Luna Peak

  • Date: August 4-6, 2019
  • Start: Big Beaver Trailhead (water taxi from Ross Dam Trail)
  • Distance: 38 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,800 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: SummitPost
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

“Arrrggghhhh!” A split second later I was on the ground, hand pressed firmly against my throbbing ankle as if it might aid in keeping the inevitable swelling at bay. I wanted to cry. Not from the pain, but from the frustration. We were 16+ miles into a trail-less backcountry on a sweltering August day, surrounded only by the rugged terrain of the North Cascades. Luna Peak pierced the sky thousands of feet above us, a sentinel standing watch over the most magical place in all of Washington. I’d waited years to experience it, to prove to myself that I was ready and worthy of tackling the challenges and making it up there. The pain in my ankle jolted me back to reality. We had a decision to make. I had a decision to make…

After standing awestruck on the summit of West McMillan Spire the previous weekend, I was determined to use my limited vacation days to make it back out to the Pickets and see more of them, to chase that same thrill and exhilaration I’d felt when I finally glimpsed them from Terror Basin. Based on everything I’d read about this particular climb, I knew we’d probably be in for more of a battle than a casual, low-key jaunt in the mountains. With a string of clear, sunny days in the forecast, we left Portland on Saturday morning to start our “vacation,” completely unaware that it would end up being one of the most punishing mountain ventures we’d ever experienced.

The Pickets never let you off easy that’s for damn sure.

False summit of Luna Peak

Day 1: Big Beaver Trailhead to Access Creek Basin, plus hike down to boat launch from Ross Dam Trailhead to get to water taxi (16.3 miles; 9 hours, breaks included)

We hopped off the water taxi and onto the rocky shoreline–the water levels at Ross Lake are so low this year that the boat couldn’t even reach the actual dock!–at Big Beaver.

“See you tomorrow at 5,” said our driver after we thanked him for the ride. 

The sun was already beating down and it was only 8:30 am. Yesterday’s raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream from Cascadian Farm sounded delicious right about now. Nothing in my food bag was nearly as enticing or refreshing, except for maybe the Gatorade jostling around in my water bottle. Thankfully, we entered the shade of the forest and were welcomed with much cooler temps. The 11 miles on Big Beaver Trail were mellow and fairly uneventful. We moved quickly, jogging the flats and downhills and powerhiking the ups and rocky, root-covered sections.

Our Ultimate Direction fastpacks were weighed down with overnight gear, two days of food, and a climbing helmet, but they were still fairly comfortable to run in. This was Mack’s first time getting to use his fastpack for an actual multi-day adventure so he was pretty stoked. It was only my second time. Based on the beta we received from a couple other climbing groups, we were able to leave the crampons and ice axes at home, which made it possible for us to fit all our gear into our 35 liter packs. 

Raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream pit stop on the way to the ranger station
Water taxi ride across Ross Lake to reach Big Beaver Trailhead

Nearing 11 miles, we slowed down to search for a turn off into the brush to reach Big Beaver Creek. There are a couple of different log crossings you can aim for. The single log crossing (which requires continuing a little further on Big Beaver Trail) brings you closer to Access Creek (definitely a plus!). The log jam, which is what we aimed for, is an easier crossing overall, but afterward you have to do some extra bushwhacking to reach Access Creek. We opted for the log jam because I am petrified of log crossings and felt that crossing on a log jam would feel less terrifying than a single log. In retrospect though, we DEFINITELY should’ve aimed for the single log crossing instead. Lesson learned.

It took some mild bushwhacking to reach the log jam, but nothing horrendous. Was this the worst of it? That answer came after we crossed Big Beaver and headed back into the brush to get to Access Creek. We forced our way through the dense riparian vegetation, battling devil’s club, salmonberry, huckleberry, and blueberry bushes, skunk cabbage, vine maple, and a variety of other flora, as well as a good deal of hopping over or walking across slick downed trees, all while flies and mosquitoes swarmed our faces. Slowgoing and a tad annoying (mainly the bugs), but overall not soul crushing. We eventually reached Access Creek. This is where our troubles really began. 

The easy bushwhacking to Big Beaver Creek
Jamming across the log jam!

First off, we made the mistake of not crossing to the north side of Access Creek early on where there’s actually a somewhat decent boot path for the steepest part of the climb along the creek! (We didn’t discover this until the hike out) We stayed on the south side, far too close to the creek, and practically crawled through slide alder for who knows how long. Okay, definitely a little more miserable now. And we were moving ridiculously slow. I sang “Happy Birthday” quietly to myself as a reminder that I was the one putting myself through this mild torture. This was my chosen birthday vacation afterall. We kept our eyes peeled for a stable looking log crossing to get us over to the north side, eventually opting for one that we had to “au cheval” across because it was too slick and narrow to walk on.

Following those shenanigans, we found the ‘shwhacking on the north side to be far less tedious and even managed to stay on a clear path every once in awhile–it disappeared often. Unfortunately, I think we got too comfortable and, even though I had the beta saved on my phone about crossing back to the south side once the boulder fields came into sight, completely forgot to refer to it. We found ourselves venturing deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast (aka the slide alder forest aka one of the nine circles of hell). At first we thought we were following most everyone else’s path until we realized that we were just following the path of all the other poor, hapless souls that had missed the crucial crossing to the south side. But it was too late. We tried navigating our way back but somehow wound up going in a circle! In slide alder! For almost another hour! So demoralizing I didn’t even make an effort to take photos. Mack was getting flustered now, violently thrashing through and cursing at the slide alder as I attempted awkward gymnastic moves through the perpetual series of tree limbs. For the briefest moment, I actually thought, “This is it. This is how I die. Imprisoned and strangled by slide alder.”

We finally made it to the edge of the water, trudged through it (since there were no logs or rocks), shoved our way through more slide alder, and, at long last, collapsed at the base of the boulder field. Mack was already slumped against a rock when I emerged from the last of the slide alder.

“I think we need to make camp now. Luna Col is still nearly 4,000 feet higher and the terrain won’t be any easier,” I said. “We’re going to need an extra day to do this.”

Mack agreed. We continued through the boulder field until we saw an open, bare spot (clearly an established campsite). It was 5 pm, maybe a little after. We’d started the bushwhacking at 12:15 or 12:30. Needless to say, we were beatdown, battered, and broken. And now that we needed to prepare for an additional day, we couldn’t even enjoy our food! After setting up camp, I messaged Tom (Mack’s dad) from our inReach and asked him to call Ross Lake Resort to reschedule our water taxi pickup for Tuesday instead of Monday. He messaged back almost immediately with confirmation. Phew! One less thing to worry about it. We fell asleep to the sound of the rushing creek next to us, awaking a couple times throughout the night to snaffehounds scurrying close to the tent. We pulled our shoes inside so they didn’t fall prey to the pesky scavengers.

Luna Peak still so far away
Smiling despite getting my ass seriously kicked

Day 2: Access Creek Basin to Luna Peak *false* summit, then back to Luna Col (3.7 miles; 9 hours 10 minutes, breaks and setting up camp included)

The tent was already stifling hot by the time we awoke the next morning. I was relieved to see that it was intact and no rodents had chewed through it during the night. The only victim of their insatiable appetites? My trekking pole handles. Better those than the tent! We took our time getting ready for the day since we were only heading to Luna Col and the summit, finally starting out of camp shortly before 9 am. We ran into two other groups almost right away, but after that it was just us for the rest of the day.

Right before we reached the base of the rock gully, I stepped into a concealed rut on a completely unsuspecting and flat section of “trail.” Caught off guard, I didn’t react fast enough and before I knew it I was on the ground clutching my ankle. I could feel it starting to swell within a couple minutes. We moved into the shade of some boulders so I could catch my breath and allow the pain to subside as much as possible. I stared up at the gully. It looked even steeper, looser, and more intimidating now that I couldn’t put weight on my left foot. Were we really going to have to turn around now? After making it so far in? We hadn’t even hiked high enough to see the mountains!

