Hood & Helens in a Day

  • Date: March 17, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge & Marble Mountain Sno Park
  • Distance: 17 miles total
  • Duration: 19 hours (breaks, lunch stop, and drive time included)
  • Elevation gain: 11,000 feet total
  • Type: Out-and-back (for both climbs)
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were finally forced to turn on our headlamps somewhere around the seismic station. At least we’d already descended 2,000 feet! We even managed a little bit of glissading below that since the paths were less icy and steep, but it was short lived when the zipper on Mack’s snow pants got stuck and he could no longer zip up the side of his pants. The last part of the ridge just before reaching the forest was the worst. The post-holing had been bad, but tolerable, on the way up. Now that we were exhausted and ready to be back, I was no longer feeling tolerant about sinking into knee, thigh, and sometimes waist deep snow. Once we made it back into the trees we were able to start moving uninhibited again and finally collapsed at the car shortly before 10 pm. We were starving, dehydrated, and a little delirious from lack of sleep, but the experience of climbing two of our favorite mountains in a single day, something we never would have thought as being fun or reasonable for us even a couple years earlier, was more than worth it. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Hopefully when we repeat it, we might even be capable of skiing down both mountains!

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Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’

  • Date: November 25, 2018
  • Start: Wahkeena Falls Trailhead, Starvation Creek Trailhead, and Dog Mountain Trailhead
  • Distance: 26.6 miles
  • Duration: 11 hours (commute time between trailheads included)
  • Elevation gain: 10,000 feet
  • Type: Loop (Devil’s Rest) and out-and-back (Defiance and Dog)
  • Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West

A glimmer of daybreak shone faintly in the distance as we moved like shadows through the darkness. I don’t generally like running during non-daylight hours, but the paved, even trail leading to the top of Multnomah Falls presented no threat to my footing and I was able to move with confidence and certainty. We paced ourselves as we climbed switchback after switchback, reminding ourselves that we still had a number of miles and a good chunk of vert ahead of us. Afterall, this was only the beginning of a beautiful first weekend back on some of our favorite gorge trails on the Oregon side since the devastating wildfire over a year prior. What better way to celebrate their reopening and continued healing than with a little adventure run?

Devil’s Rest (8 miles; 2 hours 44 minutes, breaks included)

The Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’ challenge has been on our ultra-running bucket list since before we had even completed an ultra distance! We put off doing it for the longest time though because the gorge is our “backyard” and using our precious weekends to head there instead of a place we’d never explored seemed silly. We took this beautiful place for granted, and it took the Eagle Creek Fire sweeping through this beloved area for us to realize it. Dog Mountain remained open of course since it’s located on the Washington side, and Mount Defiance eventually reopened in the spring or early summer, but Devil’s Rest remained the missing ‘D’. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, we got the good news. After a failed attempt Saturday–which at least allowed us the chance to run up Angel’s Rest–we returned on Sunday determined to push on and put it all together.

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The run up to the top of Multnomah from the Wahkeena Falls Trailhead brought us into the first moments of daylight as we crossed the culvert bridge over the creek. We continued through Dutchman Tunnel and up past Weisendanger Falls, struck with sadness by the sight of the scorched landscape, yet amazed and overjoyed by the vibrant signs of recovery. The gorge was still the gorge, resilient and adaptable in the face of human-induced trauma.

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Above Weisendanger we turned onto Wahkeena Trail for a brief stretch before the gradual ascent to the summit via Devil’s Rest Trail. Upon reaching the treed in high point–characterized by giant, mossy boulders and a seemingly unofficial wooden sign hanging off one of the nearby trees–we grabbed a quick selfie then proceeded to enjoy the long, rewarding downhill back to the car, pausing every so often to savor some sorely missed gorge sights, especially the quaint but magical Fairy Falls. By mid morning, just as many others were beginning their hike up, we were back at the car and ready to tackle the next, and most difficult, ‘D’ of our challenge: Mount Defiance.

