Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Category: Lessons from the trail (page 1 of 5)

Copper Ridge Loop — Final Day

Egg Lake to Hannegan Pass parking lot  (8.6 miles) — 9/14/17

Egg Lake, morning view

Morning at Egg Lake was crisp and magnificent! Stiff breezes the night before blew out the few remaining clouds, and cool gusts still swirled around my campsite.  I put on all my layers, including down hat and gloves with hand warmers, ready to embrace my last morning of the five day Copper Ridge loop. When I backpack, my fear of cold usually causes me to bring too many clothes. But on this morning, it felt great to be all bundled up against the cold but clear morning of what was sure to be a fantastic bluebird day ahead.

I sat suspended in time as I watched the first rays of sun come up. Mornings are my favorite time of day, regardless of where I am. But my ‘outside’ morning routine of 3 cups of steaming hot coffee, oatmeal with an abundance of toppings, writing, and meditatively gazing at the trees, mountains, and lakes, felt especially significant.  I knew it might be the last morning I’d wake up and immediately commune with mother nature for awhile, at least in the belly of the North Cascades. Fall was just around the corner, and I wanted to fully embrace the exquisiteness that surrounded me.  It reminded me of the last morning of my solo hike of the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2016. The reality of a time of solitude in wilderness coming to an end, the strong pull and desire to capture the peace and integrate it into my very core, my deep reluctance to return to ‘real’ life.

But eventually, I had to get moving.  The day held 8.6 miles of hiking, and I had an evening commitment that I had to be home for.  Reluctantly, I performed the mundane duties of breaking down camp, stalling often to feel the sun on my face as it streamed it’s way into my campsite. For this I was grateful. Warm sun on a cold morning makes the actions of camp break-down ever so much more pleasant.

I headed out at 9:30. The couple from Virginia was gone, I noticed as I passed through their empty site. After climbing out of Egg Lake basin, the 4.6 miles to Hannegan Pass continued it’s ups and downs. I was tired from the previous days elevation gain,  and struggled each time the trail went up. Thankfully, there were enough views to keep me entertained, and I worked myself into a satisfactory hiking rhythm.

Left to Right, Icy Peak, Ruth Mountain, Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Baker (r) and Mt. Shuksan (l) paying last respects

I reached Hannegan Pass at 11:30, and decided on an early lunch. Why carry food in my pack when I could consume it and use it for fuel? At the pass, I encountered the same two folks I’d seen coming down Whatcom Pass, who’d camped at Middle Lakes, when I was heading up. They introduced themselves now as Walt and Haley. Haley was Walt’s niece from New York, who’d come out to hike with her uncle for a week. I thought that was pretty cool! Walt and I had a great time sharing stories of our respective trips, while Haley chatted with another woman, resting with her elderly dog at the base of Hannegan Peak, while her partner ran up the peak with their younger and more ambitious canine. The sun was out, the day was warm, and it was hard to leave the comfortable social scene.

But I had a schedule to keep, and I took leave just after noon. It was 4 miles to the car, and I wanted to be there by 2:00. I picked up the pace, now that the trail was flat or down hill. There were a TON of people coming up the pass, especially for a mid-September weekday. Albeit a sunny one. I only had one incidence of drama on the way out, while observing three middle-aged women with backpacks by the side of the trail.  Clearly, they were headed in for some female backpacking bonding, something which I have a desire to do, but never have. As I watched them with interest,  I tripped and fell, again, landing hard on my butt, practically in the lap of one of the women!  My legs were too tired and my knees too sore to catch the fall. And I couldn’t get up for the same reasons. One of the women asked if I needed help. “Yes please!” I said, relieved. A brief discussion of the knee replacement followed, and all three were impressed that I was backpacking alone with the knee issues. I didn’t tell them about all the foot and ankle surgeries. 🙂

After that, the remaining miles flew by, even with my trail hyper-vigilance. I arrived back at the car by 1:50 — ahead of schedule for once! I was supremely glad to dump my pack, this time for good. I counted 39 cars in the parking lot as I drove off. It was amazing how few people I’d seen on the whole loop hike, then to see so many on the last four miles of this last day. Inevitable reintroduction to society, I suppose.

Highlights of the Trip

There were so many positives about this trip, it’s hard to choose. But here are some highlights that come to mind:

  1. Getting out on a good backpack for the year. I’d just done the one overnight earlier in August, and I wanted to get in at least one long backpack trip for the year. The broken finger and subsequent time off provided a perfect opportunity to take a longer trip to a place that’s been on my list to revisit for years.
  2. The variety of terrain and campsites. Peak climbs, dense forest walks, river crossings, miles of ridge walking, a mountain pass, mountain lakes, a lookout tower with splendiferous views — what more could anyone want? Two campsites in forest, two with expansive views, few people at any site.  It made me appreciate that this place is so tightly permitted, as the trail was never busy, and the most company I had in any camping area was just two other people.
  3. People showing up at the right times. With the exception of having to do the cable car crossing by myself, I was struck by how well things worked out with this. Steve keeping me company on Whatcom Pass, Brian and Sarah at the dual river crossings, Walt and Haley going up Whatcom pass and again at Hannegan Pass. As any of you who followed my JMT trip know, I crave a combination of solitude and being with others when I backpack. This trip had a perfect balance of both.
  4. Knowing I still got it, and getting affirmation for that.  Yeah, it felt good to have atta-girls out there on the trail. I forget that many people don’t hike or backpack at all,  let alone solo, or with as many physical ailments as I have.  Don’t get me wrong — I KNOW there are those out there doing it under FAR more challenging circumstances! Or facing something different all together. We all have our own adversities to confront and obstacles to overcome. But this was my first real backpack post knee replacement, and I was grateful it went well. My favorite way to stay sane and happy involves immersing myself in an outdoor environment that brings huge reward, and sometimes has risk associated with it too. I will go there for as long as I can, ever mindful of the risk/benefit analysis. On the whole, this trip went as well or better than expected. Although, I could have done without the falls. Which leads to my last introspective thoughts…

Reflections on Falling

My sum total of falls, counting the broken finger before the trip and the four on the trail, could have stayed at five. But apparently things DO come in threes, or multiples there of…

A couple weeks after  my return, I fell in the bathroom, slipping on the wet floor while trying to steer clear of one of my cats who loves to race me to the bathroom. I hit my left rib cage on the corner of the bathroom counter, and fractured  the sixth rib. My sixth, most painful, and hopefully last fall for a good long while.

Another three weeks off of work, and a whole lot of reflection about why all the falls, why now, and what’s the learning here? Space, time and patience of readership all prevent me from getting too deeply into this, but here are a few reflections and explanations I have come up with:

  1. I am no spring chicken and must adjust my ambitions (and pack weight) accordingly!   Let’s face it, getting older makes it harder to act young.  At age 53, I can’t get away with carrying as much weight as I could when I was 33. When I did this loop 20 years ago, I carried over 70 pounds and it did not phase me. This trip, my pack weighed around 50 pounds, and that was, apparently, too much.  Simply put, when I tripped or fell, I couldn’t pull it together to implement the correct musculature to catch the fall, and instead, landed quite spectacularly. Four times! Two face plants, two on my rear. Something to pay attention to. What brought me a sense of accomplishment 20 years ago,  the success of carrying of a heavy pack, must now be replaced by the satisfaction of staying on my own two feet! There is an undeniable link with packing lighter and staying upright that I can’t ignore anymore.
  2. Balance is affected as we age. Duh. We all know this. BUT to hear it and live it are two different things. Everyone, including me, says “Work on balance as you age.” Great advice, but what does that look like from a person to person perspective? Standing on one foot? Doing yoga? Walking on a balance beam? Crossing log bridges? Working on balance is HARD, and, admittedly,  I don’t like it. After surgeries, I will work on balance for awhile to strengthen my feet and ankles. But it’s a discipline I am not drawn to, and too soon, I assume I’m fine to jump back in, full steam ahead.  Next thing I know, I’m doing a crazy thing like carrying a heavy pack through brush on soft ground that I can’t see. With balance already compromised, a small trip turns quickly epic when I can’t catch the fall. Time for some more balance work.
  3. The brain has to catch up to the body.  In the aftermath of all these falls, I spoke with several other people who also experienced excessive falling in their early 50’s. Then it stopped by the time they reached 55, and the falling prevalence did not return, even into their 60’s. What’s up with that? My theory is that it takes awhile for the brain to accept what the body is already saying. As we age, we develop compensatory patterns to deal with whatever life throws us. Those compensation patterns can be quite complex, and effective. But it takes time for the mind to integrate the changes in status of the aging body. IF we are going to pursue the activities of a 30 year old at 50 and beyond,  we must adopt an attitude of vigilance about what are bodies are telling us. Or risk continual face plants.
  4. Slow down, take it easy, life isn’t a race!  Is there any better way to get someone’s attention than by tripping them up on the fast road of life? Generally I move quickly, on trails and through life, and, for whatever reason, universal forces decided to throw me a powerful lesson, or two, or six, about slowing down. And breathing. That’s hard to do with a broken rib, but talk about an opportunity to practice mindfulness of movement and breath! I’ll take it, learn from it, and share my takes on Falling as Great Teacher about Life.

We all have similar, powerful examples from life.  What are yours? I would LOVE to hear your stories of getting slammed down only to pick yourself back up with new perspective. PLEASE DO SHARE! 

Last shot of Mt. Baker

 

 

 

Copper Ridge Loop — Day 4

Indian Creek to Egg Lake  — 9/13/17, 12 miles, 4000 feet elevation gain.

It took awhile for daylight to enter my deeply forested Indian Creek campsite. It was 6:30 before I emerged from my tent —  bankers hours for backpackers!  Over breakfast and coffee I considered the day ahead. First up were back to back river fords over Indian Creek and the Chilliwack River. Then a climb of 4000 feet, from the low point ((2225 feet) to the high point (6260 feet) of the entire Copper Ridge loop. Then back down to Egg Lake for the night — 12 miles total.

After breakfast and map study, I began packing up. I didn’t know what to expect with the river fords, as the rangers had said they could be “waist high”.  They also said that route finding “might be required” between the first and second crossings. All these uncertainties created more than a little anxiety as I transformed my sprawling campsite into a self-contained backpack. I left accessible sandals, extra socks, even extra shorts.  And I put my sleeping bag and tent in garbage bags, just in case.

River Fords

Ready to go by 8:15, I noticed that the couple camped just above me appeared packed up as well. I moseyed into their site, calling hello and asking if they knew anything about the river crossings. They didn’t, but we made introductions (Brian and Sarah, from Portland), and agreed we’d take on the unknown together.

It was .7 miles to the first crossing. When we got there, we looked at each other, surprised. The creek was low, and moving ever so gently. Brian decided to take off his boots and do it in socks, and I opted to do the same.  Sarah wore sandals. The first ford was barely knee high and very straightforward.  On the other side, Brian went first, easily spotting the orange tape that marked the location of the second crossing.  I walked the short distance between river banks (over rocks) in my socks. It seemed the easiest option, although a very painful one for my extremely tender feet! The second ford was equally as simple.  Again, barely to the knees. Mid-September and low water levels made these fords easy and painless.  At any other time of year, I can imagine it could be a whole different story!

On the other side, we chatted as we dried our feet and put dry socks and boots back on. Brian’s mom had just had knee replacement, and he was impressed that I was out backpacking ten months post-replacement. “You are an inspiration!” He said. “I am going to tell my mom all about you!”

They were headed to camp at Copper Lake. “That will be quick”, I said. “It’s only 5.7 miles from here.” Brian looked at me quizzically, but said nothing. That’s the number of miles I had in my head to reach the lake.

Copper Ridge Trail to Copper Lake

Copper Mountain

Brian and Sarah, clearly on a mission, shot up the far side of the creek, calling back, “See you up there!” I felt like saying “Not at that speed!” Clearly they were fast hikers, and I figured they’d be at the lake before I even reached the ridge. Plus I was camping at a different lake. I didn’t think I’d see them again, but I was glad they’d been there for the crossings. I stalled for time getting water and a snack, trying to rev myself up for the elevation gain to come.

At 9:45, I was as ready as I’d ever be. I hooked up my audiobook and headphones, wanting distraction from the inevitable challenge of hauling my 50-lb. pack up 4000 feet. After the previous day’s fall, I decided I’d take the ascent one slow, careful step at a time. The trail was steep, switchbacking relentlessly through forest. I could see why most people did the loop the other direction (the way I had previously done it). But hey, if I wasn’t going up the switchbacks, I’d be going down them, and frankly, neither option was a walk in the park! I thought of Dad again, reminding me to “put my nose to the grindstone” when undertaking challenging tasks. This was one of those times.

First views, finally!

Mt. Redoubt in distance

Eventually, the forest thinned, and I had views to further distract me. It felt like I’d been going for hours and making little progress. I was tired and wanted a substantial break, but I also wanted the sense of gaining the ridge before resting.

Boulder crossing, scene of fall #3

Finally, I came to a boulder field, and saw the first two people I’d seen all day since Brian and Sarah. I checked my watch. It was 12:45, I’d been going for 2.5 hours, and I honestly wasn’t sure where in relation to Copper Lake I stood. I asked a question I almost never ask: “Do you know how much farther to Copper Lake?”

“About four miles”, the woman, traversing the boulder field in the opposite direction, responded.

“Four miles!” I was stunned. That would mean I had only travelled 1.7 miles in 2.5 hours! That couldn’t be right. I was so rattled that I took my eyes off the ‘trail’  to look at her in horror, and tripped, again. This time I fell hard and ungracefully on my behind, a sharp rock impaling the right butt cheek. The pain caused a sharp intake of breath.

“No way,” I said. “It can’t be that far!” Her hiking partner piped up. “More like three. At the  most. It’s pretty flat along the ridge, though. And beautiful.”

I thanked him, still exasperated, and continued the short distance to the ridge. I thought about those numbers. 2.7 miles in 2.5 hours. I really was hiking slowly! Whatever — I tried to shake it off.  At the top, I plopped down, gently, for a lunch break. Sitting hurt after that fall. But the views were incredible, puffy white clouds against blue sky blanketing peak after peak.  I spent 30 minutes up there, taking in caloric and supernal nourishment.

Challenger Mt. and Whatcom Peak from Ridge Trail

View from Copper Ridge…

Mineral Mountain, foreground, Shuksan and Ruth Mt. in back

Mineral Mountain, foreground. Background, L to R: Icy Peak, Mt. Hagen, Bacon Peak.

Classic view of Mt. Redoubt

Mt. Lindeman, Right; Middle Peak, left

 

Copper Ridge Trail

Mostly revived, I hefted on my pack and moved along. The ridge trail wandered for however many miles, headed toward Copper Lake. I struggled to keep my eyes on the trail, the draw to unfolding views an incredible pull. I wasn’t sure when (if ever!) I would reach the lake, as apparently I was on the slow hiking boat that day. But unexpectedly soon,  at 2:15, I arrived.

Copper Lake

Looking back on Copper Lake

I filled up on water and took another break, this time only 15 minutes. The day was not over — I still had more switchbacks to gain Copper Mountain,  then a drop back down to Egg Lake.

Copper Lake to Copper Mountain Lookout

The clouds continued to thicken on my short break at the lake. I LOVE sunshine, and will take it anytime. But I was grateful for the cooler temps, as I could put a t-shirt on over my tank top. Carrying a heavy pack in a tank top always causes shoulder chafing, something I struggled with tremendously on my three weeks on the John Muir Trail. The extra layer between strap and skin brought instant relief.

Clouds building over Mineral Mountain

Looking up to Copper Mt. Lookout — finally!

Looking down into the Chilliwack River Valley, 4000 feet down

Copper Mt. foreground, Icy Peak and ridge leading to Shuksan behind…

My course after the lake was more steep switchbacks and more expanding views, including back to the shrinking Copper Lake. Soon I could see the lookout on Copper Mountain, and I knew I was close. I picked up the pace for the final distance, arriving just before 3:30. For that section, the distance I expected to cover in a set amount of time had returned.

Copper Mt. Lookout, actively used and maintained, but locked unless luck brings you there with a ranger present.

