Old Commonwealth Basin Trail and back to the Westie. I had a second wind and was invigorated by the daylight and the thrill of having gone over the pass. When we reached a Y in the trail, we had one final decision to make. My route called for us to continue on the Old Commonwealth Basin trail. I knew it was an abandoned, unmaintained trail, but I had read trip reports of others taking it. My thoughts were a little fuzzy at this juncture, though, and I also recalled a trip report that mentioned rejoining the PCT. We stood at the Y, an “Abandoned Trail” sign nailed to the tree, indicating the trail to the right.

My heart said, “Go right! Complete the route you imagined!” The part of my rational brain that was still functioning said, “It could be as overgrown as the Dutch Miller Gap trail, complete with morning dew to soak you through. There could be blowdowns. Go left.”

For the second time on this adventure, reason prevailed.

We took the left fork and soon rejoined the PCT. I was disappointed to be retracing our steps instead of taking new trail the entire way, but there was no use wringing my hands over it. If the other trail had been bad, it would have been an unpleasant way to end the journey. This final section felt way longer than we remembered, and we reached that point where you’re just ready to be finished. Our pace quickened as the trailhead drew nearer, and soon enough, the Westie came into view. We touched its side in gratitude and laughed about what we had just done over the past 27+ hours. A runner was heading onto the trail, and it turned out to be a guy Seth had met at a race earlier in the year. We told him what we’d just done and laughed about our bonkers idea of fun before launching ourselves into the Westie for some well-earned rest.

Tired, happy people.
Photo credit: Matt (I think)

At noon, we arose and made our way over to Aardvark to delight in heaping portions of Dan’s delicious Hurry Curry. They even gave us extra pineapple cake, which was the cherry on top of this great adventure. Gleefully eating my fill, I beamed with the joy of having taken an idea and brought it to life in the mountains.

Peaks 19 & 20: Thomas and Thorp Mountains (Plus Needles 50k Race Report)

Peaks 19 and 20: Thomas Mountain and Thorp Mountain

Elevation: 5269’ (Thomas) and 5854’ (Thorp)

Total Mileage: 32.36 miles

Total Elevation Gain: +10,169’

Date: 6 July 2019

My friend Rich maintains that his Needles 50k is “more fun than laughing.” Crossing the finish line for the first time in 2018, I understood exactly what he meant. It’s a tough, tough course, but it’s so gorgeous, and the vibe is completely chill and goofy and full of good mirth. It’s easily one of my favorite race experiences, and this year proved no different.

Somehow, I convinced my friend Jen that running two consecutive, challenging 50ks was a good idea. We pulled into the large horse pasture at the Silver Ridge Ranch, which serves as race headquarters. I pitched a tent and fell asleep to the sound of the stream rippling by.

There are no bibs, no chips, no numbers at Needles. After a course briefing, Rich and Adam sent us out along the airstrip and into the woods. The trails start off friendly enough, but things get steep real quick. That first climb never ceases to crack me up. It’s just relentless to the point of absurdity. Fortunately, you have time to take in the mountain views that unfold around you on the ascent, with Cle Elum Lake deep blue below.

A gorgeous day dawns over Cle Elum Lake.
Hard-earned views of Cle Elum Lake.

Intent of tagging all peaks within striking distance that summer, we briefly detoured at Thomas Mountain. The summit itself is rather underwhelming, with no real views given the surrounding trees. Seeing a pile of rocks, I stepped on top and guessed that was the highest point, which we paused to confirm on the map. I didn’t climb all those switchbacks just to have Rich deduct another poo poo point from my 40 peaks goal.

We’ll call this rock pile the summit (but will confirm on the map!)
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

All that climbing pays off with a long, fun descent. We linked up with Brad, who was also doing a milestone challenge: 50 ultras for 50 years. If I remember correctly, Needles was #25, so he and I were both halfway to our goals. I think he had to drive to Oregon or something equally insane to run another one the following morning. Having run Needles, I knew he was gonna be hurting tomorrow, but Brad is a beast, and he knocked out another ultra the next day all the same.

One of my favorite spots on the course, a catwalk where you can look right and see the Stewart Range…
…or look left into the heart of the Central Cascades Range.

All good descents must come to an end, and after hitting the first of two aid stations, back up we went. We had added another runner to our group, Colleen, who was stoked to be out there and excited to run Cascade. She brought a nice energy to the gang, and we all chatted and laughed as we climbed.

My terrible posture speaks to how much the climbing wears you out on this course.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider
The wildflowers were on point!

The wildflowers were on full display along this section. This would be true for much of the summer; it must have been a good weather year for wildflowers, as they seemed to stay in bloom much longer and later than years past. As we approached Thorp, I stopped to get some water from the spring there, which Adam had kindly marked for us.

