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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peak 38: Teneriffe, in which I embark on a solo mountain adventure that reminds me to know when to fold em’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
“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.
“One, two, three, go!”
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
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
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
We lingered on the summit for some time, dancing, laughing, high-fiving, posing for photos, passing around a can of Rainier beer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Left with an extra day to play after our Palouse to Cascades run, we set off with Rich for Davis Peak, which was new to all of us. We traded the eastern Washington sun and heat for a more typical Cascades day of overcast skies and wind. The trail begins by crossing the wild whitewater of the Cle Elum River, then zigs and zags up through evergreen forest. The way to Davis Peak is known as a trail of many switchbacks, and it’s a reputation well earned.
Green trees give way to a large burn, with vibrant sprays of wildflowers blossoming in a forest of charred ghost trees. I was amazed at the variety of wildflowers on display, a riot of color in an otherwise desolate landscape.
Rising above tree line, we could see the Cle Elum River valley unfold below, with Cle Elum Lake rippling in the distance, ringed by peaks.
Traipsing through a meadow of yet more wildflowers, we reached a windbreak at the false summit. The site of an old lookout tower, we took advantage of the windbreak’s protection from the wind that grew steadily, peeking our heads up for views in all directions. We agreed it would be a most excellent campsite to keep in mind for a future outing. We were there for the summit, though, so after a snack we headed onwards and upwards.
The trail became even more fun as we scrambled up to the peak. It was nothing sketchy but exciting enough to keep us on our toes.
The summit offered more grand Cascades views. We visually scouted possible routes to the lakes down below, dreaming up a big adventure for another day.
On the way back down, we scurried up a little rise and named it Friendship Peak in honor of our outing. We went off trail down behind it to scope out other potential camping spots, finding a nice one on a ledge overlooking the river valley below and Jolly and Sasse Mountains in the distance.
Despite tired legs, we picked up the pace on the descent to make quick work of the switchbacks. Rich was still recovering from surgery, so Seth and I waited for him below at the confluence of the Cle Elum and Waptus Rivers. It’s incredible to see rivers rushing like mad, gushing over boulders and shooting through narrow chasms of rock. We typically encounter the wider, tamer versions of these rivers, so it was fun to see their youthful emergence from the mountains.
Rich arrived as the rain began, so we piled into the truck, happy for the time together on what will remain one of my favorite climbs of this 40 for 40 endeavor.
Total Mileage: 68.42 over 3 days (26.77; 27.07; 14.58)
Total Elevation Gain: 2950’
Date: June 16-18, 2019
The Palouse to Cascades is a Rails-to-Trails route that
starts at the Idaho/Washington Border and makes its way over Snoqualmie Pass
and down to Rattlesnake Lake on the western slopes of the Cascades. The 285-mile
trail takes in a diverse range of ecosystems as it crosses the state, from the
semi-arid high desert in the east, to the lush evergreen forests in the west. Seth
and I have been running it in bits while pushing a baby jogger loaded with our
camping gear and food. It’s been a way for Seth to relive parts of his epic
Transcon journey and for me to get a taste of that adventure. In the spring of
2018, we had a friend drop us off at Hyak, and we ran to the trail’s terminus
at Rattlesnake Lake, then pressed onward and linked up a series of bike paths
to get us all the way back to Seth’s doorstep in Lake Forest Park (75.48 miles
over two days, bandit camping in a clump of trees within the Snoqualmie city
limits.) Later that year, we covered the trail from South Cle Elum to Hyak
(32.04 miles in 2 days, camping above the Yakima River, near Lake Easton.) There’s
something incredible about covering miles on foot that you typically travel by
automobile. Your sense of time, distance, and landscape readjusts to a human
speed, and you appreciate the nuance and detail that is lost when speeding by
at 70 miles per hour. It’s been a fun project, so we decided to take a little
vacation before summer classes commenced and piece together another segment.