From lookout: Foreground, Hannegan Peak, climbed on first day, left. Granite Mt. right. Background: Shuksan, left, Mt. Baker right, in clouds

Looking down Slesse Creek Valley (Mt. Slesse prominent peak in distance), to Fraser River lowlands and North Shore Mountains far in the distance

And the lookout was spectacular! I’d been there twice before. Once, with Rob in 1997. As mentioned, we went the opposite direction, reaching the Lookout on Day Two. We spent the night right there, which I am not clear if you can still do. On that trip, I hauled in my pack a three-pound loaf of home-made zucchini bread and a bottle of red wine, among other things. I am not exaggerating when I say my pack then weighed over 70 pounds! I broke out the bread and wine at the lookout, and Rob was astounded, and grateful. We shared the bounty with two other guys also camped up there.  Definitely a highlight from that first hike.

The other time I was there was with an old boyfriend, Gregg, in the summer of 2014. That was an extremely low snow year, and we hiked up to Silesia Ridge for the night in early June — unheard of in all but the most unusual year. We set up camp in one of two always popular sites, but saw not a soul. After dinner, we hiked up to the lookout, again seeing no one. We stayed almost until sunset, dropping down the 1.5 miles to camp in a show of spectacular colors I won’t ever forget.

Mt. Shuksan from lookout

Southern Pickets! Including Mt. Fury and Phantom Peak

Shuksan and Baker…Baker can’t seem to lose her cloud topper

To my amazement, there was no one at the lookout this year either. I stayed up there for a good half hour, enjoying views in every direction. I kept hoping the cloud topping Mt. Baker would lift, but it persisted. The wind was brisk, and I had to put on more layers. The sun stayed mostly behind clouds, and the cloud formations in the distance made for spectacular viewing. And photos. I took a ton in each direction, trying to remember which peaks were which…

Panorama from Copper Lookout

Copper Lookout to Egg Lake

When I finally decided to leave, I wandered down slope. I found one obvious campsite, surmising that must be the place where Rob and I had camped. I noticed something that could only be a compostable toilet just below, completely out in the open. WOW, I thought that’s a toilet with a view! But also a view for everyone else too. I didn’t remember the toilet from a few years earlier, and figured it must be new. As I dropped down, though, the trail got more and more faint, and I realized I was going the wrong way. The trail down had to be in a different direction.

Toilet with a view!

Windy selfie, Mt. Redoubt on my shoulder

I retraced my steps to the lookout, and, in my short absence, a person had appeared.

“Where did you come from?” I asked. The guy looked at me very strangely, like did I think he dropped from the sky…?

“Uh, Silesia Ridge….” He answered. “Why do you ask?”

I told him about the toilet, and heading down the wrong direction. He said simply “The trail down goes the other way. Just on the other side of the towers. You can’t  miss it.”

OK then, clearly he didn’t know me and my propensity for missing obvious trails! I thanked him, and returned to the tower, and, sure enough, there was an obvious trail down. And another hiker coming up, who was the first guy’s hiking partner. I asked this guy for a photo, and he obliged.

Headed down the correct trail from the lookout

On the correct trail now, all was familiar. I remembered heading down the steep switchbacks with Gregg as the sun got low on that gorgeous June evening. It was pretty now too, although cloudy, and I was tired of hiking and wanted to be at Egg Lake. The day, while grand, felt like it was going on forever.

Once down the switchbacks, the trail headed back up.  Again. I was tired of gaining elevation! I could see the lake basin, but still the trail climbed. Finally, I came to the signed junction for Egg Lake.  Then it was just .3 miles of elevation loss, and I’d be home for the night.

Egg Lake, finally!

Campsite at Egg Lake

Egg Lake Campsite

The first campsite contained a woman and gear.  She explained that were staying in that site, but her husband was off checking out the other two sites, each of the three spaced far from the other. “Hey, honey!” She called to him, “Which site is the best over there?”

He started reporting back from the other side of the lake the specs on the two available sites. I’d call back a question, he’d shout the answer. Realizing how silly this was, he finally said,”Let’s wait until I get closer.” He came back, and gave me the low down on the other options available. We chatted for a good 15 minutes, and I learned that they were from Virginia, here for a ten-day North Cascades backpacking and hiking trip. The distance they’d come to immerse themselves in this beauty made me incredibly thankful that I could attain that so close to my home.

While I enjoyed the chat tremendously, I had to get my pack off.  I thanked them and moved out of their site. I decided on the site farthest away, and with it’s own compostable toilet! But not one that was visible to all the world. It was a great site, high above the lake, with views back towards the lookout tower. And exposed. The wind was brisk, and I changed clothes before setting up camp and getting dinner. I kept thinking about the surreal nature of the day, in terms of how long it took me to cover distance, and I finally pulled out the map while I waited for my backpacker meal to rehydrate.

That’s when I learned that I’d transposed numbers. What I thought was 5.7 miles to Copper Lake was actually 7.5! No wonder it had taken so long! While still no speed record, at least that helped explain why it felt like I was hiking but getting no where. The steep section was nearly two miles longer than I thought.

Somehow this reassured me that I was still in the game. I didn’t feel terribly old or slow throughout the day, but it did get my attention. Now, I realized it was just a mis-read of the map. I contemplated this while I ate. How a belief about something can hold strong even in the face of contradictory evidence. I know generally how fast I hike, yet by believing the incorrect number, I believed I was way off my normal pace even though I was not.

Evening light from Egg Lake campsite, looking back toward Copper Lookout

Reflectively, I watched the colors of the sky turn their oranges and pinks, staying up until the last bits of light had faded away. The encroaching night air was cold and windy.  Gratefully, I crawled into my tent, satisfied and with a sense of great accomplishment about the day. The mysterious pieces finally all fit together.

Alpenglow on Copper Mountain, end of a great day!

 

 

 

 

ALL THE BEST FROM ARTIST POINT — Chain Lakes Loop, Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, and Table Mountain

All in one long day hike!  (8/16/17)

Chain Lakes Loop, Ptarmigan Ridge to Portals, Table Mountain

The plan for early last week had been to backpack into Yellow Astor Butte Wednesday and day hike Tomyhoi peak on Thursday. But plans change — my hiking partner Doug had a serious mouth infection from a root canal and wasn’t able to go, so we postponed our trip.

What’s a gal to do with a completely free day, mid-week, with the promise of sunshine tempting her from any and all responsibilities? GO ON A LONG DAY HIKE, OF COURSE! 

I’ve done this entire three-hike adventure once before, plus variations on the theme a couple other times.  All three hikes start at Artist Point, the end of the Mt. Baker Highway (542). No logging roads necessary for this adventure!

Stats on the Triumvirate

TOTAL MILES  —  Approximately 18.       ELEVATION GAIN  — 3775 feet.      HIGHEST POINT  —  6500.    DIFFICULTY — Hard.  Nothing is overly strenuous, but it’s long. And there was a fair amount of snow on Ptarmigan trail and some on Chain Lakes trail.    PERMIT — Northwest Forest Pass Required

Here’s the breakdown on the individual hikes…

Chain Lakes Loop

DISTANCE — 7 mile loop trail.     ELEVATION GAIN  —  1700 feet.     HIGH POINT  —  5400 feet (Herman Saddle).   DIFFICULTY  — Alltrails rates it Hard; I’d call it Moderate.

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

DISTANCE —  11.2 RT to Portals (very end of the trail); 9 RT if you stop at the campsites.    ELEVATION GAIN —  1880 feet (Portals)  or 1350 feet (campsites).     HIGH POINT —  6500 feet (Portals) or 6100 feet (campsites).    DIFFICULTY — Alltrails rates it Hard.

Table Mountain

DISTANCE —  2.6 RT (if you continue along south rim of the table until trail’s obvious end).       ELEVATION GAIN —  725 feet.       HIGH POINT  —  5700 feet.    DIFFICULTY — Moderate; short but steep and quite exposed.

Getting to the Trailhead

I set off relatively early for this long day hike, leaving my Sudden Valley home at 7:20. I had to stop for fuel and a NW Forest Pass, as I still hadn’t purchased one for the year.  After securing the pass at the Glacier Ranger Station, I noticed time was slipping away.  I enthusiastically passed a few folks on a couple long straightaways headed east from Glacier. Happily, I momentarily had the highway to myself!

Until I hit road work, just after the turn-off to Hannegan Pass. It was pavement work requiring a pilot car. I was first in line to stop…and the cars I’d passed all came up behind me. I felt chagrinned in my haste, and sat with tempered impatience for the ten minutes required until it was our turn. Lesson learned — hurry up and wait.

It was 9:10 when I arrived at the Artist Point parking lot (elevation 5100 feet). I counted 13 other cars in the lot when I arrived — not bad for a sunny, mid-August morning. I organized as quickly as possible, taking mandatory photos of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan from the parking lot (you know you are in for great hiking views when the lot itself sports these views!) I was on the trail by 9:30.

Mt. Baker from Artist Point

Shuksan from Artist Point

Wild Goose trail to Bagley Lakes to Chain Lakes to junction with Ptarmigan Ridge (6 miles)

I started my hike counter-clockwise on the Wild Goose Trail, located at the corner of the parking lot by the restrooms. The signed trail heads steeply back down to the Austin Pass/Heather Meadows parking lot, about a mile of scenic but weirdly positioned “trail” loosely paralleling the road. Shuksan was out in all her splendor, even with a few clouds milling around. Beyond the Heather Meadows parking lot I followed signs to Bagley Lakes trail, and contoured down to and then crossed a cool stone bridge. A left turn after the bridge finally pointed me toward Herman Saddle, my first destination.

To reach the saddle, I had to regain all my lost elevation and then some.  First the trail (now called Chain Lakes trail) traversed along Upper Bagley Lake, and then the switchbacks began.  When I first hiked Chain Lakes Loop, over 20 years ago,  those switchbacks seemed endless. Dozens of years and trips up here later, they really flew by. Plus, the views back to Table Mountain (where I planned to end this long day hike), Shuksan, and the lakes below,  just kept getting better with each step.  I reached the saddle at 10:50 — too early for lunch, but good for an energy bar. And pictures. I could see both Baker and Shuksan, and Baker too sported some clouds — in particular a lenticular cloud right on her top. I am glad I got Baker photos then, as that proved to be the most clearly I would see her until the very end of the day.

Table Mountain from Chain Lakes Trail

Shuksan with cloud cover from Chain Lakes Trail

Looking up to Herman Saddle from Chain Lakes Trail

Baker wearing lenticular cloud, from Herman Saddle

There was snow heading down from Herman Saddle, as expected. Since I’ve done the loop so many times, route finding was not an issue, even when the trail disappeared into snow. Plus, enough other people had done it that footprints clearly marked the path through snow, despite hourly melt-off.  I hadn’t seen a person since the Austin Pass parking lot, something that surprised me. I relished the absence of other hikers, so unusual on this busy day hike. I also fully embraced the warm sun on my skin. I knew I might lose both, my solitude and sun, as the day continued. I wanted to fully embrace all that each had to offer in those moments as I descended to the Chain Lakes.

 

Shuksan and Upper Bagley Lake from Herman Saddle

Baker and Iceberg Lake from Herman Saddle

Views of Iceberg Lake dominated the descent. Then Hayes Lake came into view, and here I spotted my first two hikers, milling around one of several campsites available at this lake. They were hunters, actually, in full camouflage wear and carrying rifles. Yikes! I am always alarmed when I encounter hunters in the wilderness. I don’t know what they were hunting and I didn’t ask. But as I moved past them, I checked my judgment. While I don’t hunt or even fish, I am aware that others do, and as long as in compliance with regulations, it’s up to each individual to decide how to enjoy the outdoors. But I was happy to leave them behind!

 

Hayes Lake

Iceberg Lake and back up to Herman Saddle (left)

Wildflowers on Chain Lakes Loop

After final views of Iceberg Lake, the trail headed back up. Gradually at first, past Mazama Camps and Lakes off to my right, a place I’ve never explored in all my hikes around the loop. In fact I’ve never camped at any of the lakes, always preferring instead to hike or even run the loop.  Although rocky in places, the loop lends itself to great trail running, and I’ve done so several times in my past.

 

Shuksan in all her glory!

But no running on this day, only swift hiking. As I looked up to the snowfields yet to come, I could see other hikers coming down, hiking the loop clockwise. The snow sections looked easily doable, and I eagerly pressed on. I made the “top” in no time, arriving at the junction of Chain Lakes and Ptarmigan Ridge trails at 11:50. To complete the loop it would be 1.2 miles of traverse back to Artist Point and my car; but for me, the fun was just beginning!

I enjoyed a break on a nice flat rock overlooking Baker, Shuksan, the lake basin I’d just come up from, and the trail beyond. Baker was definitely covered in clouds — in fact, if I didn’t know she was there, I’d swear she’d disappeared in the last hour! Shuksan was out in all her glory, though. I snacked, took photos, and anticipated the ridge to come…

Ptarmigan Ridge is one of my favorite places to visit. I go there with great frequency — often, just in my mind. The place holds a depth of significance for me I can’t explain. But, when I am at ease or in contemplative mode, especially while working delivering massage,  I often find myself unexpectedly on the trail! Or at the Portals, sitting gazing at Mt. Baker. No kidding, this trail is magical, unfolding traverse after traverse (five total, if you go as far as you can), each building on the wonder of the previous. 

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail to Portals and back to Artist Point (10 miles)

A short section of trail took me to where I could see Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. I had initially been hesitant about doing Ptarmigan, as the rumor mill and WTA reports had said it was still quite snow covered. But my friend Oliver, who takes measurements on the Sholes Glacier (coming off Mt. Baker, right near the Portals), said he’d been there three times, and that snow was diminishing quickly.  That was good enough for me! But I did bring YakTrax for added traction. Snow lingers on some sections of this trail even in light snow years, and with this being a particularly heavy snow year, I knew it would be prevalent.

Beginning of Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Snow on first section of Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Wildflowers on Ptarmigan

The First Traverse

There were initial switchbacks then two snow traverses right off the bat. Neither were too bad, and soon I was into rocks mostly, with snow mixed in. I crossed a small stream running directly across the trail, then meandered through rock and snow to the next, larger streams. Here a family sat and gazed at the splendor, which included a magnificent display of wildflowers! After this stream crossing, I headed into mixed snow, semi-loose sand, and rocks. It was easy to lose the trail here, but not too hard to spot it ahead. Or footprints, or some combination of both. I worked my way up the steep snow slope, sometimes following footsteps, sometimes forging my own path. I knew I had to top out at the top of the sizable snowfield, and again, having done it so many times before, I had no real concern about which way to go.

At the top, I was rewarded with the more views of Shuksan, who had gone into hiding when the trail down. As I continued along the last section of what I considered the first traverse (it’s not a straight shot, but generally heads in the same direction, southeast) the views opened up dramatically.  I knew it would get better and better, and had to restrain myself from taking too many pictures. Eventually, I gained a hump, where a handful of good campsites were, and the trail turned slightly right, onto the second traverse.

First views of Shuksan from Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

From second traverse, Mt. Blum (left), Mt. Hagen (right)

Bacon Peak (left), Anderson Butte (right) from second traverse

Second Traverse

Views exploded on this section!  Shuksan was the superstar, but all along the skyline, it was peak after peak. Bacon Peak, Mt. Hagen, Mt. Blum, Anderson Butte, and so many more. The presence of clouds made the sky even more dramatic. My cell phone’s camera got heavy usage on this section! The first part of the traverse was on rock, but I could see steep snow slopes to come. I watched hikers going up, slowly, and chose to put YakTrax on just before these sections. I am glad I did, as those two snow fields right before the end of the second traverse were steep, and not one’s I would want to lose my footing on!

A side note about YakTrax: It’s possible, I’ve discovered,  to wear these traction aids on snow and rocks, at least the basic model I have, which doesn’t have spikes. On early alpine hikes this year,  I sometimes kept them on, even on non-snow sections, when I knew or suspected more snow was to come. That is what I did for this hike. I wore the Yaks for the remainder of the hike, all the way to the Portals and back down the very first snowfield of the hike (the one I had initially come up without them). This was both beneficial and a pain. Hiking on rocks with the wiry cage on the bottom of the boot can be dicey on rocks, and I did take one risky fall near the top of the Portals. Forgetting temporarily about the yaks, I stepped on a slab of rock that, not surprisingly,  my Yaks couldn’t find traction on. No biggie, except the trail at the very top is narrow with steep drop-offs! I did not make that mistake again. I did much of Ptarmigan with the Yaks mostly out of caution, but I will admit, also laziness and a desire to keep moving.  I didn’t want to stop to take them off and put them back on with each steep snow crossing, as there were just too many on this hike. So I simply left them on. It wasn’t an ideal solution. But that is what I chose to do, and the option worked well to give me extra confidence on snow. 

