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!
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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

Artist Point

  • Date: December 31, 2017 – January 1, 2018
  • Location: North Cascades
  • Start: Heather Meadows at Mt. Baker Ski Area
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Snowshoe Routes: Washington by Dan A. Nelson; Washington Trails Association

The full moon shone brightly, illuminating a vast, snowy landscape crisscrossed with all the paths we’d taken that afternoon. I recalled the warmth of the sun from earlier in the day as I vigorously wiggled my fingers and toes within their gloves and boots, attempting the impossible task of staying warm with temps hovering around 10 to 12 degrees. Here we [Mack, Cassie, and I] were on New Year’s Eve freezing our asses off on a snow camping trip, just like the previous year. This time, however, we weren’t alone. Sitting out in the snow just a few yards from our tent, we were surrounded by strangers whose faces I only knew from their Instagram profiles. Before our trip began, I wasn’t entirely sure how camping with a new group of people would pan out, especially given my history of social anxiety. It turned out to be the best NYE decision we’ve ever made.

Our best family portrait ever captured by Stacia

 

Day 1: Heather Meadows to Artist Point, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

The sun was high in the sky by the time we arrived at Mount Baker Ski Area. Bluebird weather meant everyone was out enjoying the superb snow conditions. What better way to spend the last day of 2017? Thankfully, a majority of our group (us included) had caravanned up from Marysville together and managed to get parking next to each other. Phew! At least one of my social anxiety-related fears—finding people I’ve never met in a crowded area–wasn’t going to be an issue. We hit the trail shortly after noon. After sitting in a car for nearly six hours, we were happy to finally be outside breathing in the mountain air. Cassie, who harbors an extreme aversion to being in a moving car, was especially ecstatic to be out and romping in the snow.

The snowpack in the Mount Hood area left much to be desired when we were there a few days earlier. The short trek up to Artist Point more than made up for it. For the first time in a long time we were getting legitimate use out of our snowshoes, too! I hung back, completely enthralled with our surroundings, trying to capture it all on camera. I found myself clumsily waddling to catch up with everyone more than a few times. Despite a couple of hills here and there, the hike up to the ridge was rather mellow. The incredible views along the way (in addition to those from the ridge itself) amounted to a seemingly disproportionate payoff. Even with heavier-than-usual packs, the reward far exceeded the amount of effort needed to reach it. It also meant we still had a few hours to make camp and roam about before sunset.

Austin Pass Visitor Center below Table Mountain

Another of Austin Pass Visitor Center

About half of our group

Typical snow-eating Cassie with Kulshan Ridge in the background

Mount Shuksan!

“Why are you humans so damn slow?”

As soon as we topped out, I was immediately overwhelmed. Southwest of us stood Mount Baker, her slopes glinting beneath the afternoon sun. Just east of us stood the rugged and mighty Mount Shuksan, whose sharp, jagged towers rose high above her long, outstretched arm. God it felt good to be back in the North Cascades. All I wanted to do was drop my pack and begin exploring the expansive Kulshan Ridge, but our first order of business was getting our camp set up. Another couple in the group had made it up earlier in the day and already set up their tent. We all followed suit and situated ourselves in a sort of line, forming a little city along the northeastern side of the ridge.

More “familiar” (i.e. I recognize them from social media) faces began to arrive, including Meghan, the organizer of this NYE snow camping bash, and Rose and Anastasia, the Musical Mountaineers. I’m a little embarrassed to say this because I know I’ll sound like a fangirl, but I was ridiculously excited to be in the presence of basically everyone in our group. Before this event, I already followed many of them on Instagram, consistently drawn to their ability to inspire adventure and foster a love for the outdoors through captivating writing and/or photography. Getting to meet them in person and find that they were all truly wonderful human beings was the cherry on top of the entire experience.

Good afternoon, Baker!

Yeah…we had a big group

Another view of our row of tents

Crowd gathering to hear the Musical Mountaineers!