We sat there for a long while, probably close to an hour. I’d already slapped on the ankle brace I’d packed in–thank goodness I’d remembered to bring it!–to start compression, and I kept it elevated as we waited. I couldn’t make up my mind about what to do though. Go back to the previous night’s camp, spend another day and night there to let my ankle rest, then hike back out the next day without ever seeing the mountains or climbing anything? Not moving sounded real nice. Or continue up, being as mindful as possible of the increasingly technical terrain, to camp at Luna Col?

“Mack, what should I do? What should we do?” I asked kind of desperately. 

“You know yourself better than I do. Just be smart and listen to your body,” he responded calmly.

“Do you think I can do it?”

He smiled, and without hesitation, “Of course you can.”

I stood up and began a slow and careful limp up the gully. Mack climbed up nearby, careful to stay away from the fall line beneath me in case I accidentally kicked down any loose rock. The rocks in the lower section of the gully were larger and easier to navigate since they packed down in a somewhat supportive manner (i.e. they didn’t come loose as easily). The higher we got the more scree on slick rock we encountered. We traversed over a little bit of snow up higher and started up the second half of the gully, which started on larger rocks again, but eventually gave way to an actual dirt path on heather benches that switchbacks steeply to the top of the gully. Don’t be fooled by the brief description. From bottom to top, the entire ordeal probably took about two hours, especially since I needed a number of breaks to check in on my ankle. 

Damage wasn’t too bad
Mack coming up the rock gully

Upon reaching the top of the gully, I knew we’d made the right call to keep going. We were immediately met with a view of those jagged spires I’d had the privilege of seeing up close for the first time the previous weekend: the Southern Pickets. And even though I was further away from them this time, they were even more mesmerizing from this vantage. Off the loose rock, we moved a little faster through the steep, outsloping heather meadow, crossing over a handful of flowing water sources, then eventually back onto boulder fields and granite slabs. Luna Col still seemed so far away, especially since we’d actually lost elevation on the traverse from the top of the gully! We scrambled up more loose rock, heather benches, and even a small patch of snow–a welcome change from the loose rock!–before making the final rock moves up to the col and the first visible campsite.

Traversing to Luna Col; Southern Pickets in the distance
Looking out on McMillan Creek and the fringe peaks/high points of the Southern Pickets

Out of the basin, we could now see what the ridge line had been guarding: Luna Lake, the Northern Pickets, and Mount Fury at the heart of the entire range. It was official. I was standing in the most beautiful place in all of Washington, gazing at the most incredible subrange of mountains in the most incredible mountain range ever. Even with a mildly sprained ankle holding me back, I felt like the luckiest person alive in that moment. And I knew it was only going to get better the higher we climbed. 

We set up camp first, opting for a site with unobstructed views of the Northern Pickets behind it. After some snacks, we set out for the summit of Luna Peak. It was the easiest terrain we’d been on all day. Sure the rock was loose, but at least it wasn’t straight scree all the way up. There was even a discernible boot path for a good chunk of the approach. The scramble up from the col to the summit can be done fairly fast, but I found myself turning around quite often as the view of the Pickets improved and I could finally see the northern and southern halves meet to form a continuous, unbroken spine. 

Most beautiful spot I’ve ever set up a tent
Northern Pickets and Luna Lake
Heading up!
Just below the false summit

At the false summit, we paused to assess the final ridge to the true summit. As expected based on previous trip reports and beta from friends, it definitely appeared to be more demanding than class 3. I was eager to give it a go, but my ankle had not felt very strong on the easy class 2 scramble up to the false summit. The traverse was high consequence with no room for error. A fall would almost certainly be fatal. Mack was content to hang out where we’d stopped, but I stared longingly across the ridge. In the end, common sense and caution won out. I assured myself that I’d return with two solid ankles and tackle it then. 

To keep from feeling too down about bailing on the final traverse, I kept myself occupied by snapping photo after photo of the surrounding views, studiously referring to the North Cascades map I’d carried up to try and identify the most distinguishable peaks around us, and rewarding myself/deviating from rationing with a couple of summit treats. We stayed up there, savoring the solitude, for nearly an hour. I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I had finally made it up here. I’d had similar feelings about West McMillan the previous weekend since that was my first time experiencing the Pickets. But this place? This particular spot? This was something else entirely. 

Ridge to the true summit
Magical
Koma Kulshan and Shuksan behind the Northern Pickets
Summit snacks!

The magic of the climb wore off once we reached camp again. The sun was still pretty high and our campsite offered no shade. The heat and exposure combined with the food rationing finally hit me. And hard. My head was spinning and I slumped down on a shaded, slabby rock wall around the corner from our tent, forcing myself to eat and drink to stave off the inevitable headache and nausea the best I could. The sun was still high when we crawled into the tent. Mack packed some nearby snow into a ziploc bag so I could ice my swollen ankle (as well as my aching head). To pass the remaining daylight hours, he turned on a podcast about Belle Gunness,–holy shit her story is insane!!!–and I buried my face into my makeshift pillow, trying not to vomit from the wave of nausea that consumed me. I did manage to drag myself out of the tent for a few minutes to watch the sunset a couple hours later though. Totally worth it.

Enjoying the shade after hours of sun exposure
Sunset
Goodnight, Pickets!

Day 3: Luna Col to Big Beaver Trailhead, plus hike up to Ross Dam Trailhead from boat launch (18 miles; 11 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

It was still completely dark outside when we packed everything up. Our water taxi pickup time was 5:30 pm, and after the shenanigans of the past couple days (particularly the first day), we both decided it would be best if we started at first light, guaranteeing us 12.5 hours to reach Ross Lake. It seemed like a good chunk of time–perhaps more than we needed–but I was nervous, especially since my ankle was still swollen and in pain. Navigating the talus and boulders below Luna Col was slow because of my ankle, but once we reached the heather slopes we were moving faster. I stopped a few times to take in some final views of the Southern Pickets as first light gradually washed over their steep, rugged faces. What a difficult place to leave. 

I was most nervous for the loose rock gully. I took a few deep breaths before starting down the steep switchbacks, concentrating on each step while mosquitoes dive bombed my face (literally the ENTIRE TIME we were in the gully; it was probably the crux of descent). I forced myself to only focus on one section of the giant gully at a time. Section one: the steep switchbacks through the mountain heather. Done. Section two: traverse left over loose rock, some scree to brief snow crossing (which was basically melted out at the spot we chose). One minute break. Section three (my least favorite): cross snow patch and carefully descend steepest section of this part of the gully on mostly scree on slick rock. Section four: back on mostly bigger rocks and talus with slope gradually becoming more mellow as it nears headwaters of Access Creek. We made it down (from the top of the gully) unscathed in less than two hours! The scariest section was over for me. We were back at Access Creek basin camp 20 minutes later and took a 15 minute hydration/cool down/mental decompression/snack break before starting part two of the journey back: the Access Creek bushwhack.

Morning glow on the Southern Pickets
Mack hiking into the sunrise (with Elephant Butte [?] on his right)
Farewell

Learning from the first day’s mistakes, we stayed on the southern boulder field until reaching its terminus, completely bypassing the slide alder forest of madness and misery. We crossed Access Creek to the north side (i.e. walked right thru it since there were no suitable log crossings) and continued down a fairly discernible path. We’d made it through the most dreaded section! Woo! The bushwhacking was very moderate on this side. There was actually a path to follow for at least half of it (although it disappeared and reappeared constantly).