Back to the hike. At the top of the second traverse, I came into view of Baker again. She had been hidden from view, but now was back. Sadly, she was still covered in clouds. Quite dramatically, though. The trail ahead went into clouds, and the path behind was in sun. That’s the mountains for you!

Baker still in clouds, visible again at the top of second traverse.

View from top of second traverse.

Mt. Hagen and Goat Lake, end of third traverse.

Third Traverse

The trail turned due west for this .9 mile traverse. I encountered an abundance of wildflowers and quite a few people on this section. The wildflowers were mostly lupines and mountain heather — both out in their prime. The first group of folks I passed were taking photos (like me) of the wildflowers, with far superior camera gear, however. The second group was three hikers from Portland, all from the same hiking group. One of the group members was battling cancer, and the three came up to experience one more round of hiking in the North Cascades.  That definitely made me appreciative of my health, and affirmed my commitment to making the most of each day. I also encountered two of Oliver’s co-workers, sent to do measurements of the Sholes Glacier in his absence. Compared to how few people I’d seen all day, that was a lot of people to see in one short stretch of trail.

 

Shuksan, Third traverse

The section tops out at a junction with Goat Lake, 500 feet below.  I have never been to this lake, and today was not the day. The lake was all but snowed under — still. Just a few bare patches of icy blue were visible beneath abundant snow.

Baker still in clouds, fourth traverse

Fourth Traverse

After Goat Lake junction, the trail turned sharply right, and gained a bit more serious elevation. This section passed Kaiser Camp, a handful of campsites located just a bit down and off the trail. With each step I moved closer to Mt. Baker, still clouded in. The air temperature was noticeably cooler, both with clouds and the proximity to the mountain. I had to put on another layer during this stretch. Even eternally optimistic me could sense the futility in remaining in just my tank top!

View from fourth traverse, Ptarmigan

At the end of this traverse, there were a few trees to navigate through. Then, straight ahead, was the secret, hidden campsite that I have stayed at twice. I won’t give any details, or it won’t be secret anymore! But it’s a stellar one, and the only place I’ve camped on this trail.

Fifth Traverse

I continued on with the last traverse, which would take me right to the base of the Portals. There was a combination of snow, dirt, rocks, and flowers all along this sometimes steep traverse. I got cocky at one point, entering a snowfield, and slipped convincingly. I barely caught myself — free hands clawed into the snow in an attempt at self-arrest before I slipped down the steep slope in earnest. After that, I paid closer attention. While YakTrax helped, the slopes were steep, and I did not want to fall.

Lara Divide from approach to Portals

Looking back on fifth traverse…

Once across the snow, I was into rocks and sand. There were numerous great campsites here, all close to the trail, but with magnificent views of the entire range of mountains from Shuksan to Baker, and the Sholes Glacier off to the right. No water, though, so one would have to count on snow melt or carry extra water to camp here.  As mentioned, this campsite area is what WTA calls the end of the trail, 4.5 miles from Artist Point. I encountered two trail runners here, and they reported that they’d been “all the way to the beyond”, and that no one else was there. Beyond lay the Portals, rock formations that serve as accesses to Mt. Baker climbing routes.  The word “portal” always reminds me of the Harry Potter books…a place one goes to be magically transported to another place.

Ascending the East Portal rock formation to what I consider the end of the trail…

The very first time I went to all the way to what I consider the end of the Ptarmigan Ridge trail was with my daughter, Shannon. It took us three tries to make it all the way, and we felt extremely accomplished! Since then, I’ve been drawn back year after year.  Ascending the East Peak, I remembered all the times I’d done this route, and in the variety of different types of weather. I’ve been to the Portals a handful of times in sunshine, and a few times in clouds and bitter, cold wind. Even though I know this place, so close to Mt. Baker that it really does seem like one is climbing right into her lap, is a stark mountain environment,  I was still surprised at the continual drop in temperature. I WAS prepared, though, with multiple layers of clothes and gloves.

Baker swirled in clouds, portals

Perfect campsite!

Even with the heavy cloud cover, the views behind were just fantastic. The lighting was spectacular and the peaks behind me were still mostly clear, with mystical cloud formations creating a feast for the eyes. I am sure a real photographer would have had a hey day! Near the top of the peak, I noticed the coolest campsite ever. Again, it was right next to the trail, but with Shuksan in the backyard and Baker in front, it offered up quite the scenic spot for a night. Some day, I vowed I’d go there to camp.

A warning here:  The “trail” up East Peak (or East Portal) is easy to lose, and it happens to me at some point most every time I am here. Familiarity has made me comfortable with this, knowing that the trail is vague, as I know how it all comes together on the top. But for a first timer, be aware that “social trails”, paths that go off in a multitude of directions and sometimes just end, make it hard to follow the trail. It’s doable, though,  if you stay with what appears to be the most obvious trail, and if you can see something resembling trail ahead. And eventually, there is simply no more trail to be had, and one ends up at the very end of this fantastic overlook, right down to a knife-edge below. Sholes Glacier is to the right, Mt. Baker sprawled right in front, and that entire range of beauty all the way back to Shuksan. 360 degree views, broken only by Baker’s huge presence.

Shuksan from portals

Knife edge, looking down from East Portal

Glacial snow and ice on Mt. Baker

Portal Selfie — cold and windy!

I arrived at the end at 2:30 pm. Carefully, I plopped down on the very last rock. With drop-offs on three of four sides, I made sure to keep all my belongings close. I ate my lunch amid the swirl of clouds and listened to the wind, the marmot calls, and streams running far below. Being that close to something as unrelenting as Mt. Baker, with glacial rock and snow staring me down, made me feel huge in accomplishment and small by comparison.  I sat like that for thirty minutes, taking it all in, letting mother nature hold me firmly in her grasp.

Back to Artist Point

Trail headed back down from portals

View headed down from portals — magnificent!

Tiny wildflowers in rocky, barren section on Ptarmigan

Semi-reluctantly, I headed down. I still had Table Mountain to climb to complete the triumvirate. The way down was like a whole new trail, in terms of views. Late afternoon lighting made everything even more striking, and the visual feast just wouldn’t end. Not a soul did I encounter, all the way back to the junction with Chain Lakes loop. Solitude, beauty, mystery, magic. Everything I came for just kept happening with abundance! And to top it off, when I crested out from Ptarmigan, Baker was back! In all her glory, clouds mostly gone.

Shuksan view, headed back down from Goat Lake

Baker Lake from Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan Ridge trail headed back up to Chain Lakes trail

 

Baker out again! End of Ptarmigan ridge trail

 

Last section of trail headed to Artist Point

 

I reached the parking lot at 5:00. There was a couple at the corner of the lot, and they immediately pummeled me with questions. It’s like they were waiting for a person who looked like they knew something about the trails. Turned out, they were a retired couple from San Francisco, hiking near Baker as part of a long road trip. At first, I felt impatient with their questions, as I wanted to embark on Table and finish off the day. But I LOVE talking trail, and couldn’t help but become completely engaged with them as they questioned me about the best hikes in the area — both for their car (a Prius, which has a lower clearance than my Subaru) and their desire not to get into too challenging of snow. We chatted for at least 15 minutes, and I suggested they climb Table at that point, as the day was getting short.

They went back to their car for poles and provisions, and I set off on my final hike of the day.

Table Mountain (2 miles)

I’ve only done this short hike perhaps five times. The first time was with my kids when they were quite young, maybe 6 and 8. In retrospect that was quite an adventure for them I’m sure! The trail has incredibly steep drop-off’s in its short ascent, and on the top too.  If you look at Table Mountain, there are two parts. The first, what I call Table Rock, is a mere 3/4 of a mile from the parking lot. Many people only go this far, and call that Table Mountain. The drop-off’s here are extreme, but so are the views!

Looking down from Table Rock to Bagley Lakes and entire lower trail system

View down from Table Rock…

If you continue on, however, a nice meandering trail goes along the south rim of the “table” for another mile or so. I like to take this trail, as it moves one away from all the  people on the Rock.

Baker from Table Mountain

Top of Table Mountain, from my spot of solitude

Looking at Table Rock on Table Mountain

To end my long day, I took the longer trail for a ways into an open area — views all around, snow, and quiet and solitude. I needed and wanted to sit in silence as a culmination of this fantastic day before calling it done. I dropped by the Rock before I went down, and all the hikers I could see from my earlier high perch were now gone. I had my alone moments there, too, before I descended the steep but mercifully short switchbacks.

Parting Shot…

Just before the parking lot, also coming down, I ran into the SF couple again. They introduced themselves as Art and Nancy, and we picked up our conversation again. They had only gone as far as Table Rock, but commented that they saw me communing with nature up farther on the Table. We continued chatting, back at our cars. I asked them to take a parting picture, and did the same for them. They were such a sweet couple, and I loved engaging with them!  I think we could have talked for hours. I felt at times like they wanted to adopt me! But they had a campsite to return to, and I had a 1.5 hour drive home. Eventually, we parted ways. And I was reminded again of the balance I am always seeking — solitude vs. the keen desire to engage with others. This day had a good amount of both.

I left the parking lot at 7:30, with just six other cars still remaining. As I drove the winding roads back down the Mt. Baker Highway, my heart was full to capacity. There is a part of me that longs to be in that environment, always. I know I can’t dwell there, my other life also calls. But to be immersed in the presence of giants for an entire day, and to traipse the miles and trails through flowers, snow, rocks, harshness and sunshine, brought joy and peace to my sometimes restless being.

End of a long and great day…

 

 

The mountains keep calling, and I will go back! 

Smoky Mt. Pugh!

Mt. Pugh (also know as ‘Da Klagwats) — August 3, 2017

Yep, Mt. Pugh is pronounced just like it sounds — PUGH!  I initially had some resistance to climbing this peak because I didn’t like the name! It’s also a challenging one, gaining 1000 feet a mile for 5.5 miles, with a fair amount of exposed scrambling at the end.  I’ve done it twice now, and each time the rewards have been more than worth the effort. Even in the pervasive forest fire smoke, which is how I did it last week. Smoke caused the mountain to live up to it’s name, and it certainly obscured the stellar views at the top. But I knew all of that would be the case, and still, I was inspired to go do Pugh. And I am extremely glad I did.

Stats on Mt. Pugh

LOCATION — off the Mountain Loop highway, 12.5 miles from Darrington.  A signed forest road (FR 2095) leads to this obscure trailhead. There is no parking lot, just pull-outs for several cars, 1.5 miles after the turn-off.    NO Forest Pass required.     DISTANCE — 11 miles RT.    ELEVATION GAIN — 5300 feet.   HIGH POINT — 7201 feet.     DIFFICULTY LEVEL   —  “Very Hard” (according to alltrails).

Why Mt. Pugh?

The first time I did Mt. Pugh was in the immediate aftermath of 2015 forest fires that also permeated Northwest Washington’s air for a couple of weeks. That time, I hiked Pugh right after the smoke had cleared, and my partner Gregg and I were treated to fantastic views all around, as well as clear air, for the first time in weeks. What a joy!! We worked hard to get there, but soaked in every minute of our victory as we sat surrounded by an abundance of peaks — magnificent’s like Glacier Peak,  Mt. Baker, and Shuksan all staring us down, Mt. Ranier and the Olympics farther in the distance, and Monte Cristo, Three Fingers, White Chuck and Sloan Peak right in front of us. Oh, to have pictures of that hike now…

(This is what I would love to see — Baker left, Sloan Peak middle, Shuksan right. This photo from Beaudaddy85’s Image Gallery)

When I chose to return last Thursday, I had to carry the memories of those views in my mind. I knew the smoke from Canadian fires was dense, and I didn’t expect views. What I did expect was a challenging hike, with plenty of time in my head. I often problem solve on hikes, and I embarked on Pugh in part for that purpose. Also, I needed a Vesper Redemption Hike, since my last peak challenge on sometimes iffy trail didn’t go so well. Alone on my mission, I wanted the workout and contemplative headspace I knew Pugh would deliver — and I wanted to feel confident doing it.

The Hike Up

Part of my challenge of Vesper was time, and I didn’t want a repeat here. On the eve of both hikes I had an evening writing class, and with Vesper, I missed it despite my best efforts. With Pugh, I left the Lake Goodwin summer home at 8:00 am sharp, so as to allow enough time to hike and return to the lake by 6:00 for my online class.  I really wanted time to enjoy this hike without the intense pressure of time I so often set myself up for.

I was on the trail by 9:30. Immediately and relentlessly, I was switchbacking in forest. The trail gained 1300 feet in the first 1.5 miles, opening up briefly at Lake Metan. There was camping to the right at this lake junction, but the Pugh trail continued left, marching up even steeper switchbacks under forest canopy for a couple more miles.

At 3-plus miles and 4900 feet, the trail opened up again and for good into a boulder field. Here, I encountered two young women with a dog — and an abundance of bugs! The women had been to the top, and confirmed that there were no views. But one proclaimed, “The cardiovascular work out alone was totally worth it!” A hiker after my own heart. Those women proved to be the only two people I saw on the trail all day.

First smoky views

Leaving the boulders (and some of the bugs) behind, the trail began the steep climb to Stujack Pass. This section was dusty switchbacks, with plenty of loose rock and larger rock steps to negotiate.  Not my favorite, but very manageable. The trail did have some erosion, and I took extra care to make sure my footing held. As I progressed, I could see behind me only the merest outline of Sloan Peak and Three Fingers. But views down the Sauk River Valley weren’t too smoky. And the trail ahead wound it’s way up a  slope full of wildflowers! THAT was my reward on this hike, I decided, since mountain views were all hazed in.  I took an abundance of pictures, fully enjoying the accompaniment of the wildflower blanket that embraced the trail.

Field of flowers ahead…

Headed up Stujack Pass

I reached Stujack pass, at 5750 feet, easily enough. According to trail reports, many hikers opt to stop here. I can see why — views would be great on a clear day, and the trail definitely increases in difficulty after this point. Stopping here wasn’t in the plans for me, though. I officially entered the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and continued on with my summit quest.

The Summit Quest!

From Stujack to summit was 1500 feet in just over a mile. Trip reports and WTA’s site made this part sound rather intimidating. There was talk of a “knife edge” portion of the trail, with exposure and scrambling required.  I remembered it from two years ago as not being that bad, and I wondered if my memory was simply dulled by the years. As I meticulously and carefully worked my way up, those sections did exist, and yes, there was some exposure and a fair bit of non-technical scrambling, but for whatever reason, none of it presented a challenge for me. I am inherently comfortable on rock, as I used to rock climb, and I never felt uncertain of which way to go or questioned my safety. It WAS a bit strange having the place all to myself, but it was also exhilarating! My only sadness was the lack of views. The hazy peak outlines gave a surreal quality to the surroundings, and I had to make do with views closer in. At one point, I could see down both the White Chuck River Valley and the Sauk River Valley, one on each side of the mountain as I climbed steadily up.

White Chuck River Valley

Socked in Sauk River Valley

Layers of haze…

After a couple of false summits, eventually I topped out. It was just before 1 pm, my total time from car to summit just under 3.5 hours. With all my photo breaks, that wasn’t too bad.  I sat on the top, gazing around at the hazy smoke, and ate a hearty lunch. Even though I could see little, I felt warmly encompassed by the presence of the mountains. And I loved being up there alone. It reminded me of my John Muir solo backpack last summer — working hard, gaining a peak or pass, and relishing in the victory. Sometimes it’s great to do that with others, and sometimes, solitude is what I crave most. Alone on the summit of Pugh, smoke and all, was just where I wanted to be.

Summit view…there are mountains out there somewhere…

Small tent site right on top of Pugh!

The Way Back

Always time conscious, I headed back down at 1:30. I knew caution was necessary heading down the craggy upper section, and I didn’t want to feel rushed. I DID lose the trail — twice — going down. I could tell others had done the same thing. I’d follow evidence of foot prints for a short bit, until, clearly, I was into rocks that were too abrupt to descend safely. Then I would backtrack to the obvious “trail”, and see that the way down was in a different direction. I never went down farther than I could get back up, but it was interesting nonetheless that I did this twice. I felt silly in my transgressions, and glad that no one was watching!