We had a fun night of laughter, campfire, and stargazing at our good friend Rich’s property in Ronald, WA and woke before dawn to get an early start. Seth’s truck had other plans, which resulted in getting towed to his friend Mike’s house east of Ellensburg. This set our start time back quite late, but we determined to go for it, despite the mercury rising. Mike graciously drove us to our start point near the Columbia River at Beverly Trestle. The old railroad trestle is closed, and we couldn’t find a good way down to dip our toe in the Columbia, so we’ll have to cover that ground in the future. Fortunately, the Washington State legislature passed a bill to fund the rebuilding of the trestle, which, when completed, will eliminate an elaborate—and dangerous—detour on the highway.
Baby jogger packed and bungee cords secured, we headed out into the heat of the day, sunrays streaming down. We would be crossing the Army’s Yakima Training Center, a 22 mile stretch of trail that runs through land used by the US Army, as well as visiting armies from around the world, to run practice drills. You have to be through the YTC before sundown, and there’s no water along the way. The day promised to be a scorcher.
Mike ran with us for a ways and also took a turn pushing the baby jogger. It was fun to have company on our strange adventure as we climbed from the Columbia River valley and up into the high desert. The landscape is such a stark contrast from our home in western Washington. It has a scorched earth appearance, with dried grasses and high hills, canyons carved into the reddish-brown basalt. It’s quite beautiful and calls to mind images of the wild west.
Eventually Mike turned around, and Seth and I continued on. Immersed in the high heat of the day, we took mini breaks anywhere we found even the slightest slip of shade to protect us from the sun’s relentless rays. We noticed two crows that seemed to be following us, squawking at us in a way that didn’t seem entirely friendly. The path wound through some cuts in the rock that rose high above the trail, and the crows would perch and call at us. These cuts in the rock were the best places to find shade, and at one point we decided to take a 10-minute dirt nap in a shade patch big enough for the both of us to be out of the sun. The crows landed, sounded a few deep clucks, and then we heard rockfall. The crows were knocking down large rocks from above, which seemed intended for us. Alarmed by the size of the rocks rolling down in our direction, we jumped up and took off. It was unbelievable to think, but it seemed very possible that the crows were trying to hit us with the rocks. We picked up our pace and finally left them behind. I’ve never known crows to be unkind, but this pair clearly didn’t want us there.
In the distance, we could see smoke billowing beyond the hills. As we drew closer, the sound of helicopter wings grew louder. On dirt roads that paralleled the trail, we saw Army vehicles filled with troops heading toward the smoke. Initially, we assumed that it was some sort of Army drill, but once we saw the helicopter dipping a bucket into a pond, we realized that they were fighting a wildfire. We paused to watch the chopper dip down, fill its bucket, then zoom off toward the smoke. It all felt a little surreal and a little unnerving.
Our water reserves were nearly tapped, and we had to make it to our water drop near the highway, on the other side of the YTC. We attempted a short cut through a tunnel on the original trail, but we soon understood why that way was closed. Apparently, there’s danger of parts of the ceiling falling down, so I’ll just say that one of us was not so keen on this attempted shortcut. The trail was overgrown and not ideal for pushing a baby jogger.
Giving up, we went back to the detour, which was longer but easier going. Another trestle marks the end of the YTC, and we had hopes of crossing it despite warnings not to. Do you see a pattern emerging here? One look decided it, as there was no floor. While we might have scurried across on foot, there was no way we’d be bringing the baby jogger along for that ride.
The sun was setting, and we raced to reach our water drop and figure out a camp for the night. Water secured, we ran along an access road that paralleled I-90 looking for a hidden spot to pitch our tent.
In the dusky light, we saw a little game trail that led up to a ledge above the road. It was, quite literally, the only option along this road, so we tried not to think too much about all that coyote scat on the game trail and made camp in a narrow gap between the thickets of sagebrush. Talk about wild bandit camping; we lay hidden just beyond the road, Interstate 90 roaring past mere yards away. Zapped by the hot run, we were able to catch some sleep despite our precarious little home for the night.
The next morning, we got an early start since we’d be on the access road for a few miles until the trestle detour linked back up with the trail. The dawn found us in a more pastoral landscape, in the agricultural valley surrounding Ellensburg. Near Thorp, I took a slight detour to the big fruit stand there. After a day and a half of dried and dehydrated foods, the prospect of fresh fruit was irresistible. I left with $30+ worth of apricots, plums, apples, and berries.
