Let the Mountain Decide: A Trip Report from Mt. Ellinor

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I was hoping for good weather this weekend to get back into the high alpine of Olympic National Park.  Checking the mountain weather website frequently throughout the week (as is habit during the winter months in the PNW), it seemed like the initially advantageous forecast for Saturday was slowly deteriorating, while the outlook for Sunday seemed to be constantly improving.  Banking on these trends continuing, I planned on a Sunday ascent of my local mountain, Mt. Ellinor.  This would be my fifth time hiking Ellinor, and if successful, my fourth summit.

“But things didn’t unfold as planned.”

Firstly, Saturday ended up being a perfect bluebird day, while Sunday reverted to the original overcast and windy forecast.  Below is my trip report from Washington Trails Association (https://www.wta.org/):

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I attempted Mt. Ellinor via Big Creek, arriving at the trailhead around 4:50am for a 5am start.  Mountain weather predicted light snowfall starting mid to late morning, with increasingly windy and variable conditions as the day progressed, so I was trying to capitalize on the calmer overnight and early morning conditions.  Snow appeared just below the connector trail off the Big Creek loop, and was well compacted.  With the overnight freeze, footing was very slippery.  Similar conditions were prevalent all the way to the bottom of the gully, and I ended up switching to crampons somewhere between the upper and lower trailheads to make better progress.  I noticed a few paths starting up the gully when I arrived, but all were mostly obscured by a coating of fresh powder that I assume fell late on Saturday night.  Approaching the first narrow and steep area of the climb, all of these previous paths disappeared.  I began the “fun” process of breaking trail at this point.  In crampons, this meant wading through 3-4 inches of powdery snow on top with 2-3 feet of newer snow (from the past 2-3 weeks) below that, and then making solid contact with the consolidated snowpack from earlier in the season, which essentially felt like a sheet of ice at this point.  I was literally making only a few inches of progress per step.  Some of the steeper sections here felt extremely hazardous, as it doesn’t seem that the newer snow has adhered to the base snowpack below.  Although NWAC only called for moderate avalanche danger on Sunday, the more I traveled upwards, the less confident I felt.  What was the most concerning was having big (around 3 feet of surface area) chunks of newer snow become dislodged while stepping upwards, easily breaking away from the frozen layer below, and sliding downhill.  This only happened on the steepest aspects, but after getting past the first of these, I was a bit unnerved.  I continued upwards, approaching the second steep and narrow area, which looks like the turnaround point for the previous day’s expeditions.  I stopped for a while to consider pushing onwards or heading back down (it was still only around 8:45/9am at this point), and while resting, I noticed the wind picking up and dark gray clouds beginning to push over the top of the mountain.  If that wasn’t enough, it soon started snowing.  I took the deteriorating weather and the sketchy snow conditions as a cue to head back down.  Plunge stepping down through the deep snow was fun, though I would have preferred a glissade.  Below the gully and back on trail the compacted snow was icy and slippery after taking off my crampons, so definitely consider some sort of traction.  The few peek-a-boo views of the summit on the way down showed that clouds had obscured the top, and I’m assuming it continued to snow.  Lesson learned for the day is to let the mountain decide whether or not you summit!  Stay safe out there.

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Every experience on a mountain is a new lesson learned.  I’ve come a long way from being completely out of my comfort zone on Ellinor last winter, but I also now realize that I can only do so much to make it to the top.

“Ultimately, the mountain decides whether or not it wants you up there,”

and today it just said “nahhh.”  Luckily I still got some great pictures!

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Trail Running is Better than Actual Running: Trail Run Report from Capitol State Forest

Yeah that’s right, I call flat road (or track) running “actual running.”  By actual running, I mean the type of running that you’re simply either forced to do in order to stay in shape, or forced to do for a sport or as a means of punishment.  Or you’re slightly masochistic and get a strange pleasure from the misery of it.  So yeah, I’m a bit jaded when it comes to running.

