Way, way, way back in the before time Tokul and I climbed Mailbox Peak one day. It was the middle of the summer, hot and dry. I remember it being terribly steep and a lot more effort than the view was worth. That was six years ago.
This time was bound to be really different. To start it was still winter up on top. Most years it would be just about snow free, but in the Great Winter of 2007/2008 the snow was still deep. Last time I could set my own pace. Tokul strained at the leash, as always, but there was nobody to keep up with to push me. With TNAB, though, it was almost a race to the summit. I hoped to be able to compete, but had no chance of winning with this group.
After leaving the parking lot we swarmed up the road with dogs running back and forth. Tokul was on leash, but nobody was holding it. She decided to hike with the leaders rather than me so while I brought up the rear she was either leading or right behind the leader. Happily, Jeremy, my upstream neighbor, was sticking with me so I wasn't lonely.
We actually did pretty well sticking with the group as it followed the switchbacks that WTA had been building to take some of the steepness out of the route, but when their work ended (it has only just begun this year) the trail resumed its brutal almost 45 degree ascent. At this point the fastest hikers disappeared into the trees.
Jeremy and I passed a few hikers who had also made the mistake of trying to match the speedster's pace and had to catch their breath a bit and soon we set our own pace. Someone had used orange spray paint to mark the trail on the trees with little dots, but the ones we were following suddenly stopped in a big orange X.
The first thing I thought of was that last year on Mailbox TNAB had two guys who wound up descending off-trail to the Fire Training Academy several miles away from the trailhead. Everyone else returned to the cars at 10pm, but those two didn't emerge until about 2am.
So now that we were off-trail I was a little worried. However, we did a rising traverse back toward where the real trail must have been and quickly rejoined it. Phew. Disaster averted.
Just above where we rejoined the main trail we started seeing snow. It was only a few feet deep in the trees, but it was hard and icy. Thankfully, someone had kicked steps in while it was soft so it was similar to walking up the stairs.
As we emerged from the trees we were walking on several feet of snow. It was firm enough that we didn't regret not bringing snowshoes. Looking back to the west the sun was breaking through the clouds right above North Bend. Unfortunately, time was growing short and we needed to get moving if we were going to top out before the group started down. After last year's fiasco it was generally understood that if you were still on the way up when everyone else was on the way down you turned around to avoid getting into trouble.
The final couple of slopes were pretty open and we could see the other hikers on the summit. Some of us opted to climb up the talus while I chose to continue in the snow. With my thighs burning and breath being short I rejoined Tokul (little traitor) near the top. Somewhere, buried in the snow, was the mailbox that gives the peak its name, but it was impossible to say exactly where. (A week later it was just poking up from the snow.)
What few trees were up near the top were crusted in ice and haped by the wind. Clouds obscured most of the views, but we could see along the ridge to Dirtybox and across a couple of valleys to Russian Butte, which was a target of the past and the future.
We didn't spend much time on the summit because in spite of being early May it was getting cold. Especially since we were wet with sweat and tired from the short climb. (It was less than three miles, but about 4,000 feet of gain.)
On the way down I again stayed in the snow and when the slope wsa steep enough I'd glissade. There was one especially great trench that dropped me about 100 feet in just a few moments with no effort except holding my feet up.
Back on the trails it was more like a luge course. Some of the turns were tight and wound us up in tree wells instead of flying down the mountain. When we re-entered the woods we were on icy snow that was hard to walk on. To make it more fun it was getting dark so we were using headlamps to find our way. Tons of fun.
When the snow petered out it was just mud and slick mud at that. In the dark there were tons of crashes. Some were from foreheads into low trees (not me) and some were just loss of footing (yeah, me). When I crashed down I tweaked my shoulder (the one that didn't get injured back in 2004) and cried out. I knew it wasn't that bad because unlike with other shoulder I shed no tears and didn't feel like I was going to throw up.
Back at the trailhead we met up with the rest of the crew. Tokul was waiting for me with a great deal of patience. I was very worried about how she'd be after a trip as hard as this. After a few trips early in the season that left her out of breath and sore I thought her hiking days were over. Thankfully, though, she was feeling great and ready for more. (Yes, this lasted beyond the day-of and she was fine the next few days.)
I, on the other hand, felt tight through my legs and decided there's a really good reason I hadn't climbed Mailbox Peak in the last six years. It'll be at least another six years before I go up again.
Total distance was 4.5 miles and 4,265 feet of gain. Ouch.