PreambleOnce upon a time, EastKing lived in New Hampshire. That's where I met him - or rather, thanks to SummitPost I met him on a trail in New Hampshire. He has been living in Seattle for, I think, about a year now, but hasn't changed his 'nym.
Part 1: Not Trespassing on TinkhamOf course my flight was delayed two hours by thunderstorms. I arrived in Seattle at 2AM, didn't get to sleep until 4:00. A few hours later EastKing was laying out options for a local warm-up hike. It couldn't be too big or too far since he'd have to be back to work another night shift, but I sure wasn't feeling ambitious anyway. He indicated that Tinkham Peak was the easiest one he had in mind, and I sprung for that one right away.
Tinkham is about 5,400 feet tall, which in the Northeast would put it in the top four or so. So I wasn't too worried when EastKing described the hike as a "dumpster dive", said the views would be nothing special, and even warned me, "once you see the North Cascades you're gonna hate me for having taken you up Tinkham."
The future could sort itself out later; meanwhile I got behind the wheel of my rented Kia Rio and headed out interstate 90. If I kept going on this highway, I could probably get to work on time for Monday, but work was the farthest thing from my mind. As we drove along I tried to guess the heights of the peaks I could see (I was usually wrong - the trees out here are so much taller it messes with your sense of scale), while EastKing complained about the haze that was obscuring the views. It wasn't particularly hazy by New England standards, but it was scorching hot. This summer, while Boston has mostly seen rain and temperatures in the 70s, Seattle got record 100-degree heat. The sun beat down hard when we pulled into our parking spot on a dirt road by the Pacific Coast Trail. I stripped and put on sunscreen; EastKing did likewise and opted to use his shirt as a couvre-chef.
We entered blessedly shady woods once we stepped onto the trail, which was wide and smooth. At a cairn we turned onto a trail that was nearly as large, and started gradually gaining altitude. A few rockslides came into view, and I picked up a rock fragment. It was some kind of conglomerate, but solid enough that I couldn't easily break it. That was a good sign.
After a some walking (western trails are full of unnecessary switchbacks, which makes them quite restful to climb), we reached the col between Silver Peak and Tinkham. The main trail headed for Silver; the branch path to Tinkham was narrow, but remained quite obvious. Aside from the bootprints, on the left side of the col was a cliff, and on the right side of the col was the Cedar River watershed, marked with No Trespassing signs every few yards. The path usually used the signs as blazes, passing inches away on the legal side.
Just below the peak we emerged from the woods and engaged in a bit of scrambling. There's a traverse of a gulley (narrow and exposed but almost class 2), and then a short upward scramble. The scramble wasn't difficult, but the trodden path was littered with loose dirt and rock fragments, with few solid handholds in case of a slip, so we opted for a variation on firmer ground.
Once on top we enjoyed the views, signed the register, and made the easy traverse to the east peak. On the way down we couldn't find the scramble variation we'd used, so we invented another alternate route that made heavy use of tree roots.
Just below the col we met a group of about six people who were on their first hike. I thought they were a little too loud, but they were obviously enthusiastic about the experience. "Wow, look at that mosquito bite!" They were on their way to Silver Peak.
Surprisingly they passed us again before we reached the car: they'd decided to turn back shortly after meeting us. Was it something we said?
Part 2: the tall Sister keeps us up at nightThe original plan had called for a three-day expedition to Glacier Peak (it's a long approach). The flaw in this plan was that our planned route involved a full day of glacier travel, and neither EastKing nor I had significant glacier experience. So doing it as a two-man team was out of the question, for safety reasons. (Crevasse rescue is much easier with three men sharing a rope.) At one point it looked like we'd have two three-man teams; as of the Tuesday before my flight we still had a three-man team and I scurried to buy pulleys and prussiks, and borrow pickets, but in the end we had only two of us and we had to pick an alternate destination.
It wasn't until we'd been on the road for a couple of hours that it dawned on me that South Sister is a LONG drive from Seattle. No matter, I got to see some scenery (when I wasn't napping): from forests of giant evergreens, to almost-flat plains, to mountains, to the scars of huge forest fires, to dry, sagebrush-studded scrub. The ongoing heat wave was much in evidence; at one point somebody had set up an irrigation system to keep a stand of aspen alive. You know the old cliche about "it's a dry heat"? Turns out there's some truth to it. Ninety-five (35C) in eastern Oregon feels similar to 85 (29C) in Boston: hot, but bearable.
Sometime in the afternoon we reached Devil's Lake and picked a camping site in a lava field beside a numbingly cold stream. EastKing was eager for an alpine start at midnight to be on the summit before sunrise. I hate alpine starts, but the daytime heat convinced me, though I still haggled out an extra two hours of sleep. So once the tent was set up, we wasted little time in hitting the sack, pausing only for dinner and to watch a helicopter picking up water in the lake to dump on a nearby forest fire. Eastking has a remarkable ability to fall asleep anywhere and was soon out cold; I lay awake listening to birds for a while but, thanks to earplugs and some chemical aid, fell asleep within an hour or so.
When our alarms woke us at 2AM I was surprised to feel - not rested, but not miserable. Except for refilling our water bottles (we'd each consumed about a liter during the night), all our stuff was ready to go. We just put on our headlamps, picked up our packs, and hit the trail.