The hot day called for a short respite on the banks of the Yakima River. The thing about traveling by foot speed is that you experience every slight change of landscape, and you physically feel the shift from high desert to green river valley. The day was still hot, but the landscape less harsh. We dozed off, lulled by the water tranquilly rippling past.
Back on our feet, we traced the upstream path of the Yakima River, eyeballing the water to determine if we could return one day with packrafts for a run/paddle adventure. The banks were largely high and steep, with few places to easily access the river.
As the second day drew to a close, we spent considerable time scouting out a campsite. We hoped to be out of sight from the trail but also needed a way to reach the river to collect water. Eventually, we found a nice spot under a pine tree and settled in for the night.
The next morning, the trail took us through a tunnel and inched toward the Cascades.
Way ahead of schedule, we stopped at a picnic table to kill time with books, podcasts, naps, and snacks. We chatted with passersby, including two guys riding across the state on their bikes (and giving us ideas for routing the Olympic Peninsula section) and a couple with a sweet dog who lived on a ridge with a view of the Stewart Range that they bought dirt cheap because it was near a powerline. People are always curious when they see us with the baby jogger and no baby, and it has led to some nice conversations with strangers (as well as a stern scolding from a woman who thought we had a baby in the jogger and panicked when she saw us recklessly letting it careen down the trail.) We rolled into South Cle Elum later that afternoon, where Rich picked us up and hosted us for the night, offering showers, real food, and kind company. It was a delightful way to end this installment of our across-the-state baby jogger project.
Summit Lake, and its namesake peak, was my first real hiking
adventure after moving to Washington, so it was fun to revisit it after having
made the acquaintance of so many other peaks and alpine lakes. On that first
hike, in my first spring living in the Pacific Northwest, I marveled at the
wild beauty just beyond my doorstep. I’d never taken a hike quite like that
before, and when the summit view revealed a jaw-dropping mountain panorama
complete with Tahoma as a backdrop, it just floored me. It felt like you could
just reach out and touch the glaciers that flank the volcano. The constant
smile plastered on my face made my cheeks begin to ache. In that moment, I
decided that I wanted to bring every out-of-town visitor here so that I could
share this wonderful place with my flatlander family and friends.
It took a while, but I finally made it back to Summit Lake Peak, with a friend and colleague in tow. The forest road to the trailhead was as potholed as remembered, but the trail did not disappoint. We lucked into another gorgeous June day as we started up through the forest into the Clearwater Wilderness. The trail winds its way steadily uphill, then forks at a juncture with the trail to Bearhead Mountain. Time didn’t allow for the tagging of two peaks, but I have grand plans to come back for a wild Bearhead Bushwhack Loop that entails a ramble through the Clearwater Wilderness and a scramble up something called The Rooster Comb. Stay tuned for that report!
The glacier lilies were out in full splendor as we neared the snow line. We brought spikes for the occasion but held off for a while. The snow made it tough to follow the trail at times, so I was glad to have the GPX tracks. It’s funny to think back to my first excursion here, which turned into an off-trail adventure. Coming down from the summit in the snow, we lost the trail and just tried to head toward the lake. A friend had a Map My Hike app, so she left breadcrumbs on that to help us try to get back on trail. It was all a little thrilling and a little scary to feel like we were wandering around off trail in heavy spring snow. Looking back, I shake my head at that less experienced self, with no map, no compass, nor GPX route downloaded along with the digital map. This time around, Ingrid and I did wander a bit, but I was able to get us back on route quickly.
The lake itself is of that alpine lake blue, dark and deep in the center, ringed by aquamarine. A worthy destination in itself, but we were there for the summit views. About this time we opted for the spikes, as the snow was a bit more tricky as we ascended. The trail wraps around the lake and offers glimpses of mountains in all directions along the way.