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Mount Defiance (11.76 miles; 4 hours 50 minutes, breaks included)

At 4,960 feet, Defiance is considered to be the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge. By itself, it comprises nearly half of the elevation gain for the Triple ‘D’ challenge! We were extremely pleased to be starting the route at a reasonable late morning time. As anticipated, there was very little running involved once we left the Historic Columbia River Highway. The gain was mild at first past Lancaster Falls and through the powerline corridor. Then we entered the forest, where the trail’s notoriety truly begins. It’s unrelenting steepness made even power hiking a struggle at times. Mack and I had only ever hiked Defiance once nearly three years prior. Within those three years I’d somehow managed to downplay the difficulty of the route in my memory.

A couple miles into our crawl up the mountain, we met a hiker coming down and casually inquired about the conditions further up. His response: at least a foot of snow–likely more than that–in the last mile or two before the summit. Oops. I looked down at my blown out Altras covered in holes and also remembered that we’d left our microspikes in the the car. We continued up anyway since we hadn’t reached the snow yet. No point in turning around until we absolutely had to. What started out as a light dusting further up very quickly turned into well over a foot of relatively fresh snow. Fortunately for us, hikers from the past couple of days had packed down a pretty decent boot path that we were able to walk/run on even without the aid of microspikes! Nonetheless it was another important reminder about being better prepared with potentially necessary gear and research regarding snow levels.

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The views over the the final couple of miles were just as stunning as I remembered, especially with Pahto standing guard to the north and Wy’east practically glowing beneath the early afternoon sun to the south. The wintry conditions made things slow going since we weren’t able to run even some of the flatter sections in the deep snow but soon enough the out-of-place radio tower came into view, signaling the end of our second big climb of the day. Our feet were soaked and freezing as we jogged the last few feet to the summit. Our breather at the top lasted all of 30 seconds–enough time to take out my camera and snap a selfie–before we hightailed it out of there, excited to reach dry trail again and warm up/air out our cold, wet shoes, socks, and feet.

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The struggle of the steep climbs and deep snow were forgotten as we flew down the trail with reckless abandon, filled with endless stoke about having completed our second summit. Only one more to go! We were doing it. We were finally doing it. The fog from earlier in the day had lifted at last as we re-entered the powerline corridor. I looked out across the Columbia to the Washington side. The unmistakable bare summit of Dog Mountain was staring right back at me. I smiled and held my gaze. Just a couple more hours.

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Dog Mountain (6.9 miles; 2 hours 9 minutes, breaks included)

The parking lot was nearly empty as we pulled in. Sunset was scheduled for something like 4:30 or 4:40 pm. It was nearing 3:30 as we laced up our shoes for the last time and started up the trail. Our legs were pretty shot by this point, having covered nearly 20 miles and over 7,000 feet of gain since 6:30 am. Our power hike was more of a desperate crawl but at least we were making steady progress. Within the first mile, we passed most of the remaining Dog Mountain hikers as they were descending to their cars. One of them was actually the hiker we’d run into on Defiance who had warned us about the snow! He recognized us and congratulated us on our efforts that day.

Daylight was fading fast at the lower viewpoint, so I decided to snap our “summit selfie” here in the event it was too dark for a real one at the top. It had been a long time since we’d done an adventure that both started and ended in the dark. There’s something so fulfilling about being outside from dawn until dusk, pushing your limits and making every second count. In the final minutes before sunset, we were en route to the summit on the last exposed and winding stretch along the dry meadow grasses.

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Blue hour descended upon us as we completed the last hill and stepped onto the summit. We took a few minutes to let our accomplishment soak in as we stood side by side in complete solitude, reflecting on the millennia of cataclysmic events that led to the remarkable landscape that now lay before us, and how this place will continue to survive and adapt to our constantly changing world long after our generation has passed. How fortunate we are to be seeing so much of it while we’re still here, I thought.

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It wasn’t quite dark enough to warrant headlamps as we began our run down the mountain but we put them on anyways to avoid further breaks and stops. Although the Dog Mountain Trail isn’t nearly has “polished” as the switchbacks heading up Multnomah, I still felt that same sense of security and confidence that I’d experienced in the morning, even when complete darkness finally set in and we were picking our way over rocks and roots. We arrived back at the car within the hour (of leaving the summit), thus concluding our first–of hopefully many–full day run-ventures in the Columbia River Gorge.

