Sunday, September 19, 2010

Above the clouds

“A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed...It feels an impulsion...this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons.” -- Richard Bach

A ranger advised against hiking to the summit of Mount Pilchuck, citing a possible turn in weather and a high likelihood of getting lost and becoming a headache for the local search and rescue volunteers. OK, he may not have used those exact words but they were implied. So, of course, the warning became a challenge and the adventure began.

The 5,324-foot peak is perched on the western edge of the Cascades and features panaromic views from an old fire lookout constructed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1991. Starting on a service road to nearby ski slopes, the trail winds through a hemlock forest and jumps over a tiny creek (Pilchuck DOES mean “red creek…”) before entering Mount Pilchuck State Park. There were no fences or other boundaries, just a small wooden sign to advise hikers who are paying enough attention.

Within a half mile, I broke out of the forest into a garden of granite and began picking my way over the boulders. The trail wasn’t particularly strenuous (2,200-feet elevation gain) but it was tedious to constantly step on and over rocks. But the views overlooked distant jagged peaks and soon enough I was higher than the clouds. Blue sky even made an appearance.

The path wrapped around the mountain and ratcheted up the climbing along the ridge, offering brief glimpses of brown water pools below and clusters of yellow cedars. After one last boulder scramble, the lookout came into sight. The building is glass-paneled and was staffed until the 1960s. As I stood at the base of the boulders it sat atop, I could barely see anything but the white roof and the ladder extending down.

Once at the top though, what a view! I could see dozens of mountains I couldn’t identify and some I could, like Rainier and Baker and Three Fingers. It was my first look at the Cascades and Olympics and I was one happy hiker. Outside of the lookout, someone had draped a colorful line of flags. An inquisitive chipmunk scampered inside, hoping for crumbs or maybe just wanting some company.

It was hard to pull myself away from the mystical setting but storm clouds were rolling in and it was more than three miles back down. As it turns out, my timing was impeccable because the sky opened up just as I set foot in the parking lot.

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