Granite Mountain, Oh My

We have been hiking with a group of friends on Saturdays for the past two months or so. It’s been a lot of fun; we’ve been to a few new places and met a few new people, but for me mostly it’s just nice to get out and exercise and enjoy nature. The group was headed to Twin Falls in the North Bend this Saturday. Twin Falls is 3 miles long with 500 ft elevation gain — Kristen and I were hoping for something a little more challenging and rewarding. So we decided to try our hand at Granite Mountain. While it was sad that we would split up from the group this weekend, we knew it wasn’t our last hike with them, so we weren’t too bothered by it. Hopefully we’ll start doing some more challenging hikes with them as they get more comfortable hiking.

Ryan had originally planned on joining us but ended up not coming, so it was just Kristen and I. I hope he can come on a good hike with us soon, because it’s a lot of fun and I haven’t gone with him yet. (He needs a little more gear though yet!) We left Tacoma shortly after 8:00 AM and, after a stop in North Bend to get our NW Forest Pass, were at the trailhead by about 9:30. We started our hike at 9:43.

Ready for an adventure!

Little did we know that about three hours after this shot was taken we’d be fearing for our lives. I’ll get to that part a little later.

We lucked out for the most part; it was just a bit cloudy but there was a lot of sun breaking through to the forest floor. It wasn’t too warm, though, which is always perfect for a hike. Right off the bat the trail was pretty steep. We had signed up for a 4 mile hike up to the summit while gaining about 3,800 ft. But we were ready for the thighs to burn. After just over a half mile in to the hike we came out of the trees into an avalanche chute where an avalanche must have taken down a bunch of trees this winter. There were a few pink ribbons showing us where to go as we re-entered the woods for more switchbacks.

Usually don’t take too many shots of myself since I’m the one with the camera, but I got Kristen to take a few this hike.

Here’s a little panorama of the damage done by the avalanche:

It was pretty crazy, but really cool too. There was a waterfall up the chute that looked really sweet.

A tree knocked down right where we re-entered the woods.

It would be interesting to watch an avalanche happen, so much destruction. There was a tree a little ways in that must have gotten hit with a stray boulder or something, because there were a couple huge chunks taken out of it on the side facing up the mountain.

After another half mile or so we came to the fork in the trail, to the left was Pratt and Talapus Lake (we’ll have to check those out sometime too!), and to the right was our destination, Granite Mountain. Kristen found a banana slug on the way up that she thought might be tasty. I’m guessing it wasn’t.

Yum!

Sometimes it would get a bit foggy or cloudy in the trees, but it’s always cool when the sun shines through it.

We didn’t pass anyone on the way up until we came across two nice Forest Service rangers who looked to be taking some kind of sampling data from a small crick that the trail crossed over. I should have asked what they were doing, because we did stop and chat for a little bit. One of the rangers asked us if we had filled out a tag at the trail head. I had totally missed it! I was so excited to get out hiking that we must have blazed right by it, but I have filled those out before. It was cool though, because he told us why they do it and it’s mostly to get more funds for their budget. By proving they have X number of people hike the trails each year, they get a little bargaining chip when it comes to the trickledown of money they get. He was very nice about it, even though he told us we’d have bad dreams tonight if we didn’t fill one out when we got back to the car. We did, though, so that’s +2 to their numbers.

I asked him why some trails have the tags and some have the log books that you sign in to. He said any trail that has an Alpine Wilderness area will have the tags, whereas trails without (across I-90 in this area) generally have the log book. An interesting tidbit. There’s usually a sign like the one we crossed today:

Kristen enjoying the hike.

We saw a couple flowers on the way up, but I hear it gets pretty beautiful in the meadow a little later in the spring. And if you come at the right time there are huckleberries lining the trail. I wonder how long that will take.

I have no clue what kind of flower this is but it’s kind of pretty.

This one’s not quite as pretty but pretty unique still.

Some dew drops on a leaf. Sometimes my little point and shoot takes nice shots.

Moss, such a cool texture.

