I am sure that the following has lots of spelling/grammar errors, I did not read it over very carefully, and for this I am dearly sorry, but not sorry enough to make the corrections, corrections like the number of commas in a sentence such as this one, again I apologize.
Alpental ski area and the sight of the encounter
I made a weekend trip to Seattle from Eugene where I was currently spending the summer studying for the MCATs. The purpose of the trip was primarily for a friend’s wedding, but I knew I couldn’t visit Seattle without a little climbing trip. My friend Owen had to work Friday and I had to take a five hour practice test, so we wanted something close and easy and the Tooth was the perfect climb. Only about an hour drive from Seattle on I-90, the Tooth has a short approach and great climbing.
Owen picked me up as soon as he got off work and we sped up to the mountains. We arrived at the Alpental parking lot a little after 5:30pm. We organized our gear deciding what we would and wouldn’t need. We each carried our climbing gear, camera, one nalgene, one snickers bar, a Cliff bar, and few other essentials. I decided on leaving my ice axe behind (it was July), but it was a decision I would later regret.
What the trail looked like much of the way.
The amazing waterfall we ran into
We started on the trail at about 6:00pm. We decided to take the trail that leads directly to Source Lk. and then head directly up to the Tooth from there. This sounded like a good plan seeing as how it was our decent route last time we climbed the peak in early May. However, the trail was far different than it was a few months ago. The snow that had made the path so easy to follow was gone and we were left playing a guessing game fairly early in the hike as to which lightly worn path was the trail. I ended up loosing the game somewhere along the way. It didn’t take long to realize “I was WAY OFF!” We ended up making our own way through the trees and shrubs. We didn’t mind too much, we never felt completely lost because the bowl-like valley is fairly easy to navigate in and we had a good idea of where the Tooth was. After crossing a number of small creeks we came to a much larger one with a couple amazing waterfalls, sometimes getting lost is awesome! It was obvious we were not going to cross this, so we headed up the hill. I expected to find the lake at least in sight, but found nothing.
I was getting a little angry that the path was not where it should have been, although I suppose maybe it was I who was not where I should have been, but I’ll still blame the path. I wasn’t too familiar with the lake or how big it really was so I figured that we should probably starting heading up the ridge. Owen agreed and we began our ascent up the middle of a rocky creek which soon led us to the talus field. Now we knew where we were and the Tooth was in sight. For the next 45 minutes we navigated the shifting boulders of the talus field up to Pineapple Pass. I felt the blister on my heel that had been forming for a while getting worse as we climbed up the ridge. I knew I’d have to do something about that later.
Owen hanging out with a swarm of mosquitoes below the talus field
Once we reached the top of the ridge I noticed Owen had done a little route finding of his own. He was taking a "short-cut” over some rocky outcropping. I followed, thinking he had taken this “route” before. When I got to the top he looked somewhat confused as to which way to go. “Which way did you go last time?” I asked. Owen then informed me he hadn’t ever gone that way before. While he attempted down-climbing the other side of the outcropping he noticed a loose rock and warned me he was going to kick it down. The rock was a little bigger than I thought and it tumbled a whole lot further than either of us thought. It tumbled down causing others rocks to fall for a good 15 seconds. I yelled “ROCKS!!”, as if anybody else was around. I decided to climb up further and look for a better down-climb, and found one which led directly to the base of the actual climb.
We arrived at the base of the route at 8pm (a little late). We quickly put on our climbing gear and grabbed our cameras. I took off my sweat soaked shirt and put on a long sleeve. It was clear that the mosquitoes that plagued us during our bushwhacking were still here. There was literally a swarm around our heads. We both were spitting them out of our mouths and grabbing them out of our eyelashes. I quickly took off my boots to put on my climbing shoes (I don’t know why we used climbing shoes, you don’t really need them). However, in the process of pulling my boot I also pulled the skin off my forming blister. After a moment of pain I put my climbing shoes on which rubbed directly on the blister spot. Owen and I started up the climb a little after 8pm. Because nobody else was on the route the climb went fast. We reached the summit in half an hour. I took a few pictures of the sunset and the surrounding views, but we knew we had to get down fast. Owen set the rappel up while I took a few more pictures of Rainer. We got back down in 20 minutes, it was now 9pm. We had only 30 minutes of light left.