When refilling my water at the stream I'd thought I'd heard a noise upstream, and now when the trail passed that spot our headlamps reflected a pair of green eyes about a foot above ground level. As I approached, the eyes suddenly lifted to about six feet high, and then we were able to discern the outline of a deer. I tried to get a photo, but it was hopeless. (Partly due to lack of light, partly due to my mental state at 2 AM. I'd left the shutter in timer mode, and didn't notice.)
Hiking in the dark is always disorienting, and I couldn't make much sense of the trail's wanderings as it drifted around in the valley between Devil's Hill and Kaleetan Butte, but at least there was no risk of losing this trail. Once on the ash plateau north of Devil's Hill, and mostly out of the trees, we used only one headlamp at a time.
Treeline in the East is mostly determined by wind: above a certain elevation, trees abruptly get shorter as they huddle in each other's "wind shadow", and soon cease altogether. The whole transition from impenetrable forest through tangled "cripplebush" to alpine tundra usually takes less than a hundred feet of elevation. Out West, "treeline" is a nonsense word. Tree growth is mostly determined by water. Trees are never dense to begin with, and they just gradually get sparser. Even two thousand feet above the forest, all it takes is one little stream and trees can reappear. This is immensely frustrating to Easterners, accustomed as we are to charting our upward progress by the type and height of trees we pass. Those were the thoughts on my mind as we slogged northward toward a shadow above the horizon that we knew was South Sister.
Soon we could distinguish paler spots that had to be snowfields, and then we spotted a light - no two, three, maybe four. Somebody else was climbing the mountain at night, and had gotten a big head start. It looked like at least two parties, one of which might be climbing Lewis glacier. From this distance, they didn't seem to be moving very fast.
Eventually we were off the gigantic ash apron and heading uphill over scree and small rubble. At this point we could no longer see the lights above us - the flanks of the mountain hid them. In the dark we nearly wandered off-trail once or twice when footprints diverged to avoid minor obstacles in the form of small snowfields or slab/scree scrambles. Having been hiking for nearly two hours, I insisted on a break for snacks and water. This was a significant role reversal from a hike we'd once done in New Hampshire, when EastKing (fifty pounds heavier at the time) had struggled to meet "book time" while I champed to go faster. This time I was the one calling for a slower pace. "Feeling strong?", Eastking asked me while I sucked on a Gu he'd given me. "Definitely not strong", I replied. "But I'm OK considering it's four in the morning." The jolt of sugar from the Gu made a big difference, and we resumed our previous pace.
Around 6 AM we could see signs of dawn. We were up beside Lewis glacier now, slogging up a 45-degree slope of loose pumice in noticeably thinner air. The summit was in sight, and we had a chance of making it by daylight, but I was running low on energy again, and starting to feel signs of cramping in my legs. I called another halt and ate some salted peanuts. I urged Eastking to go ahead and bag the sunrise from the top, but he chose to stay with me, saying what he really wanted to see was the shadow of the mountain spreading over the landscape below, and we were on the right side of the peak for that. EastKing started telling me about pressure breathing, the rest step, other stuff I already knew. No need for any of that, I just had to keep my pace a bit slower than I'd have liked.
If you step off-trail you can find your feet rolling downhill on a layer of small pumice stones. It's possible to run uphill faster than the pumice can roll down, but this is not a good idea when you're not acclimated to the altitude.
So it was a bit after dawn when we reached the crater rim. The climbers whose lights we'd seen (there were six of them) started passing us here on their way down, as we circled around the crater to the true summit. Four and a half hours up - not too horrible. And the views were great. Middle and North sister almost perfectly aligned in front of us, with other big volcanoes barely visible in the distance beyond them. Broken Top looking almost small (but by no means easy) beneath us. And smaller cindercones everywhere we looked, growing from a landscape of pumice slopes, flattened ash pillows, and black and broken lava fields.
Eastking had mentioned that if we did both South Sister and Middle Sister, the total was something like twenty miles and 10,000 feet of gain. That sounded feasible in a day, though we weren't planning to do it that way. So I was curious about the route from South Sister to Middle Sister.
First lesson: a 3,000-foot col may be entirely feasible, but it looks HUGE in person. Eastern cols are more like 500 feet or less. A long hike involves maybe ten of them in a day, so the total elevation lost and regained is the same, but there's something about actually seeing 3,000 feet of continuous descent that makes me less than anxious to get started.
Second lesson: the terrain here is different. I couldn't "read" it at all - cliffs just appeared in places I didn't expect; rock quality changed suddenly without rhyme or reason. I didn't see a way down that I could be really confident would "go" without a rope - and given the rotten rock, a rope might not be much help. Probably there is one (on a map the ridge heading north-northwest looks like the obvious choice, rather than hunting for a route down the north-northeast face like I was trying to do), but I wasn't prepared to make the attempt and risk backtracking all day.
After lazing on the summit for about an hour and completing our circumnavigation of the crater rim (with a detour to the shores of Teardrop Lake) it was time to head down.
For the first time I could see the entire distance we'd climbed during the night. The summit cone was a brick-red heap that seemed to be composed entirely of loose pumice. This cone was mostly bare of snow, except for Lewis and Clark glaciers, which weren't much more than snowfields - Lewis had a significant bergschrund and a bit of a moat, but I didn't see any crevasses. Below the tarn at the foot of Lewis, the landscape turned grey, first rock and scree and then vast