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Mission Peak snow camp
posted by John : March 14-15, 2009

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Ready to rumble

The plan was a good one, I thought. Four of us would tackle Mt. St. Helens in March. Late enough we probably wouldn't freeze to death, but early enough we'd still have the winter camping experience. Then Jeremy bowed out with one of those classically good reasons that you just can't argue with. (Spending time with his wife.) No problem, we still had four.

The weather was looking good until Rich jinxed it with a "looks like you'll have good weather" comment. No problem, we could always find somewhere to go even if Mt. St. Helens would be an exercise is death defiance. East. We'll go east. However, east wasn't a worthy enough destination for Scott to ditch his wife who was due to have surgery on Monday. (You remember Jo, right? She's the one who was broken on the descent from Olallie Meadows.)

Dang. Why do my hiking buddies have to be such good guys?

Well, never fear. There are enough of us insensitive pigs to still go for a snow camp so Dan, Scott (a different Scott), and I left North Bend about 8:30 Saturday morning. It was actually about half an hour after Amy, Tokul, and the kids left for Chelan so it was eerily quiet in the house while I waited for my ride.

It turns out it takes about half an hour less to get to Mission Ridge just outside of Wenatchee than it does to get to Chelan. And that was with a stop for gas and coffee in Cle Elum. (Recommendation: The Pioneer Coffee Company in downtown Cle Elum.)

We got rock star parking right across from the trailhead when we told the parking guide that we needed an overnight spot. He regaled us with stories about big fish in Clara and Marion Lakes, though we figured the fishing there wouldn't be so good now with feet of snow and ice entombing the waters. (Hey, wait. Clara and Marion Lakes... why does that sound familiar? Oh, yeah. That's why.)

As I was getting ready to assemble the Incredible Pulk I realized there was a small piece missing: The poles. A few blue minutes later I stowed the sled back in the car and strapped the tent to my backpack and shouldered the extra heavy load. (Luckily, my philosophy is that the pulk is a convenience and I should be able to carry everything. Not that I want to, but...)

The Squilchuck trail starts at the Mission Ridge parking lot and climbs to Clara Lake. We had followed the same trail, but from the other end when we took the kids to Clara Lake in October. Without snow it's a well maintained trail and it felt just as nice with snow. It's obviously a very popular route (and pretty short at just over a mile) so it was well packed. We took our time climbing to Clara Lake and stopped to shed the layers the cold wind had forced on us down in the parking lot.

At Clara Lake we momentarily contemplated setting up camp, but decided we were too close to the car so we pushed on. At Marion Lake we made the same decision and set our sights on a copse of burned out trees a few hundred feet above Marion Lake.

Along the way we met some of our newest friends on their lovely snowmobiles. They took turns zooming around while the others enjoyed the wilderness experienced perched on the back of a marvel of mans' ingenuity. They clearly respected us for our decision to proceed on foot and gave us plenty of room to do our thing even if it wasn't for them.

Oh, wait. That's bizzaro world. In the real world it was all the other way around. Happily, they got bored harassing us and left to go club seals or maybe drown some kittens in turpentine.

When we reached the trees we saw another party of snowshoers higher on the slope, but turned off their tracks to find a spot to set up the tents. The first order of business was to dig out a space big enough for both tents and for us to cook and eat in. The snow flew as we cleared the area. When it seemed well enough packed Scott and I took off our snowshoes and immediately began postholing. Dan was smart and kept his snowshoes on so he didn't find himself waist deep in a tree well on the edge of the tent area. Show off.

This was the inaugural trip for the new four-season tent (technically a five-season tent, but I don't know what that fifth season is, yet) and although I'd done a dry run setting it up in the house it was a bit of an adventure getting it set up in the snow. Dan helped me and Scott took care of getting the other Scott's tent set up. When we were shelter-complete we emptied our packs of all but the essentials (stove, bars, emergency shelter, etc) and went back to the trail.

The other snowshoers we'd seen were gone, but they left a nice trench that went generally where we wanted to go so we followed gladly. At the end of a meadow they started up into the trees. It wasn't exactly what we were thinking of, but they seemed to know where they were going and it was easier to follow than break our own trail. Soon it was clear they didn't know where they were going. Luckily, they had figured this out, too, and were on their way back down. They said they found a nice viewpoint, but Mission Peak was a mile off and involved dropping into a basin and they weren't up for that. (It was their first year of snowshoeing and third attempt on Mission Peak this season. Hurray for tenacity!)

