Prologue: of Women and Wings
My wife and I were fighting. Again. Even worse, the December holidays were coming up. Mercifully, Hanukah had come and gone at the same time as Thanksgiving, but soon we'd face St Nick's Day, Orthodox Christmas, and Roman Christmas, each bringing obligations and expectations. (I'm an atheist, but my family is made of immigrants from various places, each with very firm holiday traditions.) "Sorry, we'll be in FarAwayFromYouia that week" was a tempting strategy, but there was a problem with that idea too. For some reason, my wife and I can't seem to travel anywhere together without having a huge fight by the end. This year, my wife wanted to go on a Caribbean cruise, which, frankly, sounded very boring to me. With a stop in Disney World -- my idea of a perfect hell. So I was relieved when she told me she'd decided to leave me behind. I figured I'd hang out, catch up on sleep, do some hiking, maybe some ice climbing (if I could find a partner -- marriage and children have thinned my Rolodex). Not ideal, but I was looking forward to being by myself for a while.
The thing about my wife is, though she's impossible to live with much of the time, and she's guaranteed to cause a major relationship crisis at least once a month, every once in a while she'll give me a nice surprise - like a round-trip ticket to Seattle so I could do some holiday hiking with my old friend Greg (better known as EastKing here on SummitPost). So after making sure Greg was OK with this plan, and a bit of scrambling to finish some work assignments so I could take my vacation on the days for which I now had airplane tickets, and a last-minute scare (my son got bronchiolitis, luckily it cleared up just in time), I found myself seated on a luxurious ... no, wedged in the middle seat in a non-reclining exit row. The guy on my left was stoically silent; the woman on my right was typing rapidly on her laptop. The woman, it turned out, was ghostwriting an autobiography for a famous equestrian coach. She told me that the Olympic party scene in the 1970's was every bit as wild as you've heard rumors of, but that most of those stories wouldn't make it into the book, since the publisher was aiming for, in her words, a PG rating.
My airplane reading consisted of Following Atticus by Tom Ryan. I've never met Tom or Atticus but I'd been reading Tom's stories for years, first on the website "Views from the Top" (later renamed VFTT.org) and then on his blog. As I explained to the woman next to me, Tom understands how to find the emotional hook in a story, even one that's just about a dog climbing a hill. I got a chance to read most of the book a second time, because our arrival was delayed. I think I'm getting these details right: the weather at Seattle-Tacoma airport was fine, but because the our designated emergency-backup airport (I don't recall which it was) was fogged in, we had to stop in Spokane to take on enough extra fuel that we'd be able to reach an alternate backup landing if needed. Greg was already on a bus to meet me at the airport, but there was nothing I could do but let him know I'd be late.
Part One: South Bessemer
After a much-needed rest day, Greg and I, together with Greg's friend Jordan, climbed into my rented behemoth and headed eastward on Insterstate 90. Greg had mapped out a hike to the south peak of Bessemer, a gentle route using logging roads all the way. This sounded perfect for a warm-up hike.
This was my first winter visit to Seattle, and I marveled at the lush greenery along the trail - ferns and mosses that reminded me of Hawaii. As we started to climb the south-facing slope in a series of giant switchbacks, we entered a classic Pacific-Northwest forest of huge conifers, with shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy to illuminate a prehistoric mist.
After a while, the branches above us turned white with a dusting of snow, then there was snow on the ground, and soon enough it was winter. About time! I had seriously overpacked, bringing most of the gear I'd take up a New England peak in winter, where daytime highs in the single digits Fahrenheit are not uncommon, and winds can exceed a hundred miles an hour. Here on South Bessemer, temperatures were in the upper twenties, with the faintest of breezes. I doubted I'd even need snowshoes.
Approaching the junction with the trail to Moolock
By this time, we'd started getting views of the surrounding mountains. Thick clouds kept things interesting: although all the viewpoints faced south, the time spent walking meant that we'd see a different peak from each viewpoint, as the clouds slowly shifted.
Our entire route was supposed to be along a logging road, but eventually Greg pointed upward and said, "we need to go up there." The road we were on clearly led elsewhere, so it was time for a little scramble in the snow. Out came our ice axes, and up we went, Jordan in the lead as usual, me in the rear as I'd been all day. About halfway up, Greg and I switched to crampons, causing a bit of delay but gaining extra security. Actually it was more than a bit of delay: I discovered that my crampons had been mis-adjusted. I must have loaned them to somebody with smaller feet?? Luckily, the weather was fine and the slope was not especially perilous, as I sat down to adjust and re-adjust them until they fit approximately correctly. A minute later, we crossed the logging road that we should have been on. We'd missed a turn five minutes before. By this time, of course, we were more than willing to continue charging the final few meters straight uphill.
time for a shortcut
The top of "South Bessemer" has some trees on it but still offers good views, and a narrow ridge with some scrambling opportunities.
