This past weekend I climbed Mount Daniel in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington with a group of Mazamas. The climb leader, Bob Breivogel, asked me to be the assistant leader, which is gonna look great on my climb resume, but for this trip mostly just meant I was sweep, hiking and climbing at the back of the line, the last duckling in the row.
It was a three-day trip. On Saturday morning I met my carpool buddies in a parking lot, like you do, and drove for five hours, first north on I-5 and then east on I-90. The last 45 minutes of the drive was 12 miles of potholed dirt road that dead-ended at a very crowded trailhead in the wilderness. We were relieved to pile out and stretch our legs, then wait at a picnic table in the sun for the rest of our group.
A bit before two — our wilderness permit filled out, sunscreen applied, everything unpacked and repacked — we headed up the trail towards Cathedral Rock. My pack was heavier than it’s ever been, loaded down with camping gear plus climbing gear (harness, ice axe, crampons, helmet… and my beggers-can’t-be-choosers, $100-at-an-REI-gear-sale, kinda-pinch-my-toes mountaineering boots slung over everything and swinging around a bit behind me; I chose to do the approach hike in in my trail runners) plus too much food.
We gained a lot of elevation quickly, then took a snack break, and then joined a little section of the PCT I remembered from last year — Cathedral Pass, with Cathedral Rock looming awesomely above us. We almost immediately left the PCT again, though, on a little trail marked “hiker trail — closed to stock.” This trail was narrow and sketchy in places as it traversed a slope above a lake, but we picked our way along and eventually arrived at our destination for the night, Peggy’s Pond, another pretty little alpine lake surrounded by steep slopes. It was a popular spot, but we managed to find some spots to tuck ourselves away for the night. It started raining shortly after we all had our tents set up, and we all pretty much crawled inside till morning. I slept cold and fitfully, wearing all my clothes, regretting leaving my puffier puffy jacket at home in an effort to reduce the size of my already-bloated pack.
We got going on Sunday at 6:30am, heading up steep climber trails… and up and up and up, eventually gaining the southeast ridge of Mount Daniel, which we’d follow to the summit. I tromped along at the back of the pack, admiring the views and thinking quietly to myself about my life, simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the way back down these steep slopes later in the day, when my quads would be tired and sore and I’d have to focus only and completely on where to place my heavy feet.
Further up the ridge, the trail, such as it was, got more exposed and scramble-y. Being sweep, it turned out, was great for me — there was an abundance of spots where, were there someone behind me at whom to freak out a little, I probably would have freaked out a little, but instead I just watched everyone pick their way across this or that freaky problem spot, and then, with no one to watch me, I monkeyed my way after them like it was nothing. It was fine!
Mount Daniel has several summits, with the furthest (west) peak being the true summit. We traversed our way past the first two summits to reach it, and dropped our packs twenty feet below the top before scrambling up. The views, of course, were spectacular. We ate cookies (I’d brought homebaked chocolate chip) and took photos, lingering for a while before heading back down. The fog blew in just as we left the summit, and then blew right out again.
On the way down, we crossed a couple snowfields to avoid some of the ridge scramble. Most of us didn’t put on crampons, and slipped and slid a bit as we made our way down and across and back to the ridge. I tried to practice my standing/boot glissade, but the snow was not ideal: soft for a few inches on top, and rock hard below. Plunge-stepping didn’t work too well either. I know all this stuff means I’m accumulating experience that will help me feel more confident on future climbs, though, and mostly I laughed every time my boots slipped out from under me and I fell on my butt. And hey — since I was sweep, no one saw.
Our team got a little spread out once we hit treeline and broke into two groups, but all roads lead to Peggy’s Pond, and we regrouped at our little tent village. I’d taken down my tent in the morning since it pitches with my trekking poles, so I retrieved it from where it was stowed in my teammate Bill’s vestibule, repitched it, and crawled inside my sleeping bag to warm up and doze.
