In an earlier post (Falling Like Penguins) I talked about the two classes I was enrolled in, one with Ski Patrol and one with the Mountaineers. Unfortunately I had a few setbacks this winter and was unable to complete the MTR class with Ski Patrol. However, I have now nearly completed my Scrambling class with the Mountaineers.

Scrambling comes with several definitions. From moving over steep terrain using your hands and/or knees to an activity halfway between hiking and technical climbing, books and the internet abound with explanations. Adding to the above  definitions, it takes place on both snow and rock, is a form of climbing on less technician features without the aid of ropes, and often contains varying degrees of exposure.

On June 3rd, we completed the winter/snow portion of the course with a scramble up to Manatee Mountain (also known as Foss Peak) in the Tatoosh area of Mt. Rainier National Park (MRNP). Led per usual by amazing Mountaineers volunteer leaders, this climb was a challenge and a learning experience even as we pushed on up steep inclines, navigated a ridge avoiding harrowing cornices, and took part in what were some of the steepest, longest glissades several of us had ever done.

With the snow portion concluded, it was time for the focus of the class to switch to rocks.

Rock Scrambling is climbing without technical rope systems and equipment. This does not negate the exposure or risk that can be involved on some of the more difficult routes, but it does draw a line between what kinds of routes one intends to pursue with and without ropes. The Mountaineers also include some elements of basic rope-work in the class due to the fact that conditions can change, climbers can get injured, and sometimes a basic rope system can help get people out of trouble when something goes wrong.

The rope use we learned involves prusik knots, which is essentially attaching yourself to a larger rope using a small rope that serves as an emergency brake if you fall. We practiced traversing with prusiks as well as ascending and descending. Note that in these photos, the rope being used is there to act as a backup if things go wrong. Our hands contact the rope to slide the prusik along so it moves with us, not to use the rope to assist in our climbing.

The other skillset with ropes involves being able to rappel down using just our bodies, the rope, and the friction caused between the two. The methods, arm rappel and dulfersitz, can definitely cause some rope burn if you move too fast, but as we found out firsthand they are very effective for getting down something steep, especially if the conditions have changed or someone in the party is afraid to climb down.

We first learned the above in the classroom, then on Sunday took it out to some cliffs around Lake Cushman, known to the Mountaineers as McCleary cliffs. In addition, we practiced boldering and going off trail in more difficult terrain, all in preparation for future scrambles (at least one full trip is required before we can graduate from the course).

Climbing has always been outside of my comfort zone, so this has been a challenge and area for amazing mental growth for me. It’s even starting to seem possible to consider the full climbing course next year, something I previously swore I could never do. Pretty amazing when we push ourselves and discover all that we are capable of.

To follow our trail…

McCleary Cliffs
Climbing at Cushman Cliffs
Mountaineers Classes


Who Builds the Trails?

Ever been out on hiking trails in Washington and wondered who makes the steps, trims the brush, and assembles the log rails and bridges way out there?

In many cases, this is done be Washington Trails Association and the Forest Service using a cadre of amazing volunteers. 

Friday’s work crew at Franklin Falls trail in Snoqualmie Pass included colleagues whose work sent them out for a paid service day, retirees with hundreds of hours of volunteer maintenance logged, and a few folks looking to get involved and give back for various reasons.
Overall, it was a lot of hard physical labor (moving logs, rocks and gravel; digging trenches; cutting back growth), great camaraderie, and a very rewarding day.

 Before (first hour of work) and after.

And bonus… finally got to see the infamous Franklin Falls on the lunch break!

To follow our trail…

Franklin Falls
Trail Work Parties

Buckhorn Mountain

You can see Buckhorn from the Seattle ferry on a clear day. Just look at the majestic line of snowcapped peaks on the western horizon, find the biggest mountain located right in the center (that’s Constance), and just to the north you’ll see a few parallel ridges. Buckhorn is the one with two very distinct knobs.

Around this time last year, I had planned to join Taylor “MG” G. on Buckhorn, but a profound lack of sleep and too much imbibing at a concert the day before caused me to bail at the last minute. Believe me, I have punished myself for my lack of good priorities ever since, and have spent a year yearning to explore the Buckhorn Wilderness. This weekend provided a second chance that I knew I couldn’t miss.

