The sound of low rumbling shook me from a deep sleep. Bursts of light cast shadows of the surrounding trees on the walls of our tent. I jumped at each rumble and crack. “So much for our summit bid,” I thought. As if running/hiking/climbing 34+ miles and 10,000+ feet of gain in a day didn’t terrify me enough after barely recovering from a recent injury, the thought of venturing out in a thunderstorm was further proof that it wasn’t going to be our day. Feeling defeated before even stepping out of the tent, I curled back up in my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep again.
The storm eventually passed, but we ended up sleeping through our original start time to avoid being in the storm. The 7.5 hour drive through heavy Friday traffic may have also played a part in our decision to sleep in. By the time we started around 6 am–three hours later than our planned start!–we’d already come to terms with the fact that we weren’t going to summit. This was just going to be a scouting run to get beta for our next attempt. We hit the trail with absolutely no expectations.
With the exception of two runners that passed us early on, we didn’t encounter another human being for the first nine miles. We moved quickly while still enjoying the early morning sounds of the waking forest and the peaceful lull of the rushing North Fork Sauk. The trail appeared to have already been cleared of fallen trees, as well as brushed of overgrown plants, so there was no need for climbing over giant logs or bushwhacking through face height shrubbery. An improvement from last year! The daunting climb from Mackinaw Shelter to White Pass (about 3,000 feet of gain in 3.5 miles) was also much easier this time around with small daypacks. Last year we suffered immensely under 40-50 pound climbing packs and it took us over six hours to reach White Pass! This time, we were there in less than three. We celebrated with a burrito (Mack) and Gushers (my new fave running treat besides Mamma Chia squeeze snacks).
Although it was nice not to be scorched by the sun, the overcast skies were making us question how much further we’d be able to go. Nonetheless we took advantage of the relatively flatter Foam Creek Trail and finally got our legs running again after the previous miles’ climb. This section of the approach, with its sprawling wildflower covered slopes, mountain views in all directions, and enjoyable singletrack, is easily one of the most idyllic parts of the entire route! Even the pouring rain that started to come down as we neared the end of the trail couldn’t dampen our spirits. We turned off the trail to gain the saddle above us where we met a climbing group on their return trip. Due to the early morning thunderstorm, they’d decided to bail on their summit bid and were now hiking out. Fortunately for us, though we were still standing in the pouring rain, Dakobed was completely visible against a backdrop of clear blue skies in the distance. Pleasantly surprised and filled with excitement, we quickly dropped down the steep slope, climbed back up another saddle, and were greeted with an even greater view of the incredible mountain before us. Maybe we still had a chance.
The “trail” ended after Foam Creek Trail, but there was a heavily used boot path in the snow through White Chuck Basin. We ran (i.e. slipped and slid over the semi-soft snow) then scrambled up and over various rock bands, growing more and more excited as the mountain became closer. Just before noon, we hiked the final steps up to Glacier Gap, the high camp we’d stayed at before climbing Dakobed last summer. We were 14-15 miles in now with just a couple more to reach the summit. I turned to Mack. “I think we owe it to ourselves to keep going.” Without hesitation he replied, “Let’s do it.”
After scarfing down more burritos and filling up on water, we began the final stretch of our long approach. We hadn’t made the summit yet, but the feeling of accomplishment was already there for me. After a peroneal tendon injury forced me to drop out of my first 50 mile race back in June, and subsequently kept me from running at all for nearly a month, my dream of completing a Dakobed C2C just kind of slipped away until a few days prior to our attempt. I’d only started running again two weeks prior, and it was only once or twice a week for 7-10 miles, not exactly the best preparation for an undertaking like Dakobed. Despite the low running mileages, I’d still been doing some hiking, and we’d just come off a 60-mile backpacking trip in the Wallowas. I could feel my body growing more strong and capable, and with limited summer vacation time left, I wanted to take advantage of my confidence and availability. So here we were, 15+ miles in now,–my longest “run” since June 16th.
We traversed beneath Disappointment Peak through a “bowling alley” section, stopping every couple of minutes to keep our eyes and ears peeled for falling rock. After our ongoing battle with rockfall on Cooper Spur back in May, sections like these put Mack on edge, even though this traverse is far more mellow. Although we ended up only hearing rockfall but not seeing any, I could tell he was a bit shaken once we finished the traverse. Both of us felt better once we made it through the following crevasse-riddled section and were heading toward the final slope leading up to the summit.
After a short mix of scree and steep snow, we stood on the summit of Dakobed for the second year in a row. It was just before 3 pm, nine hours since we’d started; a big difference from the 2.5 days it took us last summer. We looked out over the North Cascades, wishing we had more time to sit there and identify as many peaks as we could, but it was a long journey back to the car and we still needed to make the tedious descent off the mountain. Mack signed the summit register for us, we took a few photos and ate a few more snacks, then down we went after a mere ten minutes. Nothing like climbing a mountain to remind you that it’s all about the journey!
The going was slow until we made it past the crevasses, then we sprinted through the “bowling alley” until we were out of the rockfall path. Around 5 pm we dropped back down onto Glacier Gap. We’d now covered around 20 miles and over 10,000 feet of gain, but it didn’t physically feel like it. We expected a one day push to be far more demanding than our 3.5 day climb, but this was turning out to be so much easier! We plopped down on some rocks to change our sopping wet socks (which turned out to be a stupid idea since we were about to run through another snowfield) and eat some dinner (you guessed it! more burritos!) before heading out. To the east, storm clouds were gathering. I’d barely finished switching out my socks when I heard it: that low rumbling that shook me awake earlier that morning. Mack and I both looked at each other. He probably saw the fear in my eyes even behind my sunglasses. “Let’s eat fast and get off this mountain,” he responded.