Close to where we crossed from the south side of Access to the north side on the first day, we continued down the clearest continuous path (on the north side NOT the south side) and it took us almost all the way to where Access Creek meets Big Beaver! Damn did we screw up big time on the first day! At least things were going much better on the hike out. We bushwhacked for a couple minutes along Big Beaver to reach a single log crossing (rather than bushwhack a half mile downstream to reach the log jam). Another few minutes of moderate bushwhacking after the log crossing spit us out onto Big Beaver Trail. Actual trail. After a long morning of cross country travel. And we’d made it back well before noon (our goal time).

Crossing Big Beaver
Bushwhack back to the trail

We took a longer break (maybe 30-40 minutes) just past Luna Camp since we knew we could easily make it back to Ross Lake well before our scheduled pickup time. The next few hours after that break though were downright miserable. Although Big Beaver Trail isn’t a difficult trail, we were now hiking midday during a heatwave. Not even the shade of the forest cooled us. The air was moist and heavy. I felt like I was suffocating. I thought we’d be able to push all the way to Ross Lake without stopping, but we had to stop numerous times to refill water because we went through it so quickly in the heat. And the mosquitoes. Oh my god the mosquitoes! They only became worse and worse. And because of my ankle, we weren’t able to jog like we had on the first day. I was ready to lose it after a couple of hours.

We finally reached the lake shore about four hours after we’d stopped at Luna Camp. We still had over an hour to kill, so we went for a dunk in the lake, cleansing ourselves of at least some of the grime and stink of the past couple days. I still felt absolutely disgusting, but at least it was a little less now! On the water taxi ride back, I contemplated our surroundings and how far we’d hiked on this trip. You couldn’t even see where we’d been from where we were now! Every year now (since first visiting the North Cascades in 2017), we were seeing and experiencing more and more aspects of these mountains. And every year, regardless of their brutality and harshness, I fall more and more in love. If I was only able to explore this place for the rest of my life, I would consider it a life well lived. 

I wonder what my 30th birthday adventure will be next year. Oh the possibilities…

Heading back to shade after a quick dip in Ross Lake
Never gonna be a leg model
“Sitting on the dock of a bay…”
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West McMillan Spire

  • Date: July 27-28, 2019
  • Start: Goodell Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,000 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: The Mountaineers
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

My eyelids fluttered open. I looked at my phone and groaned. The alarm had yet to go off, so why was I awake? Rainwater trickled down the fly as I unzipped the cold, damp door and pulled it back. My jaw literally dropped. A star-studded night sky greeted me and there in the distance, after being shrouded in thick clouds all the previous day, was the clear silhouette of the jagged spires comprising the Southern Pickets. 

I first heard about the Picket range maybe three or four years ago, even before our very first trip to the North Cascades. Summer after summer I considered planning an adventure out there, but phrases like “daunting” and “not for the faint of heart” and “experienced mountaineers” kept me from going. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to do it right.

Ironically, this first trip was planned almost completely on a whim and not coming at a good time in terms of where I was at mentally. Over the past month, I’d backed out of or failed to complete a couple bigger climbing goals, I dropped from the 100K race I’d been training months for,–this climbing trip would be the same weekend as the race–and, in general, I’d been feeling hollow, an empty shell, for much of the summer. Like I wasn’t doing enough or pushing myself or challenging myself enough. Like I wasn’t enough. Last week, after finally giving in to my anxiety and withdrawing from the aforementioned race, all I knew was I wanted to be in the mountains. And I wanted it to be the Picket range. 

Summit of West McMillan

Day 1: Goodell Creek Trailhead to Terror Basin (7.2 miles; 7 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)

Following a restless evening attempting to sleep at a rest stop and a long wait for overnight permits at the Wilderness Information Center in the morning, Caylee and I finally pulled up to a surprisingly full parking area shortly before Upper Goodell group campsite. The air was thick when we stepped out of our cars. I tried not to think about what this would mean for the lower, brushier section of the approach along Goodell Creek. 

I knew the climber’s trail was going to be a doozy, gaining somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 feet over the course of 2.5 miles, but what I didn’t expect was the 4-4.5 mile approach TO the climber’s trail to be as miserable as it was! Despite only gaining about 1,000 feet, there were what felt like hundreds of downed trees to crawl over,–never easy with an overnight pack–long sections of sopping wet brush (thanks to the recent stormy weather) to push our way through, and, worst of all, incessant, vicious, bloodthirsty mosquitoes that ate us alive no matter how fast we hiked or how often we swatted them away! The Pickets were already living up to their notoriety. 

After a couple of hours we reached the well-marked climber’s trail turn off and began the steep ascent to Terror Basin. The trail was thankfully well worn and easy to follow despite being unmaintained. There was still some brush and downed trees to contend with, and the trail was seriously steep, but at least we weren’t being aggressively hunted by ravenous mosquitoes! Although now it was gnats unintentionally getting stuck to our sweaty faces. I occasionally checked my phone to make sure we were following the gpx track I’d downloaded ahead of time, but the trail seemed so clear that I didn’t keep a super close eye on it [gpx track]. Then, somewhere around 4,000 feet, we lost it in a boulder field at the base of a sheer rock wall. Confused, I pulled out my phone. Sure enough, we were off-route and should’ve ended up somewhere ABOVE  the rock wall, not below it. 

We wasted nearly an hour trying to figure out how to get back on the correct, least resistant path. After several attempts to seek out a path above the boulder field (which only led to thick patches of devil’s club), we started hiking back, scanning the area carefully for an uphill turn off. I stopped at a spot that earlier had made me think, “Huh…that’s weird,” because a medium sized rock, with no other rocks in close proximity, sat in the middle of the trail near a downed tree. I looked on the uphill side, past the downed tree, and there, slightly obscured under a low hanging branch, was a small cairn. Finally, here was the turn we’d missed. Despite being back on track, we were in low spirits following the navigation mishap.

“Beer and burgers sure sound nice right about now,” said Caylee, more seriously than jokingly.

I agreed, but I knew if we dwelled on that thought for too long, we’d definitely end up turning around. We kept slogging on uphill.

The next portion of the climber’s trail took us through a series of class 3 (not exaggerating) tree root scrambles. And I thought getting over downed trees with an overnight pack was difficult! The strong tree roots did make for good veggie belays though. At long last we finally exited the forest onto a more open ridgeline…with no views. Where there should’ve been mountains upon mountains for miles and miles, there were heavy clouds. That forecast for “clear, sunny” skies after 11 am–it was now past 4 pm–was a load of crap. At least they were moving, and we did occasionally get glimpses of blue sky and mountains as we hiked higher. We followed the trail through heather meadows and boulder fields up to a notch at around 6,000 feet. Terror Basin and the prospect of camp, as well as an end to the day’s tortuous approach, were now just a few hundred feet below us!

Caylee hiking toward the notch; starting to get a little bit of a view

We carefully picked our way down the steep, slick scree slope, working hard to stay balanced with our bulky packs. Now that we were over the notch we could see the camp area. At least three or four tents dotted the basin below. After getting off the scree, we plunge-stepped down steep, soft snow to finally reach our home for the night. 

Terror Basin is known for having absolutely breathtaking views of the Southern Pickets, well worth the arduous undertaking to reach the basin. Unfortunately, we were completely socked in. From speaking with some other climbers in the basin, the weather had been terrible, even downright raging, for a good part of the day. My hope for decent climbing weather the next morning began to dwindle, but I worked to keep that small sliver of positivity alive.

I messaged Mack from the inReach to let him know we’d reached our camp. While we’d been trudging up to Terror Basin, Mack had been racing in the inaugural Wy’east Howl 100K (a race that I had also planned to run but ultimately dropped out of earlier that week). I hadn’t seen him since Friday morning. As silly as it sounds, it was the longest we’d been away from each other in nearly a year. His non-presence had left a noticeable void, which I felt even more as I lay in my tent, completely alone, for the first time ever. I’d been thinking about him all day, looking at the time, wondering what part of the course he was on, how he was holding up. His goal was to podium. I stared at the inReach screen for a few minutes, hoping a message from him might pop up. Nothing. I turned it off to conserve the battery. It was still light outside, but me and Caylee had crawled into our tents early, our battered bodies ready for sleep and probably not ready to climb the next morning. 

