When the invites for a trip after Christmas started arriving I hardly gave them a second look. After all, it was Christmas weekend. Family time and all that. Except then things changed and Amy was going to be gone all day Monday (when I'd already planned to take the day off to burn up my "Personal Holiday" -- the state is a weird employer) and she encouraged me to try to arrange something for Sunday. She says I get all twitchy if I don't have a couple of miles on the trail every now and again. (BTW: "Every now and again" turned out to be quite often this year thanks mostly to Amy, but you'll see more about that later.)
So I duly followed up and found a group (ok, two people) heading for Arrowhead Mountain near Steven's Pass. Yeah, can you believe it? There's a pass over the mountains that isn't Snoqualmie Pass! I didn't know it, either! (Yes, I knew it, but with the frequency I get to those peaks you'd think I was in the dark.) So I set my work alarm (4:40, ugh) and met Steve in North Bend at 5:30. We picked up Tisha in Issaquah (or was it Sammamish?) and headed north.
One of the reasons I don't do much outside the I-90 corridor is that it's just way too convenient to be at a trailhead in 30 minutes. Heck, if it's on the west side of the crest I can usually be there in 15 minutes. So you can imagine how long it felt like it was taking to get to Steven's Pass about 2.5 hours later. When we got out of the car it was about 15F, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was just touching the peaks around us.
We crossed Highway 2 (just two, undivided lanes where we parked) and climbed to a railroad grade. I was hoping to see a train and video it for the kids (they still love to play with the trains, especially Henry), but in the half mile or so before we started up the hill we didn't see any. The route wasn't a particularly well-traveled one. In fact, we wouldn't see any sign of people until almost at the summit and never saw or heard anyone until we were back a the car. The route description was something like this:
Go along the tracks until you want to go into the woods. Climb to the ridge. Make a right. When you get to the highest point stop.
That's why I love snowshoeing. You don't have to follow trails and someone else's idea of a sensible route. You can make your own. That works great, especially when you had planned for about a mile on the tracks and start up too early.
Steve led all the way up. We started in some decent terrain with a thin layer of crusty snow, crossed a creek/gully full of slide alder and Devil's club, then picked a rib and headed up. Except for side-stepping the occasional downed log we just climbed.
I know Steve and Tisha from TNAB. More accurately, I know their backsides because they usually lead the pack and I can just make them out at the top as I'm about to lose hope. Tokul has probably hiked actually with them more than I have. (Darn dog always did like to go fast.) This time, though, Tisha was not completely well and Steve took mercy on us and set a mellow pace that I was glad for.
At about 4,700 feet we tired of post-holing and switched to snowshoes. The grade remained the same, that is to say it was brutally steep. When we finally made the ridge I was a bit disappointed to see it was a treed ridge rather than the open ridge I had somehow thought we'd be on. Still, the trees were thin enough to see amazing views in a couple of directions and whet the appetite for the summit itself.
Now that we were on the ridge we were blasted from time to time by the wind that had no trouble piercing my clothing. Although the new snow was sparse we'd occasionally find a little hollow full of wind-blown snow that was like powdered sugar. Avalanche danger was minimal, but caution is always good and Steve routed us through a couple of trees to stay off the wind-loaded side of the ridge a couple of times. When we could only see blue above us we knew we were there.
Totally exposed to the wind we quickly hunkered down below a couple of battered trees. The wind chill dropped it down close to 0F. Cold enough that piping hot chocolate that dripped down the side of the thermos was frozen before it hit the snow. Not being one to give in, though, I warmed it up with some home-made kahlua from a coworker.
We didn't stay long, but every moment was great. Since I'm never in this part of the Cascades I had lots to look at and drool over (even if the drool kept freezing). Tisha and Steve were patient and named whatever I pointed at. They are two thirds of a group that does the epic trips the rest of us dream of. (On one TNAB we actually met some of their fans. It was freaky.)
On the way down I led because (a) it would be difficult to get lost since we were following our tracks and (b) my big snowshoes were gonna be a liability on the steep slopes and I got the feeling nobody wanted to be below me when I finally lost it. (There was only one face-plant, actually, and I sprung up before any pictures could be taken. (I hope.)) We used snowshoes further down than where we had put them on, but switched to just booting it just at the steepest part.
Thanks to our shortcut (it wasn't a route-finding mistake, it was an optimization!) we only racked up about five miles, but just over 3,600 feet of gain. Since the gain was almost all on the way up you can figure it was about 1,400 feet per mile. Except the track-walk was about half a mile so knock that off and it was closer to 1,800 feet per mile. That's approaching stupid-steep. Especially in the snow. (To put it in perspective, my average foot per mile rate over the course of the year is closer to 350.)
Although I'd originally though this would be my 100th day on trail for 2009, a review of my records revealed I was only at 99! As you can imagine, there was an immediate need to remedy that...