Now that we were mostly moving downhill, we were able to pick up our pace. We passed several groups heading onto the basin to camp. I hoped the weather wouldn’t become as terrible as it appeared for all those staying the night in the area. Then again, thunderstorms terrify me to no end, so maybe it wasn’t as big a deal to the people we passed. As we neared the end of the basin, I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked over to the other side of the saddle where Foam Creek Trail lay. The skies were still clear and we wouldn’t be entering any nasty weather systems once we crossed over.
I turned around often as we neared the saddle, knowing these would be my last views of Dakobed before we dropped down to Foam Creek Trail. She was more beautiful than ever bathed in the light of the early evening sun. It was difficult to turn away each time. We carefully maneuvered down the steep slope from the top of the saddle. Last summer, this section almost had me in tears because I had so much trouble balancing with my unnecessarily large pack. I honestly thought I would end up toppling over and tumbling down hundreds of feet through snow, dirt, and mountain heather. This time, it wasn’t much of an ordeal at all and my fear from last year never resurfaced. We climbed back up the opposite side, where we’d talked with the other climbing group earlier that morning, then dropped down to Foam Creek Trail.
It was just past 7 pm now. Golden hour made one of the most beautiful sections even more enchanting. Being back on singletrack prompted us to start running again. We sped through those magical wildflower covered slopes, ecstatic about reaching White Pass with a single digit number of miles left. We made good time and the sun had not yet gone down. My knees were starting to ache though, and we were just about to start a 3,000 foot descent to Mackinaw.
On the PCT and back on North Fork Sauk, I did my best to run and push the pace, but my knees just weren’t having it, especially once we hit the steeper, more technical downhill sections on North Fork Sauk. All the elevation gain and loss of the day was finally catching up to me. We strapped on our headlamps shortly before reaching Mackinaw Shelter as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance. Now it was time for me to face my next big anxiety trigger: running through a forest in the dark.
Yes, I’m a grown-ass woman and, yes, I am absolutely terrified of being in the dark. My mind (well, my imagination) tends to go to horrible places, especially in a dark forest where I can’t see what might be lurking behind the trees or within the bushes. Mack doesn’t really have this fear, and just as I was there for him when he was freaking out about potential rockfall beneath Disappointment Peak, he did his best to be patient with me as I whined about how many miles were still left to cover in the dark. Although I didn’t feel comfortable running outright with all the roots and rocks covering the trail, we still managed to power hike and jog, averaging 3+ miles an hour. Time seems to move far too slowly when you’re anxious and ready to be done with something, but we were covering these last miles in good time. In addition, the only wildlife we came across on our night miles were numerous Cascades frogs that hopped out onto the trail and never failed to scare the shit out of me.
We finally stumbled into the parking area around 11:20 pm. We were exhausted (and my knees felt like they were on fire!), covered in sweat and dirt, and probably smelled like ass, but we were beyond happy and grateful to have completed an adventure we didn’t think would be possible to finish when we started out 17 hours earlier. As I lay in the tent, unable to fall asleep and scrolling through the iPhone pictures I’d taken throughout the day, I reflected on how different this summer was shaping up to be. Things were looking pretty dismal after my injury in June. But now? Now this was becoming the best summer yet.
I first laid eyes on Glacier Peak during a NOLS Trip Leader Seminar back in 2015. At the time, it was only my third backpacking trip, mountaineering was still a distant dream, and I’d never even heard of Glacier Peak when we began the hike in. Once that beautiful, isolated–the most isolated of all the Cascade volcanoes–came into view on the third (maybe fourth?) day of the trip, I promised myself I would come back to climb her. Fast forward to July 2017, Mack and I had seven volcano climbs under our belts and the rope skills to cross glaciated, crevasse-ridden terrain without a guide. It was time to attempt our eighth volcano (and the fourth out of five Washington volcanoes).
Day 1: Sloan Creek Campground to White Pass (9.2 miles; 6 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
After a later-than-desired departure time and unexpected traffic (at 3 am!!!), we finally pulled into the trailhead/campground parking area a little after 8 am. Perfect timing since we managed to snag the last obvious parking spot before the need to get creative. By 9 am we were on the trail, already groaning under the weight of our packs, which were definitely not within the usual 20-30 lb range. It didn’t help that I’d pulled a muscle in my shoulder the night before when I’d attempted to swing my pack onto my back to feel out the weight. For the first time ever, I had to have Mack help me get my pack on because I was in so much pain before we started hiking. Not a good way to start a long, strenuous day (especially with a 9 am late start). Our goal was to make it all the way to high camp at Glacier Gap (about 14 miles in), but I was already having doubts.
Despite pain and discomfort (on my end mostly, but probably on Mack’s as well), we enjoyed the lush forest scenery on the North Fork Sauk Trail. We did experience a couple of downed old growth trees that required some time to maneuver and climb over with our packs, but that was all near the beginning. Most of our hike to Mackinaw Shelter (5 to 5.5 miles from the TH) was smooth sailing. We stopped at the shelter to eat lunch and relieve our bodies of our burdensome packs for a short while. Being here brought back fond memories. Mackinaw Shelter was the first place we camped on my NOLS trip two years prior. It also reminded me that the hike was about to get strenuous.
The switchbacks up to the junction with the PCT were the most difficult part of the day. We were starting to make our way out of the forest, which meant more exposure to the hot sun while we adapted to the steeper incline. It was slow going to say the least and made me contemplate upgrading our gear (particularly our packs and tent) to more lightweight brands. Although the heat wasn’t doing much for our spirits, the transforming landscape definitely helped to reinvigorate us. Hillsides carpeted with wildflowers. Numerous mountains on almost all sides of us. It was perfect.
After the junction with the PCT we continued on to White Pass about a half mile away. You can actually see it in distance because you walk along an exposed ridge line. Despite a few sketchy snow bridges we had to cross (in our regular boots), this last stretch was far easier than the three or so miles of climbing. We reached White Pass at 3:30 pm and followed the trail leading down to the campsites, traversing one more large patch of slushy snow (and snow bridges) along the way. After setting up camp, we hiked back up to the pass to take pictures, enjoy the views, and savor the feeling of walking without our packs. We hadn’t made it to our high camp (still another five or so miles away), but we both agreed it was for the best.