Once off the rocks, and back down Stujack, I breathed a sigh of relief. While I never felt at risk descending upper portions of the trail, it was great to be back to the straightforward switchbacks. Hitting an easy downhill stride here,  I found myself reflecting on WHY this hike was so much less stressful for me than Vesper Peak, which completely drained me. Part of it was that the difficult parts of Pugh were broken up with straightforward trail. Vesper never eased up, moving swiftly from rocks and roots, to overgrown trail, to scree and boulders, and, finally snow.  Pugh had vast moments — including the 3.5 miles of forest switchbacks — that allowed for mindless hiking, one foot in front of the other. I like that in a trail. I cruised down, reaching the car at 3:45, more than an hour faster than I went up.

Sloan Peak started showing up a bit more on my way down.

Headed back down the trail of flowers.

Highlights

I realize most people would not voluntarily embark on a view hike in dense forest fire smoke. But it ended up being just what I needed and wanted:  A long, but doable day hike with significant elevation gain, solitude, and plenty of wildflowers.

And the smoke added mystery and brought on much reflection, as I thought back to my first John Muir Trail trip in August, 2015. That 220-mile backpack trip was nearly cut short by smoke from California’s huge Rogue Fire, raging nearby and closing some passes just off the JMT.  But my hiking partner Gregg and I chose to press on, despite strong recommendations from rangers to evacuate the trail, and the fact that most thru-hikers chose to do just that.  Our decision to stay on, despite pervasive smoke, meant that we had the trail nearly to ourselves at times, and we were able to finish our mission. Completing that trip was a huge milestone for me, as I’d never backpacked three weeks in a row. That trip gave me confidence to take on a solo trip of the JMT in the summer of 2016, an even bigger accomplishment. The solo trip became the basis of my current memoir project — which is what all the current writing classes are about. All those connections filtering out from the smoke!

For me, then, the whole Pugh experience was grand. Everything worked out perfectly. Including the fact that I was back at the lake in plenty of time for my 6:00 class!

Know if you go…

This hike is hard. And it does have exposure. Each hiker can and should read trip reports, and make an initial assessment of their comfort with this. But under normal circumstances, efforts are rewarded with spectacular views at Stujack Pass, so even to get that far is well worth the effort. Beyond that point, a hiker can go as far as he or she feels safe, and turn around at any point if it feels like too much. And to make the summit on a clear day is simply sublime, a fact I can testify to from 2015’s hike. All the caution, exertion, and sweat required to get there is completely worth it!

Added bonus:  when I went a week ago, wildflowers were at their peak.  And the bugs were out, but not too bad.

Prepare for flowers!

Final thoughts…

So far this year, I have done four major peaks with trails off the Mountain Loop highway. Here are links to trip reports for the first three in case you missed them: Green Mountain, Vesper Peak, and Mt. Dickerman. There are other peaks in the area of course, (including easily accessible and climbable Mt. Pilchuck, which I have done several times before), but it felt good completing the Big Four.  It’s hard to rank them, as each has their merits. Vesper was unquestionably the most challenging, for all the reasons I’ve stated; Green was snow-filled and calls for a repeat later this season; Dickerman was just fantastic, and Pugh, while smoky, offered contemplation and perfection in it’s own way. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to climb all these magical mountains, so easily accessible from Lake Goodwin. Even if you travel a bit farther, each is worth a visit in it’s own right!

Climb on!

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge of Vesper Peak — Take 3!

I have a complex relationship with Vesper Peak, located off the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades. I am repeatedly drawn back, but each time I go, I am astounded at how physically and mentally challenging it is. It’s been nearly two weeks since I last visited Vesper (July 19), and I’ve spent that time reflecting on the difficulty of the hike, and what it may mean for my hiking future. The Vesper Challenge carried on after doing the doing the peak to processing the impact to now, finally, trying to capturing the Complete Vesper Experience in words. I’ve attempted Vesper three times, summited twice, and at last I think I am done — at least with the peak. The lessons learned will stay with me, no question about it.

Stats on Vesper Peak

A quick digression: Sometimes, the reported length of a summit trail varies greatly, depending on which information you look at. Vesper is one of those.  WTA (Washington Trails Association) calls it 8 miles round trip;  AllTrails calls it 5.5 one way;  Wikipedia calls it 10 roundtrip.  Which to believe? Based on what I know about my sense of distance and hiking speed, I am going with Wikipedia’s 10 miles RT.

 LOCATION— Off Mountain Loop Highway, 18 miles South of Darrington and 21 miles East of Granite Falls.    TRAILHEAD — Sunrise Mine trail #707      DISTANCE — 10 miles (give or take)      SUMMIT ELEVATION — 6214 feet      ELEVATION GAIN — 4200 feet     DIFFICULTY — Rated as Difficult

Previous Vesper Hikes

A current trip report would not make much sense without a mention of my two previous Vesper hikes…

First failed attempt, June 2015

On a cool summer day in mid-June of 2015, my son Kyle, his girlfriend Lauren and I made an attempt on Vesper. It was a low snow pack year, and the hike seemed doable even that early. Several things happened that day, however, such that we failed in our summit attempt:

My hiking companions, Kyle and Lauren

First, we lost the trail soon after breaking out of the forest and brush — about a mile in. I have since learned that this is very common on this unmaintained trail. Before this first attempt, I didn’t put much stock in WTA trip reports, and I rarely, if ever, took the time to read them. Now, two years and a few attempts later, I have read dozens of trip reports for this hike. It’s amazing how many hikers report losing the trail in this same rocky section!  What happens to others, happened to us, and Kyle, Lauren and I lost track of the trail going up the steep rocks. We got up high, then had to work our way back over to the trail on loose, unstable rocks.  Lauren took a fall, which made us all nervous. Once we got back on trail, we kept going, up to Headlee Pass (4600 feet). Confident again once we were en route, we continued our summit quest.

However, our second problem occurred because we had not taken time to read the route description up to the summit. I take responsibility for this — I was designated “trip leader”.  Instead of crossing Vesper Creek and heading up the rock face to the summit, Kyle, Lauren, and I innocently waltzed along the trail to beautiful Vesper Lake. Beyond the lake we could see something of a trail heading up to what we thought was Vesper Peak. We followed that “trail” as best we could, Kyle leading, but the going was hairy and challenging, sometimes in snow, and always steep and vague.  Lauren and I didn’t like it much, and, while Kyle did his best to be the cheerleader, I could tell he was a bit nervous and unsure too. We finally topped out on a pass, with a grand view, and we could see people progressing upward to what we thought was the summit of Vesper.

Third, as we ate lunch, watched and evaluated, several things became clear. The day was cool, some clouds had come in, and it was quite windy. None of us were dressed warmly enough for the conditions. And the route the climbers were taking was steep and snowy, and looked treacherous. We only had lightweight hiking shoes and no traction devices. Kyle and I wanted to continue, despite our lack of preparedness. But Lauren, thankfully, was the voice of reason. She said she would not go, but would wait for us there if we wanted to proceed. I didn’t feel right about leaving her waiting on a cold and windy pass, and deep down, I knew she was right in her assessment. So we all turned back.

Later, Kyle and I looked carefully at the map, and learned that we were going for the wrong summit! The mountain we were actually attempting to climb was Mt. Sperry, Vesper’s next door neighbor. It’s much less popular, and is even more of a “climbers route” than Vesper.  I am grateful to Lauren (and eventually common sense) that we turned back on that day. Vesper stayed on the brain, though, and I wanted to go back…

Second (successful) attempt, July 2015

Ready for conquest, Kyle and I returned to Vesper a month later. This time, Lauren bowed out, and instead Kyle’s buddy Jack came along. Many things went right on this trip — unfortunately,  weather was  not one.

This time, we learned from our previous mistakes.  On the steep rock slope, we paid careful attention and followed hard to see cairns (rock piles) along the way to the more obvious route up to Headlee Pass. It was a struggle for me to keep up with mountain goats Kyle and Jack, but they were nice enough to wait for me at regular intervals. I noticed the challenge of the trail more this time around, as the faster pace combined on the loose rocks required constant vigilance. But  I fed off Kyle and Jack’s youthful energy and enthusiasm, and we reached Headlee pass quickly. Beyond the pass, we did not make the same mistake in heading to the lake, but crossed Vesper Creek and headed up toward the summit.

Kyle foreground, Kathie background, headed up Vesper Peak

Vesper in the fog

The summit approach was a bit of a challenge, somewhat increased by our weather conditions of drizzle and fog. It wasn’t an ideal day for a summit bid, but I am not sure any of us cared. We were all on the same mission! The rock slabs were snow-free but steep,  and I followed the boys as they picked their way up. Thankfully, I only had to focus on my footing, not route-finding — as long as I could see one of them, I just headed in that direction. I’d requested they keep me in sight, and, with the fog, that meant they couldn’t get too far ahead.

We made the summit,  but, unfortunately, couldn’t see a thing from the top.  It was cold, and this time I was prepared but Kyle wasn’t. He put on a shirt of mine to keep warm. He termed it “feminine green” in color, and his hefty arm and shoulder muscles nearly burst it’s stretchy seams!  We stayed on top long enough to eat a quick lunch, then headed down as fast as we could. The entire hike down was just as hard as going up for me, with lots of loose rock and uneven footing. I tried to keep up, but constantly fell behind. Kyle and Jack were patient with me, and we all had a grand time, even though the weather was poor and the path challenging.

Kyle in “feminine green”, after Vesper at Lake 22

Fun loving Kyle and Jack!

Back at the car, our spirits were high. We’d done it! None of us felt ready to call it a day. So we drove the several miles from the Sunrise Mine trailhead to the Lake 22 trailhead, and whipped out that hike too. The whole thing made for a 16-plus mile day with lots of elevation, and the whole adventure was fun and invigorating, despite the dreary weather. I felt good and strong throughout, even though I was bested by the boys. Together we’d bested Vesper, and pulled off a phenomenal hiking day, and I got to feed off the energy of two of my favorite hikers for a day.

But still I couldn’t rest on the Vesper desire. I desperately wanted to be on the summit with sunshine and a view, and so I went back…

Vesper Take 3 — July 19, 2017

Two weeks ago, I went alone to the family summer home at Lake Goodwin planning for a couple days of writing. Proximity to the Mountain Loop Highway and nice weather prompted me to say “WTF, I think I’ll take a hike!”  for one of those days. I decided on a solo bid of Vesper, on what promised to be a sunny Wednesday.  I was confident I would succeed, and drove to the trailhead in good spirits.

The way up

There was a road washout leading to the trailhead, but reports said it was easy to navigate around. It was doable enough, and I arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 am. I had an online class at 6:00 that night, and figured I’d have plenty of time to whip out Vesper and drive the 1.5 hours back to the lake in time for my class…ha!

From the get go and as I remembered, the Sunrise Mining trail required careful footing. At first it was roots, rocks,  and careful stream crossings (four) for the first mile, until I broke out into the opening. Then I was into brush so dense and overgrown that at times I couldn’t see the trail. Always, the footing underneath was uneven and tricky and required that constant vigilance I remembered from before.  I knew and expected this, but it still gave me pause and kept me going at a slow enough pace to keep from turning an ankle or twisting my knee. The unfolding views across the valley to Mt. Dickerman and up the valley towards Morningstar and my old friend Sperry kept me moving.

Looking up toward Headlee Pass

Looking back down…

Once onto the rocks, I made sure to follow the cairns. The path was an often vague traverse and upward progression on small boulders and loose rocks. Sometimes the rocks held, and sometimes they did not. Since my last time here, I’d had knee replacement and bilateral foot and ankle surgeries. That brought my total to five knee and eight foot and ankle surgeries, and, frankly, I felt tentative and cautious as I worked my way across the boulder field. I had to keep a frustratingly slow pace,  and anything resembling a hiking rhythm eluded me. I greatly missed my younger hiking companions, Kyle, Lauren, and Jack.  I felt lonely on my vigil, despite encountering a handful of other hikers.

Headed up to Headlee pass, I encountered the first snow. Most times, the trail went around it with ease, but sometimes a bit of scrambling was required to skirt the snow fields. I was amazed that we had done this route in June and early July of 2015, since in the second half of July this year I encountered more snow than on either previous trip.  Once at the top of Headlee Pass, the views start to really open up, and I felt rewarded for my efforts. Again, I was amazed that the trail never eased up, as the route continued across loose rock. Brave Penstemon bloomed right out of the rocks, and the beauty of that was inspiring.

Rock Penstemon

Rocky trail continues….

Crossing swift Vesper creek was relatively easy. Very quickly I was into snow, and I stopped to put on traction devices. I enjoyed the views down to mostly snow-covered Vesper Lake, again reflecting on how different it was two years ago when it was snow-free.

Then “the trail” was in and out of snow all the way up. I followed foot prints, as at least four people I’d seen on the way down had been on the summit that day. Sometimes the route went up through tree gullys, slick with mud, and was barely discernible. I remembered this from the previous time, and knew I was on the correct route. The snow towards the top got alarmingly steep, and I looked at the multitude of glissade (“sliding on your butt”) paths right down the mountain. Clearly, people were just letting it fly once they were up, but I knew I would not do that. I felt cautious going up and knew I would need to be more careful coming down. The idea of losing control on snow freaked me out.

Vesper Lake in fog, 2015

Vesper Lake in snow, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Carefully and meticulously I worked my way up. I could see a couple leaving just as I was approaching the summit, which meant I would be alone. Normally, I crave solitude on the trail, but this time, I was hoping for company to share the victory with. I arrived at the top at 2:30, three hours after I started. A slow pace for me, and I knew it was unlikely I would make it back in time for my class. I tried to relax with this reality, enjoying the truly spectacular summit views. I could see Mt. Sperry right in front of me, Mt. Pugh, Sloan Peak, and Mt. Baker to the north, Glacier Peak to the east, and Mt. Stuart, Mt. Daniel, and even a glimpse of Mt. Ranier to the south. Perhaps most spectacular was the sheer 1000 foot drop on the north side down to Cooper Lake below. I enjoyed circumferential views and took a few selfies, but I was nervous about going down the steep upper section of the snow. I wanted to get down before shade or cooling temps, and kept my summit time to thirty minutes.

 

Glacier Peak!

Looking down to Copper Lake

Vesper Selfie

Peaks — Gothic Peak (right), Morningstar (foreground)

Looking across Sperry toward Mt. Baker

The way down

As expected, going down the snow was more challenging than coming up. I stuck to my own foot prints as best I could, one at a time, using my poles for added braking. As mentioned, multiple glissade paths indicated others had simply slid down on their butts. They must have had ice axes or been more risk takers than me, or both. Not willing to risk a fall, I picked my way down like I came up, slowly and carefully, checking each step to make sure it would hold. Once off the steep stuff, I breathed a sigh of relief and took off my YakTrax.

But I still had to get down all the rocks that I came up,  and it seemed to take forever. Slowly progressing down, I vacillated between frustration and amazement with the effort involved to secure each step.  I could never relax and just cruise along. Literally, there was not one section of this trail that didn’t require precision with foot placement.  Descending the endless rocks was tedious, and, even with extreme caution, I still tripped and slipped at least 15 times. I stopped counting at ten. This was not a reflection of fatigue or carelessness — it just happened. I had to remind myself to slow down with each slip, and this took a mental and physical toll. When I arrived back at the car 2.5 hours after leaving the summit, I felt completely drained. And late. I knew I wouldn’t make it back for my class in time, but I was relieved to at last be done.

Why was Take 3 SO DIFFICULT?

That night I was completely wiped out. I felt utterly mentally and physically drained. Not from the cardiovascular output, as I couldn’t go fast enough to get that. But from the constant vigilance required to manage the perpetually challenging footing. My right arthritic ankle hurt more during and after this trip than at any time since surgery, and I couldn’t walk without sharp pain.  My replaced knee was fluid- filled and sore, although it mostly recovered after a day or so. But overall, that ten mile endeavor seemed, frankly, all my orthopedically challenged body could handle. I struggled to accept this, and my feeling of near-despair lingered. This hiking experience, instead of uplifting me, put me into a week-long funk! That doesn’t happen often, so I paid attention.