The final push was quite steep and snowy; one of those things you’re much happier going up and kinda dread coming back down. Happily, the summit was the showstopper of memory. It’s wonderful that, even after summitting so many gorgeous peaks, Summit Lake Peak wasn’t diminished; it stands up to memory and holds its own in the Cascades. Like the geek that I am, I pointed out all the big peaks in sight. All the mountains were out. We could see the Olympics Range to the west, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak to the north, as well as The Stewart Range to the east. Of course, to the south, was the great Tahoma, with Little Tahoma at its side. From what we could tell, Bearhead seemed to have an even more enviable vantage point.
We lingered for some time on the summit, eating lunch, making plans for more outdoor adventures, and basking in the warm rays of sun like two lazy cats. It was tough to pull ourselves away, but eventually we meandered back down the mountain.
Things went awry on the drive out. Despite my cautious speed and great care, I ended up with a flat tire. Fortunately, I had some Fix-a-Flat in the trunk, and we limped back to Tacoma.
I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice it to say that the rest of the day turned into a nightmare when the garage that I have loyally touted and referred others to for years, Titus Will Service and Tire, blamed me for the flat and said I would need to buy 4 new tires. I had never had such a despicable interaction with any customer-service business; it was so bad that Ingrid had me go sit in the car while she gave the staff a stern talking to. If you want the details, I’m happy to explain everything that happened and why I will never go there again. I hate to taint my blog post with this, and I’m not typically vindictive or critical; it just goes to show how awful they were.
When my dear friends, Kara and Joey, told me that they would
be passing through Tacoma for a visit, I jumped on the opportunity to share the
mountains with them. I’d been longing for a chance to take friends from the
Midwest out to explore my new home, and I couldn’t have found two better people
to venture into the wild with. Bandera was my top choice; it doesn’t have the
crowds of more popular peaks in the Issy Alps, and it feels like a real
mountain adventure. It was my first hike of that nature, so it seemed like a
perfect fit for the occasion. I tossed out this option with a brief
description, but, knowing my tendency to underestimate how challenging a hike
might be for folks who don’t do these sorts of things on the regular, I added
Rattlesnake Ledges as a less rugged route that still offered great views. I
loved Kara’s simple reply: “We want to do the longer hike.”
The best friends are those you can go years without seeing,
and then just pick right up where you left off. We burned the midnight oil, catching
up over vegan cupcakes and local IPAs. Unable to ignore our yawns any longer,
we turned in and rested up for our big adventure in the morning.
We were treated to a shorts-and-t-shirts-day of sunshine and blue skies, which June doesn’t always grant us. The Ira Spring Trail gives peek-a-boo views of McClellan Butte and other easy-to-identify peaks along the I-90 corridor.
The trail is rather unassuming until it splits to go down to Mason Lake, or up to Bandera. Here, it gets steep, quick. Vertigo nagged at Joey, and I completely understood the challenge that posed. I’d had the same experience when I first climbed this route a couple of summers earlier. The WTA website notes that in this section, you gain one vertical foot for every two feet of trail. While there are some nice boulders to offer balance, there’s also a lot of loose, sandy rock that can be slick. Worrying that I had overcommitted us, I offered to turn back. Playfully alluding to our earlier discussion about Everest, Kara replied, “I have summit fever, I can’t stop now!” There’s no arguing with someone suffering from summit fever, so upward we went.
We arrived at the west summit, also known as Little Bandera. Technically a false summit, most hikers call it good here. We stopped to admire the views, and I pointed out some peaks by name, Tahoma being the most dramatic in view. It was fun to see Klickitat poking up to the southeast and to know I’d been standing on top of it not long ago.
Hopeful for the true summit, we scrambled a bit to the east. From what I understand, it takes some work to get there, and there’s not the same clear view that Little Bandera provides. I suggested that we head back to west summit and claim a nice spot for a summit beer and lunch. You don’t find many better picnic spots than this. After lingering for a while, we made our way back down the steep slope and through the meadows of bear grass.
While this might have been more like Type 2 fun for one member of our party, overall, I think that my friends enjoyed our adventure. I beamed with pride at the mountains that rise out of my backyard and was joyful to be able to share them with Midwestern friends. Of course, no Cascade adventure is complete without some Hurry Curry, so we capped the day at Aardvark and reflected on the highlights of the day. You really can’t ask for more.