Rose (keyboard) and Anastasia (violin), the Musical Mountaineers

The afternoon passed far too quickly it seemed. Following Rose and Anastasia’s absolutely magical performance (which I was so happy to have the opportunity to hear in person), the sun began to dip behind Baker. The formerly glistening white landscape took on a blue-ish hue with the receding light. We hustled to the Mount Shuksan viewpoint where Amanda, Stacia, John, Jon, Alissa, and Justin were also capturing the final moments of daylight. A few of us made the additional short side trip up Huntoon Point to watch the sun set behind Baker. The warmth of the sun had now officially left us, but the glow of the full moon beyond Shuksan, as well as the opportunity to continue conversations with new friends, kept us from returning to camp (and warmer layers) for a little while longer.

Photo by John

Photo by (other) Jon

One more Shuksan shot (by Stacia)

The gentle purple and blue of twilight gave way to complete darkness by the time we returned to camp. Everybody sat gathered in the snow, cooking dinner and keeping warm with stoves. We coaxed Cassie out of the tent–she’d been napping in there ever since we’d set it up–and joined the dinner circle. Continuous conversation has never been my forte in large group settings, so I listened, laughed, drank, chimed in occasionally, and enjoyed the unexpected sense of community. I hardly knew any of these people and yet I felt safe and comfortable; I felt a sense of belonging. There were still several hours left until midnight. I knew we weren’t going to make it, especially with the early start we’d had that morning and the long drive back we’d have the following day. Mack, exhausted and a little drunk from all the beer John lugged up to camp, turned in first with Cassie. I hung out for awhile longer until I couldn’t feel my toes then succumbed to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

As I lay inside the tent, unable to actually fall asleep despite being tired, I heard the rest of the group hunker down in their tents shortly thereafter. I tossed and turned for awhile, finding it difficult to fully relax because I had to pee so bad, but unwilling to leave the warmth of my bag and tent. It was 11:50 pm when I finally gave in, threw on my boots, and stepped outside into the cold. The ridge was empty, save for a couple of backcountry skiers; a stark contrast to the bustling crowds of the afternoon. The moon gave off so much light that I didn’t even need a headlamp to walk around. I wandered about for a short while. The only sounds that filled the quiet night came from a few nearby campers shouting “Happy New Year!” and the whoomph from my boots plunging into the snow with each step. A smiled to myself, realizing I’d actually made it to midnight (the first time in years I think). I allowed myself a bit more time to absorb the first few moments of the new year in solitude before returning to the tent. I whispered “Happy New Year” to Mack and Cassie, kissed them softly, then tucked myself back into my sleeping bag. It’s amazing how quickly you warm up (and fall asleep!) when you’re not holding in your pee.

Dinner in the dark

Cassie and Meghan

Such a bright and clear night!

Midnight wanderings

Midnight wanderings continued

 

Day 2: Artist Point to Heather Meadows, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

Despite a somewhat restless night, the promise of a breathtaking sunrise got me out of the tent pretty quickly. Mack, Cassie, and I joined Stacia and Jon for another trek up to Huntoon Point. Cassie bounded joyously through the snow and up the boot path. She was well rested now and ready to run and play again. As we walked, I kept my eyes on the melding of colors taking place in the sky and their interaction with the mountainous landscape. The soft pastels of dawn perfectly complemented the wavy, quilted texture of the clouds. Shuksan was still a dark silhouette, but Baker glowed a rosy pink with the first light of day. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more beautiful “first-light-of-day-mountain-glow” than the one from that morning. From Huntoon Point, we could see the sun beginning to rise behind Shuksan and made our way back down to the spot we’d taken pictures at the previous evening. Capturing those first rays of light as our little group stood before it was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip; a perfect and glorious start to the year.

