Blame Mike. Mike Woodmansee is always looking out for a new way to test his endurance, and that of his companions/victims. I've fallen prey to him several times, and while I've enjoyed hundreds of hours with him in the backcountry, sometimes I still drop in on him at work, just to see what he looks like from the front. He told John Semrau and me to reserve a weekend (I'm not sure which it was.) in August of '85 for a little hike to Elephant Butte. His wife was on a softball team that would be playing in Newhalem, a power company town tucked into the North Cascades below the series of dams on the Skagit River. We'd be able to camp with the teams, jump up in the morning, and drive just a few miles to the start of our jaunt. I figured, what the heck, sit around for a day, walk for a day, see a new peak, it'll be fun.
So we drove up the valley Saturday, sat around, got sunburned, ate junk food, swam in the flooded gravel pit W of town, and headed for camp. Nobody told me softball players who are camping out together don't go to bed at the first sign of twilight. They walk back and forth between the picnic tables and the keg, talking and laughing real loud as they pass the sleeping bags of climbers who plan to get up by 0400. Eventually we slept, and when 0400 rolled around I resisted the temptation to talk and laugh real loud all through the campground. We packed our gear in the dark and quietly headed out, reaching Diablo and our trailhead by 0500.
Everybody who's been up the Sourdough Mountain trail seems to have stories about how interminable the switchbacks are, how hot the woods are in the sun, etc. With tiny daypacks and light boots in the dawn cool, it isn't bad. And once on the crest of the ridge, it's the epitome of the phrase “freedom of the hills.” Expansive views, gently rolling, open terrain with no trail to distract you. No routefinding problems – just follow the ridge. We thought about contouring around some of the humps on the left, but it would have been a shame to miss anything that might qualify as a mountain, so we went over the top of everything. I think that was Mike's idea, too. More about that later.
For food we had a combination of high-carb munchies like granola bars and trail mixes, and the heavy-calorie, long-term stuff like sausage, a burrito, and cheese. On those rare, quick breaks we'd scarf down a granola bar or handful of mix, wash it down, and start walking again. We never slowed down enough for our stomachs to work on the fat & protein foods. After a few miles of bathing in views of the Pickets, Jack Mounatin, Mount Prophet, and a few hundred other peaks, we reached the NW end of Sourdough and started down to the left. I was surprised how steep it got in the forest, but we perservered and reached the pass, then started up again. There was a confusion of snowfields and rock bands. We worked our way back and forth, with a minimum of scrambling steep stuff, and broke out into the open ridge leading to the summit. John stopped for some much-needed fat and protein in the form of a big summer sausage, then stopped again a short time later, for some much-needed puking. We were pushing too hard for that kind of food. Mike & I never touched ours. Leaving John to his little regurgitation games, Mike and I continued to the summit, signed the register, shot a few pics, and turned back. It was already mid-afternoon, and we had some walking left to do.
We picked up John and descended, bearing a little farther S than the ascent route. We came into the pass from the SW, climbed back up onto Sourdough, and stretched our legs as much as they'd stretch, trying to beat the sunset. The trail we'd taken to the ridgecrest was just a little spur off the main Sourdough Mountain trail, and it faded away almost as soon as it reached the crest. Now, with the light fading, it occurred to us how hard it was to find a trail by hitting it end-on. If we had to search for it by the meager light of our headlamps, we'd be hurting. We did find it in the last light of the day. With that reassurance, we could take the time to get the headlamps out and stroll down the trail with a bit less urgency. Well, for two of us, anyway. John's batteries were fading, and he had to slow down near the bottom, because he couldn't see his footing well. Mike and I were already ahead, and too tired to consider that John might be in less than a perfect situation. When his headlamp died completely, he couldn't see the trail at all. The sound of the creek told him he must be very close to the bottom, and after stumbling around, trying to stay on trail, he gave up and beat brush straight down the mountainside, emerging in somebody's nicely-mown yard. He walked out on the road, turned left, and found us at the car. It had been Monday for an hour.
A day or two later I learned Mike's ulterior motive for going straight over the top of every hump on the ridge. It made it easier to count our elevation gains and losses. After a tired, painful day at work, he pored over the maps, counting every countour line we crossed, up and down, in and out. He decided we gained (and lost) 11,000 feet that day.
Mike hasn't stopped taking long hikes. In fact, in 2003 he published a book of them that deserves a plug. Trekking Washington, by Mike Woodmansee (Published by Backpacker Magazine and The Mountaineers Books) is a detailed guide to 25 long hikes. He defines a trek as being at least 30 miles, and the shortest in the book is just that. Where your standard hiking guide gives two pages per hike, Trekking Washington is more involved, with many color photos per trek, multipage color relief maps, mileage tables, and tables of campsites arranged for those who cover 10 miles per day, 10-15 miles and 15-20. (When Mike hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Oregon, he averaged a little over 30 miles per day.) If you feel the urge to get lonely, the longest trek in the book is a loop through the Pasayten Wilderness that doesn't cross itself or any road for over 240 miles!