On Monday morning we had a more leisurely start time, but I woke up early anyway to make myself coffee and pack up my gear. We hiked out around 8 and retraced our steps from two days before. My pack felt extra-heavy and my legs were sore; I was relieved to see the trailhead when we arrived, though not excited about the five-hour drive ahead of me. Thankfully, we all met up an hour in (after the twelve miles of potholed dirt road) at the Roslyn Cafe in Roslyn, Washington, where I ate a spectacular breakfast sandwich (fried eggs, red onion marmalade, cheese, and guacamole on sourdough — amazing!!!) and we cheersed and showed each other photos and talked about what we’ve got planned next.
A few bonus photos from my phone and others’ cameras:
I’m going out for a little solo backpacking trip to the Mount Hood Wilderness. I picked my destination the other day by flipping through a book I bought last spring called One Night Wilderness: Portland, looking for anything likely to be open and accessible in late May with a “solitude” rating high enough that even on Memorial Day weekend I’ll feel like I’m actually hiking solo. I stopped when I got to the page for Ramona Falls and Yocum Ridge. About Yocum Ridge, my book repeats “alpine wonderland” at least twice — my favorite kind of wilderness. About Ramona Falls, the Oregon Hikers Field Guide (one of my favorite local resources) has this to say: “It doesn’t matter how many people there are on the busiest summer weekend, you can still find a spot to camp with some sort of solitude.” Sounds perfect to me, despite the open season for Yocum Ridge being listed as beginning in late July — I’ll figure out what to do about the snow when I get to the snow. I even toss some cloth snow “stakes” into my pack.
It’s past noon when I leave town, and around two o’clock when I finally shoulder my pack and start up the trail. There are plenty of dayhikers, but just a couple other folks with large packs who clearly intend to camp. I show off for myself by catching and then passing them. “You gonna camp by the falls?” they ask.
“Maybe,” I answer cheerfully. “Or I might keep going and see how far I can get before I hit snow!”
The trail crosses the Sandy River, which carves out a wide, dry riverbed but is itself not so intimidating as I’d feared. There used to be a seasonal bridge across it, but in 2014 it washed out and drowned a hiker, and it hasn’t been replaced since. Instead, there are signs — the same sign, posted four times — detailing how to safely cross the glacial river, and how to know when not to attempt it. I’ve seen kids and dogs coming back towards me from the falls, which is reassuring, and when I finally get to the river, I have a couple big logs to choose from that I can cross on. The river itself is probably only knee-deep (I think back to the Mount Hood Scramble I did last June with my mom — knee deep is a piece of cake!), but it’s nice to be able to keep my feet dry. I undo the hip and sternum buckles on my pack and tight-rope-walk across. Easy peasy.
I follow the trail, lined with logs and rocks, across the sandy wash to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. It gives me totally irrational warm-fuzzies to be on the PCT even for short stretches. Someday I’ll hike the whole thing for real! In the meantime I’ll hike all the little pieces of it within a couple hours’ drive of Portland. I smile big and head down the trail paralleling the river.
At the next junction I turn away from the river, off the PCT and onto the Timberline Trail. In short order I hear, and then see, Ramona Falls through the trees. The falls is beautiful and huge and somehow sort of glowing in the afternoon light. I put my pack down and go down to the creek below the falls to get some water to refill my bottle. While I’m filtering it and snacking, two separate hikers ask me if I’m a PCT hiker. Aww. One of them has done a couple sections in Oregon; we chat for a few minutes and compare notes.
Watered and fed, I continue up the Timberline Trail towards the junction for the Yocum Ridge Trail 0.7 miles up. From this point on, I do not see a single other soul. Once I leave the falls behind, it is very quiet.
The Yocum Ridge Trail has not seen much — if any — maintenance since whatever winter storms blew through here. There are lots of blowdowns, some of which I climb over, some of which I crawl under, and a few of which I have to go off trail to navigate around. I am alone up here, for very sure. Every sound I hear makes me stop in my tracks and listen closely — and imagine, of course, the cougar standing stock still in the woods beside or behind me, waiting for me to move again.
Eventually I start to hear another noise, unmistakeable — a cacophony of frogs. There’s a little pond on my map, but it’s still a ways away. The sound fades in and out as I switchback slowly up towards it, and then I see it through the trees. I pick my way towards the shore, and as I do, the frogs go silent one by one, until there’s just one frog ribbit-ribbit-ribbitting while I stand on the shore. Then the last frog figures out I’m there and shuts the heck up, and it’s quiet again. I walk away and expect the frogs to start up again, but they stay quiet; I won’t hear them again. As I walk next to the pond on the trail, I look for a cougar pacing on the far shore. It’s not there, of course.