Morning snuggles

Chasing the sunrise

Morning light on Baker

Shuksan sunrise

Finally warming up

Back at camp, champagne bottles were popped in celebration and Meghan was busy whipping up a New Year’s Day feast of turkey bacon and pancakes. I don’t remember what Mack and I ended up making for ourselves (if we made anything at all), but I do remember partaking in the pancakes and sharing both the pancakes and bacon with Cassie, who shot us puppy dog eyes whenever the servings were passed around. The North Cascades had blessed us with yet another perfect weather day. More and more people seeking sunshine and deep snow were making their way up by this point. The solitude of my midnight wandering just a few hours earlier felt like a distant memory, but in its place was a scene filled with families, friends, smiles, laughter, and warm and welcoming exclamations of “Happy New Year!” One by one people our group began to disassemble to pack up camp or begin a new adventure for the day. Our celebration together was coming to an end. Thankfully, in the midst of it all, we did manage to come together for our one and only group shot to mark the occasion.

Breakfast time

Cassie with Stacia and Jon

The crew

2017 was filled with a number of new, outside-the-comfort-zone outdoor experiences for both me and Mack. I’m glad we decided to close out the year and begin the new one with one of those experiences. We’re ready for all the adventures that await us for this new year and, after this trip, look forward sharing a few of them with new friends. I mean, when you meet people who find joy in freezing their asses off outside in the dead of winter, why wouldn’t you hold onto them? Thank you Amanda, Meghan, Matt, Stacia, Jon, Alissa, Justin, John, Allison, and Mitch for your adventurous spirits and welcoming presence. We couldn’t have asked for a more incredible New Year’s.

Saddle Creek-High Trail

  • Date: November 20-21, 2017
  • Location: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Start: Freezeout Trailhead
  • Distance: 16 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back

The search for a snow-free area to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest can get a little tough by late November. I had originally wanted to head out to Utah or Arizona for some desert trekking, but the long drive there and back would’ve cut too much into our Thanksgiving vacation time. Searching more locally, the Honeycombs of the Owyhee Canyonlands were a particularly strong contender, but the notorious drive to reach the trailhead (and our lack of car-related emergency skills) eventually convinced us otherwise.

At the last minute (literally a day or two before we left), we decided on Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon. It had actually been on our list for awhile, but we’d set it aside as a spring season trip. With our lack of options, we decided to give it a shot. In the end, it was a far from perfect trip (as evidenced by the trip’s duration and type, which was originally supposed to be a three to four day loop). However, despite the relatively minor setbacks that ultimately convinced us to turn around, our brief time spent in this rugged and remote section of Oregon only convinced us that we need to come back and fully experience everything it has to offer.

 

Day 1: Freezeout Trailhead to Log Creek (8 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)

After dealing with the stress of last minute trip/route planning and, thereafter, procrastinating on packing, we arrived at Freezeout Trailhead a day later than expected. My little Crosstrek was the only vehicle there that morning. Maybe it was because it was a weekday. Or maybe we were the only people dumb enough to be out there with rain and high winds in the forecast. At least we’d most likely have the place to ourselves!

The rain started as soon as we hit the trail and we got our first taste of what tread conditions were going to be like for almost the entirety of our hike in. The combination of prevalent horse use and heavy rain transformed the trails into a sloppy, shoe-sucking, mucky mess. Mud caked our boots from the get-go. Scraping it off was futile as it just continued to pile up as we hiked. In addition to the muck, sopping piles of horse shit (Cassie’s favorite trail snack unfortunately) covered our path. Thankfully, we had an expansive view of the area as we slogged up the switchbacks to Freezeout Saddle; a welcome distraction from the miserable aspects.

Looking down at all the switchbacks

Mack and Cassie nearing the saddle

According to our guidebook map and the signage at the trailhead, Freezeout Saddle is just over two miles in. However, it took us a whole two hours (with almost no breaks except to check our map) to reach it! I found it difficult to believe that we were actually moving that slow. Regardless, it meant we were losing daylight fast and still had a number of miles to cover in order to reach Saddle Creek camp. At this point, I had serious doubts about making it there or even continuing on. I wanted so badly to make our original 30-ish mile loop happen, but I knew it wasn’t likely. Knowing this fueled my desire to just turn around at the saddle, but Mack remained positive and insisted that we at least stay the night and make the most of our trip. I wasn’t thrilled in the moment, but in retrospect I’m happy he convinced me to push on.