Taylor assembled the crew for the hike: Kyle D. and me would join him for a long day hike, and Luke A. and his friend Jake K. would backpack in with us and planned to spend the night on the mountain. It was decided that I would pickup the hikers from Olympia and drive the 2.5 hours to the Trailhead so that Taylor, coming directly off of a graveyard shift, could nap in the car (not enough sleep seems to be a theme for this hike). After the usual shenanigans of checking gear, tracking down coffee, and good music playing on the radio, we were off! And thus, the adventure began.

We rendezvoused with Luke and Jake at the Marmot Pass/Big Quilcene River Trailhead and hit the trail at 11AM. Two things to note: first, if you come this way, be aware that once you leave the main road, it is still a 50 minute drive on forest roads, paved and unpaved, to get to the TH. Second, yours truly was a little nervous about how late we were starting, but we were prepared with headlamps and were all experienced enough to say that whether we needed to turn around at Marmot Pass or would summit and come down in the dark, we would be fine. Onward and upward!

 Taylor, Jake, and Luke making final adjustments.

Buckhorn Mountain is a 13.5 mile RT hike with 4,468′ of elevation gain to the summit (6,988′). This time of year, we anticipated some snow on the trail in addition to the rock scramble at the top. We were correct. Based on temperatures and recent trip reports, we opted to leave the snowshoes in the car, and instead relied on trekking poles, the boot path, and occasional kick-steps for the hike up, and microspikes for the way down.

The first part of the trail wound through beautiful lush green forest along the Big Quilcene River where the noise of the rapids made it difficult to keep up conversation. We stopped at a riverside camping area (2.7 miles in, according to the map) to rest, for the backpackers to refill their water, and to gather information (some useful, some not so useful–there were definitely some characters out there this weekend) before continuing on.

After that, the landscape changed rapidly. Taylor told us to expect a bit of everything, from a lush forest to red mud to a snowscape to a desert. He was not mistaken! As we ascended and the trail left the trees, the terrain changed again and again. Although the heat (it was in the mid-80s in Seattle at the time) and nearly cloudless sky had us stopping repeatedly to reapply sunscreen and guzzle water, the beauty made up for any discomfort and drove us forward towards the tantalizing mountains that bordered Marmot Pass.

The group became spread out for a little while, the backpackers carrying twice the weight as us, and Taylor in true mountain goat form leading the way with Kyle at an impressive pace, while yours truly kept stopping to take pictures and getting distracted staring at the amazing landscape. Even so, we gathered just above Camp Mystery and prepared for the snowy push to Marmot Pass. Upon being asked how close we were, Luke summed it up as, “well there’s some slushy slush, then a steepy steep, oh yeah and also a slopey slope, then we will be there.” Darned if he wasn’t completely accurate! We crossed a few tenuous snow-bridges, hiked through a slushy snow field to the base of a respectable slope we kick-stepped up, then came out in a bowl that brought us to Marmot Pass. I couldn’t believe the beauty before me as we crested the hill and caught sight of the mountains beyond. How can anyone come to places like this and not believe in some form of God at work behind it all?

With the summit so close but our stomachs so empty, we sought out a shady tree fort for our late lunch spot and enjoyed a leisurely break, completely psyched by the beauty around us and excited to push on for the summit of Buckhorn.

According to my map (which no one would allow me to consult on the trail, lest we look like rookies, or worse!), the summit is only a mile from Marmot Pass. Be that as it may, it is a helluva long mile up a sand and gravel hillside alternating with snow patches, across a sunbaked ridge (the snow-cooled breeze was a godsend!) and finally requires a nice rock scramble at the top. Now the heat was truly felt, and Taylor’s description of a desert felt quite fitting as we headed out on the final stretch in the hottest part of the day. 

The group became spread out, though always within an easy distance and with constant visual checks on one another as we made our way to the top of Buckhorn Mountain. On average, our arrival time was 17:00 so factoring all of the breaks we took, we summitted in about 4.5-5 hours. Very respectable time!