Socked in at Terror Basin
First time ever sleeping completely alone in a tent!

Day 2: Terror Basin to West McMillan Spire summit, then back to Goodell Creek Trailhead (11.8 miles; 13 hours 50 minutes, breaks and packing up camp included)

The morning brought renewed hope and excitement as I stepped outside to unobstructed views of the Southern Pickets and the day’s objective prominently front and center. While researching and planning this climb, I’d gazed starry-eyed at accompanying photos on Google. But being there and experiencing it in person after only seeing it through someone else’s photos for years? I could’ve cried I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. 

We waited until it was light enough that headlamps weren’t necessary before setting out. A group of five climbers from the Mountaineers group had started shortly before us. We followed their path, but, after the previous day’s mishap, I also kept a close eye on my gpx track.

“How long do you think it’ll take to reach the summit? Maybe another hour or two?” asked Caylee, about an hour into the approach. 

“Maybe,” I started, “but to be more conservative, I’d estimate closer to three.”

“Three more hours?! I’m not sure I’m up for that…”

Caylee paused, mulling over her options, looking at West McMillan and looking back at camp. 

“I’m going to call it here. I’m just really not feeling it today,” she concluded. 

I was sad to see her go, knowing we wouldn’t get to share the summit together and that we’d both be hiking back to our cars alone on that god-awful terrain. For a moment, I considered turning around with her, a little uncertain about completing the remainder of the climb by myself. A relaxing morning in camp and getting back to the car by early afternoon sounded nice. But when was I actually going to make it back out here to attempt West McMillan again? And how many climbs had I already bailed on over the past few weeks? I couldn’t turn around. Not yet. Time to embrace being alone and uncomfortable.

Clear views in the morning; can you spot my tent?
Southern Pickets are gorgeous

I caught up to the Mountaineers group shortly after Caylee turned around, staying a short ways behind to avoid leapfrogging with them and/or accidentally dividing their group. We all eventually stopped for a brief break and got to chatting.

“You look familiar,” said one of the guys. “Is your name Theresa by chance?” 

The climbing community is a small world, made even more close-knit with the advent of Facebook groups, where Jonathan had seen some of my posts from other climbs and recognized me. A funny coincidence indeed. A coincidence though that also made me feel a little less alone and nervous about being without a partner on this unfamiliar mountain. (Sidenote: Jonathan wrote a fantastic trip report about this climb and took some gorgeous photos to accompany the report! Check it out here!)

After their group stopped for another break further up, I decided to keep pushing on, anxious to get up and start the tedious task of downclimbing. I saw the two other climbers we’d met in camp the previous day making their way up the steep snow to the saddle below the west ridge route. I laced up my crampons and followed their tracks up. The snow was still firm (which wasn’t my favorite for trying to kick in steps with trail runners), but up higher I found some great steps kicked in by the climbers in front of me and took full advantage of them. I got off the snow a bit earlier than I should’ve and ended up doing some sketchy scrambling on heinous, chossy rock to reach the beginning of the west ridge. I thought after the snow the summit would seem closer. Wrong.

Terror Glacier and the Barrier

It took almost another hour of precarious and exposed scrambling on varied terrain (scree, talus, dry and wet slab–class 3 and even some class 4 sections) to finally reach the summit ridge. Far more involved than I’d anticipated! I dropped down off the spine and followed a surprisingly mellow path to the true summit though. It was 9 am when I stepped onto the summit, about 3 hours and 40 minutes since I’d left camp. 

The two climbers before me, Mary and Vazul, were just about to head back along the ridge when I arrived. We chatted for a few minutes and Mary mentioned she’d seen some of my posts on the PNWOW Facebook page. Another small world coincidence! What a morning! I stayed on the summit by myself for a few extra minutes, signing the register, and soaking in the 360-degree views of this mythical range. Three years of daydreaming and I was finally getting a small taste of it. I could’ve sat there for hours honestly, but I knew the downclimb (especially of the west ridge and the steep snow) was going to be 10x more difficult than the climb up. Time to get moving! 

Inspiration Peak
Looking toward the Northern Pickets, Koma Kulshan, and Shuksan
Azure Lake
Summit selfie
Summit register

I passed the Mountaineers group and Mary and Vazul on the summit ridge as I descended. Knowing the risk of rockfall on this section, I was happy to be putting space between us. Aside from a couple of airy moves, the downclimb of the west ridge wasn’t too bad. Getting back onto the snow was a different story though. I knew I’d gotten off the snow too early on the way up, but I was nervous about taking a different way down, so, likely against my better judgement, I opted to take the same way down. That heinous rock that I’d had to scramble up earlier was even more terrifying to downclimb! I took slow, deep breaths for each sketchy move I had to commit to, desperately hoping the rock would hold my weight and not crumble beneath me. Once I was close enough to the snow, I got back on, even though I was still a ways from where I’d planned to. 

The steep snow, though a little nervewracking, felt far safer than the questionable rock. Part way down, I looked up to see Mary and Vazul. They’d made it onto the snow much quicker than I had since they were smart and DIDN’T attempt to scramble down terrible rock. Vazul breezed by me about halfway down the snow slope. Once the slope angle mellowed out, I turned and plunge-stepped/standing-glissaded down the rest of the way to where the rock began again. Mary and the Mountaineers group arrived a few short minutes after. 

I followed Mary and Vazul back to camp so I didn’t have to navigate the sea of granite slabs by myself. We made the time pass with talk of past and future climbs and goals. I was amazed that this was Mary’s first season of climbing and she’d tackled a peak in the Pickets! Watching her climb, I wouldn’t have guessed it was only her first season! I rolled into camp a few minutes after them around 1:30 pm. As expected, Caylee’s tent was gone. A small part of me had hoped she’d still be there but I knew the chances were slim. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait around either, especially since I returned way later than I’d anticipated. The climb had taken an unexpected EIGHT HOURS round-trip just from camp! I slipped off my socks and shoes to air them out, hastily packed up my gear, and got a quick message out to Mack that I was about to hike back out. To my delight, I saw a message from him when I turned on the inReach. He’d taken 2nd place in the Wy’east Howl!!!! Despite how exhausted I was, reading that filled me with so much joy, even more joy than standing on the summit of West McMillan. My eyes welled up with tears at the thought of him crossing that finish line and finally getting to stand on that podium he’d trained so hard for. I was ready to go home now and congratulate him in person. 

Terror Basin seems so far away…

I was off and heading up to the notch around 2:15 pm. Once over the notch and back on some semblance of trail, I moved quickly, stopping once every hour to get a swig of water–it was super toasty out with the sun beating down on me!–and attempt to stomach a snack. I didn’t want to get too caught up in taking photos despite finally having clear views, but I did take a moment to snap one of the Southern Pickets before re-entering the forest.

As expected, the tree root scrambling to get back into the forest was slow and frustrating, but once back on less technical terrain, I made an effort to jog what I could. By the time I finally made it down to the junction with Goodell Creek “trail”, my knees felt like they were about to burst and I was completely soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity. Since the summit of West McMillan, I’d descended about 8,000 feet over 5-5.5 miles. Ugh. I collapsed next to the cairn and lay there for a few minutes to mentally prepare myself for the next slew of mosquito-infested miles back to the car.

It was bad. Really bad. In addition to the endless mosquito attacks, I’d somehow forgotten about a lot of the brush and, more importantly, the seemingly endless obstacle course of downed trees that I had to belly flop over because I was too tired to pick up each leg. And of course, each time I slowed down to maneuver over each tree, the mosquitoes swarmed in full force.  I finally extricated myself from that bullshit mess when I stepped out into the parking pullout at 7:15 pm, five hours after leaving camp. 