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Eldorado Peak

  • Date: August 5, 2018
  • Start: Cascade River Road (mile marker 20)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Duration: 15 hours 30 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: The Mountaineers

Just one more hill. Just one more hill and finally, after 5,000+ feet of climbing (over three miles I should add), we’d finally get a glimpse of the Queen of the Cascade River herself.  My mind and body seemed to forget about the morning’s intense vert once my boots hit the snow of Eldorado Glacier. I scampered up the long incline with a surprising pep in my step, overcome with excitement and impatience. The North Cascades just have that effect it seems, no matter how difficult the journey. Despite getting eaten alive by mosquitos all morning while navigating steep, technical trail with heavy mountaineering gear on our backs; despite the fact that the blue skies were choked with wildfire smoke and a veil of haze transformed many of the surrounding peaks into mere sihouettes; despite being hours away from finishing and another several hours from home, I felt nothing but pure, unadulterated joy as I stood on the edge of Inspiration Glacier and gazed in wonder at the classic East Ridge of Eldorado Peak.

When Ali threw out the idea of climbing Eldorado together just a few days earlier, I didn’t think twice before enthusiastically responding ‘yes.’ So what that we’d just driven all the way up here the weekend before for a Dakobed C2C? So what that we had a week-long California trip to plan for starting three days later? Mountain conditions were looking fantastic and there was no way I was going to turn down a North Cascades alpine adventure, especially another C2C of a peak I’d been dying to climb for over a year. On Saturday night we met up for dinner at Marblemount Diner following a long afternoon on the road, then caravanned up Cascade River Road to the familiar lot at mile marker 20. We set our alarms and braced ourselves for the early morning wake-up.

Shortly before 5 am we found ourselves carefully scrambling across the slick log over North Fork Cascade River and making our way into the dense forest by the light of our headlamps. As anticipated, the trail was incredibly steep and covered in thick tree roots that snaked across the narrow boot path, creating something of a staircase in sections. Reaching the boulder field and exiting the darkness of the forest was a relief, especially with views of Johannesburg, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets to greet us. Of course this section wasn’t without its downsides. If navigating the boulders wasn’t slow going enough, we also had vicious, persistent mosquitoes to contend with.

Soon enough though we were back on actual trail, hiking past waterfalls and continuing up a slope of mountain heather and granite slabs. Completely unobstructed, jaw-dropping views to the south made it difficult to leave Eldorado Basin. I probably could’ve spent all day sprawled out on some granite staring at the mountains surrounded by pink mountain heather blooms with only the sound of rushing water to keep me company. Instead, we followed the path up to the ridge on our left, then traversed and dropped down into Roush Basin via a class 3 gully. At least the first half of our approach was officially complete.

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Looking out toward Cascade Pass

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Easier going up than down

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Sunbathing, hoping for food scraps, or both?

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Johannesburg from Eldorado Basin

After a bit more scrambling at the base of the gully we crossed into the basin and dropped our packs upon reaching a flat section to sit and enjoy a well deserved snack break. It was mid to late morning now and we still had close to 3,000 feet of gain and a glacier to cross. I refrained from dwelling on it too much and savored my chocolate GU, as well as the view of the surrounding landscape. Large swathes of crevasses appeared scattered in patches on Eldorado Glacier. I observed the group ahead of us heading onto the glacier, taking note of their path for when we reached it.

No longer on steep terrain, we moved quickly across the granite basin, donned our crampons at the edge of the snow, and began another uphill stretch. The snow was already quite soft but it was thankfully still possible to kick steps without sliding backward or expending more energy than necessary. Johannesburg was back in sight behind us, a pleasant distraction from the continuous incline whenever I did turn around. Most of the time though, I kept my eyes on the horizon in front of me, eagerly anticipating the first view of Eldorado. One final climb above the ice cliff  and my wish was finally granted.