I kept asking myself, Does this experience mean that my hiking future can only be on established trails,  that I can no longer go to places that are only accessible off the beaten path?  I felt intensely conflicted even thinking about this, as there are still SO many hikes I want to do that are like Vesper, and the idea of having to give that up made me feel old, defeated, and on the way out. But I also don’t like to suffer, and there was a fair amount of suffering on this last Vesper excursion. How do I balance my strong desire to go with the reality of my current physical being?

As I grappled with these questions, I went back and looked at each of my three Vesper excursions. How could I take what I learned on each trip, successfully apply it to my current processing, and let those lessons serve as a guide for the future?

The Vesper Lessons

Trip One

The most obvious lesson here is know the route and nuances of the trail. I have gotten much better at this, and, as mentioned, I have become a huge fan of WTA trip reports. Both errors, getting off trail and heading to the wrong summit, could have been avoided if we had paid more attention. The extra time and effort spent getting off trail and  then back on is sometimes immense. Lauren’s fall and recovery not only cost us time, but also emotional energy. And going for the wrong summit actually prevented us from making it to the top of Vesper. As trip leader, I felt responsible and worried, and like our errors could have been avoided.

Second, it was great to have Lauren as a voice of reason. I have learned from that experience that I can say no, can turn around, and it can be OK. That was the first time I can remember NOT going for a summit, and I am thankful we did not. Lauren’s common sense eventually filtered into mine, such that I KNEW without question that we made the right choice. Since then, I have backed off on my need to always push on to the summit.

Kyle and Lauren at Mailbox Peak, near Seattle. Thanks Lauren for your presence of mind and keeping us sane!

Trip Two

The lessons here are mostly all positive. Simply put, I felt less pain, discomfort, angst, and displeasure with the weather and trail since I was hiking with Kyle and Jack. I love to hike alone and do so often. But sometimes my head space gets more cluttered with negativity and what’s not going right when I’m alone. This trip, while not favorable in weather, was successful and fun despite conditions. Under those positive circumstances, going on and pushing the limits like we did, had a huge pay off. And it was great to share in it together.

Trip Three

Trip three taught me about time. I put pressure on myself by starting late, and trying to knock this one off too quickly. Once I realized the difficulty I was having, I could have slowed down, enjoyed my surroundings,  and not felt so frustrated by slow progress. Had I done this, my whole trip might have gone differently. Racing the clock, trying to make the summit in a certain amount of time such that I could be back in time, affected my enjoyment.

In truth, so too did the terrain. There is nothing I can do to change that. But I can change my approach for the future, if I choose to go off the beaten path, I have to plan for, and accept psychologically, that it’s only going to happen slowly and carefully. When I encounter tricky terrain with a Kyle in my future, perhaps I can turn it on. But for now, I will be content with slowing down on trails that are less than straightforward.

However, I know now I won’t give up. That first week following Vesper, I thought that was it. That I would have to put my ambitions of other such endeavors to rest. Now, 12 days after the fact, I feel confident that I can slow down enough to have the enjoyment of such a hike take precedence over the discomfort involved with doing it.

Know if you go…

Vesper is very worthwhile if you are willing to pay attention to every step and take care with route finding. It’s not a trail for beginners, or those wanting to zone out. WTA calls it a step beyond…I would say it’s many steps beyond. Worth it? Yes, if you are physically in good shape, and don’t have an abundance of lower body ailments. And don’t do it on a tight time schedule. My six hours was as fast as I could go safely, and it would have been even nicer to have had more time to relax and enjoy the spectacular views once I reached the summit.

Snowking Mountain and Mt. Formidable, background, Mt. Pugh and Sloan Peak foreground

Sperry Peak (foreground), Glacier Peak in back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One more note: by the time this post gets up, snow will all but be a memory for most of this route. It’s melting quickly, and subsequent hikes I’ve taken have all been mostly snow-free. Yep, I’m still out there hiking! Stay tuned for more posts to come.

 

Birthday Hike to Green Mountain

My yearly trip around the sun culminated (or began again…) with an epic journey up Green Mountain with my son, Kyle, on Friday, June 23, 2017.

The Circumstances of the Hike

Kyle, age 24, is getting his doctorate in Physical Therapy at Emory in Atlanta. He is into his second of a three year program, and I have only seen him once since he left the Northwest over a year ago.  That was at Christmas time when he was home for a few weeks. Normally, when Kyle and I get together, we hike, as he is one of the only people I know who will take on some of the crazy, ambitious hikes I sometimes like to do. He has an infectious energy and enthusiasm about anything trail related — actually anything physically related — that is unmatched. He is a great hiking partner! When he was home last winter, I was unfortunately rehabbing both knee replacement and foot/ankle surgeries, and there was no hiking to be had.

About a month ago, Kyle let me know he’d be home the weekend of June 23 -25. His step-mom had bought him a ticket to come home for a surprise visit with his dad for a late Father’s Day. I was beyond excited, as that Friday was my birthday, and I could think of no better way to spend my birthday than hiking with Kyle.

Immediately, the wheels started turning, and a plan began to hatch.  Kyle’s dad, Gary,  is a teacher in Ferndale, and their school year was delayed by weeks due to snow. He would still be teaching that day, June 23, for his last day. So it was feasible, if we could play it out correctly, that Kyle and I could squeeze in a hike while he was here and before he went to Gary’s for the surprise visit, AND it would be on my birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better birthday present!

Hike Preparations

The window of opportunity created, I started thinking about what sort of hike we could do to fully maximize the day. It had to be alpine, a peak, and challenging but doable within a day’s time frame. I had put in a request for sunny weather for the event, and it appeared mother nature would deliver! Ten days out, a week out, days out, all the forecasts showed that the weekend of June 23 -25 would be a beautiful scorcher with record temps in and around our potential hiking playground.

I decided on Green Mountain. At 6500 feet, the trail up is a reasonable 8.5 miles round trip with 3300 feet of elevation. It’s off the Mountain Loop Highway, near Darrington, and near our family summer home at Lake Goodwin, where we’d be stationed for the adventure.  I checked recent online trip reports to see what hiking conditions were like at Green Mountain, and found a mixed review.  A few hikers were making it to the top, others were bailing out at lower elevations because of snow. But all reports agreed that the snow was prevalent enough that route finding was an issue. I did my best to prepare for both of us,  as Kyle would be flying in from Atlanta and we’d head straight to the lake then the trail. I secured YakTrax for both of us, gaiters, and poles, one with a ice axe head.

I picked Kyle up at the airport at the Seattle airport at 11:30 pm Thursday night. We drove to the lake, got to bed by 1:00. I was up at 5:00, sleep deprived but ready for the day. I made pies with my sister Kari for the birthday dinner that night, and then got ready while Kyle and Kari ate breakfast together. Kyle consumed five scrambled eggs, two pieces of toast with peanut butter, and a huge bowl of Cheerios with local strawberries. Wow! I didn’t realize the kid ate so much.

Off to the trailhead

We were on the way by 7:40, only ten minutes behind schedule. Google told us the drive would be 2 hours and 22 minutes.  Google doesn’t know how Kathie drives on logging roads when she is mission oriented! We made the drive in just under two hours. The time flew by, with Kyle updating me on school, and me updating him on family. My 90-year old mom had died on June 1, an event that I am still processing. I shared events of her death, the challenging aftermath, and the memorial service the previous weekend. It was good conversational time, and kept us both awake.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were no other cars at the trailhead when we arrived. We were packed up and headed out before 10:00.  The first couple miles of trail are straightforward switchbacks through forest. We continued our conversation, Kyle asking questions about my writing and all the associated aspects of that. It was very cool to share something as significant as the memoir writing process with my son, and I delighted in his interest.

Traversing meadow before the snow

In no time the forest disappeared and we broke into our first meadow. Kyle was absolutely enthralled, taking pictures and exclaiming over and over “THIS is what I most wanted. THIS is what I’ve missed so much. You just don’t get this in Atlanta!” His enthusiasm matched the unfolding views as we continued our switchbacks up through the meadow. Avalanche Lily’s, Indian Paintbrush, Columbine, and Lupines all dotted the landscape as we went. We even saw a smattering of late-blooming Trilliums, one of my favorites.

Lupine

Paintbrush

Trillium

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Challenge

Too soon, the trail hit snow. We put on our YakTrax, and moved into navigation mode. I had done the hike twice, and had a sense of where the trail went. But everything looks different in the snow. There was a stream to cross, and we did so on a snow bridge.

The way up, just before the traverse that put us off trail

Once on the other side, I had a vague recollection of where we should be, and it was definitely not where we were! We wandered some, ending up too high, then dropping down this incredibly steep but short slope, not on snow but dirt, branches, and plants. At the bottom, we could see the lookout on the top of the mountain, high above, and with a huge field of snow at it’s base. I knew from previous hikes that the trail traversed quite far around before heading up, and so we didn’t even consider heading right up the snow field. In retrospect, that may have been the easiest (and probably safest) route to the top. But we didn’t go that way.

Instead, we traversed. And not on trail. I kept thinking the trail would appear, as we continued across a very steep slope that was just about all I could handle. My right foot, ankle, and knee all complained, as that appendage bore the brunt of each and every step of the uncertain traverse.  This went on for far too long, Kyle moving ahead then waiting for me, each of us continually looking for the trail. After what seemed like ages, I told Kyle I couldn’t keep traversing. It was just too painful. I stopped while he went ahead, around the next bend, to see what other options might show up. He returned with the news that none did.

We stood together, on this incredibly steep slope, looking up. We could see a way up that was snow-free, but with loose rocks, plants, and a grade that was so precipitous as to appear almost  unmanageable. In these types of moments, you have to make a decision. Move up, or backtrack and go back down? For the record, I am am not a “go back” kind of gal, but I seriously considered it here. We only had so much time to work with, as we had to be back to the car by 4:00 at the latest for the events that came after the hike (Kyle getting to his dad’s, and my planned birthday dinner). But going back felt like defeat. And then we’d still have to figure out a different way to the top, or just give up the summit altogether. Kyle felt confident he could go straight up, but was (appropriately) worried about me. Especially my recently replaced knee. It’s still not fully recovered, and anything that puts stress on the artificial joint causes swelling and a lot of pain. We both knew I could push through only so much.

Kyle looked at me expectantly, eye brows raised, concern not able to mask his eagerness. I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled. “I’m game if you are.”

“I’ll go first”, Kyle declared, quivering with excitement and raring to go, “and let you know what it’s like.”

“Okay, just don’t get too far ahead, I need to be able to see you and check in with you.”

I’ve done this a couple of times before, headed straight up a mountain off trail but not on snow. It’s physically challenging and guilt producing.  Walking on newly appeared flora and fauna feels terrible to this trail-conscious hiker. It’s not an approach I would recommend, as it is so important (and so much easier) to stay on trail.  I had to attempt to put my guilt about that aside, as even if we turned back we’d still be off trail.

So up we went.  We were still wearing YakTrax, which actually helped with traction on the steep and loose terrain. Sometimes poles were helpful, sometimes not. At times it was an all-out hands and knees type of ascent, using the sparse plants that looked sturdy enough for upward progression. It was a combination of scrambling, using my rock climbing skills, and keeping my wits 100% about me. It felt absolutely important to not fall, and that was my focus with each step. More than once I stood, precarious balanced, not at all sure how to make the next step up. It doesn’t happen often that I get right to the edge of what I can do on a mountain side. This experience put me there. I kept watching Kyle’s progress, believing that if he could do it, so could I.

Eventually and mercifully, our efforts finally brought us to the ridge! In my previous climbs of Green Mountain, the ridge was the most challenging part. Here, after what we’d done, it frankly seemed like a cake walk. Yes there was snow, and some exposure with fall potential on both sides, but plenty of room to navigate up all of it. Both of us were exhilarated to have made it that far, and we knew we’d make the summit. Soon, we could see the lookout, and it was only a matter of time before we’d be there.

As we happily climbed this last part, we made sure to look for a different way down. I told Kyle, no way would I be able to go down what we’d just come up. He agreed, and we scanned for a doable decent even as we continued up. We saw a snowfield that angled over towards the main snowfield, and it seemed manageable. We decided to return there after summiting for our way down.

The Summit!

Summit, with Lookout in back

 

The lookout at Green Mountain was locked, but we dumped our packs and wandered around it’s somewhat rickety deck. This lookout, like so many of the dozens that remain on mountain tops in the Cascades, had to fight to be preserved. As recently as 2010 dismantling was threatened, as environmental groups protested the use of helicopters to rebuild and maintain it after Obama signed the lookout into preserved status. Instead, a group called Friends of Green Mountain biked and hiked with 50 pound packs to rebuild, and continue to maintain, this lookout. Something seemingly so simple as a lookout on a mountain top is never without a story!

The sky was a deep blue and cloudless, and the number of peaks in our view was endless. I could point out Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker, but dozens of others I did not know the names of, sadly. “What’s that peak?” Kyle’d ask. “Sorry, Kyle”, I’d reply, “You came with the wrong partner for peak naming! We’ll just have to sit and immerse ourselves in the wonder of it all.”

And we did. We sat on my designated favorite flat rock 20 feet below the lookout, munching on turkey sandwiches, cherries and grapes. It was an all encompassing sensory feast. We talked of both serious and light topics, and my heart was completely full. It simply doesn’t get any better than being on a peak, with a loved one, sharing meaningful conversation mixed with moments of silence, surrounded and enveloped by snow-covered mountains everywhere you look.  I felt like I could sit there forever.

But time vigilance sat with us too. We had agreed to leave by 1:30, and right on the dot, we were packed up and headed down.

Down the Snow

We descended quickly, back down the steep patches of snow mixed with rocks. After 15 minutes or so, Kyle called up to me. “Do you think we’ve gone too far, Mom? Did we miss that chute we saw on the way up?” I’d been thinking the same thing. I’d been looking carefully, seeing nothing resembling the slope we picked, but also knowing that everything looks different on the way up than down.  Perhaps we had missed it…

“I don’t know, Kyle. Maybe. I’ll wait here, you go ahead a bit more, see what you think.” I was dreading the idea of going back up, again, what we’d just come down.

I watched Kyle, contemplating. Time was ticking by. If we were going to go back, up, we had to move. Kyle turned around quickly, probably thinking the same thing.

“I don’t know what happened, Mom, but we probably should go back up.”

I agreed, and reluctantly, we started back. It was easier this time on the snow sections, as we’d been here a couple of times before. “If we do this enough times”, I commented, trying to keep it light, “we’ll have established a regular highway up here!”

We both kept peering over the edge, looking for a way down. We analyzed one snowfield, but there was an area with potential rocks that we just couldn’t see. Kyle was semi-game. “I’ll go first”, he offered. “See what it’s like…” But I couldn’t help remembering a snowshoe hike he and I had done three summers before. On that hike, fearless Kyle took off down on a steep slope that almost put him over a waterfall on an unexpected cliff that he couldn’t see from above. He was able to self-arrest and stop just in time. There was no way I was going to let him do a repeat.

“I don’t feel good about that, Kyle.” We looked at each other, he nodded. “Yeah, me neither.” He said. We were definitely on the same page.

The only option was to return almost all the way to the summit, and drop in just below. Kyle lead, and he stopped at a place where a steep entry point looked possible. It required a drop of 20 feet through trees and brush so steep that both hands and feet would be required. Kyle went first, leaving his poles with me, aptly maintaining his grip on the available limbs and the overall situation. “You can do it, Mom.” He looked up encouragingly. “It’s not that bad.”

I tossed him all four poles, so I too could use my hands. The tree trunk and branches and brush provided enough hand holds such that, while the footing was unstable at best, I felt safe enough. But at the top of the snowfield, my confidence wavered. It was a long, steep, snowfield, that would put us up back where we had began our errant traverse on the way up. I desperately wanted to be there, but I did not want to slip and fall. It felt of crucial importance to stay upright. Kyle was eager and willing to try glissading (sliding on one’s butt, basically) down the whole thing, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I was too anxious, too worried about my knee, too fearful that if I started slipping, I wouldn’t stop. Too fearful that one or the other of us might sustain an injury, and that would present a whole different set of challenges.

“I can’t glissade this, Kyle. I am sorry.” I said simply. “I need you to go first, and kick steps on the steep sections. I know you want to let it fly, but safety has to come first. I’m worried that I won’t be able to recover if I fall.”