I called Mack in Marblemount when I got enough cell service and practically broke down in tears. After three days of almost no sleep and completing a more difficult adventure than I’d anticipated, I was utterly exhausted, filled with a lot of emotions, and stressed about the 5+ hour drive back to Portland. Everything hurt, I was on my period (why did I think this climb was a good idea?), I was surviving off half a bagel, a pack of Gushers, and a couple measly bites of a tuna sandwich (which was all I’d managed to stomach throughout the day), and all I wanted to do was lay down and not move for hours. At the same time, I was overjoyed to finally hear Mack’s voice again (although it was filled with concern about my current mental state). Ultimately, I didn’t make it home until 7 am the following morning, opting to pull over and rest my mind and body to avoid putting myself and other drivers at risk. 

All in all, it was one of the more difficult climbs that I’ve done (especially since I didn’t expect most of it to be solo). Despite the numerous physical and mental struggles, I can only look back on this adventure with fondness though. My first foray into the Pickets, where I proved to myself that I am stronger and more capable than I often think I am. 

Goodbye, Southern Pickets!

Mount Olympus

  • Date: May 25-27, 2019
  • Start: Hoh Visitor Center
  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Elevation gain: 7,400 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: The Mountaineers

Slivers of dark blue sky beyond the trees gradually gave way to a visible, mountainous horizon as we emerged onto the open meadow below the glacial moraine. The confinements of lowland and subalpine scenery–nearly 18 miles and endless hours of it–were now behind us. The half moon glowed above, bordered by pink, wispy clouds, and the sky grew lighter with every upward step we took. I knew what was located beyond the moraine. I’d seen the photos on various trip reports while researching the route. But as we stepped onto it, no longer obscured by forest and fog, I was once again reminded that no photo can ever do justice to experiencing a place like this in person. 

Before 2019, Mack and I had only ever experienced the Olympics once: backpacking *most of* the Hoh River Trail in early spring in 2016. It was probably one of the most miserable backpacking experiences because of the heavy rain. By the last night we were literally sleeping in a puddle in our tent, unable to get all the water out. We saw zero mountains on that trip and, even when summers rolled around, never felt quite motivated enough to make it back out. Regardless, Olympus remained high on our list of mountains we wanted to experience. Fast forward to April 2019 on a casual crag climbing trip with friends. Naturally, upcoming mountain goals is a hot topic of conversation. Stacia and Jon are pushing for Olympus the following month. Would we like to join? 

Day 1: Hoh Visitor Center to Glacier Meadows (17.5 miles; 12 hours 5 minutes, breaks included)

Mountaineering boots…trail runners…mountaineering boots…trail runners? The question raced through my mind as we stood in the parking lot waiting for Stacia and Jon to get the last of their gear packed. Three days in mountaineering boots and no back-up shoes to avoid strapping the boots to my pack, while everyone else in our group was doing just the opposite. “Meh,” I thought, “I can handle it.”

We all groaned beneath the weight of our packs as we started our long walk to base camp. I realized how soft “ultraneering” had made me. I was complaining about a 27 lb pack, and everyone was carrying well over that amount! We all moved pretty conservatively as we adjusted to the unfamiliar load, but it gave us a chance to enjoy our surroundings. Moss dripping from spruce and hemlock trees, lush ferns lining the narrow singletrack, the sound of flowing water always within earshot. Memories of our very first trip came rushing back to me as we sauntered beneath an endless canopy.

Despite our relaxed pace, the nine miles to the Olympus Guard Station passed quickly. We enjoyed lunch on the covered porch, happy to be eating off some of the weight in our packs (although no amount that Jon ate was going to alleviate the weight of the giant bag of chicken he’d packed in for his and Stacia’s dinner). A number of groups with ice axes, helmets, and pickets strapped to their packs walked by as we ate. Olympus was going to be crowded this weekend…

Mack takes fantastic iPhone photos sometimes
A smiling Stacia with her camera in hand
Me, Jon, and Mack (PC: Stacia)
Olympus Guard Station

Rain started to fall shortly after we passed Lewis Meadows. It began as light drizzle, but soon we found ourselves pulling out rain jackets and throwing on bulky pack covers. Moments later, we sat huddled in a dry spot beneath some trees, laughing and joking about the current conditions (expected though they were) but also hoping that we weren’t hiking all this way to get weathered out the following day. More folks–all loaded down with mountaineering gear, including a couple of crazies carrying skis!–passed us while we waited for a clear window. Another worry all crossed our minds: would we be able to find a campsite?

Following campsite 12.4, we began the five-mile ascent to Glacier Meadows. The forest became progressively moodier the higher we climbed. Fog and mist shrouded the tops of the trees but did not detract from their vibrancy. On the contrary, our surroundings were even more illuminated and, though a bit more anxious to reach camp, we stopped to soak it all in. At mile 15 or so, we arrived at Martin Creek, the furthest Mack and I had hiked before turning around due to snow conditions back in 2016. This time we crossed it–with shoes on instead of off!–and continued on. We were finally going to complete the Hoh River Trail!

Just before Elk Lake, another climber caught up to us and I noticed he was sporting a PMR (Portland Mountain Rescue) shirt. I looked up, hoping it was someone I knew so I wasn’t just staring awkwardly at some random person’s face. I was certain I recognized him (and fairly sure we were at least Facebook acquaintances), but just in case I blurted out, “Hey, don’t I know you?” Thankfully, I did. It was Matt, a climber who I’d run into a handful of times on the summit of Mount Hood! Unsurprisingly, he was also hiking in to Glacier Meadows to attempt Olympus the next morning. It was a funny and somewhat surreal experience seeing a familiar face all the way out here, but it also made me feel just a tad closer to the mountaineering community in the PNW.

These two are the cutest 🙂
Starting the uphill section of Hoh River Trail
Typical moody PNW forest

We took one last longer break at Elk Lake before the final uphill push to camp. The clouds were starting to part a little bit and at long last we got a few brief glimpses of Olympus from the lake! Views improved the higher we climbed. While traversing a particularly steep slope, we could see Glacier Creek flowing thousands of feet below us, as well as look across at both Mount Olympus and Mount Tom standing guard over the entire valley. For some strange, illogical reason, I’d never thought much of the Olympic mountains, and I can’t exactly pinpoint the origin of my lack of appreciation. But now, the only words that came to mind as I stood there awestruck? What. Have. I. Been. Missing.

Looking down on Elk Lake
Mountains!!!

Sunset was close now and we were all very much ready to make camp. Once we reached the rickety ladder leading down a steep, scree-filled ravine, we knew we were getting close. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we had to move one at a time down the ladder, which made covering this extremely short distance a tedious ordeal (but what a cool photo op!). After scrambling up to the trail on the other side, we arrived at Glacier Meadows within minutes, but it appeared finding a campsite was possibly going to be an issue. Fortunately, a friendly camper who saw us searching (and probably exuding a little bit of desperation in the process) provided some beta that led us to a campsite right off the main trail to Blue Glacier!

We dropped our burdensome packs and immediately set up. Mack was pretty adamant about getting to bed as soon as possible since we had an early, alpine start alarm set for the next morning. (As I’ve probably mentioned in many a post, he does not function well on low sleep) Following some brief excitement from a bear walking by our camp,–we only saw one, but apparently there were two or three more nearby!–we quickly moved through our in-camp routine and were soon tucked into our sleeping bags. Stacia and Jon remained outside, enjoying a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, and, if I remember correctly, asparagus. The delicious aroma wafted through our tent wall and my stomach growled. They ended up cooking too much and I lucked out with some leftover potatoes and asparagus (thank you, Stacia!) a few minutes later. I went to bed with a happy (albeit a little gassy) stomach, both nervous and ecstatic about what the next morning would bring.