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Setting up the timer on my camera

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Snack break in Roush Basin

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Hiking up Eldorado Glacier

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Mack and the ice cliff

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Admiring the East Ridge

We all paused for a moment as we stood at the meeting of the two glaciers, soaking in the scene, knowing it would only become more magical as we neared the summit of the peak before us. I could also see Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak further north across Inspiration Glacier. Another reason to plan a future climbing adventure in this area. We enjoyed the flat-ish traverse across Inspiration to reach a gap on the East Ridge where we got off the snow and took another break to eat, reapply sunscreen, and rope up for the final push.

Through the gap and back on the snow it was all uphill again. There were only a handful of visible crevasses and the boot path skirted around them easily enough. Part of me wished we hadn’t roped up with what seemed like little crevasse fall risk, but I knew I’d probably appreciate it once we were on the exposed knife edge. After what felt like a relatively quick ascent (although it probably took us longer than it felt), we were standing at the base of the infamous knife edge, anxiously waiting our turn to ascend while a pair of climbers ahead of us finished their descent.

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Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak

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East Ridge

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Ali and Brad on Inspiration Glacier with Moraine Lake far below

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Climbers descending the knife edge

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Although not as terrifying or intimidating as I thought it would be (granted it had been packed down significantly at this point in the season), the traverse of the knife edge was by far the most exhilarating part of the entire climb, especially with the long runouts on either side of us. At the top of the edge, the route plateaued and widened all the way to the rocky summit at its conclusion. The group ahead of us was just starting to traverse back across and descend, so we lucked out with the summit to ourselves! It was around 1:30 pm when we finally dropped our packs on the summit, just over 8.5 hours since crossing North Fork Cascade River in the dark!

The sky was still hazy as ever, but the “endless sea of peaks” view that I’ve come to find typical of the North Cascades had not been tarnished. Just like I had on Sahale, I dreamt of future climbing endeavors as I stared off into these isolated, rugged ranges, wondering what challenges and mysteries they held. Maybe one day I’ll see for myself. We took some obligatory summit photos, grabbed another quick bite to eat, then booked it down (carefully of course ) the knife edge and glacier, looking forward to unroping back at the gap. My absolute favorite view of the entire approach was on this section of Inspiration Glacier: Moraine Lake, a delightful turquoise gem, with the towering Torment-Forbidden traverse watching over it from high above.

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Best part of the climb hands down

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Summit!

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Ali and Brad descending the knife edge

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Not even the smoky haze could ruin this view

Back at the gap we packed up the glacier gear and (surprise, surprise) ate more snacks. We still had a ways back to the car afterall! Mack and Ali also took advantage of the composting toilet here. Although I didn’t see it with my own two eyes, they both swore it provided one of the best backcountry bathroom views either of them had ever experienced. Better than digging a hole or packing it out, too! We were all pretty exhausted now, especially with the heavy afternoon sun beating down on us, but at least the snow was easy on our joints as we lost elevation quickly. We made it back to Roush Basin just after 2:30 and, with how quickly we were moving, thought that we might actually make it back to our cars by or before 7 pm! Naturally, I was wrong.

Navigating back through Roush Basin to scramble up the gully and regain Eldorado Basin wasn’t terribly difficult, but I was starting to feel some aching in my knees and even moreso in my poor toes getting shoved to the front of my boots. Ali suggested I take some ibuprofen but I said it wasn’t that bad and I could probably make it back to the car without too much pain. Wrong again of course. The unforgiving nature of granite took its toll on my body almost immediately as we started through the dreaded boulder fields. I struggled to keep up and eventually asked Mack (read: chided him for not noticing how far behind I’d fallen in the first place) to stay closer or hike behind me so I didn’t get separated from everyone.