We spent the rest of the afternoon napping, listening to Crimetown podcast, and “cooking” instant mashed potatoes–how have we never brought these along before???– for the first time. It was exactly what we needed after a long day of driving and hiking. As Mack began to fall asleep, I decided to step out of the tent to take in the cotton candy sunset colors highlighting the surrounding peaks before turning in myself.
Day 2: White Pass to Glacier Gap (5.25 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
We started our hike on the Foam Creek Trail at 10 am in a cloud. Along the way we passed several climbing parties who had attempted the summit that morning. Apparently, the forecasted clear skies and sunshine had failed to make an appearance. Many climbers turned around after getting blasted with high winds, rain, and, apparently, snow. I guess it was better that our summit bid had been pushed back a day by not making high camp the afternoon before. The weather gradually improved as we continued on the trail. After two miles or so, the trail petered out and we ascended the ridge to our left.
Climbing over that first ridge brought back memories of when my NOLS group hiked this exact section. I remember we were all kind of nervous as we carefully picked our way down the steep slope of loose rock, especially with heavy packs on. Mack and I were in a similar situation, except this time the slope was covered in snow and there was a pretty decent boot path etched into it. The carved out steps made climbing down a hell of a lot easier. The traction on our mountaineering boots–no regular boots today–helped, too. After that descent we followed the trail to the base of another steep slope a short ways ahead. At the top was a saddle that I knew would give us our first view of Glacier Peak if the clouds cleared. As we made our way up to the it, I resolved to take out my ice axe once we reached the top. I should’ve taken it out before we started traversing these ridges.
Once at the top, we dropped our packs and took a lunch break. It was around noon and we’d only hiked a little over two miles. My penchant for taking lots and lots of pictures tends to slow us down. Clouds still loomed overhead, so Glacier Peak had yet to make her grand appearance. As we ate, we watched a few marmots peek out from their dens or their hiding spots in the grass, eyeing us and waiting for an opportunity to snatch some of our food. Fortunately, they never got it. We reluctantly strapped on our packs again and traversed across another snow slope. Below lay the valley (or basin?) that my NOLS group had camped in on our third and fourth nights. There was no snow here in August 2015, so it looked completely different this time around! We ascended another slope (this one far less steep than the previous two) and dropped into the White Chuck Glacier basin.
The boot path cut through the mountainous basin and led us to a steep slope of scree and larger rocks. Another climb of course, and on my least favorite terrain. We stopped about halfway up to refill our bladders and water bottles in a glacier-fed stream flowing over the rocks. We looked out over the basin we’d just crossed and admired a couple of the turquoise-colored (but still snow covered) tarns dotting the landscape. There’s nothing but mountains for miles and miles it seems. Absolute perfection. Once we topped out, we crossed one final snowfield and made one more steep snow climb up to the counter known as Glacier Gap. We’d finally made it to high camp. It was 3 pm.
To our relief (since I decided not to bring a snow shovel in order to keep my pack somewhat lighter), Glacier Gap was completely free of snow. Similar to Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, there are several half circle rock walls up here so you can shield your tent from the wind. We found an empty one and set up camp. The clouds still hid Glacier Peak from sight, but I decided to climb up to the ridge above Glacier Gap in order to scout our route for the following morning. It felt so nice to run up a hill without my pack on. A smile spread across my face when I got to the top. Although the summit was still obscured, the rest of the mountain was visible. First glimpse of this beautiful mountain at last! Made the long slog worth it. I was able to make out a majority of our climbing route, too.
Back at camp, we enjoyed another dinner of instant mashed potatoes, got most of our equipment packed up for the next morning, then turned in early while the sun was still out. We slept a little off and on, but at some point (after the sun had gone down) Mack noticed there was something wrong with the rainfly zipper on his side. When he tried to fix it, the teeth refused to seal again. After a few more frustrating attempts, I dug out my safety kit and we used safety pins to close the fly. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain on us! Unfortunately, we had a difficult time falling asleep after that little debacle.
Day 3: Glacier Gap to the summit and back (5.1 miles; 8 hours, breaks included); Glacier Gap to White Pass (5.25 miles; 3 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
Our alarms were set for 2 am (with the goal of starting our climb between 3 and 3:30 am), but after a restless night, we decided to sleep in. We finally forced ourselves out of the tent just before 4 am, getting ready as quickly as possible so we could start moving and warm up. At 5 am we set off. Yesterday’s clouds were nowhere in sight and there wasn’t even a breeze. Today’s weather was going to be perfect. I could feel it. We hiked up to the ridge above Glacier Gap (where I’d been the day before while scouting) and stood in awe of the mountain before us, now completely unveiled, bathed in the light blue-purple hue of the pre-dawn sky. I don’t usually like starting this late on any climb, but I’ve got to say, it’s probably the most incredible time to see a mountain.
From the ridge, we descended to the base of the rocky spine leading up to Disappointment Peak, a smaller sub-peak on Glacier. The sun rose behind the mountains to the east, illuminating Gerdine Glacier, which we’d soon be traversing. Two other climbers followed close behind us. We were the only four on the mountain that morning. Another perk to climbing an isolated volcano on a weekday. Once we made it to the first gendarme on the ridge, we roped up and cut to the glacier. (Note: If you want to avoid glacier travel, you can continue on the ridge and scramble up Disappointment Peak to reach the final ridge leading to the summit of Glacier)
We didn’t encounter any crevasses on the first part of Gerdine, but rockfall hazard was very evident. Now that the sun was up, we’d have to move quickly. At one point, Mack shouted “rock!” I was so preoccupied scanning the ground for potential crevasses, I didn’t even see it when I looked up. Apparently, it tumbled by me, just a few inches from my right leg. It wasn’t a large rock and probably wouldn’t have done any significant damage, but the fact that we were experiencing signs of rockfall now made us a little nervous about the descent. We picked up the pace until we reached a rocky outcropping high on Gerdine. We breaked here to hydrate and get some food in our stomachs before moving through the next section, which would require some crevasse navigation.