The snowfield down. The small dot just above the rock is Kyle

And Kyle obliged. The sun was directly on us as we went down, so bright it almost hurt. I focussed on each step, one at a time, knowing that if I was safe in one step, I would likely be safe in the next. Kyle kept turning around, making sure I was okay. At one point, I slipped and dug in a pole so hard it bent. Severely, about 8 inches up, such that it was now a hook more than a pole. Kyle offered to switch poles with me. The role reversal we were in here did not escape me.

As the grade eased, I gained some confidence. Kyle was able to do his boot-skiing, and I relaxed into a walk/slight slip, caught by the traction of the YakTrax. I was relieved when we hit the bottom, with no incidents other than the bent pole.

Back to the car

We regrouped for a moment, trying to figure our way back from here. Clearly, we’d gone wrong on the way up, and now I led intuitively with what seemed right. I prayed for trail gods to guide us to the trail, as I was pretty much spent. Rarely do my legs feel like jello, but they resembled that here. And time was going way too fast. It was past 2:30 at this point, and we still had some navigating to do to get out of the snow for good.

But apparently, we’d paid our dues and the trail gods did smile on us.  Our path led us right to the trail, and we were able to follow it with relative ease even as it moved in and out of snow. None too soon, we were out of snow for good, and we both whooped and hollered. “YES!” Kyle declared once we hit predictable ground. “We did it, Mom!” I was ecstatic and still adrenalized, but trying to relax after the challenging descent. We whipped off our YakTrax, the relief as welcome as the easy trail ahead.

“We gotta move it, Kyle.” I said, again checking my watch. “I am not sure how many miles to the car, but we have an hour to get there. You go first, go as fast as you want, I’ll let you know if I can’t keep up.”

Kyle’s legs were as spent as mine, a fact that made me feel good. We’d both pushed a physical limit.  While my knee hurt a lot, it didn’t seem any worse for wear. I wondered what the knee doc would have thought about what we’d just done. I am not sure he would have endorsed it.

We hoofed it going down. At one point I said to Kyle “If you want to go a little faster, I can do it.” He turned around, looked at me semi-incredulously. “You want me to go faster? OK, I’ll do my best!” We didn’t run, but we were close, still on track to make the car by 4:00. We made it  — barely. It was 3:55 when we flew out from the last switchback. We hopped in the car, this time switching roles with Kyle driving and me navigating. Only one obstacle came our way on the tedious, 20-mile logging road headed out. We came up on a camper pulling a horse trailer, who would slow way down for the pot holes, almost stopping so we could pass, but then speeding back up again as soon as Kyle would start to edge around. It was extremely frustrating, but something you can’t do anything about. With Kyle’s patience just about completely tried, the guy finally moved over — once we hit the paved road and could have passed him anyway.

It all ended up OK. We made it back to the lake right at 6:00, where Kyle took off on his trip up north to Bellingham to surprise his dad, and I had my birthday dinner at the lake with Kari, my daughter Shannon and her fiance Kevin, and my brother Brad and his daughter. It was a great ending to a fantastic day — and  superb birthday.

What I’d do differently next time…

While many things went right in the day, there were some valuable things I learned form this trip. Always, the learning. What would a trip into the mountains be without that?

ALLOW MORE TIME.   This is a common theme in my life, and I am constantly working on it. I am one to cram in as much as possible into any given time period, and this hike and day was no exception. With the exception of our 40 minutes on the top, and later, after dinner sitting at the picnic table with Shannon and Kevin, there was really no down time in this very busy day. I loved it, but the constant time pressure, especially on Green Mountain, did affect my ability to fully relax.  As I move into my next year of life, easing up on time, and trying to do less and enjoy it more, is a focus.

CHECK ROUTE DESCRIPTIONS AND MAP MORE THOROUGHLY.  I had glanced at a couple of trip reports, and had Kyle read a few too. But neither one of us paid much attention to details, and we did not have a map of the route with us. Kyle took a picture of the route map at the trailhead, but that proved useless once we were off course and into snow. Navigation and map reading are not my strong points, and I realized here, again, that these skills would have come in handy here. Perhaps a navigation class is in my near future….

CONSIDER ALL OPTIONS BEFORE COMMITTING.  It would have unquestionably been easier for us to head straight up the snow, or certainly switchback up the snow, than the route we chose. But honestly, I didn’t even think about that as option, I was so focused on the traverse. I certainly missed the forest by obsessing on the trees here! Slowing down to analyze and being less impulsive are also directions I want to move in the coming year. 

TURN BACK WHEN IT LOOKS UNREASONABLE TO CONTINUE. Again, this is one we should have considered long before we got so far in. It’s always hard to explain, or rationalize, the need to push on in such situations.  Going back probably would have saved us time, and certainly energy, but I felt that we needed to either go on or bail. In the end, we probably worked even harder. In the coming year of hikes and adventure, I will remember to explore the option of turning back. 

To our credit, there were things we did do right. We prioritized safety, we moved with care and caution, we had good supportive team work, and, most importantly, we kept our senses of humor and adventure. And certainly we had fun!  All in all, it was a fantastic day, and the adventure was well worth the cost.

Green Mountain is a great hike! As snow continues to melt off, it will get easier to navigate. Here’s a link for more information: Green Mountain Trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake 22 — Last Alpine Hike of 2016 and First of 2017

Lake 22 Day Hike

Lake 22 is a short, relatively easy day hike accessible off the Mountain Loop Highway, near Darrington. My family has a place at Lake Goodwin, about a 45 minute drive to the beginning of the Loop. Many trails and peak climbs are accessible off this highway, and it is a veritable playground in the summertime. Each time I am at The Lake (as we call the “summer” home — which is actually used year-round), I try to incorporate in a hike with my stay. In winter, of course, this is not an option, unless it’s a snowshoe hike. But a handful of the lower elevation hikes off the MLH are good shoulder season hikes. I had the incredible good fortune of doing one of those, Lake 22, on each shoulder of this past winter — late last October,  and then again last week, on the second to last day of March.

Because of it’s easy accessibility, Lake 22 is an extremely popular hike. Washington Trails Association describes it as “the center of an oasis of alpine wetlands nestled in the Northern Shoulder of Mt. Pilchuck”. Who wouldn’t want to go there? Especially on a trail that’s a mere 5.4 miles round-trip to the lake, with an optional 1.3 mile loop hike around said oasis.

First Encounter with Lake 22 — July, 2015

In all my summers at The Lake, I’d read about but always avoided hiking Lake 22 because of the crowds. But curiosity and opportunity combined one late afternoon in July, 2015, and I finally relented. On that day, my son Kyle, his equally high-energy friend Jack, and I climbed Vesper Peak, also off the Mt. Loop Highway. After finishing the challenging, nine mile round-trip, 4400 foot elevation gain hike, none of us were ready to be done hiking for the day. So we drove to nearby Lake 22 trailhead, and zipped up the additional 1350 feet of elevation to the lake, taking the loop trail around with a multitude of other people. Back at The Lake for a late dinner, we discussed our fabulous day, reveling in our 16 mile, 5550 feet elevation day. And recounting how surprisingly busy Lake 22 was. After that, I decided I wouldn’t go back unless it was well before or after the typical summer hiking season. I wanted less people, plus a chance to see this gem in different weather and conditions.

October 2016’s Wet and Wild Hike

When I returned to Lake 22 in October of the following year, it was during an extreme rainstorm and following a period of very heavy rain. The trail starts in rainforest, and water is pretty much a constant on lower parts of the trail even in the summer. But on this day, my friend Michael and I literally hiked through water the entire way. First, it was pouring rain pretty much the entire hike. And, from the get go, stream beds were overflowing, and we had to cross multiple creeks that were more like raging rivers in inches to over a foot of water. It was spectacular, walking right through rapids, and with water racing down the trail.  Though we had full Gore-tex on, there was simply no way to stay dry. The amount of water made the trip slow going, as we had to tread carefully to stay upright. Poles were a necessity. And it was exquisitely painful on my feet, being in cold water for that amount of time.

We were completely rewarded for our efforts once to the lake, though, by cascades of dozens of waterfalls streaming off the sheer north face of Mt. Pilchuck. Michael said it reminded him of Rivendell, the home of Elf leader Elrond, as depicted in the Lord of the Rings movies. (Not having seen them, I will have to take his word for it!) But the vast number of falls plummeting down was truly breathtaking. We took the trail around the lake, marveling at the sheer amount of water flowing over even that part of the trail, our entire hike taking place in a deluge. 

Winter’s Surgical Interlude

Then there was the knee replacement in November and the foot ankle/ankle surgery in December. Hiking to and through waterfalls to get to alpine lakes wasn’t on the radar —  both from a winter weather and a recovery standpoint. My post-op course was a little rocky,  and a couple setbacks kept me in the post-op boot for longer than expected. I was finally cleared to begin hiking without the boot a month ago. I was so ready! Throughout the month of March,  I took many progressively longer low-land hikes, and I knew I’d be ready for Lake 22 again when opportunity presented itself last week.

3/30/17 — Spring Conditions with Plenty of Snow!

I went to The Lake for a solo writing retreat. On day two, writing complete, I found myself drawn back to Lake 22. This time, my friend Doug came down to join me. We’d checked trail reports, and the hike looked doable. Predictably, all the boots that had traveled the trail earlier in the week and month had tamped down the snow. Reports said the numerous snow bridges over the creeks weren’t too worrisome. We decided we’d start the hike, and turn back if at any point either of us felt unsafe. The day looked to be blessedly free of rain, although we were well prepared with rain gear. We also wore gaiters and brought traction devices to strap on our boots should we need them in the snow.

View from the bridge…

I was worried the trail would be wet after October’s experience. But as soon as Doug and I started, I could tell it was not going to be anything close to that experience. The early creek crossings were easily negotiated on well-placed rocks. The trail is both well made and maintained to handle the huge volume of hikers, and it was easy to find a way across. The water was rushing, particularly in the falls, where it should be. We stopped on the first bridge for a spectacular view. The whole section is classic rain forest — moss everywhere, blanketing the ground and hanging from branches in a magical setting of old growth western and mountain hemlock, alder, and red cedar trees. Very pleasant hiking, and neither of us even got our feet wet, which thrilled me to no end.

Open area with clouds parting

 

 

 

 

The trail opens up at 1.5 miles. This is the area where we’d expected to encounter snow, but, surprisingly, it was snow-free for a bit longer. We did come to a section where avalanche debris covered the trail.  Logs, criss crossing each other, made for difficult navigation, and a determined lone hiker was seeking help to make it more passable. A young couple in front of us tried to help, but it seemed the job was too big for mere mortals without machinery. We waited patiently for a bit, then the young woman, a bit impatient (like me!) to get going,  said she thought we should just leave it as it was. I agreed with her, and the women ruled on this one. The determined man reluctantly let us go by, although we noticed that he stayed behind, continuing to puzzle out a solution to the problem.

Snow formations in the creek

Very shortly after, the trail hit snow for real, just before re-entering forest again for the final .6 miles to the lake. This section was a bit dicey, and we could see how many people had post-holed through snow down to the creek bed below. Doug went through once, to his thigh. I did not go through at all, for which I was grateful. Just before the lake, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Pilchuck, right at the same place where we came to some fantastic snow formations in the creek below.

There were several people at the lake, and not a lot of space to disperse them. The bridge to cross the creek was basically impassable with snow. The younger couple got across the bridge, but the trail beyond and around the lake was not doable unless one had snowshoes. Doug and I chose to drop down onto a flat, open area, which, we

Standing on the lake…

Lunch spot

realized, was on top of the mostly frozen lake. Making sure not to get to close to the only portion of the lake that was thawed out, we set ourselves up in a lunch spot with a simply fantastic view of the breaking clouds and fog dancing across the face of Pilchuck. While we ate, the sun came out some, and a series of snow slides over on the mountain provided a constant reminder of where we were. The whole setting was pretty awe-inspiring, as we enjoyed homemade sandwiches and fruit salad with the spectacular show.

We both decided to put traction devices on for the first part of the hike down. Doug had micro-spikes, and I used inexpensive Costco Yak Trax knock-offs. His worked better than mine, but the addition of any traction device was useful, no question. The descent went much quicker than the ascent. Back at the open area, we noticed two things. First, the skies had cleared enough that we could see White Horse and Three Finger Jack off in the distance, which was very cool. And second, the determined hiker HAD had success in moving things around with the avalanche debris, such that the crossing on the way down was considerably easier than coming up. Way to go and thanks to this man on a mission!

The rest of the hike down was easy and uneventful. I took some pictures of the falls I had been too focussed to snap on the way up. We arrived back at the car extremely happy with the hike, and very pleased that we had taken a chunk of the day to do it. I loved being back in the mountains again after a long winter of recovery. And I know it’s just the first of many more to come.

Snow covered bridge

Thank you Lake 22!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Own Private Half Marathon

Fragrance Lake Half Marathon Route…in the Boot!

Origins of the idea

The inspiration to do this 13.1 mile hike came to me with the force of other ideas I have not been able to ignore — like hiking the John Muir Trail solo last summer, for instance. I was out on a hike on Chuckanut Ridge with my friend Michael on January 23, 2017.  I had been walking and then hiking in a post-op boot for two weeks following December 22nd’s  foot and ankle surgery. Gradually increasing both mileage and difficulty of terrain, I felt ready for the challenge of Chuckanut Ridge Trail (near Bellingham, where I live). Using poles and moving carefully,  I found I was able to successfully negotiate the steep, rocky, heavily rooted Ridge Trail, even in the boot, AND do all that for 3 hours. That got me wondering just how much I COULD do in a boot, and my curiosity and goal orientation took over.

“Michael”, I said.  “I have an idea…”

“Oh no”, he said, knowing full well that is a dangerous statement coming from me. “What is it?”

“Are you free next Monday? January 31st? I want to do the entire Fragrance Lake 1/2 Marathon course while I am still in the boot.” The actual event, I knew,  was Saturday February 11th, a day I have to work. “You’ll love the route — Two Dollar trail, Fragrance Lake, the Rock Trail, and the Chuckanut Ridge Trail. The hardest parts of it are the Rock trail and this Ridge trail. But I think I can do it.”

Two Dollar Trail

Michael, I know, is always up for an adventure and is slowly pushing his own limits of what’s possible hiking-wise, in this case distance. He laughed.  “I know that once it’s in your head, Kathie, you won’t let it go. So sure, let’s plan on it.”

It’s important to note that I have done the whole Fragrance Lake 1/2  marathon course three times before, so I know the route well.  Only once did I actually do the event itself, and that was three years ago on 2/15/14. THAT particular time I had serious demons to confront and unravel before, during, and after the course.

The Fragrance Lake Half of 2014

Inspiration for that Event

I signed up for 2014’s event rather spontaneously with my then boyfriend of three years. We were out on a hike in the Chuckanuts (a term locals use to describe both Chuckanut and adjoining Blanchard Mountain’s complex array of trail systems) in November of 2013 when, unexpectedly, multitudes of runners started passing us. We quickly discovered they were doing a marathon and half marathon on the trails we were hiking on. We continued our hike, keeping out of their way, and watching as they cruised by us in a steady stream.  As we watched the runners, some fast and some almost walking themselves, what struck us most was the variety of body types and running styles.  While many were thin, wiry, efficient running types, there were also heavier, less svelte almost awkward types too. Even though neither of us was running at the time, we were inspired by the diversity of runners, and started talking about the idea of run/walking a trail half marathon ourselves. Back at his house later that evening, we perused upcoming half’s and came upon the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon, scheduled for mid- February of the upcoming year. Motivated by the day’s events, we both signed up, with just three months to prepare.

Unexpected Challenges

Unfortunately and very unexpectedly, things in the relationship soon took a turn for the worse. In early December, my boyfriend/life partner/one who I thought was IT, started becoming increasingly distant. I didn’t understand this abrupt change, his lack of response to texts, not wanting to get together,  etc., and it drove me crazy for two weeks. Finally, in mid-December, we talked. He came to my house and said he needed time alone to work on personal issues. He did his best to explain and I did my best to listen and be compassionate and understanding. It was a painful and emotional conversation, out of which came his request for time away, and my willingness to give it to him. It wasn’t termed a break-up, at least I didn’t hear it that way. Because of my tendency to be the dominant one in relationships, he asked that let him contact me when he was ready to re-engage. I agreed, not realizing at the time what all I was leaving hanging out there in the zone of uncertainty.