Greg on the summit
The best views, however, are just south of the peak, where the logging road (the branch we'd missed) ends at a bulldozed platform. As we descended the sky finally cleared, and we beheld Rainier in the distance. An amazing finish to a great first day of hiking.
View from the logging road
Of course, we still had a LONG descent ahead of us. We reached the car shortly after nightfall, just as my feet were starting to blister. Not to worry, I had an easy day planned for the next hike.
Part Two: Mount Si
Greg had a full day of work, so I was on my own for this day. I had a short list of mountains that were easy to find near the highway, easy to navigate on the trail, and not too difficult in terms of elevation and mileage. Mount Si seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I'd heard it could be crowded, but I considered that an added element of safety. Besides, it wouldn't be *that* crowded: the weather forecast was for a typical winter day: fog and clouds with light rain.
Sure enough, it was an easy commute to the trailhead. Half an hour on the highway and a few minutes on a paved road to a gigantic parking lot. There were half a dozen cars already parked when I arrived in the midmorning. I hung up the parking pass I'd borrowed from Greg, changed into my boots, shouldered my pack, and started up the trail.
I'd removed a few items from my pack, but I was still far from a "fast and light" approach. I got passed by men and women wearing running outfits and carrying nothing but a little water, and I hardly kept up with a couple of little old ladies out hunting mushrooms. My legs felt as heavy as my pack, and I grunted my way up the trail. Still, as the saying goes, a bad day on a mountain beats a great day at the office every time, and the incredibly vivid green of the dripping forest banished all complaints from my mind.
Fog, lichens, moss, and evergreens low on Mt Si
Suddenly I came out of the trees into wind and fog, with snow underfoot and at least nine grey jays perched nearby. Through the mists I could see a pile of boulders just ahead. Was this the dreaded summit scramble? It looked easy enough, and I quickly clambered to the top, hardly using my hands. Then I took off my pack and settled down to lunch. This got the attention of the jays, and I couldn't resist tricking them into perching on my hand. (I nearly paid for this - while I was watching one, another came from behind and grabbed my lunch bag. Lucky for me, it was too heavy for him.)
In addition to the grey jays, there was a Steller's jay hanging around at a distance, and there was something moving in the rocks below me... a pika! I wished I had my big telephoto lens.
the grey jays harrassed this poor guy
Also while I ate my lunch, the clouds lifted slightly, and I realized that I was not on the true summit at all. The "haystack" loomed above me still. So after lunch I found the trail that led in that direction. At the base of the haystack I put on my crampons, put down my pack, took up my ice axe ... and went up about ten feet before stopping. It looked feasible - slushy with a little ice, visibility poor but not bad enough to hide the rock under my nose, but I just wasn't feeling good. I was already behind schedule, tired, and, though there had been a few folks on the false summit when I first arrived, and a couple more came and went while I ate my lunch, there was nobody around at the moment and I didn't like my odds of rescue if I happened to slip. Telling myself I'd come back on a dry summer day, I climbed down to my pack, put away my crampons and axe, and started my descent.
Si summit scramble
Wouldn't you know it, before I'd gotten back to my lunch spot, a very cute blonde came jogging up and told me she planned to give the scramble a try. I was tempted to turn around again, but I figured married men shouldn't chase strangers up somewhat dangerous mountain routes. So rather than look like a stalker, I continued on my way down.
Some time later, as I was nearing the trailhead, I realized I hadn't seen her come down. With my heavy pack and slow pace, she should have passed me easily. I reached the trailhead, and she still hadn't appeared. So I waited in the parking lot in the gathering dusk, and she eventually did return. I watched from my car as she got into hers. Not stalker-ish at all.
Part Three: Beehive Mountain
At Greg's suggestion, we booked a hotel room in Wenatchee, figuring that the weather would be better on the eastern side of the mountains, and drove out in the morning as soon as Greg's overnight shift ended. Surprisingly, when we reached Wenatchee almost three hours later, a light fog was hovering over the town. It was too early to check in to our hotel, and a little late for a significant hike, but there was plenty of time to bag a peak: Beehive Mountain, a small peak near Squilchuck Road.
Once again our route consisted of logging roads. The day was warm and sunny (we'd emerged from the fog as soon as we left town), and the ground was bare in many places, with an inch or less of old dry snow in the shadier spots. A short ascent northward from Wenatchee Mountain Road was uneventful. I stopped to photograph some Pterospora that was dead and dry but still standing.
three-foot-tall mycotrophic plants are cool in my book
This is a saprophytic plant with no chlorophyll, that grows three feet tall and is bright red in summer. The nearest relative we have back east, Indian Pipe, grows about four inches tall. I also got a photo of a Douglas' squirrel, another exotic-to-me species.