At the top, we spent plenty of time fueling up and hydrating, taking plenty of pictures, relaxing on the warm rocks, and drooling over the view. Taylor and I discussed the possibility of making an attempt on the looming figure of Mount Constance at a later date, and he and Luke looked further in at Mount Deception and Mount Mystery with the eyes of those who are called in their souls to the heart of the mountains. It is experiences like this with such amazing humans that keep me wanting to develop my own skills and continue to challenge myself so that I can climb higher with them.

Sometime after 18:00, we acknowledged the fact that we had to get down and back to the real world. We bid farewell to Luke and Jake, not without some envy as to their gorgeous campsite for the night. As the sun disappeared behind the ridges and the shadows firmed up the snow, we let gravity take hold and must have flown down the trail because we reached the car at 20:00 (well, to be clear, the mighty MG arrived at 19:45 and was waiting for us, but as I was carrying the car keys, I think we all know whose arrival was a bigger deal *winks*). That two hour descent was probably due to the fact that we only stopped to remove our microspikes and to battle with shoelaces, and once we were in the forest and clear of snow, we jogged a good portion of the last mile or two. While this was not appreciated by the leg muscles or joints, it felt good to be back in the car and on the road before dark.
I can see why Buckhorn Mountain is considered a favorite by those who have been there. The hike is challenging and physically demanding, but oh so worth it.

 Final mountain views as we return to the forest. 

To follow our trail…

Buckhorn Mountain (WTA)
Buckhorn Mountain (SummitPost)

Pyramid Mountain, An East Coast Hike

The family gathered in New Jersey this week to celebrate the life of our matriarch, Anneliese. “Omi” passed away in November, and it was decided that we would wait for better weather to inter her ashes beside my grandfather.

Growing up, my grandmother would bring her children and grandchildren together every summer at a small lake cottage in Denville, NJ. There is little doubt in my mind that spending so much time there, learning to swim and canoe and explore nature with my cousins, contributed to my immense love of the outdoors. 

 Estling Lake

The time spent in NJ this week was filled with family gatherings, tributes to my grandmother, and two formal memorial portions, one at the cemetery and one at the lake. In between, we had free time to revisit old haunts in the area, take down-time to rest and grieve, and to take care of ourselves as needed. Having been cooped up on a plane for five hours and needing to boost my endorphins, I asked to borrow the car to hit a local trail and stretch my legs. My sister and mother decided to join me, and just like that we set off on a five mile hike at Pyramid Mountain. 

Being the east coast, mountains are a little different than we in the northwest might consider them. Pyramid Mountain’s summit elevation clocked in at a whopping 928 feet. However, what they lack in altitude, east coast mountains make up for in lush, green hillsides, unique geological features, and a whole different experience from equivalent hikes on the west coast.

 West coast trail vs. east coast trail

The trails varied from wide and gardenesque to rock hopping up a veritable river bed of bolders. Yours truly may have confused a junction or two that resulted in a moment of “wait, we’ve been here before!” and added a few extra steps to our counters, but by the end it was a great hike and a much needed reprieve to nature in the midst of so many emotional waves.

Apparently the bolder we stopped to play around on is somewhat well known as a local landmark. Tripod rock. So we got to play accidental tourists as well. 

To follow our trail:

Pyramid Mountain

Weekend Wanderings: Port Angeles, Port Townsend, and Beyond

Looking for a weekend getaway, Port Angeles did not immediately leap out at me as an ideal destination. However, knowing some of the hikes in the area and seeing the appeal of being on the water, away from the big cities, and only a few hours away… well, it kind of grew on me as a better and better idea. Josh said he was up for it, so we settled on a long weekend away with two nights in Port Angeles and one night in Port Townsend.

On the first day, we aimed for the Sol Duc valley. It had been several years since I’d been to Sol Duc Hotspring and it seemed like a nice place to stop. As it is a “resort” and very built up for tourism, it isn’t an ideal Hotspring like Goldmyer or Olympic or some of the others around the northwest, but the accessibility was an appeal for a weekend where both of us were recovering from colds and weren’t quite at the top of our games energywise. The Hotspring was pretty crowded with people and the temperatures were not as hot as I remembered from childhood, but the soak seemed to do us both good and it was worth a visit. And of course, just down the road is the trailhead to Sol Duc Falls, a gorgeous hike and a must-see for anyone coming through the area. We didn’t take many pictures but there is plenty of information available online for anyone interested in coming out to visit.

