Friday, April 29, 2011

Steepest summit yet

Distance: Unknown. Somewhere between 5-8 miles

Elevation gain: About 3,700 feet

Even for those who regularly climb, Mount Teneriffe isn’t well-known because it is overshadowed by nearby Mount Si. But Mount Teneriffe - which tops out at 4,800 feet - is higher, steeper, more treacherous and offers a chance at solitude that few peaks can.

There’s no parking lot, no signage, just a locked gate at the start of a dirt road in a North Bend neighborhood. The climb is slow and gradual over a network of dirt roads and into a shadowy forest. It isn’t long before the terrain becomes overrun with slick boulders that cut into a series of switchbacks. Once I huffed and puffed my way back into the trees, pausing periodically to peer through the fog at the town below, the narrow path shot upward as rain began to fall.

In a mile or so, I reached Teneriffe Falls and carefully picked my way over a small hill to catch a glimpse of the thundering falls. It was too steep and slippery for me to get right next to the waterfall but even through the branches, the tumbling water looked magnificent. After another few hundred feet of elevation gain, the rain transformed into snow and the temperature noticeably dropped.

It was about then that the trail disappeared into the snow and I began climbing straight up, navigating over a knifepoint and shooting up the mountain. Slowly. There were several feet of snow on the ground and when I’d lose my footing every once in a while, I’d end up thigh-deep in white powder. Within 500 feet of the summit, we began postholing to the point where we considered turning around. But we just couldn’t do it, knowing we were so close.

We reached the mountaintop after a little more than two hours. It was the most anticlimactic climbing moment I’ve had. There was nothing to see but white in every direction and I couldn’t even shimmy to the edge and look over due to the possible cornice danger. So I skirted to a ridge and looked down a few feet before chalking the day up to a summit rather than scenery and heading back to warmth.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Wallace Falls, Lake kept going and going...

Location: Wallace Falls State Park
Distance: 12 miles

Any hike that starts off with the words of William Wordsworth is up my alley. The trek to Wallace Falls and Lake did not disappoint – even if I was a little uneasy as we approached the trailhead with the high-voltage power lines buzzing loudly above. The path is a popular one, located at a state park in the hamlet of Gold Bar, and is incredibly well-maintained.

The Woody Trail leads through a dank forest with the rushing of the nearby river almost immediately audible. A series of pretty cascades to the left tempt passersby away from the main attraction, the first of which is 1.5 miles up the easy grade. The lower falls offers the closest exposure and it was fascinating to see the water tumble into the pool below and then further narrow through a chasm into the roiling river.

We left the river behind as we began climbing to the middle falls, a mere half mile ahead. The ground was covered with boughs of ferns and moss-shrouded trees towered overhead, keeping the mist and small raindrops to a minimum. The middle falls was by far the best show. At 265 feet, it could be seen even from the parking lot and beckons to those who might contemplate stopping at the lower cascade. The overlook was drenched but provided spectacular views.

After the impressive show put on by the middle falls, reaching the lower falls was a bit anti-climatic. The last 500 feet became steeper as we climbed but the upper falls was even less impressive than the lower. We headed back down the muddy path, veering slightly to the left at a junction to pick up the Railroad Grade for a change of scenery.

I shouldn’t have looked at the map. It told me that Wallace Lake was a mere 2.5 miles beyond that. And with little hesitation, we turned back up the slope and wound our way through an increasingly damp forest, crossed a DNR road and carefully picked our way across deep mud puddles before reaching the still lake.

It was hard to get a good glimpse of at first. Soggy logs and leaves blocked my view as I stood on the bridge craning my neck. But a quick walk along the gravel path led me to a clearing where I could stand in the goop and see the raindrops hitting the water, disturbing the previous stillness. Well worth an extra five miles, if you ask me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

All lakes in winter are the same

I selected Talapus Lake because my guide book dubbed it “most difficult.” I anticipated a thigh-burning trek uphill where I could enjoy a snowy forest and challenging workout. The difficult I hadn’t intended (or desired) was another go at route-finding.

The forest road leading to the trailhead hadn’t been plowed so we parked on the side and walked the last two miles to a wooden board displaying a map of the area. Since the trail to Talapus Lake is only 7 miles roundtrip (including the hike from our car), I held out hope that we could push on and check out Ollalie Lake as well. Several feet of pristine powder covered the trail but we followed the creek and gazed at how much snow had accumulated on the branches. It doesn’t appear many people wander this route in the winter.

