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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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