Above the tides and shores of Hood Canal, with Lake Cushman below, ensconced in the Olympic range, is a short jaunt worthy of consideration. This time of year, iceaxes or snowshoeing (adjustable) poles, gators, snowpants and climbing boots are desirable. A daypack with the relevant array of layered gear, anorak, bivouac, food and water, etc. is fine. I had planned this weekend to hit, and summit, two mountains: Ellinor and Washington. Easy. A late departure on Friday disallowed a late afternoon run up to the smooth dome of Ellinor, so… we first rendezvoused in Tacoma and departed at 1:30pm, Friday. We reached the ‘trailhead’ at 3:15pm (actually the road was closed 2 miles below the trailhead due to snow at 2500′). After doing some scouting, we realized doing a quick strike up Mt. Ellinor was out of the question (due to an extra mile of bushwhacking thru soft snow). Instead, we reconned the route for the next days’ climb up Mt. Washington.
The night was clear, cold and windy. A cool breeze blasted down the mountain, through a gash in the trees, across a waterfall, right into our roadside camp. We rigged a very effective windbreak using the rain fly and the Landcruiser (this really wasn’t car camping, but there was no place else to be with the steep and densely grown and snow covered hillside, and the low closure of the available, and known routes). We were awakened at 5am by some insomniac voyager in a 4×4, who drove to the road end and then departed. After breaking camp and eating breakfast, we packed up and hit the trail at 7am. The sky was cloudless.
We bushwhacked thru second growth timber and underbrush for 20 minutes (following a stream that originated on Mt. Washington), until we encountered an impressive avalanche gully in 1/4 mile. This was filled with debris from trees up to a foot in diameter! This chute betrayed an extraordinary force of nature. The slanted trees, blown back as if some malevolent force had dragged a massive thumb through the fall line, shoving mischievously, boulders and timber in a quick gesture of descent. Snow pack billowed up to form points of departure, bursting ancient stumps and stones towards the sky in an aerial ramp. A small river coursed beneath the chaotic landscape, thundering beneath the snow, revealing itself in ragged openings, a torrent below rifting through icy cave channels. (I have left a triangular chip of timber, exploded by a snowy tornado in the fifth floor kitchen from this encounter, plus bound booklets of the sojourn.) We followed this convenient highway another 1/4 mile until we reached the logging road where the snow was piled 20 feet deep (at 3000′). We backtracked down the logging road till we reached the actual trailhead in another 1/4 mile. By 8:00am, we were ready to start climbing!
Due to the heavy snowpack, we were able to bypass the usual trail through the woods and headed up another avalanche flume, which had conveniently spanned a cliff band above the logging road. Once we gained the upper basin, the trees disappeared and we could hike directly to the summit ridge. The usual route goes up a steep snowfield to the left of the summit ridge. We took the more direct approach and followed a steep snow gully, which traversed another cliff band to the right of the summit ridge (this route has never been possible on previous climbs). This snow route, while more efficient was steeply angled and alternatively icehard, to softening corn, and made for strenuous, yet cautious and patient toe scrolling work.
We reached the summit ridge at about 11:00am. By now the mountain fog, generated by the sun’s action on the snow, began to envelope us. We found ourselves perched on a 20-foot square patch of snow, overlooking a steep, awesome snowfield, with a 1000′ drop on the eastern flank of the summit. This was an error; we didn’t really want to be here. To reach the summit, we had to climb a short pitch (60′) of steep rock (class 4) followed by several easier (class 3) pitches. Sans helmets, the notion of calling “rock”, for falling stones, would have been largely useless…a headache, rather. We were all pretty tired and needing fuel, by the time we reached the summit at noon. By then the mountain below us was cloaked in diaphanous mist. We had fantastic views into the interior of the Olympics, with occasional drifting glimpses of Mt. Ellinor, the distant Rainier, and other views to the East. Mt. Washington is normally a heavily traveled and accessible route from the south sound area. With the snow, only prepared and intrepid expeditioners pursued this weekend option.
After an hour on top, we descended by the way we had planned to go up. We glissaded and plunge-stepped the 3500 vertical feet back to the logging road in about an hour, and made it back to the cruiser by 3pm. There were lots of tennis shoe-shod, short sleeved, bermuda shorted people milling around the road/parking lot, but nobody serious about climbing (we were the only ones to make it to the summit that day). A quarter mile up the bushwhack route, we encountered some Japanese tourists who already had gotten completely soaked in the deep snow (with their tennis shoes and shorts). With the trailhead miles away, and the snow at its deepest in years (the current level is more plausible in March or early April) a casual “hike” was out of the question. It was a challenging and rewarding experience. I think everyone had fun.
If you want more travel directions, let me know and I can point the way. Bring a map, if you have one of the Olympic/Tacoma area. An Olympic topo would also be helpful for reconnoitering the pathway.
Hope y’all had a good one.