I took the day to climb to the top of Mount Pilchuck today. The road to the trail head is usually closed and impassable in the winter, but this year it was open and free of snow. From the trail head, it’s only about 3 miles and 2,500 feet to the 5,324 foot summit and the old fire lookout tower. This is the first day hike of the year that I took only a small day pack on, rather than loading up my large rucksack with weights, heavy books, and water. I practically flew up the mountain!
It was a clear day today, without a cloud in the sky. Snow started about a mile up the trail. First, just a little ice and packed slush, but it soon grew to about 5 feet deep. Plenty of people had been up the mountain this winter, leaving me a trail of compacted snow to follow and making crampons or snowshoes unnecessary for the way up.
For the most part, it was easy going, until the trail climbed a slope up onto the ridge of the mountain. It was a little steep. I had to climb with both hands, occasionally punching or kicking holds for hands and feet.
From then on, the trail followed the ridge, but occasionally meandered slightly down onto the south side of the mountain. The sun had been beating on the snow pretty hard over there, turning what was nice crusty snow on the north side to a wet, slushy mixture. It required careful footing to make my way without sliding down the whole face.
I summited and arrived at the lookout at about 1:30PM, two hours after leaving the trail head. The sky was still clear, allowing me to see to Mt. Rainier in the south, Mt. Baker in the north, Glacier Peak in the East, the Puget Sound and the Olympics to the West, along with everything in between. I opened up a few of the heavy shutters on the tower and spent some time trying to identify various peaks in the visible wilderness areas where I have traveled.
I wasn’t looking forward too much to the way down, knowing that without crampons and an ice ax it might mean a tricky brush with death. I put it off a bit longer by cooking up some ramen and jerk. But, after lunch, I had to turn around and head down.
Where the trail along the ridge deviated onto the southern face, I had no choice but to squat and slide down on my feet and butt, doing my best to control my decent with a trekking pole. Occasionally this worked. Occasionally I was able to dig my feet in to stop before going off the edge. Other times I just had to aim for trees, using them as breaks to stop me from taking the quick way off the mountain, then turn around and climb back up to the trail that I had slid past.
The near vertical slope I climbed on the way up was on the north face of the mountain. The snow there was hard and crusty, so I was able to climb my way back down using the holds I had previously made.
From then on, it was fairly easy going. I spotted one storm cloud, but the way down was otherwise uneventful.
Man is not adapted to live in a mirror-lined box, generating his own electric light and sending for selected images from outside when he happens to need them. Darkness and a bad smell are all that can come of that. We need the vast world, and it must be a world that does not need us; a world constantly capable of surprising us, a world we did not program, since only such a world is the proper object of wonder. -Mary Midgley