Ali and Brad continued on down, seemingly unaffected by the steep grade after so many hours spent on our feet. I envied their energy but kept putting one foot in front of the other as best I could, cursing the entirety of the final half mile. Once the river came into view though, the pain seemed to diminish. Ali and Brad had finished a few minutes earlier and were now soaking their sore feet and legs in the water, celebratory beers in hand. It was just around 8:20 pm, and a six hour drive back home (as well as work the following morning) awaited all of us. Steep climbing and marathon driving. Signs of another exhausting but perfect North Cascades weekend, this time made even better by the presence of friends who also find  joy and worth in long, challenging days in the mountains. Now to plan our next North Cascades double date alpine adventure…

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Back in the beautiful Eldorado Basin

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Black Peak

  • Date: September 7, 2018
  • Start: Rainy Pass Trailhead
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 35 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: SummitPost

My phone alarm went off like a blaring siren, filling the confined space in the back of my Crosstrek. I fumbled frantically in the dark for it, embarrassed that I was disturbing the rare silence and solitude in the normally crowded Rainy Pass Trailhead. After turning it off (as well as all the subsequent alarms I had set), I pulled my sleeping bag and blanket back over my face. I wasn’t feeling sleep deprived. In fact, I was quite awake and ready to greet the day. What I wasn’t ready for was setting off alone on a trail I’d never been on and scrambling up a peak I’d never navigated before. It was my final weekend before full-time work started again though, so I wasn’t about to let fear ruin my last climbing adventure of the summer.

My on-a-whim solo trip to the North Cascades began two nights earlier. I set out from Portland late Wednesday night in hopes of soloing Mount Shuksan on Thursday. Unfortunately, I underestimated my ability to stay awake for the entirety of the drive and ended up having to make several nap stops. I made it to the trailhead much later than expected/was ideal but attempted the climb anyways. I only made it as far as the glacier, turning around just before high camp.

I was disappointed, convinced that my solo endeavor was ruined, and planned to hightail it back to Portland, probably moping the entire way. However, after a much needed stress-free nap back in the car, I realized how silly I was being and decided to head out further east to attempt my contingency climb, Black Peak. I made some last ditch efforts to find a partner to go with so I wouldn’t have to climb alone but none panned out. However, as I watched the sun set behind Ruby Mountain, savoring the last rays of light as they danced across the surface of Diablo Lake, I knew that going at this alone was exactly what I needed.

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Magnificent Koma Kulshan while heading up to Shuksan

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Trying to have some fun with a self-timed jump shot after calling it quits

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Sunset over Diablo Lake 

As expected, the trail was empty when I set off shortly after 7:30 am. My senses were heightened. I found myself constantly turning around, jumping at every snapped twig and rustle in the brush. The first mile and a half passed quickly and soon I was out of the trees, feeling a little less on edge, and overlooking Heather Lake. The fall colors for which the Heather-Maple Pass area is famous were just starting to reveal themselves. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how vibrant they’d be in a few short weeks.  I left the loop trail and continued on to Lewis Lake. A brief jaunt through a meadow brought me to my first view of Black Peak. The pictures I’d seen while researching the scramble didn’t do justice to the rugged, yet simple, beauty of this peak. Only a long stretch of boulder fields and two alpine lakes lay between me and the final approach.

I felt like an ant in the ocean of boulders leading to Lewis Lake. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to end up on a worn path of sorts, but most of the time I was carefully picking my way through endless unstable rocks. After a few solid ups and downs, I finally reached Lewis Lake. Although the view of Black Peak from the eastern shore was stunning, I didn’t find the lake all that impressive. Then, I made my way around to the western side (in order to continue to Wing Lake) and turned around to get one last look. What a difference. It’s milky aqua green tint was like nothing I’d ever seen. The variety of colors surrounding the water (from the bright red huckleberry leaves and forest green to the glistening pale grey of the granite field) only enhanced its mesmerizing qualities. Every couple of feet I would turn around and snap photo after photo of the scene from this angle.

The scenery only continued to improve as I climbed the steep, technical trail leading to Wing Lake. I still hadn’t seen another soul, and, to my surprise, I was actually delighted! The sun was shining, skies were blue, and layers upon layers of mountains filled my immediate view. I didn’t need an adventure companion in this moment to be content. It felt good to realize how happy and confident/competent I was by myself. It was late morning (between 10 and 10:30 maybe) when I crested the final hill and Wing Lake came into view. I stopped along the shore for a snack break. The remainder of the climb was now completely visible to me so I studied it while I sucked down a GU. So close but still a ways to go, I concluded.

