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Sun Top Snow Camp
posted by John : January 20-21, 2008

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We're going where?

It's almost a week later and I can just now feel all my toes again. Nah... it wasn't quite that cold, but it kind of felt like it at the time.

Daryl and I got to the trailhead at about 3:30pm. Yes, I know it gets dark around 5pm, but one of the beauties of winter is you can hike in the snow without too much trouble because it reflects light so well. We'd actually left North Bend around 1:30pm, but the circuitous route I took us to the Sno Park near Crystal Mountain left much to be desired. We spent about half an hour gearing up in the brisk late afternoon.

This included loading the Incredible Pulk, talking to people about the Incredible Pulk, and playing with loaned and rented avalanche transceivers. It's been a really, really bad year for avalanches so after I was able to borrow a transceiver I made Daryl rent one. (A transceiver is a device that sends out a signal constantly. If you get buried your buddies switch their transceivers to "receive" and the the screen points to where you are so they can come dig you out or at least steal your stuff.)

Already I can hear some of you gasping and wondering just what would possess us to head into avalanche country, but let me assure you that these precautions were merely to allay certain wifely fears and be smart. The forecasted danger was "moderate," which sounds bad, but it's actually a "2" on a scale of one to five. (Don't believe me? Go check it out yourself.)

So by 4pm we were headed up the well packed road. The Incredible Pulk (yeah, I'll be calling it by its proper name for the whole story) made my job really easy. Whenever we stopped I wasn't holding any weight and since the snow was pretty firm it slid along really easily.

The trail description said we'd have great views that got better and better as we climbed. What we saw was more and more trees that had grown taller since the book was written. We did get to see some alpenglow at one switchback and a bit of the moon overhead, but in general I was disappointed by the lack of views. The book also promised clearcuts/meadows we could head across, but we saw only one such opening and it wasn't at all appealing. We just trudged along as the wind whipped clouds past the moon. The only consolation was that we were shielded from the wind by the trees.

At about a mile we heard what I think were elk just over the ridge making a huge racket. We never did see them, though later we'd see cougar tracks in the snow. Perhaps some big cat was harassing the elk or maybe someone took their overgrown house pet for a walk.

The road to the summit of Sun Top is five miles and gains about 3,000 feet in a steady climb. We made slow progress thanks to snowshoes, the wind, and the cold that was somehow penetrating all our gear. Daryl reverted to his Dora motivational chanting ("Stick, rock, tree!") while I couldn't get a new Backyardigans song out of my head. ("He's not an egg anymore...") Even Dutch children's music would have been better. Too bad we had left that in the car.

At about four and a half miles we finally got to the saddle below the summit. Following the road it'd be another half mile or so, but that crossed avalanche slopes and even in good conditions there's no reason to tempt fate. The only way to get to the top from the saddle for us was to break trail through the deep snow in the trees, but we were done.

We found a sheltered spot and dug our a space for the tent making a snow wall to deflect any wind that made it through the trees. I started boiling water for dinner, cocoa, and hot water bottles for our sleeping bags. It was clearly going to be a brutally cold night.

To make matters worse there was no view of Mt. Rainier. One of the reasons I had chosen this trip and dates so close to a full moon (and carried Michelle's fancy camera on the Incredible Pulk) was to try to take some moonlight pictures of the big mountain. A few roads left the saddle, but only the one heading to the summit had tracks. Looking at the map didn't indicate any would get where there'd be a view so after eating and getting at least a little warm water for our sleeping bags (can you believe the stove gave up on us?) we turned in. It was almost midnight by the time I fell asleep.

I don't usually sleep really well in the woods anyway, but normally I don't have to contend with such cold. My bag is rated to 20F and I had a second 20F bag as a blanket, but the tent was intended for just three seasons and none of those was actually winter. (It's the same tent I took snow camping last year, but that was in March and I'm not sure it dropped below freezing that night.) Even wearing nearly all my clothes (including my fleece jacket) I would still wake up shivering and have to curl up even tighter to ward off the chill.

When morning finally did come everything inside the tent was covered in frost. All the liquids were frozen solid except the bottles in our sleeping bags and the containers mixed with alcohol. (Mmm... vodka and orange mango concentrate!) The stove wasn't much better in the morning than the previous evening so we couldn't get water to boil. We had luke warm breakfasts, cocoa, and started what was bound to be a thirsty day.