The dreaded ladder down climb
Black bear near our campsite (PC: Stacia)

Day 2: Glacier Meadows to Mount Olympus summit, then back to Glacier Meadows (9 miles; 14 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

Our movement was slow going (more from sleepiness than pack weight this time) as we stumbled in the dark getting everything together for the long day ahead. Stacia and I were fairly awake and alert–maybe even a little bubbly with excitement–by the time we were ready to start hiking up. Jon and Mack would get there in the next hour or so. First light was upon us as we hiked to the top of the moraine overlooking the Blue Glacier. Here we were surrounded by rugged, snow capped peaks (a sight that immediately made me think of the North Cascades), looking out onto a sprawling sea of snow, ice, and rock, when less than 24 hours prior we’d been hiking through a rainforest! 

We sat for a few minutes at the top to watch the sunrise then began the careful, one-at-a-time descent to the glacier. With how loose the rock was combined with the grade of the slope, it was nearly impossible to not kick some rock down (always unintentional of course). The one and only time I ended up running over the course of our trip was when I had rocks–a few that could’ve caused some serious injury–barreling down toward me while navigating the final part of the descent. Despite the dangers of glacier travel, I was relieved to step onto one and be done with all the choss for a little while.

Traversing the moraine
Blue Glacier
Jon descending to the glacier

Although still in the shadows, we watched as sunlight gradually washed over Olympus’ three peaks as we roped up for the remainder of the climb. By this time, we could see other groups traversing the top of the moraine. There were already a few groups crossing the glacier and/or heading up to Snow Dome as well. It was time to get going if we didn’t want to get caught in rush hour traffic at the summit block. 

Navigating across the glacier went smoothly. We followed the boot track put down by the groups ahead of us. There were a few visible cracks, but overall the glacier was still well covered. The terrain steepened once we started the ascent to Snow Dome and I was grateful for the steps that had already been kicked in as it allowed me to conserve my energy. We took short breaks whenever we reached brief plateaus, taking swigs of water now that the sun was starting to beat down on us. We were high enough now that we could see beyond Matthias and Mercury to the southern peaks of the Bailey Range (the traverse of which is officially on my bucket list after this trip) and follow its curved shape to a slew of peaks to the north as well! 

Stacia and Jon crossing the glacier
Climbing up to Snow Dome
Mount Matthias and Mount Mercury (I think…)

After one final steep slope, we enjoyed a more gradual ascent (so gradual that it almost looks flat in the photo below) to the base of yet another steep snow section. At least from here we could finally see our objective: the West Peak of Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, we could also see the conga line of climbers all making their way up. As we got closer, we could make out a number of climbers hanging out at the saddle below the summit block, waiting in line at the base of the summit block, or crawling up various faces of the summit block. It was a shit show and none of us liked the look of it. My heart sank as I seriously began to consider that the summit might not be in the cards for us. We all decided it would be best to set our packs down and take a longer break rather than climb up to the saddle where it was bound to be colder and blustery.

The minutes dragged on as we watched (minus Mack who opted for a glacier nap) and waited, hoping to see groups beginning their descent. Nothing happened. The summit block was still crawling with climbers even after a half hour to an hour of sitting around. We decided to get moving. Afterall, we still had to climb up Fourth of July route, gaining at least another 1,000 feet to reach the saddle between the summit block and the false summit.

We followed the boot track, taking our time since we knew we’d have to wait our turn once we topped out. Being early enough in the season, snowbridges were still intact and we were able to get up close and personal with the bergschrund, peering into the gaping, cavernous crack that usually prevents this route from being feasible. One last steep snow pitch above the ‘schrund brought us to the saddle and the continuation of the waiting game. A three-person group descended from the false summit (probably having done the Crystal Pass route) and Stacia, who was acquainted with at least two of the members, approached them about setting up one rope for the summit block so we could work together rather than wait for each other. They agreed, and as soon as the remaining teams were completely off the summit block—another half hour to an hour wait…ugh—we climbed up more steep snow to the base of the rock.

Clear view of the west peak now!
Glacier naps
Heading up
Me, Mack, and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me and Mack near one of the crevasses (PC: Stacia)
Mack and the bergschrund

Jon led the rock pitch to the summit. I can’t quite recall if his route stayed more on the northern aspect (rated about 5.4) or the eastern aspect (mostly class 4 with some 5th class moves), but either way it was nice to have it protected, especially with ice and snow still obscuring some portions of the rock. Stacia followed and cleaned, then belayed the rest of us up one at a time. Waiting was a little bit harder in this spot now that we were socked in and completely exposed to the ferocity of the wind. I was grateful when it was my turn to climb because I was able to warm up as I scrambled up the rock. Aside from the snow patches and my clunky mountaineering boots, the scramble wasn’t too bad, and the wind was far less vicious the higher I got! At the belay station, I made one more 5th class (maybe 4th class?) step to the narrow spine of the summit ridge and carefully navigated the snow and loose rock to join Mack at the summit.

The clouds broke sporadically, but only for fleeting seconds at a time. Never long enough to truly capture what Stacia believed to be one of the best views in Washington (this was her third Olympus summit). Nonetheless, we were all incredibly stoked to have made it safely and completely free of the crowds! No more anxiety and questioning whether or not we would reach the summit. The long morning of slogging and waiting around had finally paid off. After a whole bunch of picture taking–yes, even with the lack of views–we rappelled back down. Of course, as soon as the last person reached the base and was pulling the rope through, the clouds parted almost completely and the summit was clear. *sigh*

Jon leading the rock pitch
Mack on belay
Stacia and Jon belaying me up
Third straight year of a Memorial Day weekend summit! (First year: Shasta; second year: Hood via Cooper Spur)
Mostly socked in at the summit
Me and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me rappelling off the summit

It’s amazing how immediately exhausted and beat you feel after reaching the summit of something. Like, your mind and body seem to become superhuman on the way up, then, as soon as that push to the summit is all over, all that energy and willpower is drained within minutes (seconds even!). Thankfully, after getting past the bergschrund, the way back was mostly easy, mindless plunge stepping. The scramble up the moraine was a little annoying and tedious, but after that it was downhill on “trail” to our camp. 

It was already late afternoon/early evening by the time we dropped our packs and flung off our boots and socks. Without camp shoes–I really should’ve at least packed flip flops–I walked around barefoot to air out my feet and spent the better part of my relaxation time peeling sap off. Similar to the previous evening, Mack and I crawled into our tent pretty early while Stacia and Jon hung out and enjoyed another hot dinner. We set our alarms and tried not to think about the next day’s long walk back to the car.

Back at the saddle below the summit block
Descending from Snow Dome
Camp at last

Day 3: Glacier Meadows to Hoh Visitor Center (17.5 miles; 8 hours 53 minutes, breaks included)

Nothing particularly special to describe about the hike out. We spent the morning and early afternoon leapfrogging with all the other exhausted,  cranky climbers dragging ass back to the comfort of their cars. And once we reached Olympus Guard Station with nine miles left, I experienced a whole tidal wave of regret about not having trail runners. My feet were in a world of pain and I could no longer keep up with anyone in my group (unless we were hiking uphill). With every footfall, I rhythmically muttered “F*** me, f*** me, f*** me, f*** me.” To add insult to injury, it was sunny, hot, and stuffy, and my dumb ass had only packed running tights and a long sleeve shirt to wear for the hike in and out. Not sure which decision was more stupid: the mountaineering boots or my cold-weather running ensemble. Mmmm…actually the boots. The boots were definitely the worst idea.

Having Stacia and Jon as company–even though I could barely keep up with them those last nine miles–definitely kept us from going completely crazy, and we all worked together to keep the morale up (an exceptionally difficult task at times when all of you are completely out of snacks). Before we knew it though, we were squeezing our way through the Disneyland hoardes of dayhikers and pit-stop tourists crowding the trailhead. We paused at Stacia and Jon’s car to say our goodbye’s, thanking them profusely again for allowing us to join them and for helping us summit a mountain that had been on our “must climb” list for years. I’m not sure we would’ve managed it all without their expertise and determination to make it happen. 