We looked at our maps and GPS and struck off on more of a traverse to go around the high point they had conquered. No sense in gaining elevation just to lose it later. When we emerged from the trees we could finally see Mission Peak. It looked a ways off, with a basin between us and it, but it didn't look that far.

We dropped down, met some more friendly snowmobilers, and then started climbing toward the peak. The snow here was wind scoured down to the crust. Where it was sheltered from the wind the powder was deep, but still not unstable. We wound through the exposed rocks favoring safer slopes out of an abundance of caution. Standing below the summit we had one steep slope ahead of us. Scott went first and I tried to traverse to the left, but found myself on an even less agreeable incline so I angled back. Dan followed Scott directly and both beat me to the summit ridge where they were blasted by the wind howling in from the west.

We weren't actually on the summit itself and although it looked a little hairy I poked my head around some rocks and saw the ridge did in fact go right to the very top with almost no exposure except one little cornice. In a moment of vanity I gave my camera to Scott and tagged the summit, posing for a picture as I was being buffeted by the increasingly strong wind. Scott and Dan decided that it was worth the extra effort and wandered over as well.

To get down we had three choices. (1) Carefully retrace our steps down the steep slopes, walking backward at times. (2) Take off our snowshoes and glissade to the bottom of the slopes, posthole, and then put the snowshoes back on. (3) Damn the torpedos and glissade with snowshoes on. Choice #3 is obviously what we did in spite of recent lessons about the fragility of ankles when twisted by snowshoes (ie: Jo) and similar, if older lessons that were a little closer to home. (ie: me) Luckily, the snow never grabbed our snowshoes and we were able to drop elevation quickly and escape the cutting wind.

By now the storm that prompted the National Weather Service to declare a Winter Storm Warning over the Cascades was bearing down on us so we made haste under gray skies back to the tents. Along the way we stayed lower on the slopes and avoided the extra elevation we had gained on the way up.

It was starting to snow more heavily when we got back to the tents, but the wind was almost completely blocked by the trees. Hurray for wise tent placement! After a bit of a panic when we couldn't find the fuel bottle that had been entrusted to Dan who had inexplicably buried it in front of the tent we got snow melted and enjoyed high-sodium, high-calorie dinners while the light faded completely. (Yes, we had my stove, too. But mine is a "personal cooking system," not the fancy "group cooking system" that's on my wishlist now.) It wasn't all that late, but we decided to call it a night anyway and retreated to the tents. From time to time we could hear the snow slough off, but even that wasn't enough to keep us awake.

In the morning it looked like we were in for a treat. The inside of the tent was lit up like only the sun could do. But when I peeked out the window there was nothing but gray. I think the answer to all of life's problems could be solved with a few minutes inside a bright orange tent. It was quite a mood booster until we realized it was all a farce.

About four inches of snow had fallen overnight, but both tents held up well. Scott said he had to bounce his tent from time to time, but Julius (as the tent shall henceforth be known) needed no care. It seemed to be in its element in lousy conditions even if there weren't any oxygen canisters hanging around.

The sun managed to make a brief appearance through the heavy clouds as it rose above the horizon, but it was indeed brief and soon lost to us. After breakfast we packed up as the snow continued to fall. I was warmed by the best camp mocha I've had in ages. It was better than some mochas I've purchased from live baristas and definitely better than anything I've gotten from a vending machine. (Technically, it wasn't a mocha because there was no espresso, but eight ounces of water, a packet of Swiss Miss, and a pack of Starbuck's Via Italian Roast instant coffee was still tasty.)

Our tracks from the previous day were all but erased so we broke new trail down to Marion Lake and then back to Clara Lake. We had no problems following the Squilchuck trail down to the car. We met two skiers heading up toward Mission Peak with only minimal gear. They were only the eighth and ninth other self-powered folks we met over the two days. (The ones who weren't self-powered don't count.)

At the car we changed into warm clothes for the long drive home. We realized that although this had been planned to be an epic ascent of Mt. St. Helens spanning three days we had spent less than 24 hours away from the car and managed only seven miles and 2,400 feet of gain.

In spite of the short trip it still felt like an true escape from the pressures of everyday life. No thoughts of the office or the economy or anything else were in my mind while we were out. Even the traffic delays on I-90 courtesy of chain enforcement and avalanche control were blunted by the sense of well-being that lasted well into the next week.

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