Do you remember that feeling on Christmas Eve as a child? Specifically, the not being able to sleep and imagining what tomorrow is going to be like? That’s pretty much the feeling I had the night before a planned hike to Mount Dickerman in the Mountain Loop Highway of the Washington Cascades. I laid in my bed and couldn’t sleep for several hours for a couple of reasons, one being that it would be winter conditions and I haven’t done many winter summits, and the other was my thoughts about how to get the best views. As a solo hiker 90% of the time, winter hikes have been a little intimidating since the stakes are a lot higher if you make a mistake. My mind was racing trying to make sure I was bringing enough stuff for a safe trip. I was also reflecting on a recently featured article here on SP “Chasing the Light” as well as an article that one referenced called “Waiting for the Light”. Bottom line is I wanted to experience optimal light for this trip. The articles described the best lighting conditions as the “golden hour” which is the first and last hour of daylight. My typical MO has been to wake up early enough to get to the trailhead around sunrise. This has led to some fantastic lighting conditions on recent trips this year, but I noticed a trend; views to the east were often ruined by a bright sun low on the horizon which I often encountered during the first couple hours after sunrise. Some of the most interesting views from Mount Dickerman are to the east, so to get a good view without that low on the horizon sun effect I’d have to get up there by sunrise. As I laid there trying to sleep I calculated that I would have to leave my house by 1:15 in order to get to the trailhead in time to make the summit by sunrise which was supposed to be at 7:30. Well… what time is it now, I wondered? 12:30. Ok, I thought… I don’t really need any sleep anyway, let’s hit the road!
I left my house at 1:15am and made the long 3 hour 15 minute drive from my house to the Mount Dickerman trailhead. By 4:40 I was on the trail. This was my first time hiking in this kind of darkness so it was a little weird, especially being alone. My headlamp led the way, and the trail was easy to follow, but man I was dragging. I felt horrible. Maybe it was the mere 2 hours of “sleep” I got, maybe it was the 20 pound pack with way too much gear “just in case”, maybe it was because I hadn’t hiked in over a month, maybe it was poor nutrition, or maybe it was some nagging back and hip pain, but I was moving slow. The first hour I only made it 1.5 miles thanks to several breaks I took necessitated by nausea. After that I started to feel a bit better and soon I hit snow. After a couple small patches I stopped to put on my micro spikes. It was my first time hiking in micro spikes and it was pretty cool. As I hiked up the well packed trail in the snow, the light from my headlamp reflected on the snow causing a sparkling effect in the snow which was pretty cool. By about 6:45 it was getting light enough that I was able to turn my headlamp off and just hike in the early morning light. Shortly later I came to the meadows below Mount Dickerman and saw some of the best morning light I have ever seen.
As I approached the meadows, views of Big Four were starting to come into view with a purple pink light on the horizon. By the time I could see the group from Del Camp over to Big Four the views were stunning. Yellow light to the left of Del Campo turned to orange near Sperry and Vesper and faded to pink and purple as it went past Big Four. Still nearly 20 minutes before sunrise at this point, the views were invigorating! I sprinted to a knoll in the meadows below the summit. Well… sprinted as well as I could in two feet of snow with a crust that kept giving way that is. The views here were ok and I took a couple photos but I was worried that I had just wasted time. I really had to push hard to get to the summit by sunrise, but I made it! The horizon all around, the full 360 degrees, was lit with orange and red, blue and purple colors. It was truly a sight to see and worth all the effort of leaving early and hiking in the dark. I took a few photos at the true summit and hurried over to the better view point to the east. When I arrived I took a photosphere and seconds later the sun crested between Sloan and the Monte Cristo group. I spent the next 45 minutes watching the colors change and taking photos before heading back.
It was about 9:30 before I saw another person, about 5 hours after I had started. On the way down I ran into a couple dozen people before reaching the trailhead, about 5 hours 45 minutes car to car. I was pretty wiped out. I probably should have napped as I kept fighting that need to close my eyes feeling on the way home. Did you know that there are no rest areas from Everett to Olympia? I kept looking for one, but eventually I felt awake enough to finish the drive home. I hate that feeling. All in all a fantastic trip, one of the best in perhaps my best year in the mountains I can remember. 2015 was a truly spectacular year for me and if we get a weather break before the new year, maybe I can add one more summit to cap off the year!