Mack started the drive home so I could air out my atrocious looking, god-awful smelling feet. As I lay slumped in the passenger seat, feet up on the dash (sorry Mack) while cool air from the open window whipped through my pruney toes, I scrolled through the many photos I’d taken the previous day. One of our biggest mountain goals of the year was complete and already I wanted to be back up high, back in one of those photos, gazing out at these mountains I hardly knew but desperately wanted to see more of. Olympics, I think this goes without saying, but we’re just getting started.

Me in my stupid outfit rushing to get out of the sun

Wy’east & Loowit in a Day

  • Date: March 17, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge & Marble Mountain Sno Park
  • Distance: 17 miles total
  • Duration: 19 hours (breaks, lunch stop, and drive time included)
  • Elevation gain: 11,000 feet total
  • Type: Out-and-back (for both climbs)
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot
  • Ancestral land of the Chinook people and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Wy’east), and the Cowlitz people (Loowit)

Out in the open above timberline, the hot, merciless sun beat down on our tired bodies. Less than 10 hours earlier I’d been wiggling my fingers and toes to keep them from going numb while hiking up to the Hogsback on Wy’east. Now here we were shedding layer after layer and taking giant swigs of Gatorade every couple hundred feet of climbing. The snow had turned to mush from the heat of the sun. I groaned with each sinking step, trudging slowly up the steep slopes of unconsolidated snow. Just a few thousand more feet to go.

Back in January, the PNW was graced with an unbelievably gorgeous weather window for Saturday and Sunday. On a whim, Mack and I decided it would be fun to attempt a doubleheader mountain weekend: Loowit on Saturday, then Wy’east on Sunday. Unfortunately, neither summit was reached despite enviable conditions. We’d have to wait for another opportunity to arise. Fast forward to March…

After spending over two weeks sick with the flu and having to forgo numerous climbing opportunities and general social engagements, I was desperate to get back out to the mountains. The PNW was gifted yet another beautiful weekend and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. On Friday afternoon, we decided to give the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader another go. Earlier in the day [Friday], I’d attempted a pre-work Wy’east climb, which threw off my sleep schedule and left me physically and mentally depleted by the time Friday evening rolled around. When our midnight alarm went off for Loowit, I reluctantly told Mack that I didn’t think I could do it and we went back to sleep. Loowit was off the table, and I hated myself for it. At least we were still planning to climb Wy’east.

I woke up well rested a few hours later but couldn’t shake the guilt of having let our doubleheader weekend slip through the cracks yet again! Then, all of a sudden, something switched on in my head. From my sulking and self loathing, an idea came about. One that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even considered before. Why not climb both mountains on the same day? Mack agreed to it without hesitation–BEST. ADVENTURE PARTNER. EVER!–and before we knew it we were driving out to Timberline Lodge for the start of a long, adventurous Sunday.

We met up with our friend, Emily (who was climbing Wy’east for the first time!), and proceeded up the climber’s trail. With a good deal of people having climbed up the previous day, numerous tracks were in place and made the overall ascent very quick. We were doing so well that we made it to Devil’s Kitchen over an hour earlier than I’d anticipated! Extremities began to succumb to the cold, so we decided not to linger despite being so early. We hiked up to the Hogsback and began the ever steepening crawl up the narrow spine. The Pearly Gates were a breeze–compared to the sheet of ice it had been at the end of January during my last climb–and we followed previous tracks all the way to the summit. The sun had yet to rise, but we made it for blue hour!

Mack climbing up the Pearly Gates
Mack, Emily, and me on the summit
10 fingers for 10 summits!

Sunrise was still 10-15 minutes away. On our way up (while we were still near Devil’s Kitchen), we saw behind us the inevitable stream of headlamps gradually moving up the mountain. Not looking forward to down climbing the gates and sharing such a small space with potentially large groups (or having to wait our turn while our fingers and toes froze), we opted not to wait for sunrise and descend while the crowds were still down lower. Still in the shadows and not having been exposed to the sun yet, the gates were in fantastic shape for easy down climbing. Probably the best shape I’ve ever seen them! 

Emily and I downclimbing the gates

We could see light from the sunrise slowly wash over the lower slopes where we were headed. The ever majestic shadow of the mountain, a sight I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous times now, stretched out to the west. It’s a sight that never fails to breathe life into me no matter how exhausted I am from climbing through the night. Aside from the unfailingly breathtaking sunrises, one of my favorite reasons for climbing so early is getting to witness the life cycle of this shadow. You’re only graced with its presence for a short window before it dissipates with the rising sun. 

After the Hogsback, the rest of the descent passed fairly quickly. The snow was mostly soft enough to plunge step all the way down to the parking lot. We arrived back at our cars shortly before 10 am and enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch in Government Camp with Emily before we began the long drive out to our next objective, Loowit. 

Mack and Emily downclimbing below the gates
Back on the Hogsback

The three hour drive to Marble Mountain Sno Park (which Mack was kind enough to do so I could get some sleep) meant most everyone was finishing up their climb by the time we pulled into the parking lot. Folks were either packing up or lounging about enjoying celebratory beers. The air was warm and the sun high in the sky when we stepped out of the car. Were we really going to do this climb in the hot afternoon sun and crappy snow?

By happenstance, we ran into our friends, Ali and Brad (we all climbed Eldorado Peak together over the summer), who had just finished skiing the mountain. It was tempting to just skip out on the climb altogether and enjoy some post-climb beers and BBQ (I mean, we’d already summited a mountain that morning!), especially after getting beta from them about the snow conditions. We pushed past the temptation and headed over to the trailhead. 

The hike up Swift Ski Trail wasn’t too bad despite the mushy snow. We stepped aside for numerous skiers flying down the trail, envious that we weren’t quite at that level yet (and that we didn’t own our own set-up to even give it a try). One day that’ll be us, I thought. Unfortunately, the cool air and shade of the forest gave way to complete sun exposure and softer, deeper snow once we reached timberline and started up the ridge. We received a few confused glances from climbers descending the mountain and one seemingly veiled warning from the climbing ranger (or volunteer?) who inquired about our equipment (mainly checking to see if we had emergency overnight gear and headlamps) and informed us we were still a few hours from the summit.

We encountered less and less people as we climbed higher, until it was only us two. As expected, the going was slow as we sank into the snow with each step. We kept a pretty good pace for awhile though, but near the seismic station (which sits about 2,000 feet below the summit) we were hit with strong, sustained winds. Our energy began to dwindle, sucked out by the incessant gusts that bombarded us. The final climb up the snow field to the crater rim, and subsequently the quarter mile climb along the rim to the true summit, felt never-ending. It was certainly the slowest we’d moved all day, but just as we’d hoped, we made the summit before sunset. 

Hiking alongside Pahto

Daylight was on its final leg now. Shadows had spilled into the mountain’s crater, but to the north, Spirit Lake and Tahoma were illuminated by the remaining light. To the south stood Wy’east, and we suddenly remembered that that climb had taken place several hours earlier! It already felt like an entirely different day.

Mack took out his phone to take pictures of his own and realized it had died. We’d been tracking and mapping our route on Gaia so we could easily navigate the descent. We’ve always mixed it up one way or another on every Helens climb we’ve done together. Not particularly interested in digging out my map and compass, especially with the wind still being an issue, we booked it off the summit and followed the boot track while we still had light. I knew once we made it off the snowfield and onto the correct ridge we would be fine.  