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Lake Ann

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Lewis Lake with Black Peak in the background

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Favorite angle of Lewis Lake

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Wing Lake with Black Peak towering above

I briefly enjoyed some runnable singletrack before hitting the loose rock of the moraine above Wing Lake. It became more of a trudge (but an enjoyable trudge!) from there to the summit. After doing my best to make quick work of the short and steep switchbacks on the moraine, I scampered across the soft snow to end up just below a col on the south ridge. The only thing that stood between us? An intimidating, particularly steep, scree slope. Even getting up was a little nerve-wracking. Not only was the surface level rock incredibly loose, but the layer was shallow with slick rock underneath. There was practically no solid rock to grab onto whenever I started to slide. I tried not to think about the descent once I finally made it to the top of the col.

The rest of the way was far more enjoyable. More scrambling over solid rock and less scree sliding. The lakes below were mere dots against the mountainous terrain now. I could also finally see some of my favorite peaks further west. The jagged outlines of Goode, Storm King, and Logan were at the forefront, but I swore I could even make out Buckner and Sahale beyond them. Either way it was an endless sea of peaks that stretched so far back I couldn’t distinguish where the sky met their summits.

After ascending a gully, I followed a slightly more worn “path” to the east (which matched descriptions that I’d read about the final traverse to the summit scramble), finally passing the first person I’d seen all day: a female mountain runner heading down from the summit. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and, after bringing up my lack of enthusiasm regarding the steep scree slope below the col, she kindly suggested a slightly better (though still sketchy) way down. I thanked her and we continued on our separate ways. A few minutes later, I ran into a male hiker also heading down from the summit. We stopped and chatted briefly. He’d been up at the summit since about sunrise–it was already around noon when I saw him–soaking in the beautiful weather and views while enjoying a summit beer. The mountain runner I’d passed earlier was the only person he’d seen all day as well. I continued on and smiled, knowing I’d have the fortune of an empty summit.

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Wing Lake and Corteo Peak

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View of the scree slope from the top of the col

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Gully scramble

The “path” ended at a short fourth class pitch to the summit. I laid my trekking poles at the base of the pitch and scrambled up. It was 12:15 pm, just over four and half hours since I’d started out. I used the inReach to message Mack to let him know that I’d made it to the summit then wandered along the summit ridge to see what I could see. I was certain I could discern the North Cascades Highway far below to the east. It’s always amazing to see your entire route laid out before you. For me, at least, it almost always appears more difficult than it actually felt. I mean, had I really started all the way from that skinny little line snaking its way through the valley far below? I felt a tinge of pride, but, more than anything, I felt gratitude, especially toward this spectacular mountain who allowed me this beautiful day of climbing.

I stayed on the summit for an hour. I could see why the other hiker had chosen to stay even longer than that. Without my trusty Instagram husband to take pictures for me, I used my mini-tripod to capture some fun summit “selfies” (it’s still a selfie if it’s a self-timed shot, right?). My favorite shots though were of the surrounding mountains by themselves, without the interference of my presence. After one final round of gazing in admiration and amazement, I packed everything up again, scrambled down to my trekking poles, and picked my way back to the col. From there, I stayed a bit more to the left (climber’s right) and found more opportunities for scree skiing since it was deep enough that I wasn’t skidding across the slick rock as often. It still took me a solid 20 minutes to make it down to the snowfield, but from there I was gleefully running, knowing that I’d made it through the crux.

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Lewis & Wing Lakes from the summit

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Views to the west

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Mountains upon mountains

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Mount Goode

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Once past the slow going loose rock of the moraine, I picked up my pace on the singletrack and even on some of the technical downhill leading to Lewis Lake, only once slamming my knee into a granite boulder (which I have a nice little scar as a result). My pace slowed again at the giant boulder field, especially since it was actually more uphill than downhill to get back to the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail. Rain clouds were building up behind me, but I was still in the clear.