Since a storm was predicted to roll in this afternoon, and with the whiteout at Muir fresh in our minds, we tied markers to tree limbs and trunks to ensure we could find our way back if the weather turned. Before long, the trail was invisible and we were guessing which direction to go. Remembering the guide description, I led us into a valley, quickly past several avalanche slopes and tried to stick to the icy creek’s side as we navigated.

When the snow hit thigh-level, I slapped on my snowshoes and pitied my friend’s chocolate Labrador Retriever that was practically buried as he struggled to keep up. It was a relief when we came across a sign nailed to a tree, urging us on to the lake. Within a quarter mile, we found ourselves staring out at the iced over lake nestled in the valley. All lakes look the same in the winter, and this trip reminded me of why I turned from hiking to climbing this season: better scenery.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Placid beach

State parks in Washington provide little opportunity for serious hiking or climbing, but they’re just right for leisurely strolls. I was on the Key Peninsula for a story and had some time to kill while waiting for a woman to return to her Lakebay home (futilely, as it turned out) so I moseyed down to Joemma Beach, which was within a block of the waterfront house.

It was a rare sunny day and the water was cool and calm, disturbed only by an occasional ripple from a pair of brown geese paddling by. The 122-acre marine park features big, eroding hillsides, a thin swath of both pebble and sand shoreline and hazy views of peaks in the distance. Standing on the pier – where many apparently come for crabbing – was an awfully pleasant way to pass the time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The flatness of Mud Mountain

Distance: 7 miles or so

Looking for a short, close-to-home hike I could squeeze in before I work drew me to the Mud Mountain Dam River Trail in Enumclaw. There were no magnificent sights and the brown river could only be seen at a distance, but there wasn’t much climbing and I could relax into my surroundings.

The path started near a recreation area (doubt that was around when the Army Corp of Engineers built the dam in the 1940s) and swooped into a thicket of trees, providing occasional glimpses of the river if I hopped over the safety fences to peer over the eroding ridges. The first mile and a half stayed flat and took me through some muddy marshes where beautiful yellow flowers were blooming in the shallow pools. And though the views hardly compared to some of my other adventures, I was excited to get a peek of a cascading waterfall on the other side of the river.

By mile 2, the trail began crossing abandoned logging roads and eventually led to a meadow. Apparently storm damage has washed away the rest of the trail, which is all the same since I wouldn’t have had time to finish all 11 miles before clocking in at the newsroom. Instead of turning around and heading back the way I came, I detoured down random logging roads in search of a view that would leave me with the “summit” feeling of the hike.

Satisfied after climbing a muddy ridge to gaze out on an amber-colored valley dotted with felled trees, I followed the road back to the trail and reclaimed the river as my companion. Even such a simple outing beats being behind a desk!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Whiteout danger on the mountain

I’ve had my sights set on Camp Muir since summiting Mt. Rainier landed on my “to-do” list last summer. Friends warned me that it was an all-day trip into a world of ice and rock (halfway up Rainier) but I was eager to test my altitude aptitude and see how well my body handled climbing to 10,000 feet. I emerged from this expedition a little shaken with a slight fear of the mountain, great confidence in my physical abilities and a reminder that preparedness is often the line between adventure and disaster.

We started out beneath a clear, blue sky and immediately started sweating as we headed uphill from Paradise. Temperatures hovered in the mid-70s and glacier glasses were necessary to protect our eyes from the blinding brightness reflecting off the snow. The trail stretched up the flank of Rainier and after nearly two miles, we reached Panorama Point. Since the avalanche danger was particularly high today, rangers had set out ascenders to help out the few heading up and over the rocky slopes.

The trail quickly fell away and there was only a boot path through the Muir snowfield. It was apparent that routefinding skills would be critical as we climbed along the face of the snowfield for 2.5 miles, still enjoying the warm weather and stunning views. I was elated to shed my beanie, gloves and multiple layers for the day (though the excruciating sunburn on my neck and ears wasn’t worth it in the end).