Just below the saddle bordering Cool Glacier is a heavily crevassed section on Gerdine. Snow bridges still seemed to be in tact, but the crevasses, which had probably been filled with snow a couple of weeks earlier, were now very much open. I would’ve loved to take pictures or some video as we wound our way through this section, but for safety reasons I decided against it. We needed to move quickly and taking pictures presented a potential hazard and distraction. Thankfully, this section was short and only took a few minutes to ascend. Afterwards we walked along Cool Glacier on a relatively flat path leading to the saddle above Disappointment Peak.
Since the final climb was going to be on a pumice slope, we untied and stashed the rope for the descent. The two climbers behind us caught up as we were doing this. One of them was visiting from the Midwest and decided this was as far as he was going to go. His partner decided to continue on to the summit, charging up the slope. We stayed behind at a more leisurely pace. The slope was very moderate and didn’t present any technical challenges. It ended at a final steep snow climb up to the summit ridge, but the boot path here made it so it was just like walking up a frozen staircase (granted there is some exposure). As I neared the summit ridge, the other climber began his descent, letting me know that I was almost there. Mack followed a few yards behind. I waited for him just below the summit ridge and took the opportunity soak in the incredible mountain views, especially the one of Mount Rainier to the south.
We ascended the ridge together and dropped our packs on the western side at 9 am. Just to be certain we stepped on the actual summit, we walked the entire summit ridge. I’m still not entirely sure which side is higher. We stayed up there longer than we intended (about 30 minutes), but I’m happy we did. With all the work it took to get to this point, why not savor it for awhile? Plus, the views from the summit were hands down the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced of all the volcano climbs we’ve done so far. When you’re enamored with mountains, being surrounded by them while standing on top of one is the dream. I could’ve stayed up there for hours completely content.
Now that the sun was high in the sky and temps were warming up, we moved quickly down the mountain. Getting over the crevassed terrain on Gerdine wasn’t too nerve-racking this time around, but when we reached the bowling alley (i.e. the rockfall area below Disappointment Peak), my heart began to pound faster and faster. Before we started through it, I told Mack we needed to keep an ear out for falling rock. Literally, as soon as I said this, huge chunks of rock came crashing down, rolling over a giant swath of the snowfield we needed to cross. As soon as everything came to a halt, we started running–well, more like power walking/jogging since we were in crampons and roped up. We didn’t stop until we were walking alongside the rocky ridge we’d ascended that morning. After catching our breath, happy to be out of danger, we continued the descent. We were a few yards away from where we could untie and get back on the ridge when Mack said nervously, “Uhhhh, Teddy?” I turned around. “One of my crampons is missing.” Crap.
“Any ideas where you lost it?” I responded.
“I’m not sure.”
I was livid, especially since we’d just come through the most dangerous part of the route and there was a good chance it had fallen off while we were running through it. Mack untied and decided he’d walk back up as far as it was safe to to see if he could find it. I plopped down in the snow, anxiously awaiting his return and listening intently for rockfall. Minutes seemed to drag on and I became more nervous. I couldn’t see Mack in the distance anymore and worse case scenarios were plaguing my mind. After 30 minutes, he crested the slope above me, waving the missing crampon triumphantly in his hand.
Since we were close to the ridge, we decided to untie and pack up our crevasse rescue gear for the remainder of the descent. Our hope of getting back to camp by noon was definitely not happening after the crampon mishap. And I pushed us back even more when my bowels informed me that they needed to be relieved. We finally stumbled into camp at 1 pm.
We rested at camp before packing up and didn’t start out until 3 pm. Getting back to the car was still a possibility, but we agreed to play it by ear once we reached White Pass. Since our hike out was mostly downhill, we figured we’d be moving pretty quickly. I was wrong. Due to the afternoon heat, the snow was no longer packed down and firm. Descending steep snow slopes with our loaded packs was incredibly sketchy. Going down the scree slopes was even more terrifying! Mack was moving surprisingly fast through a lot of these sections, but I was less comfortable and picked my way down super cautiously. Getting back to the ridge above Foam Creek Trail took way longer than anticipated. We compensated by hiking as fast as we could once we were back on Foam Creek Trail. We reached White Pass at 6:30 pm (still an hour and a half faster than when we hiked in the day before). Getting back to the car would mean hiking in the dark for the last hour or two, so we decided to stay another night at White Pass and hike out early the next morning.
Day 4: White Pass to Sloan Creek Campground (9.2 miles; 5 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
We awoke to another morning of nice weather and started out at 7:40 am. As we were switchbacking down the North Fork Sauk Trail, two literally earth-shaking ‘BOOM!’s went off within a few minutes of each other. What the hell? Mack and I exchanged confused (but nervous) glances. “I think it was a gun,” said Mack, probably trying to reassure me and himself. It sounded like a war zone. We put the situation in the back of our minds and continued on to Mackinaw Shelter. We arrived at 9:40 am and walked down to the river to soak our hot, tired feet and eat a snack. We were pretty ecstatic that we only had 5 or 5.5 miles to go.
After Mackinaw, the trail was mostly flat and gradual downhill, so we moved quickly. Less than a mile out from the trailhead though, I slipped on a loose rock and rolled my right ankle, the one that I’ve injured nearly four times this year. So much for moving fast now, but at least we were almost finished. Then, when we were only a half mile from the car, we ran into a USFS trail crew. Now we knew who was responsible for the massive ‘BOOM!’s we’d heard earlier that morning. They were using explosives to clear the trail of the larger down trees that couldn’t be taken care of with a crosscut saw. Funny how you can’t bring machinery (like a chainsaw) into Wilderness, but explosives are okay. We had to walk back with them almost a quarter of a mile because they were about to blow up another obstacle just ahead of us. We were so close!