Our route continued with a tour of Beehive Reservoir where we saw a bald eagle pass overhead, then the final two-hundred-foot rise of the peak itself. We had good views of the fog still blanketing Wenatchee, and north over Sheep Rock. We sat quietly for a while, then turned back toward my rented car. We'd get to sleep early and take on a more significant hike the next day.
view over Sheep Rock
Part Four: Horse Lake Mountain
Our main objective for our Wenatchee stay was a hike up Mission Peak, but when we checked the weather forecast it wasn't great. Partly cloudy, chance of snow/rain showers - hikeable, but not ideal, especially on the higher peaks. Greg convinced me to stick with one of the drier, lower peaks. Naturally he had one in mind: Horse Lake Mountain.
Our route started past the end of the pavement on #2 Canyon Road. Part of the road was unplowed, deeply rutted, icy, narrow, and twisting. My enormous rented SUV came in handy here. Even in ordinary all-season tires, the four-wheel-drive kept us safely on the road, and the high clearance meant that the ruts and pits were never a serious problem. We found plenty of parking space at the second gate, where our route began. (I do not recommend parking at the first gate - the only space is directly under a horribly unstable-looking rock wall.)
This was yet another long walk on a logging road - I was getting used to these. Also, I'd had enough experience to feel comfortable leaving more of my winter gear behind, so my pack was lighter. We were moving fairly fast and light, though not fast or quiet enough to get a photo of a herd of deer that scattered when we rounded a corner.
The sky above us was mostly sunny, with brief rain showers often falling on us in bright sunlight and rainbows waiting around every corner. To the south and west of us, however, dense clouds hid all the nearby mountains. It was a good day *not* to be on top of Mission Ridge. To the north and east, we once again had an undercast.
But before we could see much of a view we had to half-scramble up to the summit. The logging road goes to the east peak, but the west peak is higher, so we followed a steep, muddy little trail up to the summit ridge.
Nearing the summit of Horse Lake Mountain (photo by Greg)
We walked the summit ridge, never completely certain which bump was the tallest, and on down the other side and over to the east peak. While the summit had some trees, the east peak had great views. In fact, we were standing more or less at a treeline for the entire Cascades: to the west of us, rain-soaked, forested hills; and to the east, semi-desert conditions.
view from east peak of Horse Lake Mountain
On our way down from the East Peak we detoured onto a narrow bluff. Greg had been telling me that Mission Peak has a sort of knife-edge ridge to it, so this was a nice little warm-up.
Nartreb on the scramble rock (photo by EastKing)
On our way home we got caught in a couple more sun-showers and enjoyed the resulting rainbows. Not a bad way to end the day.
Part Five: Mission Peak
The next day's forecast called for sunny skies, so it was time for our main objective: Mission Peak. We left before dawn, parking at the Mission Ridge ski area. It was cold in the parking lot, and as we put on our boots I wondered if I'd finally packed too light: I had nearly all my layers on and I still wasn't warm. I needed to get moving. The trailhead was just a few steps from the car, and we set out at a brisk pace, hoping to warm up. The trail was hard-packed snow, frozen solid in the cold, with a dusting of new powder. I started to say "we might need our micro-spikes", but before I had finished I was whirling my arms in mild panic as I slid backwards a couple of meters. A minute later, spikes deployed, we started up the trail again, more cautiously. We couldn't see well in the dark, but the trail was mostly bullet-hard ice. So our progress was a bit slow, but at least our constant vigilance kept our heartrates up and kept us feeling warm until the sun came up.
We had sunlight by the time we reached the two ponds that we were aiming for. I think they're called lakes on the map, but really they're hardly even tarns. At this point the trail became a bit confused, but no matter, our plan was to strike out cross-country from here. After a short break to heed nature's call, we donned our snowshoes, took a compass bearing, and started walking away from the lake. Once we climbed out of the little kettle around the lakes, we see a line of low peaks ahead. Based on this route page
, our plan was to make a semi-traversing climb alongside a particular peak, which we easily recognized from photos. This we proceeded to do. It was a stunningly beautiful morning, high in the hills on virgin snow.
Starting point for cross-country route to Mission Peak
I didn't realize it until much later, but I'd misread the route page, and mapped out a route in which we passed to the left of our target peak (traversing its south slope) instead of keeping the peak on our left (traversing its north slope). As we gained elevation we could see a line of cliffs ahead to our left (south) and facing us; there seemed to be an obvious route in a gully right along the base of those cliffs, but we followed our plan (as I understood it) and stayed on the facing slope, which allowed us to avoid the dense woods that eventually enclosed the gully below us. This route worked quite well. (The gully right under the cliffs is surely feasible too, and offers access to the cliffs if you're so inclined.)