Runners switchbacking up Thorp Mountain.
Pausing for a view of Kachess Lake as we snake up Thorp.

We zig zagged up Thorp, and I convinced Jen and Colleen to follow me past the lookout and over to the Thorp Mountain Crapper. The year before, I had won the Inaugural Thorp Mountain Crapper Selfie Contest, and I wanted to defend my title. Having known Colleen but for a few hours, we dropped trouser and asked her to snap a pic that I’d schemed up. I will leave that to your imagination, but you can rest assured that our moons over the mountains won, handily.

View of the Stewart Range from the Thorp Mountain summit.
Jen taking the Thorp Mountain Rorschach test.

After taking a Rorschach test at the summit (Adam’s way of testing whether we’d completed the course), it was on to the Cardiac Needles. The Needles get their name from the shape of their profile on an elevation chart: sharp ups and downs. I always forget how many there are (5 before French Cabin, then 2 after? Something like that). There’s always more than you remembered, though. They just punch you in the gut when you’re already tired, but, my goodness, it’s just so pretty there you almost don’t mind. Last year, there had been lots of snow through here, so it was nice to have an easier time as far as footing went.

We rolled into the aid station at French Cabin, chatted for a few minutes, then pressed on to finish up those Needles and begin the long descent. Needles dispatched, we were on to a really fun section that winds down to Silver Creek. This part of the course is just plain fun. You can let gravity do the heavy lifting as you plow down, down, down. There are creeks to run through and meadows to admire, then switchbacks that eventually bottom out and return you to the flat trails of the valley.

A break in the trees meant the airstrip was just ahead. We picked up speed for a strong finish, cruising down the gravel and toward Ned’s glorious tubular body dancing in the wind. Needles records your finish time by the minute, so we technically tied as we crossed the finish line. I went in for a big hug with Ned, who always makes me smile.

Finish line hugs with my main squeeze, Ned Needleman.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

We spent the afternoon chatting with others, delighting in the homemade feast that Adam prepared and getting our money’s worth of Dru Bru from the keg. Needles is one of those races that you don’t want to end, and we lingered socially and cheered in runners as the light faded. Writing this, I smile at the memory of that good company and good cheer. This is what I love about the running community here: the long summer day spent moving yourself through stunning landscapes by foot power; the laughter shared among strangers in a shared setting; the way food and beer tastes after a tough effort; and sleeping the sleep of the exhausted and content.

Thanks to Adam and Rich for putting together this awesome event!

Peaks 16, 17, & 18: Silver, Abiel, and Tinkham Peaks

Peaks 16, 17, & 18: Silver Peak, Abiel Peak, & Tinkham Peak(s)

Elevation: 5605’ (Silver); ~5282’ (Abiel); ~5282’ and 5315’ (Tinkham East and West)

Total Mileage: 10.02

Total Elevation Gain: 3765’

Date: 4 July 2019

My great Dudefriend, Rich, decided to do his own peak challenge, so we made plans to link up and tag a few together. The grand plan was to bivy on the summit of Mt. Catherine, watch the sunrise, and then tag its neighbors: Silver, Abiel, and Tinkham Peaks. The universe had other plans, though. The wind grew fiercer throughout the day, to the point that a bivy would have been potentially unsafe, not to mention uncomfortable with blasting gusts. I was determined to at least get a mountaintop sunrise, but for the one and only time in my life, my phone died in the night. When the early morning rays of light woke me, I was confused; how was the sun up before my alarm? Realizing what happened, I raced to the pass to meet Rich for our now three-peak adventure.

We started down the PCT toward the Silver Peak trailhead. The wind had calmed, but a thick layer of fog settled down around the mountaintops, a minor consolation that it wouldn’t have been a spectacular sunrise anyway. We passed a couple of camps along the way and saw campers enjoying their early morning coffee. Upward we pressed, toward Abiel Pass, where we turned north to ascend the southern slope of Silver Peak. Here, the trail rose steeper and entailed some fun, easy scrambling.

Fog envelopes Silver Peak.

Reaching the summit, we tried to determine which point was the highest, so we climbed around on all the high spots to make sure we toed the true summit. The fog still lingered, so we didn’t get the big views of a clear day, but it’s nevertheless a treat to be standing at the highest point of a mountain, having reached it by your own power and in good company. I signed us into the summit register to let the world know that we were here.

Sorry, Rich, but that doesn’t look like the highest point. Fortunately, we stood on top of all the rocks, just to be sure.

Abiel Peak was our next objective. We retraced our steps down most of the Silver Peak trail then veered off onto a boot track before we reached the pass. It was at times difficult to discern the correct path, but we used common sense and keen bushwhacking skills to make our way over. There was a bit of thrashing through evergreens and some fun little scrambles on the approach.

