Friday, February 25, 2011

Foiled by Mother Nature and the stupidity of man

This was a painful climb. No, it wasn’t the 3,200-foot elevation gain we were going to make up Mount Ellinor. Nor was it the two hour drive at the crack of dawn to reach the mountain with glorious views of the Hood Canal, Olympic wilderness and Lake Cushman. This was the pain of defeat.

Our group had every piece of winter equipment you could think of in preparation for the 7-mile climb. We jammed crampons, ice axes, shovels, extra clothing, compasses and gobs of chocolate and granola into our packs. But we were doomed before we started. The hardly-used road that leads to Mount Ellinor had several feet of snow covering it. The car we were in did not have much clearance. And although we gunned it and made it roughly two miles up the road out of sheer determination, it wasn’t long before the engine started smoking and we had to pull to the side. It was then that the shovels were appreciated. They got a lot of use removing snow from beneath the car and building a little runway that we could push the car onto and angle it downhill for our inevitable departure.

Now three miles and nearly two hours behind schedule, there was little chance of summiting Mount Ellinor. But we decided to start walking and see where the day led us. It took us over a road compacted with snow and past glimpses of Lake Cushman below. We shoed past mini waterfalls covered with icicles and finally arrived at a wooden sign announcing the trail. With deep sighs and checks of our watches, we started up the steep mountain face.

I saw thousands and thousands of trees weighted down by the fresh snow. I saw mounds of snow piled up along our uphill path. And I saw a bit of mercy when we decided to return to the car after a mere five miles (10 miles roundtrip) because one person was tired, one was paranoid about avalanches and I could barely feel my fingers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Calm and clear to Reflection

If every day was like today, I’d be spoiled. The conditions were ideal, allowing for unbelievable views while hiking out to Reflection and Louise lakes. The 7-mile jaunt starts behind Narada Falls in Mount Rainier National Park, winding up a small hill before dumping out on a forest road that shuts down in the winter so snowshoers and cross-country skiers can have their fun.

After a mile of marveling at the breathtaking views that have been obscured by snowstorms every other time I’ve taken this trail, I came across a fox hole. I cautiously peered inside but the tunnel went pretty deep into the snow and there was no sign of black beady eyes staring back at me.

We made it to Reflection Lake (1.5 miles in) with great ease and spent a few moments tossing almonds and granola for the aggressive gray jays that dive-bombed us from the trees. Then we kept trekking, around the lake to the second lake before turning uphill and climbing between the trees. The hope was to find a peak of some kind but daylight was ticking by so we ate a quick lunch and carefully made our way back down.

Looking for slightly different scenery, we took an alternate route back and gave Mazama Ridge a try. More forest, a few slogs uphill, a quick downhill slide and we were back where we started. Except this time, there were foxes! A very mellow brown fox and a more skittish black fox were creeping around the base of the hill above the falls.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Snow, after hours

The idea of camping in the snow had never occurred to me. Lugging a pack heavier than I am while trudging up steep hills, digging a pit for the tent, collecting moss and dry branches for a fire, hunkering down while wild winds blow the top of the tent every which way - all of this was foreign to me.

Since I was a newbie, we settled on spending the weekend in Silver Basin, which is a few short miles above the ski runs at Crystal Mountain. I had no qualms about shoving extra items into my bulging pack as we stood in the parking. Of course I needed fleece pants, two bags of Dove chocolate, hand soap and lotion… But as soon as that bag was strapped onto my back, my entire body pitched backward and I nearly toppled over. I stubbornly readjusted and started hoofing it up the ski run, careful to avoid the speeding snowboarders as they came around corners.

I can now say from an entirely new perspective, ski runs are steep. Even bunny slopes are a challenge if you’re heading up instead of down. The snow was icy and my boots didn’t have much traction, causing me to repeatedly slip and silently pray that my overloaded pack wouldn’t knock me over. On one of our several stops heading uphill, I gulped from my water bottle before handing it to a friend to shove back in one of my side pockets. I let it go before his fingers grasped it and the bottle dropped and started sliding. My reflexes had me lunging forward. Thankfully, he snatched the back of my bag and pulled me upright before I tumbled down the slope after the bottle.

We eventually made it up the ski slopes, and after another mile or so, ended up in Silver Basin. It’s a wide valley with Three Way Peak looming above and a mostly covered creek following the path. We set up camp in a stand of trees to keep us hidden from passersby, though there weren’t many since a storm was forecast to hit that night. Several feet of powder fell that evening and the winds (we later learned) were gusting more than 70 mph, but I had cabin fever so I went for the most magical walk of my life. There was something about being completely alone in the wilderness, snow swirling all around me, with only the moonlight to guide my steps as I headed up the middle of the valley toward a hill I was dying to glissade down.

Hiking took a backseat this weekend while I learned how to build a snow cave, shovel a campsite and start fires au natural. But the experience was more fulfilling than most of the sights I’ve discovered so far.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A hidden gem

This was a short jaunt up a gentle slope to June Lake, a shallow pool located on the southern flank of Mount St. Helen. The trail was full of dirty, compacted snow and led our group through the woods for about two miles before popping out onto a lava flow. It was difficult to truly appreciate the lava flow since several feet of snow covered the ground but there were plenty of lava rocks dotting the broad field. Within minutes (and a Snickers bar later), we arrived at the lake, which was nestled against a stand of trees with a little waterfall barely visible through the mist.
St. Helen was obscured by the weather - as were the rest of the views - but finding this little gem made the day worth it.