Don’t be fooled by the pretty things on the trail though, it was still brutal hiking, our legs weren’t happy with us. Kristen gave me a few looks whenever I’d glance back to see how she was doing!

Kristen poo pooing the difficulty of the hike.

OK, to be fair it was beating me up quite a bit too.

One of the other shots of me, standing next to a tree before we return to the avalanche chute area.

Looking down the avalanche chute at the fog and clouds below.

When Kristen enjoys herself though, she’s often seen in this pose:

I’m not sure what this pose represents actually.

Just another hiking shot, it was starting to get a little prettier up here as we were about to enter the meadow.

Kristen crosses a little waterfall, it was pretty neat I won’t lie.

And then we got to the meadow. These things are one of the more beautiful parts about hiking up high in the mountains. We were graced with some sun that let us see the mountains across the valley, so I took an opportunity to take a panorama of the area that you can see below here. It was really quite stunning.

A shot of the entrance to the meadow.

I spotted a pretty sweet mound of ants just off the trail, there were tons of them! I’m not sure what kinds of ants these were, but I wasn’t about to find out, so I made sure not to interrupt them.

A view across the valley.

Shortly after the meadow we started hitting some snow. It wasn’t too bad for the most part, but there were a few places where people post holed in with their legs. Kristen was boasting about how when she crosses snow she thinks like a squirrel: light footsteps to let you scurry across the snow. And then this happened:

Not so “light on the snow” now, huh? I’m glad she was leading at this point otherwise it likely would have been me. =)

The snow started out like this, not bad:

Some patches of snow in the meadow.

But it soon became all snow. Let me tell you something, it’s one thing to hike up steep elevation on ground, where you’re stepping up rocks or roots and your calves are burning. It’s a completely different thing to be hiking up snow. For some reason it just drains you so much more. You take a few steps, and then a few breaths, and then a few more steps; it’s exhausting. Kristen was doing good though, she was conquering it!

Kristen giving the snow all she’s got!

At this point you couldn’t really follow the trail because it was under snow, but there were pink ribbons tied to trees along that way that were pretty easy to follow. There was one point where we followed a ribbon and some foot prints along the snow and ended up at a point where the footprints seemed to end and we couldn’t see the next ribbon. We looked around a little, and started climbing up to see if we could find anything, but luckily a pair of hikers were coming down to point us in the right direction. We asked them about the route and they said it was pretty easy to follow footsteps from there up, but to be careful of the cornices of snow up on the ridge. After a little more hiking, we could finally see the ridge they were talking about:

Pink ribbon leading the way up to the ridge.

Kristen forgot her sunglasses (doh!) so I let her borrow mine to get some relief from the sun on the snow. Don’t want snow blindness after all! (I’m not sure how long it would take, honestly.)

Despite the fun pose, were were still going slowly up the ridge. It wasn’t fun. You can see from the next shot how steep it is. You’ll also see how quickly you can lose visibility.

One minute it looked like this — not too cloudy with some blue sky.

And the next minute we couldn’t see anything.

Clouds/fog and snow look the same, hah.

Luckily there were enough footprints that we could see in front of us that we could continue to follow them up the ridge. Plus, we would run into boulders on our left and the ridge cliff on our right, so we couldn’t get lost too badly up here at this point. When the clouds did lift, it was quite pretty up there. I guess the main trail goes off to the right of the ridge we were on, but it was a lot harder with the snow so most people took the ridge.

The clouds lifted for a nice view.

Again, climbing in snow is not the most exciting thing to do. Coming down however, is! (Most of the time.)

The clouds cleared for a nice view off to the right of us.

Finally we were able to see the lookout we were, well, looking out for. It was mostly covered in clouds when we first saw it, but it was there! It gave us a goal to set, even though there was still quite a bit of snow to hike up. It doesn’t look too close in this photo huh?

The Granite Mountain fire lookout in the distance, barely visible.

Yay! A reprieve from the snow. Maybe 300 ft only, but we were able to jump off the snow and take the trail for a little bit. Awesome.