And a bushwhacking we go!
Views from our rest spot on Abiel.

We tagged the true summit but opted to take a rest on a ledge with a better view, or, at least what view was visible. The fog was beginning to break, and rocky precipices and alpine lakes started to materialize out of the clouds. Abiel had a neat little container used for the summit register, which looked like what I would imagine to be a soldier’s lunchbox circa WWII, and I checked us in there as well. It looked like we weren’t the first to tag this trio of peaks in one go, and I liked feeling a sense of community with others who had done the same route.

We climbed back down to Abiel Pass, where we turned south to ascend the trail to Tinkham Peak. This was another steep one, with some exposed bits along the way.

Winding our way up Tinkham.

With one final scramble, we reached the west summit, where we found the register and checked in. By now, the clouds were dissipating, and we could see the Central Cascades unfolding below and beyond.

The fog begins to lift as we reach the west summit. You can see the east summit in the distance.
Taking it all in. You can see Silver Peak behind Rich to the left.
Looking down from the west summit, with tarns below. Roaring Ridge emerging from fog on the left, and the east summit of Tinkham on the right.

A short scramble took us over to the east summit, where I was delighted to find another summit register. Sadly, Rich didn’t go for my suggestion that this should count as two peaks, even though there were two summit registers. (Earlier, he also poo pooed counting South Silver as a peak as well.)

Making our way over to the east summit.

There were some great sitting rocks on the east summit, so we kicked back, ate mini Oreos, and contemplated the beauty of the world around us. I had not felt great earlier that morning, but a sense of peace and calm enveloped me as we lounged on the slabs of summit rock. We studied a spiny ridge across the way, known as Roaring Ridge (great name!), which we eye-scouted and daydreamed a fun route for another day. Below, Mirror Lake shimmered in the bits of sunlight that snuck through the clouds. I felt happy to be here in this place with my favorite friend.

Views! Roaring Ridge beckons on the left. Mirror Lake is in the bottom right, and the Cedar River Watershed is beyond.

I think we would have stayed there all day if the outside world allowed. Alas, we had to make our return. We descended the southeast side of Tinkham, rejoining the PCT at Mirror Lake. Holiday campers were claiming their spots along its shores, mostly families with children. I could only imagine what it must be like to be in such a place as a child. My family didn’t have mountains; we car camped on Lake Erie at East Harbor State Park in Ohio each summer, which is a highlight of my childhood. I’m grateful for that experience, but I also envied these children their mountain lake camps. I guess I’m making up for lost time now.

We were up there! View of Tinkham Peak(s) from Mirror Lake.

Back on the PCT, we stepped into an easy run. I had run this stretch twice before; once while sweeping Cascade Crest 100, and once during my own failed attempt at that race. I smiled knowing that I would be running past Mirror Lake once again in August, on my way to finish what I had started the year before. This route is a keeper, for sure, and I look forward to going back again someday. It will be fun to find our names in the summit registers, those scribbled snapshots of the past that confirm we were here.

Over the Blast Zone and through the Boulder Fields: A Loowit Circumnavigation

Loowit Circumnavigation (Single-Push)

Mileage: 32.25 miles

Elevation Gain: +7549’

Date: 30 June 2019

Total Elapsed Time: 13 hours, 29 minutes

This was my first circumnavigation of a stratovolcano, and, oh my, was it wonderful. I spent a week or two reading trip reports and studying maps; decided on our trailhead entry point; second-guessed it; and rerouted at the absolute last moment. After much deliberation, I decided that we would begin at the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead. This would put us through the largest boulder field and the blast zone before it got too hot, plus it helped strategically set up our water options for later in the day. Feeling sure of this plan, we arrived at the parking lot the night before; had a few too many drinks for people who were going to run around a volcano early the next morning; and tucked into the back of Jen’s car for a little sleep.

Up before dawn, we were on trail as the sun rose above the horizon. Part of this early section links up with the winter summit route, which I had done in May, and with Jen the year before. It was neat to see what lay beneath the snow that I had traversed just a little more than a month earlier.

Officially on the Loowit Trail!
PC: Jen Schneider
Dawn breaks, with Klickitat on the horizon.
Soft, early morning light hits the trail.
Wy’East, faint in the distance.

We hit the first big boulder field before long. It’s part choose your own adventure, but there are some helpful poles to mark the way. We had GPX tracks as well as a good sense of direction, so we managed to navigate this quite easily.

The first boulder field. Can you spot the wood pole marking the way?

I had read countless trip reports that talked about how difficult it is to navigate the boulder fields and the blast zone; about the insanity of the gullies we’d be going down and back up; and about the scarcity of water. I never want to take trip reports with a grain of salt, and thus potentially minimize the endeavor, but our experience proved to be quite unlike what others reported. The trail was easy to keep, or to find if we veered briefly; the routes through the gullies were obvious, complete with ropes for hauling yourself out; and we never were wanting for water sources. It’s better to be prepared for the worst, but we laughed a bit at how over-prepared we were.