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Made it safely down the scree slope

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Wing Lake

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Lewis Lake

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Enjoying the view of Black Peak while I still have it

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Back on more well groomed trail following the boulder field, I finally got to do what felt like actual running. I took one more longing look at Black Peak as I crossed the meadow, still in awe that I’d been up there looking out on this spot just a couple short hours earlier. I smiled ‘goodbye’ and sped past the Heather-Maple pass junction, past the expected hordes of people, stopping occasionally for a photo here and there, but mainly just running, uninhibited and full of joy. And that’s how I finished my final North Cascades adventure of the summer, filled with joy, excitement, gratitude, an insatiable desire to return as soon as possible, and certainty that I would be back to share this adventure with Mack.

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Meadow leading back to the junction

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Lake Ann

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Signs of fall!

Sahale Mountain

  • Date: July 15, 2018
  • Start: Cascade Pass Trailhead (three miles prior due to road closure)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 19 miles (6-mile round-trip addition because of road closure)
  • Duration: 14 hours 41 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: SummitPost

My headlamp cast a long beam of light into the darkness. Besides Mack walking by my side, it was all I had to comfort me on the stretch of closed road leading to the trailhead. I’m used to alpine starts and hiking in the dark (even by myself!), but I’m used to being out in the open, on the slopes of Wy’east where I feel safe beneath the moonlight or starlit sky illuminating the snowfield beneath my feet. The dense forest that Cascade River Road runs through made me feel vulnerable and nervous about what could be lurking behind the trees or in the brush. I felt more and more confident as we neared the three mile mark though, knowing we’d finally be at the trailhead and starting the switchbacks up to Cascade Pass. Then the beam of light from my forehead hit it. A pair of glowing eyes, low to the ground, looked intently at me from the brush and trees on the side of the road.

We started our hike from the mile marker 20 gate closure at 3 am with heavy eyelids, excited for daylight and the sight of breathtaking mountains. It was an uneventful hike until those glowing eyes. I stopped breathing at the sight of them. “Mack…what is that?” He followed my gaze and saw them too. We began yelling and clacking our poles together. The eyes, a mere 20-30 feet from where we were standing, remained unwavering for the first several seconds. Then, the animal leapt out and took off up the road. Mack was convinced it was only a deer, but I swore I saw a long tail catch the light of my headlamp when it darted away. We hiked up cautiously, still making noise. A minute or two later, the eyes were back, again peering out from the side of the road. If I wasn’t petrified with fear at the first sighting, I sure was now. We shouted even louder this time and after a few moments it took off again. To our relief, we didn’t see those eyes a third time, but the damage was done. I was a nervous wreck for the next hour or so until sunrise. Mack was still under the impression that we’d seen a deer, so the uncomfortably close encounter wasn’t affecting him.

Daylight brought a renewed confidence and we were already about halfway up the long series of switchbacks to Cascade Pass. Our energy only increased as we stepped out of the forest, done with the switchbacks, with a complete view of Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets, sunlight slowly spilling down their sheer rocky cliffs. The sound of rocks crashing down their steep slopes filled the air and reminded us that we were indeed in a beautiful, but also rugged and dangerous mountain range not to be taken lightly. We stopped for a short snack break at Cascade Pass, the first leg of our approach finally complete. Light had yet to fill the valley below us, but Mixup Peak, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak were already soaking it in. I traced the beginning of the Ptarmigan Traverse–something I really want to make happen next summer!–with my finger before it disappeared behind Magic Mountain. We left Cascade Pass Trail and began the trek up to Sahale Arm.

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After a few more switchbacks we finally reached the ridge and were rewarded with our first view of Sahale Mountain. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t find it to be that aesthetically pleasing with it’s disproportionately small and pointed nubbin of a summit in relation to the vastness of the rest of the mountain. Of course this didn’t affect my feelings about climbing it! I was beyond excited to put my alpine scrambling skills to the test and rappel off a mountain for the first time ever.