I made it through the first few weeks of this with a lot of support from friends and family. I got through Christmas, the anniversary of my Dad’s death on 12/27 (an event that my partner and I shared, and was as impactful and emotional for him as it was for me), New Year’s Eve, and January 2 when we had concert tickets together. And still no word from him. As January continued along, my initial patience with his process started to turn to frustration.  I upped my exercise routine, doing long walks out on the trails and trying to sort out my feelings for and about him, without access to him to do so. I didn’t know what else to do, frankly. So I walked and hiked, even experimented with running a bit, and eventually did the whole half-marathon route, just to see if I could. It was challenging to say the least, and for unknown reasons I ended up getting extremely sick (vomiting, headache) after doing the course that first time.  I wrote a story about it…and sent it via email to my boyfriend (thinking that was an acceptable form of contact), and hoping it might open the door to communication — or at least give me an idea of whether or not he was still planning on doing the Half with me.

He did respond, but only vaguely.  He said nothing about his intentions with the half marathon. I emailed him back directly, saying that if he wasn’t going to do it, my daughter Shannon would sign up and do it with me. Shannon, then 23, and I were living together at the time, and she felt badly for me that he left so abruptly. As much as anyone, Shannon was aware of the complexity of our relationship. When no response came to the second email, I told her she was on. She signed up. Shannon’s birthday is on 2/16, the race was on 2/15, so we decided to turn it into a birthday race – celebration of me trying to run again – anti-Valentine’s Day – screw it, we don’t need men in our lives anyway event!

A Brief History of my Running Past….

A brief word here about my history of running. I started running at the age of 19, after a year of not exercising and weight gain. I ran sporadically through college and through the seven years of my first marriage and two children. Running was always there, like a comfortable and predictable old friend, but never a focus. When I divorced and remarried, I suddenly had time to run as I didn’t have to work with husband #2. We lived in Bellingham, and I ran as much as I could on the trails and roads in and around our home. I started training for a marathon, a goal I’d held in the back of my mind since college, but never really expected to achieve.  LONG story short, I trained for four marathons between 1995 and 1999, and ran zero. I got injured each and every time I would increase my mileage beyond 15 miles or so. My last marathon attempt was an Anchorage Marathon in June, 1999, with Team in Training, a fundraiser for Leukemia. I raised all the money, did the training, but ended up bailing — again — and having back surgery for a herniated disc a week before the marathon. It was a very sad day and a sad time of my life. Six months after surgery, I left my second husband for reasons far too complex to explain here. Suddenly I was on my own with two kids, chronic pain, and no ability to exercise to combat stress.

The next twelve years was an on again, off again struggle — in life and with running. During that time I had knee surgery for chronic ACL problems, a back fusion, and a neck fusion. Between recoveries, I would sometimes be able to get back into running a little bit,  but mostly I became a committed road biker, hiker, and eventually backpacker — not a runner. I totally and completely kept the runner mind-set and desire, I just didn’t have the cooperation of my body to pull it off. I accepted this, but still and always, wanted to run. So with the half-marathon coming up, and Shannon now doing it with me, I decided to give it another go. In early February, I did the course again, this time running where I could and walking the rest, and it took me 4 hours 30 minutes. The cut-off for the race itself was 4:30, and I was determined that if we did it, we would do it to count.

Race Day 2014

By race day, then, I had done the whole course twice, and had a good sense of it. Shannon (who was running some at the time, but not a lot either), agreed to let me decide when we would run and when we would walk. Some of the route is just not runnable (in my view anyway — of course, many die-hards DO run all of it), and I was experiencing calf-cramping every time I ran up hill. With 3300 feet of elevation gain and lots of uneven terrain, that would mean a lot of walking. Somehow, on race day, we arrived late to the starting line. We were running even before the race started! I was exhausted after the first flat mile and a half, and still trying to catch my breath. After that, the hills began in earnest. We evolved into a routine, running the flats and easy downhills, and walking the uphills and the challenging terrain parts of the race. We started at the back of the pack and basically never caught up.

The Rock Trail comes just before the half-way point in the race. It covers only 1.1 miles, through beautiful, fern-adorned boulders and huge rock slabs, with Bellingham Bay peeking out from the trees. But it’s steep, and has many sections of stairs, eventually topping out at the Cyrus Gates Overlook, the high point of the race. At one point on the Rock Trail, Shannon, then a grad student at Western Washington University in Environmental Science,  decided to give me a lesson in the types of trees on the trail. She pointed out Alder, Cedar, Hemlock, Maple, and various evergreen trees. Then she wanted to quiz me as we went along. I was appreciative of her efforts of distraction, but barely hanging in there. I said, with as much patience as I could muster, “Shannon, I will tell you right now, it’s all I can do to  put one foot in front of the other. I am so sorry, but I am not going to be able to recall the names of trees right now. I just have to get through this!” She laughed good-naturedly, and we completed the Rock Trail in companionable silence.

Thankfully, the one refueling stop on the route was at Cyrus Gates overlook.  Volunteers were still there in the wind and drizzle, with food and cheering, though runners had all but passed through. I’d never been last in a race before, and it was hugely encouraging when they cheered us on like we were the first! We allowed ourselves a full stop, chomping  M & M’s and whatever else we could consume quickly. Weather was coming, and we still had the Chuckanut Ridge section to go.

The ridge section, something over two miles, is up and down, rocks and roots, obstacles and uneven ground. Our goal remained to complete the race under 4:30, but uninjured. Both of us are balance challenged and prone to ankle twists, so we took the ridge slowly and carefully. It was tedious and trying. We both tried to cheer each other on, and keep frustration at bay. Neither of us liked the section and it seemed to go on forever.  There were no views, and drizzle had turned to rain.

Shannon and Kathie wet and happy at 2014 finish line

After the ridge, we still had almost five miles to go, mostly downhill. There is one last uphill section on road, then it’s all downhill on trail for the last 3.5 miles. At that point, patience tried by the stopping and starting again to run, Shannon told me she was not going to stop running until the finish line. And that if I wanted to finish with her, I would have to run too. So we did. We pulled off a somewhat convincing last few miles, finishing the race in 4 hours and 2 minutes.  We were 141st  and 142nd out of 149 finishers. The fastest time was 1 hour, 48 minutes– less than half our time. But it felt like a huge victory, and I was on a runner’s high and typically reflective as we feasted on still warm soup and other goodies. Doing the half was in win in so many ways — a statement of independence and OK-ness with being alone, an opportunity to hang with my daughter, and, yes, a mini-comeback with running. As we headed back to the car, soaked but with our bodies replenished,  I joked with Shannon that we could make this an annual event to celebrate her birthday. She said point blank “I don’t think so, Mom. Never again. You are on your own with this one if you want to do it again.”

Back to the Present

Fortunately for Shannon but unfortunately for me, I was on crutches or in a post-op boot recovering from surgery for each of the next two Fragrance Lake Half-Marathons. It wasn’t even on the radar for this year, being similarly in a boot and recovering from both full knee replacement (right) on November 14, and foot and ankle surgery (left) on December 22. It had been a challenging initial recovery phase, using the recently replaced knee to weight bear 100% following foot and ankle surgery.

But after these surgeries healing was happening very quickly, and I started getting out on the trails in the boot earlier this round than previous ones (with the doctor’s approval, of course!)

Plus, three years later, many of the demons I was fighting with in 2014 had been successfully resolved, and it seemed a good time to do the half under different circumstances and with a different set of goals.

My goals for the event were straightforward: 1. See what was possible for me post-operatively — both in a boot, and 2.5 months after knee replacement. I had done as much appropriate preparation and lead up to this adventure as possible, but it would still be a significant jump from what I’d been up to; 2. Do the half route again — under different circumstances, and with so many of the stressors of the previous time now a thing of the past (the old boyfriend and I,  after a long period of total separation and angst, have gone through a process of relationship repair that has turned into close friendship); 3. Get out on trails I love in the middle of the winter in Bellingham, despite challenges — an overcoming of obstacles to do something I love and that feeds my soul like nothing else. Period.

The 2017 Half Marathon Event!

Michael and I were at the Lost Lake Trailhead and ready to go right at 10:00 am. We are both prepared hikers, and between us we had more than enough of everything — food, water, caffeine, extra clothes, rain gear, a map, and basic first aid. Michael kindly brought a portable stool for me to elevate my foot if necessary, or if not, for one of us to sit on. The day was cool and cloudy, but with no threat of rain. We both had poles, not necessary on the first flat part of the course, but essential on the tricky parts. I have learned that poles, particularly in a stiff boot, make challenging upward mobility doable. They also provide an extra balance point on any sort of uneven ground, and are a good braking mechanism when going downhill. The only “rules” we had for our hike were: 1. Take it slow — no time schedule here, except to finish before dark; 2. Take frequent breaks — to elevate the foot for me, and to rest for both of us; 3. Get through it without injury or incident; and 4. Have fun!!

First Break at Fragrance Lake

Everything on this day went pretty much as planned. We more or less cruised the first four miles, despite the steady uphill climb on Two Dollar trail to Fragrance Lake. Here we took our first break. It was cool, and sitting chilled us right off, so we moved again quickly. As anticipated, the route got more challenging once we hit the South Lost Lake trail, a mostly uphill traverse along a ridge overlooking Bellingham Bay. Views were obscured, unfortunately, by low clouds and, the higher up we went, by mist. Eventually the trail curves around and heads the other way, in forest, to the Rock Trail. As mentioned, the Rock Trail is challenging for normal hikers, and was much harder in the boot. The stairs were particularly tough, made more so by the still recovering knee replacement on the other side.  It was slow going, one step at a time. I have never counted the stairs on Rock Trail, but there are plenty and they are steep. The coolest part of the rock trail was the mist. As we looked up, the trees were blanketed in a surreal mist, making the whole stretch, already very fairy-like with it’s ferns and mosses sprouting off rocks and trees, even more magical.

Rock Trail

Stairs on Rock Trail

Top of the hike

By Cyrus Gates, we were full on in the mist. We had no views whatsoever, except of the two picnic tables, one of which we chose for lunch. We encountered a few other hikers and one mountain biker there, also out on this cool last day of January. One gal, hiking with her tiny dog, was also a patient of  my current foot doctor and a previous knee doc, and we had a great time swapping stories of surgeries and recoveries as we ate. It was relaxing and fun, but we still had half way to go, starting off with the Chuckanut Ridge section, so we couldn’t get too lackadaisical.

Lunch Break — Michael, Kathie, the pooch, and fog!

Having just done a portion of this section in the boot, and knowing the ridge is challenging no matter what, I didn’t expect anything different. And it was really tough. Particularly difficult was navigating both the awkward left foot and the still recovering right knee, which doesn’t bend much beyond 90 degrees without pain. When doing a trail with obstacles and roots and rock slabs, it’s far preferable to have two fully functioning appendages — well four, actually if you count arms and poles. I had two — the upper two, but the lower two were definitely compromised. So it was slow progress, and we were already at the four hour mark on our journey with over half of the ridge section left to go.  We knew were setting no speed record!

I was relieved when we made it through the ridge without incident. Again, like when Shannon and I did it, the skies were cloudy, and only the vaguest view of a mountain top might appear between clouds and fog as we labored along. But, unlike 2014, we had no rain, for which I was totally grateful. And the trail was dry after a week or so of good weather leading up to our hike,  a blessing as well. I want to state for the record that I would NOT have undertaken this mission in rain or on a wet and muddy trail. It simply would have been too much.

Starting challenging section of Ridge Trail…

Navigating through…

And success!

And down to the finish!

After the ridge trail, it’s mostly downhill, and that is what is most painful about hiking in a boot. The muscles that hold your foot up are constantly working to stabilize in the boot. The boot can’t flex, but the ankle flexors can and do. The muscle fatigue was intense for the last five miles of the hike. It’s like my foot/ankle said “Ok, we got you through the tough stuff, now give us a break!!” It was easy going terrain wise, but really hard going with muscle fatigue and associated pain. We rested again just before the last 2.5 miles, down Fragrance Lake Trail and back to the car. But I was struggling with each step, and it was a mind over body experience. I knew I wasn’t hurting anything in the sense of surgical repair, but I was definitely hurting!

Last break before final descent

We made it back to the car by 5:00 pm, just as the daylight was fading for real. It took us seven hours total.  An event that put Shannon and I in nearly last place at just over 4 hours would definitely have landed Michael and I into the DNF (did not finish) category had we done the race for real. But we DID finish! And it was with a huge sense of accomplishment and relief that I took my boot off in Michael’s car, and celebrated freedom — for my foot, and from the past. Doing this route, on this day, was undoubtedly a celebration of overcoming. Similar to the last Fragrance Lake half with Shannon, it was taking a group of obstacles and a whole lot of reasons not to do something, and turning it around into an accomplishment and victory. I am proud of us for doing it! For Michael, it was his longest hike to date, and for me, it was one of the most challenging in it’s tedium.  But all of that just made the victory that much sweeter! Who needs chocolates on Valentine’s Day after that!

Boot’s a little worse for wear

 

NOTES: There is still time to sign up for the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon on 2/11/17. Click HERE for more information.

Also, for more information on hiking in the Chuckanut Mountains, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

After crutches – The Boot

The transition from crutches to full weight-bearing in a boot

Following time on crutches from an injury or surgery, getting back to full weight bearing will most likely be a gradual process. How gradual and how much weight bearing is allowed varies greatly depending on, among other things, whether or not bone repair was involved (fusion, broken bone, bunion repair) or just soft tissue (ligament, tendon, cartilage).  It also depends on each physician’s protocols and preferences. The usual process following my foot/ankle surgeries has been to start with 25% weight bearing,  then gradually increase to 50%, 75%, and eventually 100%.  That day, the day of full weight bearing, is always like Christmas! The ability to walk, even in a boot, greatly expands the available options for hiking and exploring in my favorite environment, the great outdoors.

This post covers things I’ve learned from extensive boot-hiking — some cautions, and lots of practical tips that make this activity fun and very doable. While it  mostly applies to being in a boot while fully walking, the section on Boot Care applies any time you strike boot to ground, crutches or no crutches.

About the boot

The boot my foot surgeon prefers is made by Top Shelf Orthopedics, and it’s called the Solar Walker. I love the name!  I have been through two of these boots in three years. It’s quite sturdy, although during this round of post-op I have really put it to the test. Hopefully, the boot can hang in there with me until we are done with each other!

Boot Hiking Strategies

  1. Wear a long sock underneath. Hands down, the best thing I have found to wear under the boot is long, over-the-knee socks. I purchased two pairs of Hue knee high socks at Macy’s three years ago, and those four socks have been a total win. The sock obviously covers my toes, and comes up over my knee. Sometimes it slips down, but never so far that it doesn’t reach above the top of the boot. When it is particularly cold outside, I wear an extra regular sock over the knee-high to keep my toes warm.
  2. Inflate the boot fully when walking for exercise. My boot has an inflate/deflate mechanism, which pumps air into all the padding surrounding the front of the leg and top of the foot. When hiking, I inflate it fully to add extra protection in those areas. Walking in a boot automatically throws your weight forward, and without extra padding on the shin this can be uncomfortable over a long period of time.
  3. Wear a shoe on the alternate foot that is of similar height to the boot.  This is challenging, as the boot sole is quite thick. To normalize my gait as much as possible, I have tried various different shoes and insoles in my shoes. The Altra Olympus (as opposed to the Altra Lone Peak that I usually wear) has a higher sole, and I have used that shoe some. Hoka’s also have a higher sole.  I know many trail runners love those, although I have not tried them. I have tried using two insoles in a Lone Peak, and that seems to help too. It’s a balancing act here, in more ways than one. I have to make sure the right foot is supported and comfortable while dealing with the left (in boot) and trying to walk as evenly as possible. My advice? Experiment with lifts in the shoe, or higher and thicker soles, to see what works best for you.
  4. ALWAYS USE POLES!  After my first foot/ankle surgery in January 2015, I was talking to the PA during that magical check up that gave me the OK to fully weight bear. He suggested walking with a cane to help with balance and lessen the intensity and awkwardness of walking any distance in the boot. Somehow, I couldn’t see myself out on the local trails with a cane. I asked him about hiking poles. He said yes, that would be a good alternative. In that moment, I became a complete and total hiking-with-poles advocate! I had owned poles for a few years, but rarely used them to hike. I (ignorantly and incorrectly) assumed poles were “just for old people” and therefore I didn’t need them. I could count on one hand the number of times I had used them before this conversation. Now, suddenly, they were an ally that would allow me to get out and about much sooner! I started using poles for each and every walk/hike I take with the boot. Even on a simple trail like Lake Padden I use them (at least in the beginning). Poles help generate the extra support necessary to get up hills in a boot that offers no ankle flexion. And they help slow and control downhill motion by acting as brakes. Numerous studies show that using poles reduces impact on joints by 20%, as well as dispersing the load off of the lower body by incorporating in the upper. And it goes without saying that using poles helps with balance. I can’t say enough about these advantages of using poles both in a boot and not. I simply would not be able to do the amount of post-op hiking, or hiking and backpacking in general with foot/ankle/knee surgical history, without them.