After the pond, my book tells me, is where the scenery get good. The forests open up and transform into meadow. There are great views, I read. But it turns out that after the pond is the snow. I see a few patches next to the trail, and then a patch across the trail — with footsteps! Turns out I’m not the first person up here this season; I’m the second. Then there’s a bigger patch of snow. My predecessor’s tracks continue across it, then double back and go off to the left instead. I follow them first in one direction and then in the other. I can’t figure out where the trail goes from here, and with this story fresh in my mind, I decide this is as far as I go. Oh well.
It’s about 5:30 at this point. I could maybe camp up here. I’ve passed a few flat spots, and I haven’t touched the two-liter water bladder I filled up at the falls. But I’ve got a couple hours of daylight left, and I’m daydreaming about drinking my coffee tomorrow morning with a view of the falls. And mostly I’m scared to be alone up here in the deep, quiet, chilly woods.
Alone is the wrong word. There are frogs and birds and I see animal tracks crossing one of the patches of snow — herbivore, on examination, and I’m relieved. I feel a strange and unwelcome xenophobia in the wilderness. I would like to be unafraid, but I am not. “Wilderness” is so easy to love when it’s tamed, defined, seen in good noisy company on a sunny day, groomed, and well-signed. It’s harder to love when it’s unmaintained, dark, hard to follow, with wild animals going bump in the night. What does it mean, then, to be in the wilderness? I am always so excited to get out and be in it. And I am so often relieved to be out of it again when I come home.
So I turn around and head back down, back over and under and around all the blowdowns. The frogs are still silent when I pass the pond. I think about my fear and I decide that, damnit, I’m gonna cowboy camp tonight (without a tent). I’ve never cowboy camped alone or in the wilderness.
I make it back down to Ramona Falls by seven and find a quiet, unoccupied campsite with a fire ring in the first place I look. When I explore a bit more, I spot a tent on a little rise a few hundred feet away, the perfect comfortable distance. I’ll sleep well here. The falls thrums just out of sight. I lay out my bedroll (tyvek, sleeping pad, sleeping bag) and lean against a log near the fire ring to cook my freeze-dried dinner.
(it’s not a real adventure unless you bleed a little)
I finish sipping my hot chocolate not long before dark. I clean up and tie my bear bag to a tree, then look up at the sky. It’s a little overcast, and the dusk air is full of curious insects. So, okay, I pitch my tent. I leave the side “doors” open, though. I sleep well. I get up to pee at five and get up to greet the day at 8:30.
And yep, I sure do eat my oats and drink my coffee with a gorgeous waterfall view.
When I tried to shorten my trekking poles when I took down my tent this morning (I extend them to 125cm or so to pitch my tent, and like to hike with them at about 107cm), one of them wouldn’t lock at the shorter length. This happened once last year on the PCT, and J/Backup was able to fix it with my multi-tool. I can’t remember what he did exactly, but I’ll be just fine with just one pole today anyway. I strap the other one to my pack and and head out. The Ramona Falls trail is a loop, with one trail (the trail I took yesterday) following the Sandy River, and the other trail following Ramona Creek. I head out along Ramona Creek, and oh my goodness is it bonkers beautiful. Lush and green, criss-crossing the pretty creek, with a colorful cliff through the trees to the right.
I linger, stopping to take photos of beetles and mosses. I cross the creek on a log and do some boulder-hopping for kicks.
Soon I’m at another junction with the PCT, and I turn towards the Sandy River again. I cross on a different log, this one with another log balanced above it that I watch a guy crossing towards me use as a handrail of sorts. It turns out he’s taller than me, but I make it across with a few variations on his technique.
