It was a beautiful winter day and Jared and I wanted to get our hike on. We tossed around the idea of hiking Mt Defiance, but when our friend Megan and her friend Katrina told us they were planning to hike Snow Lake, we tagged along! A bit shorter meant we had time for adult obligations like chores and laundry. Yay! The hike was a good time. Icy, snowy, windy, full of other day hikers. WTA says the hike is 10 miles, but Jared’s watch said 7.
Sunday. November 22, 2015. Hike: Snow Lake, 7.0 miles. Elevation gain: 2000 feet. High point: 5100 feet.
We meet Megan at her house, pick up Katrina along the way, and drive out to Alpental. The parking area is full! Well almost full. We find a spot, park, don our boots, gaiters, and microspikes and head on out.
We hike up the trail. It’s sunny and nice. We immediately shed a layer. Microspikes were a good idea – lots of ice and a solid little base layer of snow. Just like I remembered it from hiking it last winter.
About a mile in we hit the junction for Source Lake – none of us have ever been there but apparently it’s just a short hike in. Maybe next time. From there the trail switchbacks up a steep slope. Lots of people out today. And lots of dogs.
At the top we stop for a wee snack break – along with everyone else but the crowds felt more festive than overrun. It’s here that we realize I packed my snacks. Only. I thought Jared packed some for himself. He thought I packed them for both of us. Oopsie. Well it’s a short hike. We’ll share. Jared and I share an apple at the overlook. And a dog steals the apple core! Ha! His owner tells us about his thieving nature and how he once stole hamburger from a woman on a beach. Amazing. Many people habituate the gray jays to a life of stealing food from humans by feeding them snacks.
We head down toward the lake and take the shady switchbacks down. The lake is clear and unfrozen. We talk about food and diet and eating or not eating things. Jared and I are vegan except for the 50 lbs of beef in our freezer and the turkey we’re about to pick up for Thanksgiving!
We wind around the lake to another lil’ view spot. Damn it’s windy! Snacks in the wind. Brr. Let’s get out of the wind! Back ’round the lake and up the shady switchbacks. Then to the saddle and back down the sunny switchbacks toward the trailhead. Back past the Source Lake turnoff and to Megan’s car. Yay hiking!
Somehow I hadn’t really heard much about this hike until my friend, and fellow 2014 PCT hiker, Angelina mentioned it to me the day before we hiked it. It was amazing! The views were incredible! North Cascades, peaks everywhere, rock formations, glaciers, alpine lakes, etc, etc. The hike was demanding. Over 4000 feet of elevation gain in 4.5 miles was fairly steep and there was a “scramble” (according to WTA).
I meet Angelina in northern Seattle and we carpool to the North Cascades. The drive was relatively short for the North Cascades – under 2 hours, more like 1 1/2 hours. At the trailhead we max and relax before hitting the trail. Angelina boils water and we drink hot chocolate. We snack on cookies and crackers. Then we hit the trail. We chat and catch up on our hike to the summit.
Rather than regurgitate the WTA trail description, here it is:
“The way begins in second growth forest and almost immediately begins hopping streams, first by way of a log bridge, then over a helpful tree root that conveniently grew across a creek, and finally by whatever means available over the south fork of the Stillaguamish River. “River” here usually means “tame trickle,” but in times of heavy runoff, it can pose a serious obstacle. Improvised log bridges are strung up and washed away on a semi-annual basis. Check conditions; proceed accordingly. (Here there’s a sketchy log bridge over the river – bent in half and threatening to crack. Yet we make it across no problem)
Beyond the Stillaguamish, the trail starts living up to its mining heritage, switchbacking steeply over a rocky hillside below the convergence of three different valleys. Through dense vegetation, it winds towards the middle of the three, Wirtz Basin. Cue the mountain scenery. (A huge glacial basin here is incredibly picturesque.) At the head of the basin, sun filters over the sawtooth ridge of Morningstar Peak. On the right, the lower flanks of Sperry Peak form a sheer wall. Pikas bark their warnings from talus slopes on both sides. (And yes, we hear the adorable pika squeak/bark from within the boulder field/talus slopes.)
Save for the odd switchback in the trees, the trail heads more or less straight towards Morningstar and looks as if it might even dead-end below it. (It’s at this point that Angelina tells me why our friend, Lee, couldn’t join us on the hike. Her friend died. Yesterday. They had been camping and at the firetower lookout at Mt Pilchuck when the friend wandered off at dark to explore the next day’s climb – and never came back. Too dangerous to explore at night, they found his body the next morning. He’d fallen and died. So. Terrible. My thoughts are with you, Lee.)
A hairpin turn to the right begins a series of ever tightening zigs and zags between the walls of a steep, narrow couloir. Watch for other hikers above — the footing is loose, and rockfall is a real risk. (Here it felt like climbing a Sierra pass on the PCT. Steep, tight switchbacks. Kind of like Forrester Pass, only way less frightening)
The vertiginous climb peters out in a deep notch in the ridge, marked by a dead tree and an old weathered sign declaring: Headlee Pass 4,600 feet. Scratch the surface here and you strike a rich vein of history. “Headlee” refers to the family of two of the three prospectors who established the Sunrise Mine claim in 1897. One of them, lawyer Thomas E. Headlee, would go on to be an early mayor of Everett, a city which would in turn play a decisive role in the disposition of the Sunrise Mine. (I had no idea about the history while we were hiking)
The trail now drops a short way through trees on the other side of the pass before heading in a straight line across open talus fields. (Loose footing here) In a third of a mile, it meets the headwaters of Vesper Creek. The trail follows the right bank of the creek, around a bend, and up a short rise before arriving at the lake. (Incredible!)