We were excited that the snow walk took a break to let us hike on some solid ground for a while (not too long though unfortunately).

Here was our first good view of the lookout. Really neat huh?!

There were a few sketchy portions of the hike up the ridge, where we were hoping not to fall through the snow or fall off the ridge to our right, but we did pretty well. I probably should have brought my ice axe, but I didn’t want the extra weight.

Kristen navigating a narrow snowy section on the ridge.

Now that we were a little closer, we were having a little more fun!

Almost there!

We made it! 3 hours and 5 minutes after we left. About a mile and a third per hour for a pace. I guess it felt like we made better time than that, but we did take a few breaks and conversed a little with most of the parties we came across, though there weren’t too many. Regarding that, I read in one trip report that the hiker really liked how there weren’t too many people on this trail, and the fact that it was a harder one meant that the hikers that were there were a little more experienced and usually nicer and willing to help or talk to you for a bit. This was true from our experience too, it was nice to be away from the crowds in the North Bend area.

Just about three hours to the top.

Up until this point Kristen was the only girl we saw, so she was pretty stoked about that! I thought it was pretty cool. But it was also pretty cool to see a group of five ladies up at the lookout who had all hiked together. They looked like they were enjoying themselves, and they said their byes to us as they headed down. There were also two guys who we found out are from the Federal Way/Auburn area that were up there near us for a while eating their lunches too, but then they left as well. I overheard one of them talking to his wife saying they would meet up with them down in the woods or something.

Posing for a shot under the hut. Thanks to the Gorilla Pod.

Eating our candy bars as a reward for making it the whole way!

Kristen enjoying herself in the wind just after we started heading down.

This was the last photo I took before we got to the tree line. You’ve seen how many photos I’ve taken so far, why would I stop now? Well, this is where shit got real. You hear people say how fast weather can change up in the mountains. No joke. We were at the lookout enjoying our lunch and had just finished when it started to get a little chillier and Kristen had suggested we start heading down to get moving and warm up a little. Within a minute it felt like the temperature had dropped a good 10-15 degrees. Part of that was because of the wind that was coming in too. Cool, wind huh?

I’m not very good at estimates, but I’d say the wind started blowing up to 40-60 MPH. And we were coming down a ridge. If that was all, it wouldn’t be that bad, but it was hailing, too! Little pellets of ice were stinging us in the face as best they could while we were trying to keep our footing as we descended. Oh, and why don’t we toss in a huge thunder and lightning storm. Lightning would light up the sky and then we’d hear huge thunder all around us. We were praying that we wouldn’t get hit up here atop the mountain.

We were scared for our lives, rushing down the ridge. I let Kristen go in front of me because I didn’t want to race off ahead without her, which would have been easy to do if I were that kind of a person! Kristen was having a rough time coming down as she was slipping and getting blown over, not a good thing to do if you’ve got a steep ridge to your left and boulders to your right. I tried teaching her what was working for me, which was leading my steps with my heels, so they would dig into the snow first. We had MicroSpikes in my pack, but there was no time, we needed to book it to below the treeline which we hoped would provide some safety.

I had read on a post over at SectionHiker.com something about getting below treeline, so that’s what I was shooting for. Plus I knew if we stopped things could get worse, hypothermia could set in, or we could just lose our will to move. Who knows. The Section Hiker post was talking about the White Mountains in the Eastern US, but I figured the same thing applied.

Above treeline trails are also quite exposed to the elements. While these trails are magnificent to hike in fine weather, they can be quite dangerous if the wind or weather turns on you unexpectedly. In an emergency, particularly in winter, the best thing to do it to get below treeline: most people who get below treeline survive to hike another day. Remember, the summit is always optional.