The views only continued to improve as we hiked up to Sahale Glacier Camp. As we gradually climbed the undulating ridge, we got glimpses of Doubtful Lake, sparkling beneath the mid-morning sun far below us. Mountains upon mountains towered high above deep, forested river valleys on either side of us, and the meadow-covered Sahale Arm felt like a scene straight out of an enchanted fairytale kingdom. The final section up to the camp was a steep climb over scree and large, loose rocks (typical North Cascades terrain). We pushed to the camp area as quickly as we could manage and sat down at the edge of the glacier, giving ourselves a breather before tackling the final part of the climb.

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First view of Sahale!

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Looking back along the ridge

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Doubtful Lake far below

We chatted with another group that had just returned from their climb as we strapped our brand new aluminum crampons to our trail runners (the first time ever we’d be crossing a glacier with such minimal, lightweight footwear!). From the beta they provided us, I realized they most likely climbed the wrong peak (neither Boston nor Sahale) but decided not to say anything. (Note: The USGS bench mark on Sahale is marked as ‘Boston’ and this group didn’t know that prior to climbing) We scanned the glacier before stepping onto it, noting only one open crevasse that was well off the current boot path, and opted not to rope up to save time and move faster. Aside from one steep snow section on the southeast side approaching the summit block, the glacier and snow portion was pretty mellow. Once on the rock we dropped our packs and grabbed only what we’d need to rappel, as well as my camera to take some pictures. I may or may not have felt slightly badass coiling our rope into a backpack and wearing it up as I scrambled. Another first! We traversed over to the north side and scurried up the final fourth class pitch with ease. After nearly eight hours, we were finally standing on the summit of our first non-volcanic peak in the North Cascades.

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Power hiking up Sahale Glacier

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Scrambling the summit block

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I was a kid in a candy shop looking out on these beloved mountains. My alpine goals grew exponentially as I scanned the neighboring ridge lines, gazing in awe at Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, Sharkfin Tower, Boston Peak, and Mount Buckner. One day soon, I thought. One day soon. We reveled in our successful summit a few moments longer, committing to memory our excitement and exaltation, as well as the incomparable beauty of the surrounding peaks. Back on the south side, we triple checked the quality of some slings left in place then went about setting up the rappel. Mack rapped down first so I could check his set up before he took his first steps off the edge. I followed a few minutes later. We conveniently landed next to the gear we’d stashed earlier and quickly repacked for our return to the glacier camp. The steep snow below the summit block required some patience and focus but from there we enjoyed a fast and easy descent. We made it back around lunch time and lounged around the glacier camp while we feasted on candy and sandwiches.

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Summit selfie with Boston Peak photobombing behind us

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Boston Peak and Mount Buckner connected by Ripsaw Ridge

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Boston Peak, Sharkfin Tower, and Forbidden Peak

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Looking toward Mount Buckner 

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Rapping off the summit

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Watching as two other climbers head up

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Trail runners with C.A.M.P aluminum crampons worked great!

The hike back to the car took longer than expected mainly because I’d decided to save most of the picture taking of the Sahale Arm for the hike out. Of course, once we entered the forest after Cascade Pass and began the infinite switchbacks down to the trailhead, we were desperate to get back to the car. The most tortuous section of the entire day (aside from waiting for daylight after our suspected cougar encounter) came when we reached the parking lot and remembered that we still had just over three miles left due to the road closure. Not even the views of Johannesburg could inspire me to enjoy this final stretch. We dragged our tired bodies through the late afternoon heat, finally shuffling past the closed gate to our car shortly after 5:30 pm. Despite the six hour drive back home (and work the next morning), all I could think about was the fact that we’d just spent an entire day among the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever laid eyes on and that my dream of alpine climbing in the North Cascades was slowly but surely becoming a reality.

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Hiking back down on talus with Doubtful Lake peeking out below

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Looking out at Eldorado (next objective!), the peak on the far right

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Enjoying your meal there, Mr. Goat?

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Taking in the view of Sahale Arm

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Back at Cascade Pass

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Road walk back to the car in the hot afternoon sun