New Years Overnight at Mount Pilchuck Lookout
The Scouting Mission
I have been thinking about an overnight trip to a fire lookout over the New Year since last July 4th. As the end of 2012 approached, Mount Pilchuck stood out among the possible options. I rarely re-visit summits, preferring instead to seek out new territory, but Pilchuck stood out due to it's massive prominence and proximity to the big city fireworks displays.
Due to a lack of available info on the road and trail conditions, and in order to insure access to the tower, I headed up on the 30th with Automahn to scout out the route to the summit. I found the Mountain Loop Highway and Mount Pilchuck Road to be free from snow up to the Heather Lake Trail Head where the gate was locked, a foot of solid snow beyond it.
The road had a well packed snowshoe trench, allowing me to boot it to the trailhead 5.6 miles from the lower gate. Someone built a short snow cave/igloo about 2 miles past the first gate. We reached the Mount Pilchuck Trailhead in under 2 hours, where we found another snowcave wisely located under a picnic table.
|Igloo along Mt. Pilchuck Road|
|Inside the igloo|
I was lucky to find a single pair of snowshoe tracks past the trailhead. They seemed to closely follow the buried trail to the top, which saved me the effort of route-finding. The 4-6 feet of snow on Pilchuck's north face was mostly powder and I was sinking a few inches even while staying firmly in the path, so I took care to spread my steps in order to create a more solid trench for the extra weight I would be carrying the next day.
|Mount Pilchuck Trailhead|
|Three Fingers and Whitehorse From the Mount Pilchuck Trailhead|
The sky was clear above, making it extra cold in the shadow of the mountain. We rounded the Northwest ridge into the snowy basin where the summit first came into view. Although I have a clear memory of the tower's placement along the summit ridge, I could not distinguish it from the ice crusted rock.
|Automahn looks for the tower|
|Snow covered monster|
After reaching the NW shoulder high clouds began to drop, revealing Mt Baker as the ascent became a bit more serious. From the shoulder we crossed several sections of 30+ degree slope where Automahn required some searious coaxing, digging in like a stubborn mule a few times. The clouds continued to lower and began to form a solid layer around 3000'.
The snow crusted trees on the South face were oddly beautiful. At times climbing between them was like traveling on another planet. I had been looking at the tower for a minute or two on the final approach before I finally recognized it under all that ice and snow.
At the summit we met Tim, the owner of the tracks had been following, and thanked him for breaking trail and navigating a safe and efficient route through the deep snow. Together we marveled in the alien landscape that surrounded us, equally surprised and satisfied by the complete lack of wind on such a lofty summit.
|Mount Pilchuck Fire Lookout|
It took nearly an hour to dig my way to the door, then another 10 minutes to open the frozen latch and force my way inside. The last folks to sign the log had spent the night exactly one month before us, although I'm sure dozens of others had visited the summit since then.
After latching the door we hurried down and back home to prepare for the next day. There were a few times along the descent where I began to seriously doubt that I would have the energy to repeat such a climb with an additional 10-15 pounds on my back. All this doubt faded away on the drive home though, as I reflected upon the many months I had spent hoping that such a trip might be possible, and when I remembered that we could make the trip sans tent now that I had guaranteed access into the tower.
12-31-2012 to 1-1-2013
Ours was the only vehicle as we left the Heather Lake Trailhead at 8:30 am. Traction devices were donned early on to deal with the packed icy trench. We cut the first two short switchbacks then stayed to the road the rest of the way to the trailhead. Snowshoes were donned at the trailhead and we quickly made the shoulder under overcast skies.
|Mt Pilchuck Road past the Heather Lake gate|
|Al-Rashid surveys the summit from below|
My tracks from the day before kept us floating well above all of the powder surrounding us, and Al-Rashid and I made short work of the rest of the ascent. Shortly after reaching the summit the sky began to clear as the clouds dropped to the earth. It was well below freezing, but the lack of wind that had continued from yesterday made our stay surprisingly pleasant.
|Al-Rashid nearing the crux of the climb|
|Al-Rashid reaching the summit|
We enjoyed the longest sunset either of us can recall, then retreated to the warmth of our sleeping bags and a hot meal. Fireworks began to go off as before the sun was down but we opted to wait until midnight before emerging again to take them in. We agreed that one of us would need to get a better camera before we head to the another lookout for July 4th.
|Sunset over the Sound|
|The best seat in the house|
The next morning the sky had cleared, providing stunning panoramic views. Three Fingers Mountain stood out among the sights, as we discussed it as an option for a future overnight trip. A small plane circled the tower as we sat in the sun, and came in closer for a second swoop after they noticed us before continuing East into the Cascades.
|Morning at Mt Pilchuck Lookout|
|On the descent|
We narrowly avoided several snow bombs on our descent as the trees above shed their icy crowns in the sunlight. A few small groups passed us on their way up, and the lower section of the road was busy with snowshoers and sledders.
This was an epic adventure, by far the most amazing backpacking trip I've ever taken. A lot of things came together to make this possible, including a perfect weather window, a well packed trench on the 5+ miles of snowy road, a well plotted route to the summit by a friendly stranger, and a few last minute snowshoe purchases.