 Sol Duc valley looking exceptionally green!

The to-do list for the area grows and there will definitely be a return trip (or two!) to hit some of the higher mountains when the snow has melted. In the meantime, we found a handful of trails and sites that were truly lovely and filled our weekend to the brim with exploring. Confession: what follows is not necessarily true to the order we hit them, but is close enough and makes more sense on a map than the crazy back-and-forthing that actually occurred on this adventure.

Marymere Falls is a 1.8 mile hike to a lovely waterfall with lots of wooden stairs and river views. Fairly quick in-and-out and worth the stop. Next time we will hit Mt. Storm King for some epic views, but for now the lowlands sufficed.

The next hike began as a bit of a joke but ended up being a fun adventure. Scanning the WTA app for local hikes, we noticed a waterside hike labeled “Striped Peak.” Jokes about being able to count it as a summit led to a review of the Peakbagger page and low and behold, it was indeed a baggable summit! Striped Peak is located along the water in Salt Creek Recreation Area and is listed as a 5 mile easy hike on WTA. It’s a little deceptive though as the trail to the summit is more of a series of paths and dirt roads through DNR lands, and the scenic hiking trail along the water and up into the trees takes you to a road that you can follow up to an overlook. Both of these high points are listed on Peakbagger so in the end it counted for two as our semi-directionally-challenged wanderings led us to both and resulted in about 7.5 miles of hiking. 

With better planning and foreknowledge of the area, the best plan appears to be to take the roads to the summit, trek over to the overlook, then return via the coastal trail with a drop down at the cove (which we only caught views of but were not lucky enough to visit). Here is a MAP of the trail systems in case some future adventurer wishes to try it for themselves.

Between Port Angeles and Port Townsend, the infamous Dungeness Spit beckons to adventurers and seafood fans. Which came first, the crab or the Spit? Still having some trouble finding the answer, but this WEBSITE suggests that the river and Spit are named for Dungeness Headland in England, and the crab is named after the thusly named features, and… that’s all I can figure. If anyone has a more reliable source of information on this, I would love it!

Anyways, we set out for Dungeness Spit but didn’t plan well enough to make the entire 11 mile round trip hike out to the lighthouse. There is no designated trail once you are on the beach so it’s a hike across sand and rocks and logs which is a lot of fun but makes for incredibly slow going and is more of a challenge if you go during a higher tides (which, of course, we managed to do). Still, even having to turn around just past the two mile marker, it was absolutely worth it!

 Pointing out the lighthouse 5.5 miles away!

Finally, Port Townsend. A great town I can’t wait to go visit again and do some more urban exploration! However, our interests this trip centered more on being outdoors and so it was more outdoors we went. After spending a cozy night at a waterfront Bed & Breakfast (hey, even outdoors folks enjoy living it up once in a while), we went out to explore Fort Worden and the Point Wilson Lighthouse. 

 The completely PNW view from our B&B!

Fort Worden was surprising! According to the placards, about 40 buildings still stand, and there is a conference center, museum, and plenty of buildings you can rent out for lodging. There are several batteries along the water, and we spent tons of time wandering through the rooms, scampering down tiny cement stairways and climbing up old ladders, all of which remains open and accessible. You can tell from the paint that the rangers are kept busy keeping the graffiti under control, yet overall it felt open and welcoming and a blast to explore. The lighthouse and the trails along the point and through the dunes were also beautiful. We were lucky to be there on a Monday morning and had most of the places all to ourselves; I can imagine that in tourist season and on weekends this place can be packed!

A weekend of adventuring, exploring, and rest… and all just a few short hours away from Seattle. What a wonderful way to get out and play in our own backyard!

To follow our trail:

Sol Duc Valley

Marymere Falls

Striped Peak

Dungeness Spit

Commanders Beach House B&B

Fort Worden

Point Wilson Lighthouse

Spring Tulips

Even though yours truly has had to take it easy for a few weeks, there is still plenty to see and do in the Pacific Northwest in springtime. Having seen photos of the Tulip Festival in Skagit County every year but not having been since childhood, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go. 