By the time we’d reached Camp Muir, a large white cloud loomed in the distance from where we’d just come. Within a half hour, snow was falling rapidly and the winds had picked up. By the time we landed back on the snowfield and picked up the few trail markers we’d put out, we were stuck in a whiteout. Seeing more than a few feet in front of us was impossible. The powder had turned to ice and I repeatedly slipped and went crashing down on a knee. An ice axe became my most cherished possession. Our boot path had disappeared and we wandered aimlessly for more than an hour, scouting slopes that we could possibly skirt down and turning back when the ice proved too dangerous.

It was about this time that I developed a newfound respect for the mountain and the technical skills needed to summit. Since night was just around the corner, we retraced our steps until we found campers who could point us in the right direction. As we climbed lower, we left the whiteout behind and were rewarded with a breathtaking sunset. After all we’d just gone through, I thought it the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Full span of weather on Mt. WA

The day started late and full of weather. I already knew we wouldn’t make it to the top of Mount Washington but the idea was to get out and stretch our legs, enjoy the beauty of the Snoqualmie area. We also got the full brunt of winter weather.

The trail starts at Ollalie State Park, after a short trek uphill and a quick walk down the Iron Horse Trail. It started to rain almost the instant our feet hit the muddy path, winding past a lovely waterfall and under a rock formation with a stream of water spilling over.

After about two miles of steep going, the rain turned to hail and the path opened up with some glimpses through the trees of a foggy valley. We made it past a set of switchbacks and veered right at a juncture before the snow began piling up around us. It wasn’t long before we were hopping over holes in the powdery trail that led to the river below.

I was keeping my eyes peeled for what mountaineers call the “owl spot,” which is frequented by night hikers who want to bring a hot beverage and stare out at the stars. In my never-ending quest to turn every outing into a long challenge, we determined that we had passed the spot miles back and should turn around since it was late in the afternoon and we had only our boots to carry us through the snowy forest.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Path of destruction

After 10 months of hiking in Washington several times a week, I failed a trail. It’s fitting that people come to this trail to see destruction since it ruined me. The Kautz Creek Valley has been ravaged over the years by massive mudslides, lahars and floods. A mudflow in 1947 decimated an entire forest. A flood in 2006 washed out a section of the park road and rearranged the trail.

As soon as I started down the muddy path, signs of destruction were visible. Dozens of trees blocked the trail and it was something of an obstacle course to navigate under, over and around branches that sometimes seemed to be reaching out for me. It wove through a forest of silver snags and dumped out at the creek in about a mile. Boulders provided a way across the dirty flow of water though my foot stomped through the snow and into the chilly water as I crossed a fork of the creek I hadn’t even known was beneath me. Mist-covered peaks loomed above the creek, which is clogged with tons of debris from all the flows and floods that have shaped it.

The route was a fairly steady climb from there – I think I gained about 3,100 feet in elevation. I had planned to snowshoe but they stayed strapped to my pack rather than my feet for the whole eight miles that I lasted. Although there was plenty of snow in the forest, the trail itself was so compacted that I could move quicker and easier in just my boots. Trudging uphill the entire time, the trail became less gradual and eventually became a series of steep switchbacks.

It was about here that my frustration became evident. I lost count of the times that my boot would suddenly crash through the crusty snow, thrusting me thigh-high into powder or slush and knocking me off balance. It made me cold, wet and cranky. It made my ankle turn and my knee twinge. It made me wonder what the hell I was doing on this particular trail when I already knew there would be no rewarding views or sense of accomplishment at the end. Yet, I kept on.

Another creek crossing and a few miles later, I found myself staring up Mount Ararat. My trail guide had described this section as a “long uphill trudge” so I thought nothing of climbing the incredibly steep hill. In fact, I had gone a quarter mile before I even paused long enough to realize how much elevation I’d gained and how slippery the snow was becoming. I had to kick my boot deep into the snow with each step so I wouldn’t fall backward. I managed a while longer – snagging my trekking poles from my pack helped – but it was such tough going that I tipped over once before my frightening slide. I could see the summit from where I was at – at least, I could see what looked like a ridgetop and a sliver of gray sky. I urged myself on. But I looked down and lost my footing – and slid on my stomach for several feet before catching a tree branch with my hand and hoisting myself up. I made back the distance and even went 20 feet further but I knew the slog down was going to be harder than it was up so I gave up.

I was even grumpier on the return, barely reacting when my legs sunk into random patches of slush or I slipped on a slope and fell. No, I refused to react so I just plucked a banana from my pack and sat there mulling my decision to leave without reaching the top. I’m still mulling.