Looking out on the crater with Spirit Lake and Tahoma beyond
Wy’east
Summit selfie

We’d hoped to save time and effort by glissading down, but the paths were too icy now that the temps had dropped. Thankfully, the snow was still soft enough for plunge stepping (or, rather, plunge step running with how fast we were trying to move). The tracks were easy enough to follow though and I didn’t fear us getting off route this time around. Alpenglow now stretched across the horizon in bands of rosy pink and orange. The last light of the day. I thought back to that morning. How fortunate we were to have witnessed all the beauty and magic that comes with the start of a new day, and now to see it all again at the end while still in the mountains!

We were finally forced to turn on our headlamps somewhere around the seismic station. At least we’d already descended 2,000 feet! We even managed a little bit of glissading below that since the paths were less icy and steep, but it was short lived when the zipper on Mack’s snow pants got stuck and he could no longer zip up the side of his pants. The last part of the ridge just before reaching the forest was the worst. The post-holing had been bad, but tolerable, on the way up. Now that we were exhausted and ready to be back, I was no longer feeling tolerant about sinking into knee, thigh, and sometimes waist deep snow.

Once we made it back into the trees we were able to start moving uninhibited again and finally collapsed at the car shortly before 10 pm. We were starving, dehydrated, and a little delirious from lack of sleep, but the experience of climbing two of our favorite mountains in a single day, something we never would have thought as being fun or reasonable for us even a couple years earlier, was more than worth it. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Hopefully when we repeat it, we might even be capable of skiing down both mountains!

Pahto basking in alpenglow

Wy’east: Leuthold Couloir

  • Date: March 31, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Distance: 8.1 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 16 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 5,640 feet
  • Type: Balloon
  • References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost
  • Ancestral land of the Chinook people and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe, and don’t forget to look around. Behind me stretched a vast, glaciated slope punctuated by rocky ridge lines and pinnacles. Above me stood the gatekeepers of the upper mountain, towers embodying the perfect marriage of rock and ice, a symbol of the mountain’s harsh yet captivating exterior. Time to move again. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up.

Ever since climbing Cooper Spur, I’ve made it a goal to attempt at least one new route on Wy’east each year (as long as I’m equipped with the necessary skills). After doing some research and receiving feedback from fellow mountaineers last spring, I set my sights on Leuthold, a steep snow and glacier climb on the mountain’s western flank. Although we started planning the climb back in January–obsessing over weekly snow and weather conditions, poring over maps and route descriptions, and practicing crevasse rescue in our living room a couple times a week–setbacks forced us to postpone weekend after weekend. By the final week of March I was feeling pretty defeated and certain that we’d have to wait until next year. That Saturday I happened to check Mountain Forecast for the following day. Sunny, clear skies. High of 16. It had snowed a little over the past few days, so I checked NWAC next. I could feel my face light up with joy as the map loaded. Green. Wy’east was green. This was it. This was our window. I casually sauntered out of the room, trying not to appear too excited/desperate as I approached Mack, knowing full well that we already had other plans in place for the next day. “Any interest in climbing Hood tomorrow?”

We arrived at Timberline the next morning around 2:30 am. My mind and body were aching for sleep. The previous afternoon had been a hectic one after our last minute decision to climb. Following a day of volunteering in Tillamook State Forest, I hastily packed up our gear so we could attempt to sleep a little before driving out to the mountain. Sometimes I envy Mack for his ability to fall into a deep sleep at the drop of a hat. The night before our climb was one of those times, especially as I laid awake with butterflies fluttering around in my stomach, my mind envisioning all the various aspects of the route, while he slept peacefully next to me. 

We signed in at the climber’s register and began the all too familiar slog up to the Palmer chairlift upper terminal. It was nearly 4 am already, and the thought of daylight arriving in a couple short hours revitalized me somewhat. Save for a few headlamps high above and well below us, the mountain was surprisingly void of the climbing crowd. It was a calm, clear, and quiet morning. No howling wind. No human voices. Just the sound of our own breathing and our feet punching into the soft snow. The moon became a faint glow in the sky as blue hour struck near Illumination Saddle. A lone, little orange tent sat perched there overlooking the glacier. Even though I knew it wasn’t my tent and I wasn’t going to be wrapped up inside a sleeping bag when I arrived, the mere fact that it represented warmth made me pick up my pace.

Traversing to Illumination
Roping up at the saddle
Looking out on the Reid Glacier

At the saddle, I got to work getting our rope flaked out and attaching our glacier gear to our harnesses as sunrise colors lit up the sky behind us. Perfect timing. Aside from Mack’s poop break, our transition into glacier travel was relatively quick thanks to consistent practice at home. We walked to the edge of the saddle, peering down onto Reid Glacier and visually assessing the boot path leading to the base of the couloir. The boot path was a godsend and made for a speedy traverse. In these particular conditions, the rope actually felt like overkill (not that we regretted bringing it)! 

Daylight gradually swept over the rolling, forested hills far below and beyond. We knew we likely wouldn’t experience its warmth until we were on the summit ridge. At the end of the traverse, we opted to un-rope (especially since the boot track was so good) and take out a second tool to aid with the steep climbing of the next section. I looked back often as we climbed higher, expecting to see another party approaching the couloir on this unbelievably gorgeous spring day. Never saw a single soul. 

Directly above us, rime encrusted rock formations guarded the entrance to Leuthold, a brief, but narrow stretch known as the Hourglass. This section is notorious for raining down ice on climbers seeking to attain the upper reaches of the couloir. Somehow, on this day, we were graced with no ice fall whatsover! I was even able to stop and savor the rugged, crystalline beauty surrounding me and take photos of Mack as he climbed up shortly after. 

Traversing the Reid
Climbing thru the Hourglass

After topping out above the Hourglass, we’d now completed the steepest portion of the climb and the couloir had expanded into a wide, open slope. From here up to the summit ridge was fairly mellow climbing and, thanks to the continuation of the boot track, very straightforward navigation. On climber’s left we had an incredible view of the gnarly Yocum Ridge, a daunting, jagged spine that snakes its way up to the summit ridge alongside our much more manageable route. Definitely one of my favorite sights of the day (and one of those “maybe one day in the distant future” goals). At the top of the couloir, we were greeted by long awaited sunshine and warmth. We were now within a few hundred feet–maybe less!–of the summit.

Gaining the summit ridge

I’ll admit the ridge felt a bit longer and more tedious than I’d expected (or I was just being impatient), but once the catwalk came into view, I couldn’t bring myself to keep moving. Up until this point, I’d only ever seen a small portion of this undulating crest from the times I’d ascended via Old Chute. Starting back further and being graced with an even wider, more zoomed out perspective made for one of the most picturesque scenes of the entire morning. We made our way across one at a time. I looked down at the Hogsback, expecting to see the typical swarm of late morning climbers. I was pleasantly surprised to see less than a dozen! We reached the summit at 10 am and celebrated with a few other climbers who had just ascended the Pearly Gates, and another who climbed via North Face Left Gully. After a celebratory photo we started our descent.

Catwalk
Summit!

The Pearly Gates were in decent condition. It wasn’t quite as prime as it had been two weekends earlier, but it didn’t require much effort to get through. Also, the low traffic of climbers made the descent of this section much faster than the previous time. I was still in awe that the mountain wasn’t a complete zoo right now! Mack made a semi-serious joke that everyone was probably on Loowit since it was the final day you could climb without reserving a permit. The remainder of the descent was non-eventful and characterized by our continuous efforts to avoid overheating and escape the harshness of direct sunlight (which proved to be futile). Those last couple hours in the sun coupled with a near complete lack of sleep left me deflated and dizzy by the time we stumbled into the parking lot. Regardless of the hot mess I turned into by the end, I can still say with certainty that this was one of the most–if not THE most–perfect day of climbing I’ve experienced on this incredible mountain. Leuthold is by and large my new favorite route on Wy’east. I can’t wait to give it another go and start researching some other routes for next season! Maybe it’s time to try one of the headwalls? 

Mack downclimbing the gates
Devil’s Kitchen