But yet I run all the time.”

And people always ask me why I enjoy running as my main means of exercise.  I find a subtle enjoyment in the look of confusion and mild shock when I tell them that I don’t enjoy running at all.  Especially last spring when I trained for, and ran, a marathon.  I justify it as the easiest and most cost-effective way to stay in shape (and I guess it’s good for your mental discipline too).  But I’ve recently had a running epiphany!  The past few months I’ve started to experiment with trail running.  Luckily, living in a very rugged area of the country, there are countless amazing trails to run, and a lot of fellow runners to help you out through their experience and enthusiasm.  At the end of the day though, it is up to you to get out there on trail.

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I did my first (legitimate) longer distance trail run two weekends ago in Capitol State Forest near Olympia, WA.  And I enjoyed it!  I’m sure a lot of that had to do with the novelty of trying something new, as well as the adventurous aspects involved (we had gotten fresh snow overnight, so the trails were beautiful).  But I also had a few moments where I just couldn’t stop smiling, and at the end of the run I felt the good type of tired—

the type where you feel like you’ve accomplished something, and also enjoyed accomplishing it.”

Here are some of the reasons why I think I’m enjoying trail running so far, and why I’m optimistic about future enjoyment as well:

  • There’s more varied body movement (you’re not just pounding your feet against the pavement over and over).
  • The locations are usually more picturesque, and being on trails nets you a much more intimate experience with nature.
  • It’s more immersive and goal oriented—you’re more focused on avoiding little obstacles and constantly cresting hills/terrain instead of just trying to go faster.
  • You focus less on speed, and more on the mental challenge.  This is important because when you stop running competitively, you need to learn how to push yourself and fulfill your personal ambitions.
  • Most importantly—you get much more street cred as a trail runner, and you also have much cooler gear.  People assume that you’re constantly teetering along cliffs and fighting off wild animals.
  • There’s much more adventure involved!

So building on my last point, here’s a brief overview of my most recent trail run last weekend in Capitol State Forest.  I started around 9:15am from the trailhead at Margaret McKenny Campground.  The drive up was a bit interesting with the lowland snow we’ve gotten lately, and the “hope it melts” attitude towards snow removal and plowing in the PNW.  But I made it OK.  Surveying the conditions, I briefly considered running in low top boots as there was 2-3 inches of snow at the trailhead, and it would only be deeper with the elevation gain.  But I decided to rough it in my trail runners.  About a mile and 500 feet of gain into the run, I had the first of a few adventures.  I spotted a clearly panicked fellow trail runner sprinting back down the trail.  As we approached each other, I saw that, besides his rather uncomposed demeanor, he was also carrying a large stick with him.  “There’s a cougar up there!” he yelled.  Immediately panicking as well and assuming the cat must be chasing him, I asked how much distance we had (before we were mauled to death by the approaching beast).  “Oh no, there are just some fresh tracks on the trail up there.”

What a disappointment, I was so ready for a showdown with a cougar.”

So I pushed on up the trail, found the offending cougar tracks and the area where my brave compatriot’s tracks turned around, and decided to explore farther.  Jogging very slowly, I proceeded up the trail alongside the cougar track, keeping a keen eye out for any signs of movement (check out the Youtube video of a cougar in Capitol State Forest below).  About a half mile of this attentive trot, and the cougar tracks veered downhill and off the trail.

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So I picked up my pace and continued on.  I get asked a lot if I’m afraid of wild animal attacks, or if I think about them a lot when I’m out hiking.  Generally, my attitude is this:  I’m in their territory, and they’re in control.  If they want to attack me, I can do very little about that, so why worry about it?  Right?  Anyways, I continued on uphill, still a ways from the halfway point.  There’s a steep climb about three miles into the McKenny Trail, which is situated on a north facing slope in heavy tree cover.  Anyone with a bit of experience with snow and terrain will know that north facing slopes collect the most snow since they get less direct light from the sun (preventing melt off).  So I ended up doing the most strenuous climb of the run in 6-8 inches of snow.  But it was a beautiful morning, and the surroundings made up for the rough uphill slog.