The last bit of trail goes fast. I pass lots of dayhikers heading in, and then there’s the parking lot in the distance. I open up the hatchback of my car, throw my pack inside, and hit the road towards home.
why Ramona Falls would make a great first backpacking trip or first solo overnight
It’s logistically simple. The trailhead is just a little over an hour from Portland, and the road in is, though narrow and potholed, well-signed and mostly paved. There is a huge (unpaved) parking area — and I mean huge. You just need a Northwest Forest Pass — I didn’t check to see if they could be purchased at the trailhead, but if you hike often around here you probably have one anyway. You don’t need a permit in advance to hike or camp; you can just fill one out at the wilderness boundary a short distance from the trailhead. There is water in abundance, so you don’t need to worry about carrying a lot of it. There are plenty of established campsites and, in the event of a crowded weekend (but, I mean, this was Memorial Day weekend and there was almost no one there, so how crowded can it get?), even more spots that would work in a pinch.
It’s just a little challenging. The Sandy River crossing is the “off” to the rest of the trail’s “beaten path.”
It is, as mentioned, bonkers beautiful. Ramona Falls itself is gorgeous, and the trail along Ramona Creek is really, really lovely.
There’s more to explore. If you have extra energy or want more, you could hike in almost any direction pretty much indefinitely. Maybe take the PCT or the Timberline Trail north to Bald Mountain (I kinda wish I’d done this)? Or south to Paradise Park? Or head up towards Yocum Ridge, like I did.
I will definitely be back!
A few minutes past 9pm on Friday night I pick up Denara and we head towards the mountain. We’re both nervous and excited, and neither of us got as much rest as we hoped we would before our first-ever alpine start. At a quarter to 11, we pull into the overflow parking lot at Timberline, put on our mountaineering boots, do one last check of our packs (harness? Check. Crampons? Check. Helmet? Check. Should we bring our big puffy jackets or not? Let’s leave ‘em, it’s supposed to be pretty warm…), and hoof it over to the climber’s registration to meet our climb team. This is an official Mazamas climb—my first—with a big 12-person team, pretty much none of whom we’ve met before tonight. We nod at one another and check our packs again, and by 11:20 we’re headed out into the dark black night. “Our goal is Silcox Hut in an hour,” says Rico, our climb leader, “top of Palmer [Glacier] in three hours, the Hogsback in six, summit in eight.”
We’re off like a shot. Rico asks one of the guys to lead, and I’m pretty sure we’re all showing off for one another as we hustle to keep up. Right away I can feel my quads and my hamstrings and my glutes. Oh boy. I put my head down and watch my steps, my headlamp flattening everything into the small space between my feet and the feet of the climber in front of me. I try to step where he steps and improve the boot tracks, but they’re criss-crossing with so many others and the snow is so soft and I’m breathing so hard. We’re at Silcox Hut (Rico says, though I can’t see it) in forty minutes flat, following cat tracks and boot tracks and frankly I don’t know what tracks—I’m just following the feet in front of me. The dark is disorienting. We could be anywhere.
We sit for a moment and rest, but it’s too cold to stop for long. I pull out a granola bar and am unwrapping it when Rico nods at me. “Want to lead?” I nod back and shove a big bite of bar into my mouth as I head up and out, looking for boot tracks to follow. Some of them are clearly made by six-foot-tall climbers, and some lead nowhere. I add my own smaller steps and try to set a good pace. I remember to rest step, finally, locking my knee between every step and shifting my weight to that leg to take the strain off my muscles for half a second. Every once in a while a gust of wind hits while my leg is locked and nearly knocks me off balance. Rico climbs behind me and occasionally quietly guides me in a slightly different direction, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what direction that is. Except for his words from time to time, and the play of shadows from the headlamps behind me, I could be tromping through the snow entirely alone. All I can hear is the crunch of my boots on the snow, my own breathing, and the wind.
After forty minutes, Rico asks someone else to lead and I breathe a sigh of relief. I fall back in line towards the end, which means the boot track steps will be pretty great by the time I get to them, with most of the team having already packed them down. We’re at the top of Palmer (so they say—I’m still lost, to be honest) in two hours. Two hours!
From here we climb in the dark and climb in the dark and climb in the dark. The snow is squishy and icy and squishy again. We climb straight up and then diagonally across the slope and then straight up again. Every once in a while I try to look up and get a little vertigo. It’s just so dark up here. The lights of Portland glow below us to the west.