Mt. Rainier from the summit
My inspiring summit pose and potential last picture of me
We still were unsure about which decent route to take, the way we had come (which was trailess), or to head back via the ridge line and down the Alpental ski runs. We decided on the latter because we figured we would have light longer by staying out of the forest and it would easier get a sense of where we were based on the surrounding peaks. By 9:30 it was completely dark and we were left with just the beams from our headlamps to guide our way. We both agreed the route was faster and we were happy with our decision. We soon arrived near the top of the Alpental ski slope, which was now just a steep, dark, dangerous, rocky slope. It took a lot of energy to controllably navigate our way down the slope without creating mini rockslides. With just a beam of light to look at our next step our peripheral was hindered quite a bit which made for some interesting balancing acts across a few of the boulders. We took a few more breaks every hundred yards or so to rest our legs. We finished off the rest of our water thinking we’d be down at the car pretty soon. We continued on, slowly inching down the rocky slope with our headlamps lighting the way.
Enter The Lion
The slope became more gradual and I arrived at a much flatter area. Owen was a little behind me and as I waited for him I surveyed our surroundings to find the best way to continue. While looking around, my headlamp lit up two shiny objects on a small ridge about 40 yards away. I quickly recognized the objects and eyes. Something was watching us! I quietly yelled to Owen, “Owen, do you see that?” and after looking at where my light was pointing, he replied, “Uh, yeah.” While having a guess as to what it was I still asked Owen what he thought. He replied with an optimistic answer, “Maybe it’s a coyote.” I pointed out the size of the eyes and how far apart they were, and that it was most definitely not a coyote. Owen asked for my opinion and I replied, “I’m going to be honest, don’t freak out, I think it's a mountain lion.” “AAaahh,” Owen replied as if intrigued. He seemed much more confident about our situation than I was. I was upset with our situation to say least. I was questioning the meaning of life and thinking about all the mountains I still hadn’t climbed.
----Before I continue I would also like to thank Jake Buter for the conversations we shared at Blakely Island last summer. I had a few conversations with Jake about the best thing to do if attacked by a mountain lion. One of Jake's proposals included jumping into water because cats hate water. Jake is a very smart person and any idea put forth by Jake should definitely be considered. However, after noting the lack of water in our situation I considered my own plan, which included shoving my hand down the lions throat and trying to gag it and grab the uvula (the dangling thing in the back of the throat)! I mean if something was reaching down my throat I'd sure let go. Many people HAVE pointed out to me the danger involved in reaching into a mountain lion's mouth, however, I'd rather be armless than lifeless. But thanks to Jake I had at least considered plans for this exact situation (minus the nighttime aspect)-----
Owen and I stayed calm, kind of. We knew we had to make ourselves look big and intimidating. I regretted not having brought my ice axe along, but I pulled out the next best thing, my 4” lock-blade, yeah I’m a badass I know. Now some people may prefer a pistol, but having seen a number of Steven Seagal movies I know what a knife is capable of and felt comfortable in my abilities...or not. We then raised our sticks, which we had previously found and used for trekking poles, and we yelled whatever came to mind. We also thought it would be a good idea to run at the two glowing eyes, just a little. So we ran about 10 yards towards it while yelling and waving our weapons. It seemed as though we had gained a quick victory. Likely caught off guard by our antics…and my knife, of course, the eyes seemed to retreat a few steps. Thinking we were safe and no longer an object of interest for the lion, Owen and I felt relieved. However, the devilish creature turned towards us again and the eyes continued to watch us. We then realized that maybe the mountain lion was not going to quit so easily. We picked up a few rocks and hurled them at the beast, but it remained unmoving. My mind was racing with what to do next before this thing made a move of its own. Owen spotted a maintenance shed that we could break into and stay in overnight, but the shed was at an angle such that it would require us moving somewhat closer to the mountain lion. I told Owen I didn’t want to risk it and I rather get down the slope, besides I had to attend Chris and Annie’s wedding the next day. “We could make a run for it,” Owen said. But I quickly replied with, “No way.” If we ran I was sure it would be on us in 5 seconds and we were still at least a quarter mile from the lodge.