Vesper may be a relatively young lake. Older maps show it as a glacier, and it sometimes doesn’t fully melt out until well into summer (if at all). (Say what??). That may also be why there’s still some debate about its name. Though most know it as “Vesper,” it is also often called “Lake Elan.”
It is practically encircled by a wall of rock, like an amphitheater, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. In one direction, admire the smooth granite of Vesper Peak and its wisp of a summit. In the other, crane your neck looking straight up at Sperry (named for yet another prospector, Dick Sperry). Look over the mouth of the lake to rows of peaks in the interior Cascades.
The hike to the summit of Vesper Peak cross the creek and follow the existing trails up the southeast slope of Vesper Peak. There are cairns to follow for a nice scramble up to the summit.”
(And that ends the WTA trail description)
Angelina and I ate foods at the top. There were 4 other women at the top. Amazing to see so many badass women out hiking this mountain. We climb down. Slower on the descent. Emergency bathroom run into the woods. Retrace our steps. Back to the trailhead. Back to the city.
Fueled by the thought of my next long-distance hike (plans for the Long Trail in VT in June/July!!), I decided to hike Mount Si. Why not kick off my training sooner than later? Ok, well it’s a bit soon to be training in earnest, but the thought of getting out there made me want to get out there. So that’s what I did. Si is a great and popular hike for a lot of reasons: it’s very close to Seattle (about 45 minutes with traffic), it’s a solid distance (8 miles roundtrip), a reasonable trail (evenly graded, more or less evenly distributed vertical gain), and there are good views. It’s also the first hike I completed after coming out to Seattle 1 year ago.
Monday, March 2, 2015. Hike: Mount Si. Distance: 8.0 miles roundtrip. Elevation gain: 3150 feet. High point: 3900 feet.
On my day off from work, I had a nice leisurely breakfast and coffee before leaving Seattle at 9 am. I hopped on Rt 5 and made the short trip over to North Bend. The forecast called for sun, but so far the day was overcast both in Seattle and at the base of Si. I parked in the lot where there were maybe a dozen other cars or so, tossed on my pack with minimal gear water and snacks, and hit the trail. Start time 9:50 am. Figuring I wanted to make good time, I set off at a good clip.
I passed people here and there – families, trail runners, a guy with a huge pack training for Rainier. The fog remained. The higher I got, the more it hovered low. It felt almost like being in a cool air humidifier. Kind of nice because I’m recovering from a little bout of bronchitis. The air was cool – low 40’s when I left. I hit the 1 mile mark, the 2 mile mark, then the 3. Up, across, up, across. Switchback after switchback.
Getting closer to the top the terrain changes slightly and the views open up more. And as if on cue, the clouds started to thin. The sky got brighter and sunlight began to shine through. Awesome. A few tiny patches of snow from the cold night dotted the trail.
I reached the top (mile 4) at 11:35. Not bad for being out of shape: 1 hr 45 minutes at a 2.3 mph pace. The top was basked in sun. A few people sat atop the boulders at the first clearing. I made my way past that to the next bouldery outcrop so I could snap a few pictures. But the clouds enveloped the mountains again and I couldn’t see anything! I couldn’t even see the Haystack (a huge rock prominence and Mount Si’s true summit) which was only hundreds of feet away.
I waited a minute or two, drank some water, ate some snacks, and the clouds immediately parted. I could see the Haystack suddenly and what I swear was one end of a rainbow only feet away.
I followed the rocky path to the Haystack, figuring I’d give it a shot. It’s a true scramble up to the top. When I was here a year ago I was much too afraid of the possibility of falling to give it a shot. This time there were two guys ahead of me who were going so I thought I’d at least try. I heard one of them shout “how are we going to get down??” and I wondered the same thing…
I made it the first “pitch” up a crack on the right a few tens of feet, moved laterally to the left, made it a dozen or feet more, and then at the next lateral transition right I’d had enough. I was wondering how I’d make it down seeing as how I didn’t have an answer, it was time to turn around. And, because this north side of the Haystack was mostly in shadow, the rock was super cold and I couldn’t feel my hands any more. Down I climbed, going more slowly than I’d climbed up.
I made it off the face of the Haystack and was walking back down when I met another group of 3 setting off for it. Ok, it’s probably my fear of heights talking, but I still haven’t figured out how people get up that thing. And down. I hung out at the top for a few more minutes, then started down at 12:10.
A man was walking just slightly slower than my pace in front of me, so after a bit I asked if I could get by him. He said “go ahead” and something snarky without pulling off so I zipped by him on the left and sped up to get out of his area of bad vibes. Figuring I’d rather run than walk, I thought why not just run down? If I go really slow I should be able to handle a 4 mile downhill run, right? I mostly jogged the whole way down, passing more people (about 60 altogether for the day), and only stopping for one pee break.
Down, down, down. One mile, two miles, three miles… My legs were starting to feel tired and my left knee was yelling at me, but I was almost there. A bug dive bombed my eye and I stopped to make sure it was gone. Over the boardwalk area/start of the trail, to my car, and checked my watch – 1:10 exactly.
4 miles in an hour or 15 minute miles – a nice super slow jog/fast hike pace (I still can’t believe that Anish set the 1,250+ mile PCT unsupported speed record with an average pace of 4 mph. so fast). I made it! A few snacks, some water, throw on my fleece, and set back for the city. I made it back by 2. All in all, great time for an 8 mile hike departing from Seattle.
Writing this post several days later, I can inform you that I am in fact in less than peak physical condition (I haven’t been on much of a regular exercise schedule at all lately due to a winter slump) and I am and have been insanely sore from my fast hike/run of Si. Days later my quads are still in pain. I’m going to consider this a good place to start training…