We start to catch whiffs of sulfur from the fumarole—the wind seems to be blowing it straight towards us. One of the climbers on our team starts to feel really ill, and a few times we stop to wait for him while he catches up and debates whether to continue. He perseveres. We stop to put on crampons and continue up, pausing every once in a while to yell up and down the line: “Hold up!” “Okay!” “Is everyone doing okay?” “Wait!” “You guys okay?” “Okay!” I kick a step for one of my feet parallel to the one already in a nice kicked step so I can rest on both locked legs at once while I wait. I allow myself to feel, I admit, a little impatient. I don’t allow myself to express it, except in small whispers: “What’s going on back there?” “I dunno.” We don’t take any real breaks, though. Rico’s been saying for what feels like ages that we’ll stop soon at “a flat spot up there”—then we accidentally overshoot it. “We’re almost at the Hogsback, though,” he says.
“We need a food break!” I shout up the line, and we take a packs-off break on the steep slope. Food makes everything better, at least for me.
It’s still early (or late?), but now when I look up I start to see the shape of the mountain above us, barely visible against the still-black sky. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the day is reborn. Down below us we can see a line of climbers, their headlamps tiny bobbing dots of light.
We’re finally at the Hogsback and I am suddenly exhilarated. The Hogsback is a ridge that curves up and up towards the Pearly Gates, through which we’ll pass to reach the summit. As the light increases, my focus widens, but it’s still pretty directional—up up up. It gets steep and I stomp with my crampons, experimenting with the best way to feel secure and efficient at the same time. Sometimes there are lovely steps, but mostly I find that a hybrid technique works best for me—side-stepping with one foot, keeping my crampons flat against the sloping ground (French technique) and digging in with the toes of my other foot to push upwards (front-pointing). It lets me feel fast and powerful as I move towards the summit. Let’s go let’s go!
At the top of the Hogsback, we follow a narrow path around a beautiful snow-and-ice formation to the base of the Pearly Gates, a steep narrow chute surrounded by more beautiful ice that will lead us almost all the way to the summit.
And then, up we go.
We’re just five minutes from the summit now. While we wait for the whole team to arrive, the sky begins to turn pink as sunrise approaches.
When the last member arrives, we shoulder our packs again. “Sorry,” Rico tells the last climber, “this is what’s known as a ‘fuck you’ break. We gotta get that sunrise summit!”
I bet he agrees it’s worth it when we get there.
We take photos, eat cookies (I made a bunch on Thursday and carried them all the way to the summit; people better eat them so I don’t have to carry them down!), pass around exuberant congratulations and thank-yous. We summitted in six hours, which Rico keeps telling us is amazing for a 12-person team. We all feel fabulous and strong (or maybe I’m just speaking for myself). My sit pad flies away in the wind and then is somehow miraculously retrieved by another climber at the summit—I mean, it’s magical up here.
It’s also cold, and soon enough we’re all ready to start heading back down. First I put on sunscreen and dig out my sunglasses. (Lemme tell you about the lessons I learned on Mount Adams last spring.)
Milo, the assistant leader, sets up a rappel anchor at the top of the Pearly Gates with the pickets and rope we would otherwise have carried up to the summit just for kicks. Some folks choose to downclimb, but I for one will not pass up an opportunity to rappel. I’m the second down after Milo, but get caught behind some downclimbing team members at the narrowest part of the chute. That’s okay—I’m pretty comfy looking around and leaning back on the rope with my crampons dug into the snow. When the way is open, I zoom down and then head back down the Hogsback. Tons of climbers are heading up now, and we dodge and weave as we sidestep our way down. In the light of what’s quickly becoming day, we can see sulfuric steam venting from the fumarole—yes, this is a volcano!
Denara, first down, is waiting for us at the end of the Hogsback. We sit down and snack and relax as the sun slowly comes over Crater Rock towards us. When it gets close, I move my things to the other side—the now-sunny side—of the ridge and relish it. We watch climbers head towards the Pearly Gates and towards the Old Chute, our Plan B route if the Pearly Gates didn’t work out. My stomach feels a little upset, so a team member gives me a piece of candied ginger, which helps.
Eventually the rest of the team joins us in the sun, and eventually we continue down. My right knee is aching a bit, and I feel it as we step downwards.