Although we were pretty bummed that we wouldn’t be able to get back to the car for another half hour or so, knowing we were close to the blast zone was kind of exciting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard “Fire in the hole!” come through one of the crew member’s radios, but the ensuing sound is one I will never forget (and one I’d prefer not to experience again). The earth and trees violently trembled, and the shock waves created visible movement in the air. I couldn’t hear anything for a second or two after, and the forest went eerily silent for several moments, as if to recover from the disturbance. We thanked the trail crew for their hard work on the way out, staring in awe at the blast zones we walked through. What a way to end an already epic trip.
Back at the car, we packed up and changed into clean clothes. The gear we’d set aside to climb Mount Baker (part of our original plan if we finished Glacier Peak quickly) stared up longingly at us, and I was tempted to still give it a go the following morning. The pain in my ankle quickly reminded me that it would probably be a terrible idea, and both of us were incredibly exhausted from the three and a half day climb we’d just completed. We still needed to get home and pack up for another backpacking trip that we were leaving for two days later! We called it good and headed home, stopping only for our usual post-backpacking/climbing Red Robin food and milkshakes.
For this post, I’ll be taking a break from the “adventures of Mack and Theresa” theme of this blog to reflect on my own personal outdoor adventure: a 9-day backpacking course with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).
The idea to do this course came to me after completing a NOLS Wilderness First Aid class through REI’s Outdoor School. Prior to the WFA class, I’d never even heard of NOLS. Out of curiosity, I read descriptions about several of their course offers. I was immediately intrigued and, after finding out about their Pacific Northwest base and the short (i.e. perfect for my work schedule) TLS course in the Pasayten Wilderness, submitted an application.
In the days leading up to the course, I became more and more nervous. Physically, I felt more than ready for it. I’d already completed two backpacking trips (with fairly high mileage days), a couple of half marathons, and I was still running every week. But the idea of spending nine days in the wilderness with complete strangers terrified me. Ironically enough, this aspect of the course turned out to be the best part. Although I’m not sure how/if the course will affect my professional life (the TLS was a career course), I’m grateful for the amazing learning experience and the incredible group of people that shared it with me.
Day 1: NOLS Pacific Northwest base
After a long, sleepless night on the road, I arrived at the NOLS base in Conway, WA, anxious to meet the people with whom I would be spending the next nine days. In addition to the TLS group, another expedition was preparing for a 30-day course in British Columbia. We all received a tour of the base before breaking off into our designated teams. The rest of the morning was spent getting to know each other, meeting with our seminar leaders/instructors—Dálio Zippin Neto (from Brazil) and Erica Quam (from Washington)—and discussing our itinerary and course goals for the next several days.
Our entire group (including the instructors) was comprised of 12 people (5 women, 7 men). Dálio and Erica divided us into tent groups/cook groups (i.e. the people we would be eating, sleeping, and managing group gear with for the entirety of the course). On longer courses, these groups would usually change from week to week. This doesn’t work as well on short courses. Although most groups were comprised of three people, my group had four (apparently to take advantage of the fact that I don’t take up much space in a tent). Ellie and Jack were both college sophomores (though I would’ve guessed they were older if they hadn’t told me). Guy was on the other end of the spectrum, being the oldest and having the most outdoor experience of all of us. It was a good balance.
Following lunch, we got to packing. Unlike my own trips with Mack when it’s pretty easy to pack light, we were required to carry several items that I usually wouldn’t take. The heaviest of these items was all the cook gear (fry pan, pot, lid, stove, and fuel). In addition, since our trip was also a class, we had to include a variety of NOLS handbooks and manuals in our gear. Prior to the course, the heaviest my pack had ever been (including food and water) was 31 or 32 lbs. After packing group gear and food rations, my pack weighed in at a whopping—at least for me—42 lbs! I actually reached the max recommended weight for someone of my size. And I could definitely feel it (although actually carrying the pack was much easier than getting it off and on).
After all the weigh-ins and final sweeps were completed, we finally hit the road. All 12 of us piled into a single van (ugh…). Our gear was packed into an attached trailer. The drive to the Billy Goat Trailhead would take about 3 hours. About an hour and a half or so into the drive, after passing the North Cascades Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, we began to see billows of smoke in the distance. Wildfire? As if on cue, we were stopped by a state trooper and told to turn around. We would not be doing our trip in the Pasayten Wilderness afterall. The fire was at zero containment and nearby towns (including Winthrop, which we were supposed to pass through on the way to our campground) were already being evacuated. Back at the NOLS base, we found out that three or four firefighters had already lost their lives that afternoon. We were instructed to call our loved ones to let them know we were safe and that our trip was being adjusted to avoid the fire.
Remaining daylight hours were spent learning how to set up our Black Diamond pyramid tent (easiest set-up EVER; it only uses a single pole!) and getting to know each other a little better over a cold dinner (with the exception of the experimental quiche concocted by a few of the guys). I’ll admit the first night in the tent was definitely a little strange and lonely, but this subsided once we were finally out in the wilderness.
Day 2: Sloan Creek Campground to Mackinaw Shelter (5.5 miles; 2 hours 18 minutes, breaks not included)
We awoke early for some morning lessons, which included kitchen setup—we carried an MSR WhisperLite International—and cleanup, as well as efficient packing. Dálio said the end result should be a “sexy pack”. I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of pride following the packing class because it confirmed how I’d already been packing my pack in the past! And, despite the immense weight of my pack, it felt a lot better after I got to reorganize everything. One particular trick I appreciated was stuffing flat, condensed foods (i.e. tortillas, salmon and tuna packs) into the fry pan to help alleviate bulk from the rations bag (which had been difficult to pack nicely the day before because of the amount of food inside). After a brief chat about our new destination, Glacier Peak Wilderness, we hit the road.
The drive to Sloan Creek Campground was much more comfortable then our drive the day before. Since our trip wasn’t going to end at Sloan Creek, we needed a second vehicle for shuttling. This meant that we didn’t need to cram into a single van on the way there! We arrived in the early afternoon. Dálio and Erica led another class to go over bear safety (including how to use bear spray), foot care, orienting our maps, and one final gear check. Then we were off!
