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/):
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.
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!