As the eyes watched us, we watched them. They would occasionally disappear as the animal turned its head and our lights no longer reflected. We would yell in order to make it look back at us. It’s funny, as long as we could see the eyes we felt comfortable, but when they turned away we started to freak-out thinking the mountain lion was up to something. There were a few occasions when the eyes seemed to get a little closer, again we would yell to make the animal think twice. I was happy for Owen, he seemed confident, telling me he was going to rip the animal’s head off. Who was I to tell him he was an idiot and the animal would likely rip right through our necks with its teeth leaving us as bloody heaps on the rocks. I didn’t want to be Debbie Downer, so I said nothing. The best plan I could come up with was to stab Owen in the leg and take off. But then I decided God would never forgive me for that and neither would anybody else, besides Owen had the keys somewhere in his pack. I think if I’d had asked him where the keys were in his pack, he would know what I was up to.
Once again it looked as if the mountain lion was getting closer as the eyes seemed to be coming down the ridge it was on. I remember yelling some profanities while trying to communicate to Owen, “Oh DEAR LORD IT’S COMING, GET READY!!” We braced ourselves with a knife and stick ready in hand, or in Owen’s case a rock and stick. We were ready for whatever was going to happen. If it attacked we would give the lion our back, which was protected by our backpack, and protect our necks as best as possible, the other would then do their best to fight off the beast, as well as the urge to run. The lion kept its distance, and the glowing eyes didn’t get any closer. We knew it was just waiting until we turned our backs. Owen was able to catch a glimpse of the creature’s outline and confirmed it as a mountain lion, definitely not a coyote, or a marmot with a major case of gigantism.
It was time to do something we thought. I told Owen to walk 20 feet down the slope while I watched the eyes. When he reached the distance I told him to keep watch while I came to him. We continued this as under-control as possible. We didn’t want it to sound like we were running. We both tried to keep watch on the eyes as best as possible as we continued down the slope. Our route down the slope wasn’t so careful anymore. It now became a B-line for the lights of Alpental lodge. As we got further from where the eyes first appeared bushes got in the way and we could no longer tell whether the eyes were moving or not. Things got a little more exciting as we had no idea if this thing was following us or not, and if it was, where it was coming from. It would be impossible to hear it over our own heavy breathing, and because of the fact it's a cat, and cats are quiet. The person in charge of watching scanned the ridge line and surrounding areas for the glowing eyes. The adrenaline was rushing to the point I could not control the shaking of my leg, it was elvis-leg x10. No matter how hard I tried to keep my leg still it seemed to shake harder and faster.
Our new path down the mountain took us through shrubs and thorn bushes. Our attention to shifting rocks and slick branches was no longer, as now we were solely focused on our surroundings. We were constantly falling over the rocks and getting caught by sharp thorns. The distance between us got bigger as the person in front searched for a good area to stop, an area that was open and provided at least some sense of what was around us. I decided to shut my knife blade because falling on it might not be so great. We tried to stay close together, but it got tough when all we had where headlamps and were surrounded by bushes with a mountain lion near by. On two different occasions I was fairly certain that I saw the pair of glowing eyes around the areas that we had come from. It seemed as though the mountain lion was indeed following us. I told Owen and we agreed that we needed to get down faster. We continued our hasty-under-control descent until the lodge was only a hundred yards away. The lights from the lodge lit the rest of the way. Still not turning our backs, we continued scanning the slope and the bushes for any sign of the lion.
We finally arrived at the lodge. Rap music was playing, and once again we agreed (we agreed on a lot of things) that rap music never sounded so good. We rested in the safety of the lights and took a few pictures because that’s what you do after surviving a threat from a mountain lion. We then finished the walk back across the parking lot. Owen seemed fairly calm, but I was still scanning the bushes for glowing eyes. Then there it was, those eyes again, I told Owen, but he assured me that my mind was playing tricks on me. I refused to take my eyes off the bushes while I unloaded my pack in the truck. I quickly got in the car still looking around in the bushes. I told Owen to drive over to the place where I thought I had seen the eyes. Turns out it was just a reflector that time. We both laughed and drove back to Seattle.
We decided we needed to celebrate our survival. We stopped at QFC in Issaquah. Owen bought an Odwalla and I bought Gatorade and JUICE!! We must have looked like idiots in the store because both of us still had our headlamps on. This concludes the most exciting night of our lives.
Now I admit, I am not a mountain lion expert. I don’t know for sure if it was following us or not. I do not know their behavior, in all likelihood it was just curious about the two beams of light descending from higher on the mountain. But it was a very exciting night, perhaps the most exciting in my life and I was scared. But then again, isn’t that the purpose of the flight-of-fight response, to scare you into overreacting and saving yourself?
I realize hiking at night is not the best idea, and that perhaps an early start would have been better. But I’ve done less smart things in my life.