It's been almost seven years since I last climbed McClellan Butte. Back then it was a major trip for me and the final scramble was something I was sure I'd never do again. The only time I'd been on the trail since then was about four years ago when Dan and I climbed Mt. Kent using the McClellan Butte trail to bypass much of the brush lower in the valley.
Nowadays, McClellan Butte isn't that big a challenge. It's just another stop on the TNAB tour of I-90 peaks, but one with an amazing view from the summit. We started at the cheater trailhead that cuts a bunch of distance and gain off the trail at the expense of driving on a Forest Service road. (The road wasn't a challenge. Heck, I made it in the Honda.) Scott and I carpooled to the trailhead since there were no dogs on this trip.
At 6pm we started up the trail. There were rumors of TNAB hikers scattered all over the mountains. Two were off bagging Mt. Kent before they'd join us on McClellan. Another had just returned from an aborted attempt on Kent. Several more were already well up the trail, but I wasn't so sure about catching up with them since one was reportedly wearing a kilt. (Please, oh, please don't be going all authentic!)
As usual, the pace was brutal. Every time I go out with TNAB I try to remind myself that I shouldn't try to keep with the leaders from the beginning. After a few miles and perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 feet of gain I wind up falling back in complete disrepair. It's terribly depressing. Very rarely do I succeed in this self-limiting approach. Most recently it was on the TNAB race up Mailbox just across the valley.
As we rounded the south shoulder of the mountain Rainier popped out from the trees. It's just like always, except now I can't help but see the "Wedge" on the north side. The tip of the wedge is Camp Schurman where Scott and I were last weekend. The 5,000 feet from the camp to the summit didn't look so daunting from there. Seen from afar, though, it's clear we were well away from the top.
There's been tons of work done on the McClellan trail in teh last seven years to make it easier and a little more consistent. Big blocky rocks prevent a ridge run to the summit so after swinging around the south end you traverse below the summit and actually lose a bit of elevation before a brief climb to the end of the trail.
However, the end of the trail doesn't mean you're at the top. A pile of trekking poles and a few hikers who were unwilling to scramble marked this as the end of hiking and the beginning of climbing. It's nothing you need ropes for, but it's still a spot for concentration. (This is specifically why neither Tokul nor the TLABs came with us.)
At the top the decent sized summit was crowded. A bottle of bubbly came out to celebrate Tisha's 30th birthday and everyone had snacks galore. The bugs, horrible just a few hundred feet below, must have had some form of vertigo because they weren't up with us. We were alone with each other (oxymoron, I know) and a sea of peaks stretching to the horizon.
It'd taken an hour and a half to get to the summit. I was still a bit bummed about my slower performance until I realized that TNAB goes fast and if I had thought I'd make the summit in under two hours just a few years ago I'd have laughed myself off the mountain. Head held high again I poked the camera lens over the cliffs for photos, had a glass of bubbly, and then started down a little ahead of the main group. (I'm a coward on a scramble like this and wanted plenty of time to myself.)
I had planned to hang out waiting for the others to come down, but the bugs were intent on making up for lost time so instead the few of us that were ready to go race away in hopes of leaving the bugs biting the air. (It sounded good in theory, but didn't hold up in practice.) The route down was the standard bone jarring descent on a well-packed trail dumping us at the cars at about 10pm.
Total distance was about seven miles and 3,300 feet of gain.