In all honesty, we’ve dealt with worse conditions (I’m looking at you Hoh River Trail!), but for some reason, on this particular trip, I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with even the slightest amount of bullshit. If I’m being more honest, I was still feeling bitter about having to forgo our Utah plans (specifically Zion NP, where I’d seen a few friends sharing recent photos of absolutely impeccable trail and weather conditions) for something closer to home and it was messing with my attitude.

Freezeout Saddle

Looking back at where we came from

The rain had subsided by the time we reached the saddle (and blue skies were even starting to peek out from behind the clouds!), but the wind speed had picked up tremendously. We just couldn’t catch a break! We descended quickly in order to escape the blustery wrath and actually enjoyed semi-decent tread conditions and wind-free hiking for a short while. As we made our way down into the canyon, it felt more like we were journeying deeper and deeper into the heart of a vast mountain range straddling the Oregon-Idaho border. I managed to forget about my worries as I looked around me. Then conditions returned to their previous state just before the junction with the Bench “High” Trail. As if the slop fest wasn’t enough, there were even overgrown sections of tall grass thrown into the mix for an additional challenge.

Starting the descent

At the junction, we decided to turn onto the Bench “High” Trail rather than continue descending to Saddle Creek camp. With sunset less than three hours away, our best bet to avoid trekking in the dark on an unmaintained trail was to aim for Log Creek camp, only two to three miles away now. I knew by doing this we’d probably have to scrap the Snake River portion of our route, but I didn’t care anymore. I still half-wanted to turn around and go back to the car, especially when the wind picked up again and practically knocked us over for long stretches of time due to the exposed terrain. The majestic scenery along the Bench Trail managed to pull me back in though.

To our left, towering above us, was the rim of the canyon on the Oregon side. The Western Rim National Recreation Trail was somewhere up there paralleling our current path. To our right lay the Snake River somewhere far below and the outstretched rolling hills and rocky slopes of the Idaho side. We also happened to be moving in the same direction as a giant herd of elk! Over the course of two hours or so we encountered this large group of 30 to 40 at least four times. Cassie went crazy over them, barking and pulling hard on her leash. They continued ahead when they heard us, moving with grace and ease as a unit over the steep, rocky slopes.

Junction with Bench “High” Trail

We took the path on the left

So many elk!

We reached camp around 2:25 pm. (Side note: For those interested in hiking some of this route and camping here, know that this spot is completely unmarked/unsigned. Bring along a good map and be able to find Log Creek on it. The camping spot is a short ways off the trail on a noticeably impacted site.) It wasn’t raining anymore and we were out of the wind. Maybe our luck was about to change? Nope. Instead of getting to relax and de-stress, we were swarmed by gnats. It was impossible to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather and scenery, even if we moved around. They followed us everywhere! I spent our down time in camp swatting them away from my face and picking them out of Cassie’s hair. The gnat attack made cooking dinner an absolute nightmare of course. We barely managed enough to eat because of it.

The only time the swarm finally subsided was when it started to pour again. We were still finishing dinner when it started up. We scrambled to get our food hung and hauled ass back to the tent. Cassie was so desperate to get in she belly crawled under the rainfly and pawed at the tent. She was covered in mud though so she was forced to hold out a little longer until we could wipe her down. She was not happy about this and literally gave us the cold shoulder for the rest of the night. We attempted to salvage the rest of our evening with cocoa and holiday movies as we listened to the rain patter on the tent.

Looking up at the rim

Campsite near Log Creek (as seen from the trail)

 

Day 2: Log Creek to Freezeout Trailhead (8 miles; 4 hours, breaks included)

We awoke in better spirits the next morning, although I think a good deal of that can be attributed to the fact that we’d already decided to cut our trip short and hike back out. With the decent weather, the gnats were back in full force as we packed up the tent. Despite being extremely hungry (especially after not eating enough the previous day), we skipped the sit-down breakfast and stashed snacks in our pockets so we could get moving instead. I munched on my Poptart as we hiked once we’d put some distance between ourselves and the gnats.

