Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Backcountry" Skiing at Mt Baker!

My climbing buddy Dorian and I drove up to the Mt Baker Ski Area this weekend -- about 2.5 hours north of Seattle. We intended to get out into the backcountry to get in some turns on fresh powder, but we deemed the avalanche danger too high to venture out of a controlled area. Instead, we took our backcountry skis up the lifts on Saturday. On Sunday, we did end up using the climbing skins on our skis and took a few turns just out of bounds.

The snow conditions, weather, and scenery were spectacular!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Day Hike on Mt Si

Mt Si is a local hike that is too crowded in the summer to be much fun (owing largely to its proximity to the metro area), but is a great place in the off-season for mountaineers to stay in shape. It's about 3,700 vertical feet and four miles to the top. One of my scrambling guidebooks indicates that it is often used as a benchmark for determining preparedness for other scrambles in the area. It cites 2.5 hours from the bottom to the top in fair weather and conditions as a sign that you are fit enough to pursue other, more challenging scrambles. Though I was concerned that I was a bit out of shape after not really getting out hiking for the past several weeks, I made it up AND back down again in just over three hours.

It was a bit grey and misting when I started just before 9:00 AM, but the cover of the forest prevented moisture from falling on the trail. Within a mile, the clouds opened up a bit and the bright sun rays penetrated the thick canopy above. A few vistas revealed far-off snowy peaks and the Snoqualmie Valley below. I saw two people already on their way down, and near the half-way mark, two others passed me on the way up. Otherwise, I saw no one until my way down. The final quarter mile or so was mostly snow covered and was a bit slick in places. I was grateful I had brought my trekking poles with me, because they kept me from slipping on more than one occasion.

I opted not to climb to the true summit -- the top of the "Haystack" -- largely due to the fact that I was hiking alone. I've heard the scramble to the top described anywhere from class 2 to class 4 climbing, which is certainly within my realm of comfort. However... alone, with the route potentially icy or wet and slippery, I felt better leaving that for another time.

The view from the top of the trail was remarkable in that the west face of the mountain drops off seemingly vertically for several thousand feet. It is almost as if you can step to the edge of the cliff and see the streets of North Bend directly below you as if looking at a map from above. The skyline of Seattle was visible some thirty miles away on the edge of Puget Sound. After several minutes soaking in the view, the cold wind prompted me to start my descent.

The momentum of the downhill slope kept me moving quickly on the way back to the car. I passed several people out for a weekend hike, but the trail was still far from being crowded. The most noteworthy incident on my descent was crossing paths with one of the individuals I saw jogging down when I was still climbing up. "Twice?" I queried, with a tone of astonishment. "Yeeaah..." was his exasperated drawn out reply that left me no doubt that he was training for something, but wishing that he wasn't at the moment.

All in all, a good hike. Car to car in 3:20, after spending a total of about 20 minutes at the top, re-tying boots, or stopping for a quick drink of water.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Goat Rocks Wilderness - Another trip in the PNW!

As fate would have it, Laura and I were both in the Pacific Northwest for another weekend of hiking before the snow starts accumulating on the higher peaks. On Friday, we met up with three friends in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of the Southern Washington Cascades (roughly in between Mts Rainier and Adams). The goal was to reach the summit of Gilbert Peak (aka Mt Curtis Gilbert), the highest point of the wilderness area at 8,184 feet.

Short version

We met up with our group Friday night intending to hike up to the peak on Saturday to take advantage of the good weather before the rain moved in. We all made it within an hour or two of the top when Laura’s knee that she had twisted on the way up was causing her too much pain to continue. Laura and I returned to camp (getting lost for a few minutes along the way), while the others continued to the top. We hiked out on Sunday in the rain, having seen some beautiful scenery and having shared some great company.

Long version

The Goat Rocks area -- so named because of the bands of mountain goats which live there -- is the eroded remnants of an ancient volcano that erupted well over a million years ago. Though none of my pictures are of a wide enough angle to show the entire crater area, the view is reminiscent of the blown-out mountainside of Mt St Helens -- only much larger and after significant regrowth. The rough outline of the mountain that dominated the landscape some two million years ago can still be seen in the semi-circular ring of peaks around the crater area.

Laura and I made the 3+ hour drive from Seattle after we both got home from work on Friday. We hiked about a mile and a half with only the light of our headlamps under the starry, moonless night sky. Our companions had left us a trail of clues to help us find their campsite. We joined them shortly after nine o'clock and after a bit of unwinding by the campfire, we crawled into the sleeping bags.

We awoke before sunrise on Saturday and hiked about five miles to Surprise Lake, where we set up camp and loaded our packs with only enough food, water, and clothing to get us to the top of Gilbert Peak. We allowed up to seven hours to navigate the roughly 7-mile roundtrip mostly off-trail hike, which would put us back in our Surprise Lake camp before dark.

The trail up started under the cover of the forest, but we soon climbed above treeline and saw the terrain rise sharply up to what was the crater rim of the ancient volcano. The trail became a combination of cross-country travel, goat trails, and unmaintained trails. We picked our way up the steep, rocky terrain until we reached the ridge above. On the way, we were fortunate to see a couple of the creatures for which the area was named.

Atop the ridge, the view was incredible! Mt Adams was so close that we could see the huge crevasses in the glaciers on the north side of the mountain. The hiking became much easier, as we simply had to follow the ridge for awhile. There were a few fun sections of class three scrambling where we had to use our hands and feet to cross. The view on both sides of the ridge was simply spectacular on this sunny day!

Earlier on the steep terrain, Laura had twisted her knee. She pressed on for awhile, but after crossing most of the ridge, she determined that it was not wise to push through the pain any longer. She and I turned around for camp as the other three continued to the top.