We stop to de-layer and then stop a bit further on, where the snow is very soft, to take off our crampons. We plunge step down and down and down, and the Palmer lift and the lodge and parking lot beyond get slowly closer. The sun is hot now, but I don’t want to take off my fleece because I’d have to stop and I’d have to put on more sunscreen. I add more sunscreen to my face while I’m walking anyway. Every time I think of sunscreen, I add more. I will probably still be a little rosy-cheeked when we finally finish. My knee complains off and on—mostly on. I push on with vigor despite it. To be honest, I’m feeling way better than I expected to. I haven’t even yawned yet. I feel good and strong and damn was that summit amazing or what? Everything I ever dreamed of.
The first step off the snow onto the asphalt is jarring. We clomp individually to the bench by the climber’s registration and sit in a daze for a bit, then make plans to meet at the brewery in Government Camp. By the end of lunch, we’re all fading fast. Denara and I say our goodbyes and head over to the Reed College ski cabin, where we sauna, shower, and nap for an hour and a half or so. I manage to give away a few more remaining cookies, and then we head back to town.
Remember last spring when I took that awesome mountaineering course? This year I waited anxiously for an email from Jay, our team leader, asking for volunteer assistants for this year’s class, and when he finally sent it I was among the first to reply. I hope that BCEP is a highlight of my spring for years to come! I work evenings and wasn’t able to attend lectures and classroom breakout sessions, but I went on every weekend adventure I could. Here are approximately one bazillion photos I took of this year’s excellent team, the Kick-Axe Climbers, kicking ass on Dog Mountain, hiking the Elk-King’s Traverse, playing in the snow on Mount Hood, practicing on indoor rock at the Mazama Mountaineering Center, rappelling off of Cougar Rock, admiring the views from Coyote Wall, camping at Maryhill State Park, and of course getting their climb on at Horsethief Butte. I snuck in a couple photos of me taken by teammates as well.
All of us:
It’s February already! Belatedly, a happy change-of-the-calendar to you. In 2016, I feel saner than I have in a long time. Things are going well for me.
I found this list of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 new year’s resolutions —
I have some of the same ones. These things we have to tell ourselves over and over again, these things that are never done — they are the same for me in 2016 as they were for Woody Guthrie in 1942.
In 2015, I didn’t learn CSS or budget particularly well, and I still haven’t managed an unassisted pull-up, but I did get through the whole year without a major running injury, I climbed outside a few times, and I definitely went on a week-long backpacking trip, times five. I also summitted two snowy peaks (Mount Saint Helens and Mount Adams), learned to glissade, self-arrest, lead belay, and ascend a rope with prusik friction knots, quit my job, partied with lots of people I love at the wedding of one of my best friends, went back to school, started a new job, joined a church, navigated (with varying levels of intentionality and good communication) some changing relationships, and lived nowhere / too many places at once before finally settling in at my parents’ in-law unit.
This year, I want to get A’s in all my classes, get my credit card balance to zero and keep it there, remember to get outside and get exercise, and, most importantly, nurture my friendships, old and new.
At church the last few Sundays, during the season of Epiphany, we’ve been ending services by singing “This Little Light of Mine,” which was also sung at my wedding to A. in 2012, at the end of our ceremony, while we led our friends and family in a confused and beautiful spiral dance under a big white tent on my parents’ lawn while it rained and the sun shone. Here’s how it makes me feel, to sing it at church: that all my mistakes and victories and celebrations and epiphanies and despair and lessons learned and long walks and falls and collisions and hurt and coming together and repair and healing and more mistakes have added up to what I have and where I am.
And what I have is good to have, and where I am is good to be.
I know how to take care of myself. I know how to eat all right. I know the value of exercise and a deep breath of cool air in the northwest woods. I know that the best way to deal with my frustration with a terrible professor whose class I can’t drop is to sit patiently through it, stewing, and then go to the gym and spend the length of the class over again trying to get the final crazy bat-hang move of a bouldering problem, laughing and swearing every time my toes slip off the ledge above my head and I fall sideways onto the crash pad. I know how to be patient. I know when to wait and when to ask for what I want, and I know that I won’t always get it, and I know how to take care of myself when that happens. I know I have a lot more to learn. I know I know more than I give myself credit for, sometimes. I know I’m doing okay.