One of many perspectives of the summit we’d see throughout the day. The sun still hasn’t risen high enough to light this side of the mountain. PC: Jen Schneider

That’s not to say this route isn’t challenging; it’s certainly a rugged 50+ kilometers, and we spent over 13 hours out there, but we found it pretty manageable. It’s quite incredible to circumnavigate a volcano. You see it from every angle, and you pass through so many distinct ecosystems en route. While others take 2-4 days to work their way around, there’s something to be said about going in one push, taking it all in with one big breath.

Making it through the boulder field, we zoomed down through a forest toward the first gully. We marveled at the glacial rivers emerging from snow and ice above, making their way down the flanks of the mountain. Fording the first big river called on me to summon better balance than I’m typically capable of, as we leaped from boulder to boulder, whitewater rushing below.

Up the first gulley! PC: Jen Schneider

Jen coming up. You can see the river we crossed below (South Fork of the Toutle River), and the gulley we descended in the background.
Probably my favorite view of the mountain. The Toutle River emerges here from snow and ice.

Having ascended out of the first set of gullies, a gentle trail welcomed us to run through wildflowers and ogle pristine views of the mountain. This was one of my favorite sections, ambling through at a little lope and soaking in the beauty of this place. You could sense the blast zone ahead on the horizon, so that also filled me with anticipation, eager to greet the unknown.

Running north along this gentle stretch.
Running through wildflowers, with Spirit Lake in the distance.
Anticipation builds as the trail turns east toward the blast zone.

Running through the blast zone is like running on a lunar landscape. There’s no other way to describe it. Debris, rubble, boulders—a mix of every type of rock size and texture you can imagine—carpet the ground, while the gaping hole in the mountain’s side looms to the right. On our left, Spirit Lake shimmered in the warming sun. We ended up walking through much of the blast zone; it was just too incredible to move through too quickly. We were a little dumbstruck by it, imagining the power of the eruption and landslide that sent this mountain sliding down in a rage and shooting into the atmosphere. We paused to find the summit and noted how wild it was to be looking up at the place where a year before we stood looking down. A former student once said to me, “I like the view from below best, because it lets you see where you’ve been.” I always recall her words when I’m standing below something I once stood upon; I think she is on to something there.

It was quite eerie to stand here and contemplate the force of the landslide and eruption. You can see the true summit in the far distance, just to the right of the center of the photo.
Finding our way through the blast zone.
The trail becomes more distinct once through the blast zone.

We had a brief navigational dispute crossing the blast zone (I won’t say who ended up being right), but we eventually climbed up and out from that weird and wild world. As we traversed up and over Windy Pass, we paused for one last glance back at the blast zone before heading on toward the Plains of Abraham. Here, the route treated us to sweeping views to the east, with Klickitat making another appearance. We had a nice chat with some campers, one of whom pumped us for information as he contemplated doing the Loowit Trail in one push himself. “Do it!” we said.

Ascending to Windy Pass, taking a moment to look back at where we’ve been. You can see the tip of Spirit Lake on the right, and you can faintly make out the trail to the center left.
The Plains of Abraham come into view as we crest Windy Pass. Klicktat swirled in clouds to the left.

This side of the mountain had its own series of gullies, asking our tiring legs to ascend and descend a bit more than we were looking for at that point. Fortunately, beautifully runnable sections punctuated them, and the sun’s intensity had abated for the day.

View of the east face of the mountain, running through the Plains of Abraham.
The brilliant green of the east side is a stark contrast from the earth-toned blast zone.
This photo gets an F for failing to capture the gnar of this gulley.
This section of trail gets a butter score of 9: smoooooth!
The southeast face of the mountain. Almost finished!
Coming back around to the south side of the mountain, where evergreens abound.

Once more, we entered a boulder field, and I did a great job of finding all the unsettled boulders. We came across a woman who appeared to be having trouble staying on route. We tried helping her get a sense of the trail, and she tried to follow us, but she couldn’t keep up. We explained how to follow the poles that marked the trail, and then we pressed on.

Southeast side of the mountain.
Shadows grow long as we lean into one last climb. Klickitat still swirling in clouds out there.

Loowit had one last gigantic climb before we could call it a day. Jen was less than amused by this point, so I had to prod her along. As the sunlight softened into that magical hour, we returned to the spot from which we had started some 13+ hours before. It felt like quite an accomplishment, and we smiled, reflecting on the experience. It certainly whet my appetite for future volcano circumnavigations, which, to my great fortune, are not in short supply here in Washington.

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