Luckily I had put on my rain jacket and rain pants at the top, and Kristen had donned her rain jacket as well, but she was still in her hiking pants, with her rain pants stuck in her day pack. Again, it felt like there was no way we should stop to make any adjustments (though I did pause briefly to help her tighten up her hood as I saw her clutching it to keep the hail off her face). Maybe we should have? I’m not really experienced with what to do in this kind of a situation. We were getting down the ridge as fast as we could, hoping to see the little section of trees that we knew meant it leveled out a bit. We finally got there and were a bit relieved, but still in the brunt of the storm, hail, wind thunder and lightning fighting us the whole way. We were freezing and wet. Not a good combination, but at least we were moving.

I was holding Kristen’s hand the whole way. Although I made the mistake of telling her “I love you,” which sounded a little bit like the “I love you,” that you say to someone in case of an emergency where you might die. You’ve seen it in movies during airplane crashes, etc. She told me afterward that that scared her even more. She said she was crying the whole way, but was so scared that no tears were coming out. We got to the last section of major snow that we remembered, and at this point Kristen gave up on running/sliding down the snow on her feat and slid down on her but the rest of the way, in her hiking pants. She said she was already drenched so why not. I was still holding her hand and practically pulling her down as I was moving pretty quickly on my feet.

We made it to the meadow and the hail had started turning a little slushier. At this point we heard someone yell at us just up the hill, and we saw the two guys who had left the peak before us scrambling down. They must not have taken the main trail or the same trail that we did, and their route was likely shorter, but we made it there before them, that’s how fast we were moving! Either way it was a huge relief to see some other people, and they mentioned they were glad to see us too as they wondered if we had headed down soon after they had. Luckily we were the last party up there that we knew of, so hopefully everyone was alright. We hiked together until we got to the tree line, and then a little further before we offered to let them pass us because I knew that one of the guys was meeting his wife down the mountain some, and I’m sure they were wanting to see each other.

This isn’t the best photo to depict our fear, because when we hit the tree line and the hail turned to rain we were about 100% more comforted, but the whole ordeal was just nuts. I also recorded a little video about our experience. It’s not good quality or anything, but I just wanted to document it while it was fresh in our heads.

What did we think of the trip down from the peak?!

At this point we just booked it back to the car, making it in about 2 hours, slogging through rain and mud. Kristen’s boots were soaked through, but thankfully my feet were still dry, aside from some perspiration. Kristen and I couldn’t have been happier to see the driveway, as she gave her hiking salute when we got there:

Three hours up, two hours down. Quite the experience.

We got most of our wet clothes off, but hadn’t brought a change of clothes unfortunately. We jumped in the car, turned the heat on to dry out, and headed back to Tacoma where we took a nap after we showered to help recuperate. During the hike both before and after the peak I was telling Kristen how I like to learn something on every hike I go on, be it little tidbits or whatnot, and we came up with a few things from this trip to reflect on.

  1. Always be reminded about how conditions can change without a moment’s notice above the treeline. Perhaps be dressed in anticipation of it, because you might not have time to adjust on the way down.
  2. Bring proper gear, Kristen forgot her sunglasses, and we mostly forgot hats and gloves although I had a pair in my rain jacket.
  3. Check the weather beforehand. I actually saw some chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, but for whatever reason dismissed it. My bad.
  4. Probably a good idea to bring the ice axes and/or hiking poles, the poles would have helped us up and down the snow a little easier. It’s easy to get into the “as light as possible” mentality and leave behind gear that is actually useful.
  5. Bring a change of clothes for the car ride home; it’s always nice to be dry and comforted by fresh clothes.
  6. Rain gear isn’t going to completely keep you dry. You can get wet out and be soaked inside your rain gear. Phillip Werner at Section Hiker actually has a good post on this as well.
  7. It was totally worth it; despite the life-threatening situations at the top, the hike was awesome, and we’ll remember it for sure. It’s good to push your limits (in a safe way, as best you can), and it’s very rewarding.
  8. Kristen learned that her body could do more than she thought, possibly off adrenaline and her ultimate need to get safe. She was cramping up pretty badly since we were moving quickly after we had just eaten lunch. She was soaked and cold, and her knees (and mine) were bothering her on the way down since we were moving so fast.

Well, quite the trip. Thanks for reading.