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20180218_144225 4.jpgA word of advice to anyone who’s hiking or running in Capitol State Forest—bring a map with you when you head out on trail!  I generally have a good sense of direction and can remember trail connections and junctions in my head when out there, but Capitol State Forest is an exception.  There are many unofficial way trails that dead-end, and most of the official trails frequently cross forest service roads, sometimes picking up 50-100 feet down road.  My first time up there I took a couple of wrong turns, so just a heads up.  Last weekend I ended up looping from the McKenny Trail to the Lost Valley Trail and finally to the Mima Falls West trail, using the Mima Falls Cut to connect back to the McKenny trailhead.  It’s a counter-clockwise, nine(ish) mile loop.  By the time I arrived at Mima Falls (about seven miles in), which is the biggest attraction along this group of trails, I was getting to the “no longer caring about personal well-being” stage.  This is the stage where you are in the rhythm, and nothing bothers you.  Steep climbs, massive puddles, quicksand mud—they no longer matter.

The “no longer caring about personal well-being” stage is most easily explained as the point in your adventure when you are no longer worried about how wet your feet are getting, how the moisture penetrated your footwear, and how gross every step feels.”

At the beginning of hikes we often try to avoid puddles and carefully navigate creek crossings, only to stomp right through the same obstacles on the way down.  Besides high alpine scenery, these are my favorite moments of hikes—or as I’ve recently found out, trail runs.  I was well into this awesome phase of mental delirium when I passed some suburban hikers (the type that wear jeans and scarfs) just before they made it to the falls.  I enjoyed the poorly hidden looks of dread and disgust when they witnessed my muddy, wet, worn out, and “no longer caring about personal well-being” mode self.  After that touching encounter, the last mile or so of trail was uneventful.  I soon splashed out of the woods into the parking lot, where it took me three attempts to successfully navigate my car through the icy uphill exit.  I’m hoping that I continue to trail run, because in making running fun, it surely has to be something special!

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Don’t Know Until You Go Lifestyle

“I like to do things.  I don’t really like to talk about doing things.”

I prefer action over conversation.  It’s better to talk about things afterwards than try to predict what they will be like beforehand.

Surprisingly, my motto “Don’t Know Until You Go” doesn’t originate from actually going anywhere.  Previous to moving to the Pacific Northwest, I spent five years getting my degree in architecture, and the phrase is something I used to assess and question my design process.  The basis of the saying is that you don’t truly know how something will work out until you thoughtfully implement it.  In the design process, this means trying out different solutions, seeking unique input, and questioning and re-questioning the constructs of the original problem.  But I soon realized that this idea can (and should) carry over into the rest of life.  This attitude has pushed me to get outside my box and experience many things that I might never have tried.  Many times the most difficult part is just showing up!

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So what to expect from this space?  Who knows!  I’ve never been a very motivated writer, so this blog may just peter out.  But I would like to use it as a way to document my past and present adventures a little bit better, showcase some of my design work, as well as provide a place for me to explore some of my radical life theories and motivations.  But I feel like the bulk of the content will revolve around my weekend travels in the beautiful natural surroundings of the Pacific Northwest and the Olympic Peninsula.  Ultimately, I want a platform where I can share my experiences in a more comprehensive way, and with a larger group of people.

“A lot of the times when I’m out in nature I wonder if it’s selfish that I’m the only one able to experience the exact feelings coupled with that specific place and time.”

I think about all the people that will never get to see and do of the things that I have been able to so far.  One of the greatest joys I’ve found is to be able to share the places, things, and experiences that have had a transformative effect on me; passing that inspiration down the line.  So maybe that’s what this blog is about—bringing the “don’t know until you go” way of life to more people.

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