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19 July 2008 @ 07:55 pm
Mountaineers hike: Mt. Pilchuck  
Surprising and awesome. I'm totally joining the Mountaineers - and several of you should, too.

This hike was described as "A really nice hike up to a craggy summit with a historic lookout tower and sweeping views", with difficulty "moderate" and pace "leisurely" over a total distance of "5 miles". It's part of the Trailhead program, so I thought it would be a good first hike (you get two trial "events" out of the free guest membership).

Ken, the leader of this Hike, told us "I just got off the phone with the ranger station, and these are the full details…There is still quite a bit of snow on the trail. None of it is technical (you don’t need an ice axe), but there has been some confusion following the route. What I can tell you is that I’ve done this trip in winter, spring, and summer; more than a dozen times. I know the mountain well, and don’t expect any serious route finding issues. I do expect some bigger snow patches to cross, with the biggest issues being folks who maybe don’t have gaiters and/or waterproof boots. The ranger did say that an experienced person who’s done the trip before will have no problems, and I definitely am over-qualified in that perspective J I’m confident this will be a fun, adventurous, and rewarding day with no danger or drama, but just want everyone to know ahead of time what to expect. "

I have waterproof boots, but no gaiters. Probably not a problem.

We meet up and carpool out to the trailhead - a total of 12 of us. I'm youngest-but-one, and probably at about the lower quartile of fitness. Unfortunately, Ken's tire was punctured by gravel on his way up the final stretch to the trailhead. Furthermore, this is his second flat tire in 13 years - but also his second flat tire in a couple weeks. The flat tire IS his spare.

AAA will gladly tow his car up to 100 back to Seattle - if he can get it back down to the road. They are also only willing to dispatch a truck RIGHT NOW - they will not schedule one for a few hours later (after the hike). Eventually, Ken finds a friend willing to drive up to Pilchuck, get the fifth tire out of Ken's trunk, take it to the nearest tire shop (Granite Falls?), and bring it back. We begin our hike.

At first, it's a typical overgrown forest trail. There's a lot of downed trees from the unusual snow and wind of last winter and spring, so we have to clamber under some trees across the path. After a gully of skunk cabbage, we find the first few snow patches and boulder fields in our climb up the hill. Before we even get very far up Little Pilchuck, we are climbing large fields of snow - snow that is usually gone well before July. I doubt it will be gone before the Cascades get more snow this winter.

Eventually, we reach a point where the "summer trail" is completely lost under the snow. We are following Ken's experience and the footprints (and guesswork) of previous hikers. When climbing in the snow, you try to follow in the footsteps of the person before you, kicking your toe a little deeper into the snow to improve the existing foothold. I was able to borrow a hiking stick, and I wish I brought my steel-toes army surplus wafflestompers. We occasionally see evidence of the "summer trail", which Ken (and everybody else) seemed to be ignoring in favor of a more direct oversnow route.

I didn't expect this much snow. The fog approached white-out conditions. I could breathe easy, far from my suburbia allergies (grassy lawns, juniper hedges, and most pets). With a final desperate surge, we get past one of the final snowfields. After being warned that the final portion of the hike is "technical" and "kind of ugly" today, half of us (myself included) elect to stay behind while the other group takes all of the hiking poles and pushes on to the summit. The clouds clear briefly, allowing me to see down the cliffs around me and, in some small measure, rediscover my fear of heights. After regrouping, we started the climb (the consensus was that this was more of an "alpine scramble" than a true hike) down to the cars.

When hiking down a snowfield, you want to stay to virgin snow as much as possible, and dig in with your heels. You will slide as much as you did going uphill, but it's much less frustrating - since that's kind of the direction you wanted to go. At a few points, a controlled slide was a better option than trying to climb, which is when Ken led us through glacading 101 - using hiking poles for brakes, since we had no ice axes.

A few things I learned from talking to the other hikers:
1. NEVER go on a Retired Rovers outing. Those grannies have been taking several hikes a week for DECADES, and will leave you wheezing and dying of exhaustion on the trail as they scoot along faster than most alpine scrambles.
2. The various kinds of outings - e.g. "Under the Hill Rovers", "Singles" - are more advisory, not hard requirements. In practice, the "singles" hikes are just a bit more social and almost always involve a group dinner afterward.
3. As part of the many, many outdoorsy things the Mountaineers do, they run the cheapest sailing club around. After taking their sailing class, any member can sign onto their free sailing trips or international sailing expeditions. This might be a Good Thing for a friend of mine who has expressed interest in sailing but is reluctant to get his own boat.

At the end of the hike (before changing his flat tire) Ken gave me a discount code to bypass the $35 "initiation fee". I'll definitely be going on more hikes with the Mountaineers.
Turning the Schmaltz up to 11pullthestars on July 20th, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
would they have hikes for uber n00bs like me?
St. Sean the Amusedseanb on July 20th, 2008 04:08 am (UTC)
Yes. This was a "Moderate" hike. There are definitely n00b-friendly hikes.