Our hike was short and sweet on easy terrain. It was spent entirely in the forest, so we were shaded from the hot afternoon sun. I felt completely at home since I spend much of my outdoor time in Pacific Northwest forests, but it was fun to hear non-PNW natives—several members of our expedition were from the East Coast—comment on the scenery.
We made camp at Mackinaw Shelter, right next to the North Fork Sauk River (at least I think it was North Fork Sauk…). After setting up the tent, Jack, Ellie, Guy, and I cooked our first dinner together (pasta with melted white cheddar). Now, cooking has never been (nor will it ever be) my forte, so I contributed more in the setup and cleanup department. Following our delicious meal, we storm proofed our kitchen (covered the stove with the pot and fry pan, then laid the dromedary over it), placed all of our “smellables” (i.e. food and scented toiletries) within the bear fence, and gathered with the rest of our group for one final class before turning in for the night. The majority of this class was dedicated to pooping in the woods. Dálio gave quite the demonstration (pants on the entire time of course). NOLS takes Leave No Trace principles very seriously, so they don’t provide their students with toilet paper out in the field. Instead, we were instructed to rinse “the area” with water, then scrub it (using our hand!) with Dr. Bronner’s soap. Naturally, everyone was a bit taken aback. However, over the course of the trip, I never heard any complaints about it! (Sidenote: I brought my own system, which uses wet wipes and scented doggy bags to carry out the used wipes) We concluded the debrief with a discussion about group behavior and attitude goals, then returned to our tents.
Day 3: Mackinaw Shelter to an unidentified lake/body of water (5 miles; 4 hours, breaks not included)
Our second day in the field began with a briefing on our route (including estimated mileage, elevation gain, terrain, potential meet-up areas, and intended destination). Additionally, we would be hiking in two separate groups, as opposed to a single 12-person party, for the remainder of the trip. This system provides the opportunity to get to know people outside of your tent/cook group—the groups change from day to day—, it helps minimize impact on the trail, and it gives each person the opportunity to try out a specific role within the group. The roles include the leader (person at the front); the sweeper (person in the back); the navigator; the timekeeper; and the “self care” person (someone who periodically checks in with the group about hydration, bio breaks, foot care, morale, etc.). Each group must be self-sustaining (i.e. we need to collectively have a shelter, first aid kit, cook set, food, water purification, and maps/compass). Today, my hiking group included Guy, Tessa, Jack, Megan, and Dálio.
Although the hike to Mackinaw Shelter had been a breeze, the North Fork Sauk Trail begins to climb almost immediately after this point. The estimated total gain for the day was 3,000 ft, and most of that was within the first two miles. Since it was only our second day out in the field, our packs were still pretty heavy, making the climb a bit more strenuous than it probably was in actuality. Guy ended up feeling it the most since he was carrying the heaviest pack (which included a 5 lb bear fence). We all ended up lending a helping hand by relieving him of some of the weight early on in the hike. After the initial climb, we made it out of the woods and were finally rewarded with our first glimpse of the surrounding mountains. I remembered why I loved growing up in Washington. We continued along, enjoying the black huckleberries that higher elevation provides, and occasionally leapfrogging with the other hiking group. Most exciting of all—at least for me—was seeing (and hearing) marmots for the first time! They were talking up a storm as we neared White Pass.
At White Pass/junction with Foam Creek Trail, we stopped to wait for the second group and discuss the final segment of our hike. The views here were incredible. On another trip I would definitely make an effort to camp at White Pass. While we waited, I explored the campground and even got to experience a backcountry latrine for the first time (no walls, but at least you don’t have to dig a cathole!). We continued our trek on Foam Creek Trail, hiking just below a ridge until we came to a faint bootpath leading up to the first saddle. After hiking up, Dálio led us down a steep, sketchy slope comprised of very loose rock. The wind was picking up at this point as well. (My deep appreciation for trekking poles grows stronger on every trip I take.) Following this descent, we climbed up to another saddle, wind continuing to blast us, and made our way through a granite boulder field, heading towards the body of water we could see in the distance.
We made camp in a grassy area a little ways from the water. I immediately threw on all of my layers and even resorted to running back and forth between the “lake” and camp just to stay warm. The second group didn’t arrive for nearly an hour; we’d only anticipated a 15 to 20 minute wait, so they definitely had us a little concerned. Apparently, they ended up taking a different bootpath up to another saddle and had to backtrack. At this point, we were all freezing and exhausted, so Erica thought it would be fun to make calzones for dinner. Now, I am not—and never will be—a skilled cook, so I have almost no recollection of how we made them. I do remember that the process was tedious, messy, and difficult to clean up. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure it was one of the best calzones I’d ever eaten.
Day 4: Exploration Day! (Mileage unknown; 3 hours 9 minutes, breaks not included)
The smell of smoke was so strong the night before that it seeped into my dreams; I dreamt that I was desperately trying to put out a raging fire in someone’s backyard. I awoke several times and, in order to reassure myself and calm my nerves, peered out of the tent to confirm that our site wasn’t up in flames. In the morning, the air was intoxicating and we could see smoke behind the ridge we were camped below. Fortunately, the remainder of our route went in the opposite direction. By late morning, the smoke had cleared for the most part.
Since we planned to stay at the current site for a second night, we spent the morning catching up on class time (i.e. lectures led by Dálio and Erica). Subjects included:
Group development stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, mourning)
Risk management: objective/environmental hazards, subjective/human-related hazards, program/policy-procedure hazards, decision making based on likelihood-consequence relationship
Decision making styles: delegate, consensus, voting, directive, consultative
“Leader of the day” responsibilities: planning, communication and facilitation, motivation and morale, and briefing/debriefing
A.D. (Route And Description) planning
I found the R.A.D. planning process/checklist described by Erica to be incredibly helpful, so I’ve laid out the details below:
Group members–include the role of each person, as well as the gear being carried
Origin and destination–include three surrounding features for each; be very specific about their proximity to the chosen features
Route description–include cardinal directions, handrails, landmarks, terrain, water sources, junctions, etc.