Morning snuggles

We’re totally getting attacked by gnats in this picture

We hiked a lot faster this time around while still taking moments here and there to appreciate our surroundings. The conditions hadn’t improved of course, but by this point we were used to it and had clean socks and shoes to look forward to back at the car. Freezeout Saddle remained in view for much of the Bench Trail part of the hike. Always getting closer, but still feeling faraway. I wasn’t looking forward to the final climb up to it.

Storm a-brewin’ it seems

Still a ways from the saddle (upper right)

Miles and miles of this stuff

As expected, the two mile climb from the junction back up to the saddle was the most difficult part of the day. On top of that, the wind and rain had returned and clouds had descended upon much of the Idaho side (i.e. no more expansive views). The Poptart I’d scarfed down a few miles back had done little to satisfy my aching stomach. We were getting closer now though. I daydreamed about all the food we had stashed in the cooler in the car and it kept me moving.

Starting the climb up from the junction

Last bit of bushwhacking!

Cloudy views from near the top

The weather (with the exception of the wind) seemed to instantly improve once we began to make our way down the opposite side of the saddle. We had views again! Somehow though Mack and I had swapped places in terms of general demeanor. Now he was the one in a cranky mood, anxious to get back and change out of his mud covered pants and boots. (Oddly enough, I managed to stay mostly mud-free with the exception of the bottom and sides of my boots) Fortunately, this final stretch went by quickly and before we knew it we were back at the car by 1:15 pm, throwing on clean, dry clothes, and stuffing our faces with bagels and other snacks.

As we sat there in the car, resting up before the long drive back home, I actually felt a tinge of sadness that we were leaving so early. Despite the crappy weather, awful trail conditions, and swarming gnats, the beauty and solitude we’d experienced over the past two days were what stood out in my mind (even if they didn’t completely outweigh some of the negative aspects). Well, Hells Canyon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as far as I know. We’ll definitely be back to explore more thoroughly in the near future I imagine.

Salmon River Trail

  • Date: October 31-November 1, 2017
  • Location: Mount Hood National Forest
  • Start: Salmon River West Trailhead
  • Distance: 10.5 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area
  • References: Oregon Hikers

One of the perks of being a music teacher at the academy I work at is the built in vacation time during typical holiday breaks (generally coinciding with the local school district’s schedule). This includes Thanksgiving and Christmas, but in recent years, it has also included Halloween! This year, with Mack no longer working retail (and thereby having more control over his schedule), we were able to plan a Halloween backpacking adventure with Cassie. It was by no means ambitious or difficult (purposefully intended since our final 50K race took place a few days later), but it was the perfect mid-week getaway and a great inaugural trip for what will hopefully become an annual Halloween tradition.

 

Day 1: Salmon River West Trailhead to Goat Creek, with side trip to Frustration Falls viewpoint (5.5 miles; 3 hours 40 minutes, breaks included)

We took advantage of the short mileage day with a later-than-usual start at noon. There were only a couple of cars parked at the trailhead, so we could look forward to some solitude on this generally popular trail. Little to no fellow visitors also meant Cassie could be off-leash! It was a surprisingly beautiful fall day. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy with an occasional picturesque sunburst. The changing colors of maple and alder trees contrasted beautifully with the vibrant green of the Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar trees, as well as the variety of ferns carpeting the forest floor. The trail remains close to the river for the first couple of miles. With practically no one else on the trail, the only sounds that filled the air were of rushing water, the rustling of leaves when a breeze passed through, and a few chatty birds.

After passing the wilderness boundary and the first two backcountry camp areas, we began the gradual climb up to the highlight of the trail: the Salmon River Gorge viewpoint. The river roars through the canyon a few hundred feet below this open, rocky bluff. The hillsides are completely draped in dense forest, so the river itself is actually difficult to see, but you can still hear it if you listen closely. Following the viewpoint, we continued along a narrow, very exposed (but brief) section of trail etched into a steep slope that led us back into the shade of the forest.