On our way back, we took a slightly different route that involved slightly gentler slopes. It proved to be a good test for our navigation and route-finding skills! I won't say we were exactly lost. (Well, okay, for a short time we were lost.) Shortly after leaving camp that morning, I marked a GPS waypoint and labeled it "Camp." I should have labeled it "Trail shortly outside of camp," because by the time we were returning, I had forgotten that the point was outside of camp and not camp itself. This simple oversight led to a few errors in judgment that caused me to take Laura off-trail through some thick forest. She took several unnecessary and painful steps as we tried to get back on track. Lesson learned, though: Don't trust a GPS waypoint alone over common sense, a map and compass.

By the time we returned to camp, the others had just arrived minutes earlier -- having successfully reached the summit. We cooked some dinner, shared some stories, and crawled into the sleeping bags again.

It rained off and on through the night, and a cold wind blew the following morning. Laura's knee was feeling better after some rest, and the hike out was mostly uneventful. (Except for seeing several huge tracks in the trail that we swear were made by a Sasquatch!) ;-)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mt Adams with questionable weather

I spent a mid-September weekend in the Pacific Northwest attempting to reach the summit of 12,276 ft Mt Adams in southern Washington. This was my first big mountain that I climbed three years ago, so I was excited at the opportunity to return.

My first climb was in mid-June of 2003, and we had abundant snow from about 7,000 feet up. The first thing I noticed when I got my first full view of the mountain on this trip was how bare and rocky the mountain appeared this late in the season. She almost appeared naked.

The weather forecast for the weekend was a little iffy. We were likely to see lots of clouds with some rain/sleet/snow around the mountain, but there was potential for some clear periods as well. For all of the above, the forecast was pretty much right on.

Our group of four started hiking up on Saturday around 2:00 PM from the Cold Springs Campground at 5,600 ft. When the wind started blowing and the falling snow was sticking to our clothing and packs in near white-out conditions, we opted to set up camp and get an early start the next morning. Of course, within an hour of setting up camp, the skies cleared and we cooked dinner in the warmth of the sun. Then we ate dinner under cloudy skies. We woke up in our camp at 8,600 feet at 2:00 AM to mostly clear skies, intending to start for the top, but saw heavy clouds rolling in and opted to wait. After the sun rose, there were intermittent periods of clear skies and thick clouds. I took three pictures in the direction of the summit within a half-hour that illustrate how quickly things were changing.

We started climbing up in fair conditions around 9:00 AM, but turned around at 10,600 feet at noon as clouds piled up around us... realizing we would not reach the top before our designated turn-around time of 1:00. We navigated back to our camp in mostly white-out conditions, stopping briefly to help a disoriented climber find his way back to his camp. It was good practice navigating in white-out conditions! After packing up camp, we hiked back to the trailhead. It was clear below, but the top of the mountain remained shrouded behind the clouds.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Saint Helens Opening Weekend!

On the very first weekend that Mount Saint Helens re-opened for climbing since volcanic activity started in September 2004, my wife and I were fortunate enough to secure a couple of the limited permits available to climb the mountain through an acquaintance of an online climbing forum.

It was a beautiful (though very warm) evening when we arrived at the 4,800 foot Climber’s Bivouac on Saturday. We met up with our climbing party and set up camp to catch a few hours of sleep before starting the climb. Since temperatures were expected to climb well into the 90’s, we intended to leave around 2:00 AM in order to climb in the cooler early morning hours before the sun started cooking the mountain.

We left camp at 2:00 and hiked for two miles through an evergreen forest. The air in the thick trees was hanging onto the heat from the previous day. At one point, we saw a pair of large eyes reflecting the light from our headlamps in the dark, moonless night. (Sasquatch???) The breeze was refreshing once we left the cover of the forest and started our scramble on large volcanic boulders. Our climb followed Monitor Ridge, where scientific equipment placed along the ridge constantly monitors seismic and volcanic activity. The path consisted at times of loose, abrasive ash material in which we often found ourselves sliding back a step for every step we took; and at other times of large pumice boulders that we had to climb over and around. Occasionally, there were patches of snowfield or glacier that allowed for easier walking.

As we were nearing the top, we saw the silhouette of Mount Adams in front of the faint pink-orange of the rising sun. As we continued to climb, we saw the shadow of Saint Helens herself in the sky to the west. The sky was alive with color above the ridges upon ridges of forested hills below. We could make out a faint outline of Mount Hood to the south through the clouds. We were looking down into the amazing crater of the 8,363 foot Mount Saint Helens just over four hours after we started.

Sunrise silhouetting Adams from St Helens.The views were amazing as the sun had begun to burn off most of the clouds. A constant breeze kept us cool, even as the sun was heating things up. We could clearly see Rainier to the Northeast, Adams to the East, and Hood to the South. The crater itself was a site unlike any other I’ve seen. The sheer magnitude of the 1980 eruption is difficult to imagine when you are looking down nearly 2,000 feet to the bottom of the crater floor, and realize that the mountain was 1,500 feet taller than where we were standing. Steam and sulfur was rising from the newly formed cone in the middle of the crater. Boulders tumbled down the side of the cone with a crash and a rumble more than once a minute as the cone continued to form new rock at a rate of 1 cubic meter per second!

We started our descent shortly after 7:00 AM and were surprised at the number of hikers who had waited until daybreak to start their climb. We were already baking on the rocks, yet there were some parties climbing up with a limited water supply in shorts and a tank top. The latest group we saw was starting around the time we returned to our campsite around 10:30. As I took my daypack off in the sweltering heat, I was glad I wasn’t among those still looking forward to the top of the steamy volcano!