Time and distance calculations–estimated time of departure and arrival (factoring in elevation gain and breaks); 2 miles, heavy packs, flat terrain = 1 hour; 1 mile, heavy packs, off trail = 1 hour; add an hour for every 1,000 ft of elevation gain
Contingency plan–alternative route and/or destination, meet-up/check-in points, obstacles and hazards
Following the marathon lecturing and a short lunch, we spent the afternoon exploring the area around our site. We managed to bag a small, nearby peak (elevation 6,500-6,700 ft), practice descending a sketchy moraine at Dálio’s insistence (probably trying to get people out of their comfort zone), and traverse a glacier. All in all, it was a very eventful and educational day. As an added bonus, I didn’t have to lug around my giant pack since we had a base camp set up.
Day 5: Unidentified lake to campsite along the PCT (5.5 – 6 miles; 3 hours 34 minutes, breaks not included)
We descended out of the mountains and back into the forest today. Aside from the boulder field we had to navigate through at the beginning, the hike ended up being very relaxing and non-strenuous. Much of our time was spent on the PCT, and our campsite ended up being right off of the trail. We set up camp next to a drainage, so I finally got the opportunity to clean off a little bit. The water was far too shallow to actually submerge myself, but I did get to wash my hair and feet. We finished our hike pretty early in the day, which meant more time for classes (“Teaching Map and Compass to Beginners” with Dálio, as well as a personality continuum exercise with Erica) and a debrief session that we were actually able to hold while the sun was still up! Today was also the first day that we had Leaders of the Day (Megan, Travis, and Guy). To conclude the debrief, they decided to hold a trail naming ceremony. It was a very democratic procedure. One person would suggest a name for somebody else, the rest of the group would either ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ it, and, once a consensus was reached, the person receiving the name would be “knighted” by Guy. Names are as follows:
Erica = Mama Bear
Dálio = Shocker
Guy = Captain Shakespeare
Ellie = Ninja
Jack = Smooth Friction
Travis = High Score
Megan = Yogi
Hank = Bear Bell
Jay = Mad Scientist
Jared = Sticky Buns
Tessa = Huckleberry
Me = Giddy Up
This was by far the most entertaining and fun debrief of our entire time out in the field. It was incredible to see how much everyone had bonded over the last few days. The trail names themselves are evidence that we were getting to know each other pretty well at this point.
Day 6: Campsite along the PCT to Camp Lake (6 miles; 4 hours 11 minutes, breaks not included)
Today was one of the more challenging—but still fun!—days of the trip. The morning started off fairly easy. Although the trail up to the White Chuck River was a little overrun by deadfall and downed trees, we were headed downhill, so it wasn’t too strenuous. However, upon arriving at the White Chuck River, we couldn’t see a trail on the other side. Our LODs (Tessa, Jay, and Hank) decided that we would send some scouts across the river to check out the area and see if a trail appeared somewhere along the shore. I volunteered to scout—mostly because I wanted to move around rather than sit and wait—and continued on with Jay and Travis. Crossing the river was easy since there was an enormous downed tree that stretched across it just a few yards away from where everybody was waiting. We thought we were in luck when we saw a few cairns leading us over the shore to a small opening in the trees, but when we followed the path up, it led us to a muddy, swamp area—we were pretty close to some hot springs—surrounded by more deadfall and downed trees. We spent a few more minutes scouting around the area and found nothing resembling a trail. Not wanting to exceed our time limit and worry the rest of our expedition, we headed back.
After getting everyone across the river, we went back to the same spot. After scouting it out for a minute or two, Erica said there might actually be a trail up there. However, feeling a bit pressured to keep moving (I think), Tessa and Jay decided we should keep moving upriver because we saw boot prints leading up that way. Unfortunately, the tracks eventually took us off trail and up a steep hill where we had to bushwhack through devil’s club while sinking in mud. At a relatively flat clearing, we stopped again to do more scouting. Dálio eventually found the trail near the area that Jay, Travis, and I had originally scouted. I felt a little embarrassed. Nonetheless, it was a good group learning experience, and everyone was being patient and supportive of one another.
The remainder of the hike was easy to navigate, but much more strenuous since it was almost entirely uphill (until our final descent into Camp Lake). After making it out of the forest, we got some amazing views of Glacier Peak. Prior to reaching Camp Lake, we came upon magical Byrne Lake. I was reminded of the lakes that Mack and I saw when we backpacked in the Wallowas. The water was so pristine. When Camp Lake was finally in sight, Tessa and I basically abandoned our group (which included Erica, Jay, Jack, and Guy) and sprinted downhill toward the water. I immediately threw down my gear, stripped off my outer wear, and ran into the water. After five days out in the field, it felt great to finally submerge my entire body in cold, clear water. Our campsite at Camp Lake was probably my favorite spot of the entire trip. We had an incredible view of the water in front of us and, behind us, a view of the mountains. That night, Guy and I cooked delicious huckleberry gingerbread pancakes as a reward for all our hard work earlier in the day.
Day 7: Camp Lake to Round Lake (5.5 miles; 3 hours 38 minutes, breaks not included)
Although not as flat as our LODs (Jack, Ellie, and Jared) had anticipated, we ended up with an easier hike compared to the day before. There were no serious navigating issues since we stayed on the Lost Creek Ridge Trail—our return trail!—the entire time. I did get another opportunity to scout when we needed to find the side trail leading to Round Lake, our destination for the night. The trail I ended up spotting led to our alternate destination instead of the intended one, but it still felt nice to find A trail after yesterday’s fiasco, which I was still feeling a little ashamed. The next side trail we reached climbed a short while uphill to the top of a saddle. Below us lay Round Lake, another stunning body water. After the second group arrived, we descended together and made camp near the shore. I went for another short swim then spent the remainder of the afternoon/early evening planning tomorrow’s route with Jay and Jared, my fellow LODs. Since they had both been LODs already, they allowed me to do most of the planning. I’ll admit that being the last member of the expedition to act as LOD was a bit intimidating at first. However, as the planning went on, I continued to gain more confidence. In fact, it felt pretty similar to all the trip planning I did for the Wallowas, except that it was much less tedious. All in all, I ultimately enjoyed mapping out our route, measuring mileages with a blade of grass, identifying surrounding features, and estimating our travel time. I think my penchant for meticulousness really paid off in this situation.