I joked about not being able to feel my toes a week later, but as we strapped on snowshoes and put the essentials into my pack I really couldn't feel my toes. As the sun lit the tops of the trees, but not the tent, I stomped my feet to get the blood flowing. We had a short, 500 foot gain ahead of us and I figured that by breaking trail I'd finally get warm. Indeed, that did work. At least until we got out of the trees and onto the open slopes near the summit. That's when the wind reminded us that it was a great idea to camp in the sheltered saddle rather than up on the summit. (At Crystal Mountain just a few miles away winds were clocked at about 70 mph and they had to close some ski lifts.)

The clouds had all been blown far far away so all that was left were perfect blue skies contrasting with the brilliant white of the wind blasted snow. We encountered only one false summit where the wind blew fountains of snow over the ridge and right into our faces. We could watch as our tracks were erased from the slope, but it wasn't a spot to linger.

The final summit area was just up another 20 foot hill that we quickly climbed and then there was just a short distance to the lookout (closed). Along the way we walked a beside a sinuous cornice about five feet high. The snow was firm, but only because the loose snow had been blown off the mountain.

Speaking of mountains, we'd had glimpses of Mt. Rainier behind us as we climbed since leaving the trees. From the summit of Sun Top it was difficult to imagine a better view. We could see smooth snow slopes hiding crevasses and details normally hidden by distance. The wind, nasty as it was at 5,000 feet, looked positively deadly at 14,000 feet near the summit of Rainier.

We took pictures, played a bit of "name that peak," and then headed down the way we had come up. Although it took us 45 minutes to break trail while climbing to the summit it was a short 20 minutes of high stepping through powder to get back to the saddle where we started packing up.

A lone snowshoer arrived and we talked for a few minutes. He asked if we had gone to the viewpoint 400 yards from the saddle.

Umm... where?

Yeah. In another feat of glossing over the important bits I had missed one sentence in the guidebook that indicated there was a full mountain view about 400 yards down one of the other roads from the saddle. Although it probably saved some of my toes to have stayed at camp I wish I'd known so I could have at least decided not to go in search of midnight views.

On the way down we saw loads and loads of cougar tracks. They seemed to be following our trail up with the occasional diversion to pounce on some unseen prey buried in the snow. The cougar must still be hungry. We never saw any sign it was successful.

After descending about 1,000 feet the snow was firm enough and the slope steep enough that I took off my snowshoes and started riding the Incredible Pulk. At the worst it was about the same as walking, though with my arms as I used my poles to push me along. At the best I set some new land speed records.

The ride wasn't smooth, but it was fast. Unfortunately, Daryl was without means of locomotion other than his snowshoes so I'd slide for a stretch and then wait for him to catch up. He declined my offers to ride until we were less than a mile from the trailhead, but then he chose to go skeleton style (head first) with predictable results.

The first time he fell off after a few feet.

The second time he doubled his distance.

The third time (a charm, of course) he raced down to the bend in the trail and rolled off the top of the Incredible Pulk. As he lay there our chariot decided it wasn't quite done and took off without him. He jumped up and gave chase, but they quickly disappeared from view as I shouted out, "Dude! Where's my pulk?" (When I rounded the corner I saw the Incredible Pulk and Daryl each stretched out in the snow having a break.)

With the exception of an an unexpected jump on the way back to the car the rest of the trip was uneventful. We saw a truck that was stuck on the icy road leading to the Sno Park pulled out and discovered had we taken the more direct route from North Bend we could have shaved an hour off the travel time. (Incidentally, that makes the whole area eminently accessible from home.)

Total stats for the two days are about 10 miles and 3,000 feet of gain

I learned a few things as a result of the trip:

1) Pay for that fourth season if you're going winter camping. Brrr.

2) Butane/Propane isn't the best fuel for below-freezing cooking. White gas is better.

3) Gotta get me a real shovel. The snow claw I usually carry is neat, but we'd never have been able to dig the tent's foundation or get anyone out of an avalanche without Daryl's genuine snow shovel.

4) Avalanche transceivers probably are something I should invest in. If only they weren't quite so pricey.

5) Sun Top is a great day hike destination, but has none of the feel of a wilderness adventure and as great as Rainier is to look at the route is a one-trick pony. The other views aren't worth the effort so except to drive to the top during the summer I doubt I'll be back.

6) The north side of Rainier is way closer than I thought. I've driven longer to get up the North Fork or over Snoqualmie Pass.

7) Six things I learned aren't a "few."

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