Boot Care

Here is the reality of winter hiking on trails in and around Bellingham — it’s muddy! I have tried various methods in an attempt to keep the boot clean while hiking in wet and muddy conditions — among them a garbage bag over the boot, and a thick sock over the boot. In my experience, I have yet to find a solution that works, as the action of walking has destroyed any cover I’ve put on the boot, and I end up walking in mud anyway. Hence, I now skip the covers, and deal with mud and pine needles on a daily basis. Here are some things that DO work for helping fight dirty-boot syndrome:

  1. Keep towels in the car.  Some people have dog towels in their car, I have boot towels. And a water source to get one wet. I always take the boot off and shake it out and clean it as thoroughly as possible after a walk. It’s never perfect, but allows me to go on with my day without tracking mud and such to my post-hike activities.
  2. Shake the boot over a throw carpet at home.  When I remove the boot, I do so over something I can shake outside. Even with meticulous cleaning, needles and dirt remain, and I can better contain the mess if I can shake it outside and not get it all over the house.
  3. Sleep in a pillow case!  This is a new strategy learned this year. At the end of this round,  I will have been over four weeks in the boot — day and night. With all the hiking,  I kept encountering small pebbles, pine needles, and other particulate in the bed despite my best efforts. The PA suggested sleeping with a pillow case over the boot, and VOILA! I have no more trail debris in bed with me at night. 🙂

    Boot ready for bed!

Some cautions about hiking with a boot:

  1. Start slowly!  Like crutching for exercise, don’t go out three miles on your first boot hike! Start with a manageable distance that you KNOW you can do. Build from there. It takes different muscles and taxes the body differently to hike in a boot. Feeling good for two miles doesn’t mean you will feel good for four. Build up slowly to both more distance and more challenging terrain.
  2. Remember, you have no ankle flexion.  Walking in a boot reminds me of what my dad went through for the last 20 years of his life. By the age of 63, after numerous failed ankle surgeries, my dad had both ankles completely fused. This left him with no ability to flex his foot up (dorsiflex) or down (plantar flex). I remember trying to take him rock climbing at Joshua Tree National Park in California back when I was really into that.  What was an easy route for my then husband and me was simply not doable for him, as he could not dorsiflex his ankles enough to ascend even an easy climb. That is what walking in a boot is like. The normal heel/toe rock of walking all takes place in a stiff boot with no ability to flex the ankle. On flat ground, it’s not too bad, but add in some elevation, and it gets really challenging. Add in elevation AND obstacles or uneven terrain (like roots, rocks, or a slanted trail), and it definitely requires full focus to make it happen. Here is where poles and caution really come in. The surface of the boot is much broader (and stiffer) than a normal shoe, so wedging it in or angling it with agility is not going to happen. Conquering hills requires slowing down, using poles, and leaning in a bit more to use the tip of my boot. Caution must be used with the latter if your ailment is in the forefoot, as putting too much pressure here can be painful and, worse, detrimental to healing.
  3. Common areas of pain to watch for. In addition to the obvious ones from your particular surgery, the most common types of pain I experience specific to the boot are the back of the knee (where the hamstrings connect — because all the walking, especially up hill, is with a more or less straight leg, and the hamstrings have to pick up the slack on this). The calf muscle in a boot is rendered useless, as anyone can tell you if they have ever been in a boot or cast and viewed their withered calf at the end of it. And, in the boot itself, the muscles responsible for dorsiflexion are constantly stressed inside the boot in an effort to stabilize and simply to make the action of going uphill happen.  Those muscles are the ones most likely to cry out during a long hike and for awhile afterwards. I always see how recovery goes overnight…if I feel fine in the morning, I am OK for another round.
  4. Take breaks to elevate the foot on long hikes.  Much foot and ankle surgery involves long periods of time sitting with an elevated foot. To go out on a long walk (or back to work all day standing up) takes easing back into. Take breaks during your hike to stop and elevate your foot.  I try to prop my foot up at lunch and at regular intervals on long hikes.

    This method of duct taping did not work…

    Wear and tear…notice the heel is down to metal

  5. Too much hiking causes the boot to fall apart!  This post-operative round is the first time my boot has disintegrated significantly on the bottom. Either this boot is less well made the previous, or I have just used it more. Regardless of the reason, I have struggled immensely with the heel portion of the boot falling apart and coming off. The reason I mention it here under cautions, is because the only time I have fallen in the boot was when I slipped, on dry pavement, with the heel of the boot that is worn down to metal. Metal on pavement and me not expecting it led to a rather spectacular fall, with both feet flying out from under me! No injuries, but now I am acutely aware of walking on a hard flat surface. And I am still trying to figure out how to get duct tape to hold together for a long hike.

What constitutes a long hike in a boot?

With this being my third (and hopefully last!) year of surgeries, I have started to expand what I thought was previously possible hiking in a boot. I have added in Galbraith Mountain, a mountain bikers mecca with an extensive, never-ending array of trails. I have also hiked to Oyster Dome, via Lily and Lizard Lakes and the Samish Overlook, a total of about 11 miles. I have also taken the boot for a spin up on Chuckanut Ridge Trail, which offered the most challenging terrain so far. This hike on Chuckanut inspired me, for various reasons, to consider doing the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon route…not the race itself, as I could not make the cut off time and would feel very silly doing it in a boot,  but the designated 13.1 mile route. I have done it several times before, and love where goes — including Chuckanut Ridge, Fragrance Lake, and the Rock Trail. I hope to do that on Monday, 1/31, a final boot hurrah before getting out of it (I hope) on 2/6.

Top of Oyster Dome

On Chuckanut Ridge Trail

On Lily-Lizard Trail

STAY TUNED TO LEARN IF I HAVE HALF MARATHON SUCCESS!

 

 

Post John Muir Trail — Last Day — Virginia Lakes Day Hike

Virginia Lakes Day Hike, onto the Reno Airport, then back to Bellingham

Miles hiked — Approximately 9

This is it, there is no way around it. At the end of this day, I will be on a plane flying home to Bellingham and my JMT adventure will be over. I am sad to know this when I wake up on this last day in Bishop, but I’m ready to face it. Ready for one more day of adventure and hiking, and ready to return home and back to “normal life”….whatever that means at this point.

I make another egg scramble for breakfast, just like the previous day. Today over breakfast, I pick up Dave’s Book,  The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by Steve Roper.  It’s the same route the guy from the rental car place was talking about, and the same route that I encountered backpackers doing when they would drop down from the high route to the JMT. The route is about the same distance  as JMT, 195 miles, but at higher elevation and mostly off trail, and with many more passes to cross, lakes to encounter, and much, much more seclusion.  It’s an intriguing idea, doing this route, and the idea again enters my mind for future consideration.

But for this day, I will pack up my stuff, and head up Highway 395 North towards Reno. I have one stop planned along the way. Just past Lee Vining is a turn off to the Virginia Lakes Road, and there I will go to find my last day hike in the California Sierras. I know nothing of Virginia Lakes except how to get there, and I have no real agenda except to hike for as long as seems reasonable before I have to turn around to get to the airport in time for my 7 pm flight.  It’s an easy and straightforward adventure.

After goodbyes and heart felt thank you’s to Dave and Michelle, I am on my way by 8 am. I stop at the corner market for fresh fruit, and I hop back in the Prius rental. I am liking the car, and the gas gauge hasn’t moved despite yesterday’s trip to Bishop Pass! It’s under two hours to the trailhead, and, even with all my putzing around, I am on the trail by 10:15. The trailhead is just under 10,000 feet, and the day is mostly clear, but cool and windy.  It’s a day for extra clothes, headphones and an audiobook, lunch, and more great scenery.

Beautiful vivid sunset at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA

Beautiful vivid reflection at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA.

The trail is advertised as popular and crowded, but there is hardly anyone there on this late August weekday. It starts at Big Virginia Lake, with Little Virginia Lake just beyond. The trail is easy and straightforward, passing five lakes in a mile and a half. The others are Trumbull, Red, and Blue Lakes. I am not sure what the colors mean. I pass a few folks, but not many. The colors of the surrounding hills and peaks are fantastic, reminding me of the North Cascades in early Autumn. Views open up as I go. It’s another great day hike, and I am super happy to be here.

View from Burro Pass

Looking down into Green Creek Basin

Eventually the trail crosses between Frog Lakes and steepens to ascend Burro Pass. The pass is 11,120 feet and a pretty typical pass — barren, dry, semi-steep switchbacks over loose rock and boulders. I will miss these California Sierra Passes, and it makes me sad to be doing my last one. Everything about this day has a “last” attached to it — last day hike, last pass, last stream to cross, last lake to traverse, last peaks in the distance to gaze at. I try to appreciate all of this and not let the “lastness” get to me.

On the other side of Burro Pass, the trail drops back down. I am in the Hoover wilderness headed for Hoover Lake. I wonder if a vacuum cleaner aficionado discovered the area…? Regardless, it’s beautiful, and I follow the path down into Green Creek Basin for about a mile and a half. I don’t know exactly where I am going, but run into a couple with a dog coming up. I ask them what’s ahead, and they tell me the trail will split to head up to Summit Lake, or drop down to Hoover and another Lake. I wish I could keep going. I want to do Summit Lake. But I know I have to catch a plane, and I don’t want to risk being rushed. I think on another backpack trip where we did “one last hike” and very nearly missed the plane, and another that was so incredibly stressful getting to the airport that I couldn’t even sit with my hiking partner on the plane. Such stress is definitely NOT what I need or want on this day.

Looking down to Hoover Lake

So I stop on the steep switchbacks, find a large rock to sit on, and eat my leftover chicken (cold, from last night’s dinner), fruit, and an energy bar. It’s another last…my last lunch on the trail. I want to make all this last forever, and I try my best to burn the image of Hoover Lake and Green Basin into my head and heart. While it’s not as mystically magical as some other spots I have recently been, I know it is the last such view for awhile. I stay 20 minutes and take it all in.

Reluctant but  resigned , I turn around and head back. I keep telling myself to relax, this isn’t the end of my hiking career.  It IS, unfortunately,  the end of a fun, successful, and hugely meaningful trip. The mile plus back up the pass flies by, and it’s all downhill from there. Back to the car, step by step, analyzing each rock and foot placement, being extra careful that I don’t turn an ankle or have a slip or fall so close to the end. I am amazed that I have done this whole trip, all 250 plus miles in total, with no real physical mishaps. I want to get back to the car unscathed and whole, both physically and mentally.

There are more cars at the trailhead when I return, and it’s still wickedly windy. I want to organize everything for airport readiness, so when I drop off my car it will be a simple process. Everything I put outside the car to organize inside either blows over or blows away. I find myself chasing empty water bottles and even clothing that flies away with each wind gust. It’s humorous, my determination to do it all here. Change clothes, get everything packed back up. But I would much rather do it here in the wind than in the chaos and finality of the rental car lot. It’s another way to prolong my stay in the beauty of the mountains for as long as possible.

Finally I am dressed in the only airline clothes I have (a lightweight skirt that I carried all the way on the JMT so that I would have something to wear besides my preferred hiking shorts, which are running shorts that are too short for comfort in real life!) And I have clean upper layers thanks to Dave’s washing machine,  so I feel moderately put together and ready for the trip home.  It’s about 2.5 hours of driving to the airport, and I will be one step closer to of the end of my journey.

My previous audiobook conveniently finished at trails end, so I start John Grisham’s “Gray Mountain” for my drive to the airport. It’s fitting in that it’s about a young corporate lawyer who ends up trying to find herself and make a difference deep in Appalachia. I can relate, as I sometimes feel like the mountains are my home and I have to struggle to fit in back in my real life. It’s the opposite problem she has, but it helps me put into perspective that who and how we are in our environment is a matter of choice. Always. And while the mountains has been my environment for weeks, I must make the adjustment now to my other life back at home.

Everything goes smoothly at the rental car place and I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. A totally lame salad from some coffee shop serves as dinner. It actually makes me miss my backpacker meals! I have a layover in Portland, and my plane won’t arrive in Bellingham until 10:50. Thankfully, my daughter Shannon has agreed to pick me up so it’s an easy ending. I survive both flights, and Shannon is there to meet me curb side after I’ve claimed my bag. It’s great to see her, and I give her a big hug…even though she doesn’t much like hugs. It’s cold outside, and Shannon tells me summer has abruptly disappeared in the last day or so. Back to 50 degrees and cloudy, and I know I am really back on my home soil now.

My welcoming committee: Sapphire (left) and Indigo (Indie)

Shannon has driven my car to pick me up, so I only have to drop her off and then it’s 20 minutes back to my house. The place is dark and quiet when I arrive just before midnight. The welcoming committee is my cats, who have been without me for almost a month. Thankfully they remember me, and seem moderately excited to see me. It’s weird to be back, and I remember similarly how weird it was to be back from JMT 1. I assure myself that I will readjust, and that all will be well in time. It’s nice to stand in front of my own sink, look at my deeply tanned and newly washed face, and welcome myself home! I am proud of my accomplishment, and tell my reflection just that before heading for bed. As I climb in to my blessedly queen size bed, I realize that it’s an anticlimactic and fittingly simple end to this whole adventure. I am safely home in bed after my fantastic event, and, somehow I know, life will go on.

Highlights of the Day

The last hike to Virginia Lakes

Virginia Lakes Trail

I could have just driven straight to the airport and hung out in Reno, or any of a number of other options for this last day. But I did what fit ME the most, and that was to take a hike. I am not a gambler, never have even been to Vegas except to fly in and out of. And the idea of crowds and people overwhelms me. So I chose wilderness, high elevation lakes and peaks, and as much solitude as I could get on the last day. I could have saved myself $100 bucks by taking the bus to the airport, which is what we did on JMT 1. But six hours on a bus and missing out on a hike just wasn’t going to work for me. I am grateful to Dave for the suggestion of Virginia Lakes, and grateful to the trail for being so close to the highway! It made for a fantastic diversion as I wrestled with my thoughts about coming home, and gave me something tangible to hang onto for my last day in the Sierras.

Coming home…

Paradoxically, the other highlight of the day was getting home. It was great to walk in my door, see that the cats were still alive and thriving, dump all my backpack stuff on the floor, and sleep in my own bed. In theory, I could stay on the trails forever. In actuality, it was a relief to be back to the comforts of my own living space.

Lessons of the Day

All good things must come to an end…

It had to happen, and it happened with ease. My JMT trip ended as it started — with everything falling into place. I am not sure why everything went so smoothly for me on this trip. Sure there were a few glitches, but all in all, things fell remarkably into place. I felt blessed and watched over each and every step of the way. I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual way: I knew I was intended to do this trip. And even though I was alone for much of it, I never felt lonely. I always had the sense that I was just where I needed to be, and knew that things would work out. And they did. Going to bed on the last night, I similarly knew I would be OK with moving ahead.

Or do they?

All that day and in the days following, I kept thinking about how I would share my trip with others. I came up with this plan, a day by day recounting which you have just finished reading. And the next step of sharing my trip is already in progress. I am currently taking a 9 month writing class, with the trip as the basis of an upcoming memoir. So while I will leave the JMT for awhile in my blogs to come, inevitably, I will circle back. Stay tuned for more information on the book as it develops. And I will keep you abreast of plans for my next big trip…maybe the High Sierra Route, back in the Sierras which I have come to love so much, and now call my second home.

In some ways, the journey has just begun!

 

 

 

 

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