Day 8: Round Lake to Lost Creek Ridge Trailhead (4.05 miles; 2 hours 27 minutes, breaks not included)
It was strange to wake up in the morning and know that it was going to be our last day out in the field. I missed being home of course, and I was especially sad that I hadn’t been able to share the past few days with Mack, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I’ve never been ready for it to be over. The Columbia River Gorge. The Wallowas. Although my immediate sentiments following those trips were pride and relief,—not to mention a serious craving for mozzarella sticks and French fries—the most prevalent feeling was longing. Longing to be back on the trail. It would linger for days, sometimes weeks, following my time out in the wilderness. I was resistant to easing back into the schedules and routines that comprise my day-to-day life. Even right now, a part of me is still trying to resist.
After packing up camp, having a brief class on U.S. Land Management (led by Erica), and going over the R.A.D. plan for the day (led by me), we began our hike out. It was a nice day to be an L.O.D. Our entire route was on the Lost Creek Ridge Trail, so there was really no chance of us getting lost or turned around. Nonetheless, I took my role very seriously. I consistently checked in with my group (Megan, Travis, Guy, Jared, and Dálio), looked at the map and confirmed our location at each break point, and was vocal about any obstacles or hazards that I encountered on the trail. I consider myself to be fairly shy and reserved. Being a “leader” felt like I was acting out a part, but at the same time, it felt natural. I never felt like I was at odds with my personality despite being put in a role that seems quite the opposite.
Within three hours we reached the Lost Creek Ridge Trailhead. Once the second group arrived, we all piled into the van (packs included!) and drove about 20 minutes to Sloan Creek Campground, where the second vehicle was parked. With heavy hearts—at least I felt this way—we set up our final camp. Instead of separating into our designated tent/cook groups, we decided to make the most of our time together and prepare a potluck with our combined rations. We ended up with macaroni/ramen noodles and cheese, rice and lentils, plain rice, and a ridiculously huge pot of refried beans. Tessa and Jay also cooked pancakes for the next morning. It was nice to finally have a meal where we all sat down together (instructors included) and enjoyed each other’s company. Hilarity ensued when Hank adamantly suggested that there was no way we could finish all the food. Naturally, we consumed every last bit of that meal just to spite him. The refried beans were the most difficult to finish (not that I touched them at all; I detest refried beans). Watching Jay polish off several bowls of it was absolutely disgusting. Dinner ended up being an enjoyable spectacle.
Later that evening we met for our final debrief before heading back to the NOLS base. I received lots of positive feedback regarding my leadership that day (yay!), then we spent a good portion of the meeting learning a bit more about each other through a “get to you know” guessing game. After one final leadership class—ironically enough about ‘debriefing’—led by Dálio, we concluded our time together with the help of Edward Abbey:
One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
Day 9: Evaluation/Graduation Day!
At the outset of our trip, Dálio and Erica informed us that we were going to be evaluated on our backcountry skills, leadership skills, and expedition behavior. Although I wasn’t particularly keen on being graded, it was nice to receive an incredibly detailed and thoughtfully written evaluation from Erica. Over the course of the entire trip, I’d only been in her hiking group once, so it was nice to sit down with her and chat about my evaluation and what I hoped to use my newfound skills for in the future.
After everyone had the opportunity to review their evaluations with Dálio or Erica, we packed up the two vehicles and headed back to the NOLS base. Once at the base, we checked in all of our rental gear, cleaned out the cookware and tents, and finally got to enjoy a hot shower. Since I only rented a sleeping bag and stuff sack with my gear deposit, I used the remaining amount to purchase the NOLS Wilderness Educator Notebook. By mid-afternoon, everyone was packed up and ready to leave. We gathered on the lawn just like we had on our first day. Not surprisingly, we weren’t given our diplomas in a traditional, ceremonial manner. Each person received a slip of paper with someone else’s name on it. In order for someone to receive their diploma, the person holding their name had to “portray” them and the rest of us had to guess who it was. On the surface, the game of charades was a silly, lighthearted way of approaching something as boring as graduation. But on a deeper level, it truly showed how close our group had become. At this point, the finality of the course was sinking in quickly. While we were still seated in a circle, Dálio unpacked his travel guitar and we literally ended the course on a high note, singing through the hiking mantra/boy scouts song (We’re On The Upward Trail) that Jay had taught us earlier that week, as well as John Denver’sTake Me Home, Country Roads, which we had all sung together before hiking out the day before. It was a heartfelt, kumbaya moment that actually had me holding back tears. And it only made saying ‘good-bye’ more difficult.
I had a lot of time to reflect on my five-hour drive back to Portland. I was experiencing a lot of emotions, as is the case anytime I come out of the wilderness and make my way back to “normal” life. There was the usual tug-of-war between relief/pride and heartache/longing, but the most prominent one this time around was gratitude. I felt grateful towards Mack, who encouraged me to sign up for the course when I was having doubts about it. I felt grateful for my music teaching job because it supplied me with the income I needed to afford the course and allowed me to easily take time off to do the course. I felt grateful towards my beautiful home, the Pacific Northwest, for providing me with so many incredible spaces to explore and appreciate. I felt grateful for the many wonderful friendships developed over the past week. Lastly, I felt grateful towards myself for making the decision to leave my comfort zone and allow myself to take a step into the unknown.