Peak 9: Mt. Ellinor

Elevation: 5944’

Total Mileage: 5-ish

Total Gain: 2361’

Date: May 4 & 5, 2019

Mount Ellinor stands out as one of my favorite peaks from this 40 for 40 adventure, and it’s easily in my top three greatest campsites of all time. There are few things more exhilarating than waking up on top of a snow-capped summit to watch the sunrise over two mountain ranges. It also felt like a celebratory occasion, as the night before Seth and I decided to move in together, taking a big step forward in our relationship.

I had climbed Ellinor a few years earlier, but on the summer route. I’d heard about the sweeping views of the Olympics and Cascades Ranges, and the steep climb required to earn them. The mountain was socked in that day, so no views, but it still came with the steep climb. I nevertheless enjoyed the experience and was glad to go back. This time, we would be taking the winter route.

We parked at the upper lot, which was quite full. A guy in a flannel shirt and jeans headed out in front of us, then came back saying that he thought he heard a cougar. (There was a note at the trailhead about being aware that you’re in cougar country.) He wanted to walk up with us, but after I assured him that what we heard was, in fact, a bird, he went ahead to catch up to his friends. I understood his anxiety, and there was a time when I might have made the same mistake. I believe that I was tactful enough not to say out loud that he wouldn’t hear a cougar if one was stalking him. I noticed that this guy had no pack or layers. He carried a water bottle and nothing else. For me, it’s impossible to imagine going into the wild so unprepared. You have to tread a fine line, though, between trying to educate people and not policing the mountains. I have no idea how to address the issue of hikers venturing into wild places without basic essentials like food and layers, but it strikes me as important to reach beginners with important information about how to access the natural world safely and responsibly. I see hikers like this one all too often, but I haven’t come to a satisfactory solution for how to engage with them in a helpful manner. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re new to outdoor adventures, check out this helpful overview that can get you out on the trails while keeping your own safety and well being in mind.

Breaking out above treeline and onto the snowy slope.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The trail winds through an evergreen forest before opening up onto a steep, snowy slope lined by forest on each side. We brought along pickets, rope, ice axes, crampons, and other climbing equipment in order to use this ascent as an opportunity for mountaineering practice. Finding a nice, open area off the main trail, we roped up and worked on setting pickets, something that I’d not done before. This was a great place to learn and test out new skills, as the slope was quite steep, but there was no real danger of cascading off a cliff or into rocks. Next, Seth demonstrated self-arrest from a variety of angles and situations, and then it was my turn. I fared quite well with self-arrest in the standard positions, so Seth said it was time for him to (without notice) pull me backwards to simulate a rope teammate falling and pulling me backwards so that I could practice self-arrest in this scenario. The prospect, admittedly, scared me. While he had me on a belay and I wasn’t going to fall off the mountain if I couldn’t self-arrest, the idea of falling backwards and potentially hitting my head, even while wearing a helmet, was terrifying for me. I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to properly self-arrest, but more so my fear stemmed from the trauma of my TBI and not wanting to hit my head again, ever.

My mountaineering school instructor showing me the ropes.

To help me work through that fear, I first kneeled down and then fell down backwards, sliding down the mountain head first and on my back. It was incredible how quickly I was able to use my ice axe to flip myself around and self-arrest. It felt instinctual and immediate, much to my surprise and delight. With that confidence boost, I stood up and fell backwards, with the same result. Out of excuses, it was time to let Seth pull me without notice. I absolutely hated this, but I understood the necessity. Each step was agonizing, tense with the anticipation of him jerking the rope and yanking me backwards at any moment. Because I was waiting for it, though, I had a split second to feel his pull; as such, I immediately flopped down on my belly and went into self-arrest before I could be pulled backwards. I joked that I had done what one should do by going down into position, but I had failed the test all the same. Being the perfectionist that I am, this bothered me the rest of the weekend, and I knew that I was going to have to retake that exam.

Self-arrest workshop over, we did some additional picket practice, this time with me leading, as we made our way to the summit. Hitting a notch that leads to the false summit, we laid the final round of pickets and then came off the rope to trek over to the last steep pitch up to the summit. It was late in the day and only a few parties remained. This time, the summit treated me to expansive views into the heart of the Olympics. I don’t know this range as well as I do the Cascades, but this panorama inspired me to get better acquainted with them soon.

Photo op before the final climb to the summit, with snowy Olympics Range as the backdrop.
At least I have all the gear in hand to look the part of a mountaineer!
View of summit from below. You can just make out another party up there.
Summit view, looking into the Olympics.

The bonus to this trip was that we were going to spend the night on the mountain. We briefly considered pitching camp on the summit, but there’s not a lot of room there, and we didn’t want to impede the experience of anyone coming up early for the sunrise. Glissading down to the plateau below the summit, we found a lovely spot off the trail, close to the cliffs overlooking the summer route. There was one other party camped below us, but we couldn’t see or hear them, so it felt much like having the mountaintop to ourselves. I think this photo about sums it up. I went to sleep giddy at the thought that I was sleeping on top of a mountain. It was a first for me, and my heart thrills at the thought of it as I write this more than six months later.

Photo Credit: Seth Wolpin

An inversion enveloped the scene at sunrise. Ellinor’s neighbor, Mount Washington, peeked above the clouds, the jagged rock summit protruding from a blanket of snow. From the tent door, I could see the Brothers in the distance, along with other Olympics peaks whose names I do not know. Breathtaking. Coming out for a survey of the horizon, the volcanoes of the Cascades hovered above the clouds; St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, Baker, and Glacier all made an appearance before the clouds rose and curtained them.

View from inside the tent. This was the most incredible wake up surprise of my life.
Best campsite of the year, and one of the best ever. You can see Tahoma in the distance.
Reluctantly breaking camp.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Quite the memorable sunrise, with Mt. Washington, The Brothers, and other Olympics peaks peeking above the clouds. Be still, my heart!

The descent would prove tricky, as the morning snow was rock hard ice. This meant no speedy glissade down the steep snow slope. Instead, we plunge-stepped as best we could in those conditions. Coming down through the notch was a little scary, as it’s quite steep, so I tossed on my crampons for a little extra purchase. The clouds broke, though, so the mountain treated us to clear morning views of Lake Cushman below. All too soon, we were back at the car, and our mountaintop adventure came to a close.

Descending a steep slope on frozen snow, with Lake Cushman below.
So steep! So frozen!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

This outing whet my appetite for sleeping on mountaintops. Sadly, I haven’t had the opportunity to do so again, as plans to bivy on Mount Catherine, and then Mount Aix, followed by DeRoux, and then later on Koppen all fell through due to weather (extreme wind; snow; heat; and snow, respectively.) While I have enjoyed countless beautiful backcountry campsites over the past two years, nothing has compared to being on Ellinor in terms of grandeur, novelty, and excitement. Come next summer, my goal will be to sleep on as many mountaintops as the weather will allow. Thanks to Seth for the mountaineering instruction and for sharing this experience with me. Looking forward to bivying on many more mountaintops together!