Stretch of trail after the viewpoint

Looking back at the viewpoint area

While planning our route, one of the side trip opportunities that came up during my research of the area was Frustration Falls. From the trip reports I’d read, I knew to keep an eye out for a steep side trail about four miles in. It also helped that I came out to run some of the Salmon River Trail with a friend just two days earlier. Although we didn’t follow it down, we did find the aforementioned side trail. I might’ve missed it on our trip if I hadn’t scouted it out a couple of days earlier! Although the side trail is short (about a quarter of a mile down to the view of the falls), it’s quite steep and slick. I imagine it can be treacherous after heavy rain. We stashed our packs about half way down as the incline steepened. Despite the tediousness of it all, the stunning three-tiered Frustration Falls was definitely worth the effort.

Frustration Falls

Back on the main trail, we were just a mile or so away from our campsite. It was a slow mile though. The fall colors were irresistible and I found myself pulling out my camera every couple of minutes. Before we knew it Goat Creek was right below us and we could look across the way and see the nearby campsites. Not a single tent was in sight. Our decision to do a mid-week overnighter was certainly paying off!

Goat Creek

It was already late afternoon and about to become early evening by the time we set up camp. We went about enjoying some hot drinks first. Mack packed in a small Nalgene containing butterscotch schnapps to add to our hot cider. The combination literally tastes like caramel apples and is probably my new favorite hot drink (although it might get bumped once I try hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps this winter). To celebrate Halloween, we also packed in frosted pumpkin shortbread cookies and a giant bag of mixed sour candies (Mack’s preferred treat). Cassie chose to hang out inside the new tent (that’s right! no more busted zippers and patched up holes!) and curl up on my sleeping bag. Not even the smell of our delicious Halloween treats could lure her out.

Hogging my sleeping bag even though her personal dog bed is right behind her

It started to get dark quickly, so we attached and staked down the rainfly, cooked up a batch of instant mashed potatoes (and one more round of spiked cider), finished up our treats, then crawled into our sleeping bags. Our new Big Agnes tent has sewn-in lights, so we tested them out. So much better than using our headlamps or flashlights! Hopefully this tent lasts us awhile because so far we love it! We capped off our Halloween themed trip with a “scary” movie. I say “scary” because I’m not sure Donnie Darko really fits this description, but neither of us was really in the mood for some slasher flick or even a supernatural one while we were alone in the woods. Maybe Hocus Pocus will be a more fun choice next year.

Pumpkin shortbread cookies!

Watching Donnie Darko beneath the tent lights

 

Day 2: Goat Creek to Salmon River West Trailhead (5 miles; 2 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)

It was strange waking up and knowing that we’d be going back to work later that afternoon. However, it was also a good incentive to actually get up and get moving quickly. We were packed up and on the trail by 8 am. The sky was still overcast, which made the fall colors along the trail pop even more. It also made the Salmon River Gorge viewpoint far more clear, richer in color, and photogenic now that the heavy sunlight wasn’t blinding me and washing out the image. I was so happy to pass through this section again and see it all in the (far superior) early morning light with the sun barely starting to creep through the clouds.

Trail leading to the viewpoint

Looking out on the Salmon River Gorge

After the mini-photoshoot at the viewpoint, we pressed on to make sure we would make it back to the car before 11 am. Now that we were going downhill our pace was effortlessly faster though. I even managed to find opportunities to take a few more photos (especially now that everything was less washed out by the sun) without adversely affecting our estimated arrival time. We made it back to the car at 10:20 am and even had time to spare at home before either of us went in to teach that afternoon. Despite being a little reluctant to go back to work for a couple more days, our first ever mid-week overnight adventure was just what I needed to get me through the rest of the work week. Hopefully there will be more opportunities to do something like this. At least we’ll be able to count on it for next Halloween!

Playing in the leaves

Salmon River