After working our way over the ridgeline, we eventually got a view of our goal through the incredibly tall and narrow evergreens that dominate this area.
first view of Mission Peak
We picked our way through the trees and down into the intervening valley, and soon found ourselves below the middle of Mission Peak's northeast face. This is where things got more challenging. This side of Mission Peak is guarded by a talus field of hexagonal basalt blocks, each about half the size of a man. The snow often hid their outlines and disguised leg-breaker holes. Given the angle of the slope, leaping from boulder to boulder was as exhausting as it was dangerous, so we were forced into using our hands a lot while gingerly testing between the blocks for reliable foot-holds.
Eastking navigating the talus on the slopes of Mission Peak
We spent a fair amount of time second-guessing our route choices in this section: from below, there always seems to be only a short distance between you and an open snowfield, but as you climb, new obstacles are revealed.
But all bad things come to an end, and soon we reached an area where the blocks were smaller and/or the snow was deeper. Here the snow developed a wind-swept crust, and we unholstered our ice axes as a precaution. Greg had also brought a helmet, and decided to wear it. It does make the photo look more dramatic.
Final push to the summit
The top of Mission Peak is a line of cliffs, not very tall but perfectly vertical and seemingly extremely chossy. We angled for the northwest end of the ridge, where the cliffs subside. From there it was an easy, if narrow, walk along the very edge of the cliffs to the true summit. We sat a while and basked in the sunshine.
summit snack on Mission Peak
For our return to the car, we avoided the talus field by following a logging road northward from the northwest end of the peak. Just before this road reached another lake, we struck out eastward, semi-traversing the northern side of the same peak whose southern slopes we'd traversed on the way in. We found and followed the tracks of a skier, who perhaps led us down steeper slopes than necessary (the deep snow was bordering on dangerous at one point) but masterfully linked clearings into an easily navigable route. We returned to the car in high spirits, proud of our off-trail adventure and glad to have enjoyed such a fine peak on such a glorious day. Just as Greg had planned, my trip to Seattle had reached its zenith at the end.
Part Six: Granite Mountain
Back in Seattle, Greg got an unexpected call: a friend of his was going to hike up Granite Mountain on Christmas day, and would Greg like to join? Greg wasn't able to go that day (he was working), but he invited me to take his place.
We went up via the summer route, trusting that there wasn't enough snow to pose a serious threat of avalanche. The lower part of the trail follows an avalanche chute for a while, and to see how trees had been stripped away along almost the entire height of the mountain was impressive. Sadly, I was not able to get a satisfactory photo, mostly due to the "forest-for-the-trees" problem: it's hard to photograph something so big when you're right in the middle of it. However, I had no problem taking photos of nearby Silver Peak as it sparkled under passing clouds.
Silver Peak from low on Granite
We'd started early, and it was getting near lunchtime when we passed treeline and got our first views of the summit. It seemed very close, so we decided to keep going. I ate a handful of candy for a quick energy boost in the meantime. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that I was traveling fairly light and was now, after a week or hiking, in pretty good shape, we were soon overtaken by a hiker and his dog. While Don and I paused to add a windproof layer, the new arrival and his dog quick-timed their way up the ridge without pauseing. You can see them at upper left of the photo below.
hiker and dog on Granite Mountain
This ridge is the usual winter route (when starting from the summer trail), but Don had read that it hadn't yet gotten enough snow to fill in the holes between boulders, making it slow and dangerous. So we decided to follow an alternate route, through a little bowl north of the ridge and then up toward the summit from the northeast.
First we had to slip off the ridge into the bowl, which caused me a bit of a scare due to a combination of deep snow and icy crust. After a hasty retreat to unstrap my ice axe, it turned out to be easy enough after the first few feet. Then, walking across the bowl was no problem. As we walked we scanned for a reasonable route up the east-facing slope above us. I assumed that once we crossed the bowl we'd find a less-steep slope or ridge reaching the summit from the north, but I was disappointed to find the north face to be dangerously steep - the drop might as well have been vertical; I felt like, with a following breeze, I could dive into Crystal Lake. The best we could do was zig-zag up the east face. The waist-deep snow made it classic "one step up, two slides back" affair. Eventually we wised up and changed out of our snowshoes and into crampons (or Microspikes in Don's case), which gave us more traction. Nearly two hours after we stepped off the ridge, we finally reached the top!
not the easy way
The summit featured a good-sized cornice, and impressive views of Kaleetan Peak.
view to Kaleetan peak
We took the ridge route down - as you can see, it was well covered in snow. I did once step into a hidden hole beside a boulder, but didn't suffer any injury, rolling away on soft snow.
That's a great way to spend Christmas day!
I managed not to get into any fights with my wife on this vacation -- that didn't happen until I returned. Frankly I feel like I've committed to a hard route with the wrong partner, and I don't have a map. How that adventure will turn out, I don't yet know. I'm still hoping for that magical moment when the snow turns just hard enough for crampons, the sun breaks out, and you spot a gap in the cornice above you.