One of the main show-garden farms is RoozenGarde which allows visitors to walk around display gardens and several large fields of tulips. Of course it draws a lot of tourists and can be very crowded, so not an idealistic quiet escape by any means. However, if you arrive early and head out to the farthest fields, it is easier to avoid the crowds and find some peace and quiet to admire the spectacular colors from. 

While admiring the beautiful blooms, it was impossible to ignore the small mountains dotting the background. A quick google map search provided the identity of at least one hill: Little Mountain. The top was accessible by road or a network of hiking trails and we took a short trip over to get a different perspective on the tulips. 

Tulip fields are in center-right of the photo.

It was difficult to be so close to so many hikes and adventures and have to limit ourselves to just a short, low-impact destination. However, the joy of loving the outdoors is how it doesn’t have to be something extreme every time. Sometimes just getting out and taking a short jaunt around the tulips can be the much needed balm for the soul. 

To follow our trail:

Roosen Garde
Little Mountain Park

How We Live

This week, many in the northwest wilderness and skiing communities are mourning the loss of local winter enthusiast Morgan Miller. While not a direct connection, the impact on mutual friends, and the rescuers who located and carried out his body, is quite apparent in conversations and across social media platforms. 

The Seattle Times Article is a touching tribute to Morgan and offers a glimpse into who he was for those of us who were not fortunate enough to know him personally.

What strikes a cord for many is how his girlfriend talks about his passions and choices:

“His joy for being in these environments was so honest, even if we were sitting on the porch drinking coffee watching the sunrise… These are the risks we’re willing to take. He played within his ability and was quite conservative in doing everything he did, but you can make the most conservative decision and things can still happen. … that’s just the life we live.”

Facing your own mortality can be a sobering endeavor. Whatever the reminder, the fact that this life is a temporary gift is something we tend to not dwell upon but are often forced to remember, especially at times like this. It is easy to armchair quarterback tragedies in the wilderness, pointing out group error and poor decision making as common factors. We shake our heads at risk takers and thrill seekers and comment that it’s “just a matter of time” without really meaning it, then think “I told you so” when tragedy does strike. Yet risk exists everywhere, whether we acknowledge it or not.

In the above quote, Morgan is described as conservative and playing within his abilities. Any of us checking the avy conditions that day would have likely made the same call and gone out–moderate risk in winter is usually a “go” for winter adventurers as most days dance around high and extreme levels and a moderate day feels like a blessing. It feels as though any of us standing in Morgan’s shoes would have made the same decision. Thus looms the question, how many of us realize that the day we go out just like any other may be our last?

That’s where the sobering nature of this story hits close to home. How many of us live for the mountains? Who are involved in a deeply personal and spiritual relationship with nature and the soul of the hills? “The mountains are calling and I must go,” attributed to John Muir, captures the undeniable pull many of us feel to reconnect with that which is greater than us. Yet with each call, we know we might not come back. Maybe we don’t think about it each time, or perhaps it’s a soft voice that we easily dismiss as we set out on each new adventure. However we experience it, the knowledge of our mortality is there on some level. Yet we choose to go, time and again.

So what can we do? Many parents have said that they changed their behaviors and took less chances once their children were born. Others lose a friend or loved one and swear off the mountains as a result. Yet many keep going, perhaps because they are in denial, or perhaps because they know the risk and have accepted it. 

We plan to come back, we hope to always be able to go out again, and we try to live out the adventure we are called to. In the process, the hope is that we live a legacy like Morgan. We embrace the outdoors and leave no doubt in the minds of those around us that we love what we do and are filled with joy each day that we are blessed to climb, to ski, to swim, to bike, to run… and on top of that, the hope beyond all else is that we live every day being open and kind to those around us, never leaving unsaid how much people mean to us, and trying to limit the hurts and bad memories that we don’t want to outlive us. When the mountains call their final call and we do not return in this life, may it be that our love and passion shines brightly as a comforting beacon for those who suffer at being left behind. 

May we continue to take chances, may we mitigate the risks wherever we can, and may we continue to return home safely to those who wait for us. And may we always fill our days with love and endless joie de vivre!

A toast to Morgan. A life gone too soon, and a legacy we should all be so lucky to live.