3 January 2016
Mailbox Peak – Old Trail, North Bend, Snoqualmie – Central Cascades
5 miles, 3500 ft. climb to 4300 ft. maximum elevation
(Full route: 5.2 miles, 4000 ft. climb to 4800 ft. maximum elevation)
My first hike of 2016! I invited my neighbor along today to tackle Mailbox Peak with me. After both our families spent last evening enjoying phở (from scratch just like the way my mom used to make), chocolate crème brûlée and a few drinks at our home, he was such a sport to agree to be my hiking partner this morning. I just couldn’t take “no” for an answer given his recent interest in exploring the outdoors, disciplined experience as a collegiate soccer player and, of course, awesome new Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX hiking boots.
We met at his car bright and early this morning. Even though the trailhead is a short drive from our neighborhood, my bleary-eyed self was truly appreciative not to have to navigate my way on the roads in the dawn light. There were already a handful of cars when we arrived at the lower lot at 7:30 am, complete with a group of hikers getting ready to head out alongside us. We all trekked up together past the main gate unto the forest road until we reached the New Trail. From there, we checked the signpost for the Old Trail route, which directed us further up the road to a more rugged entrance.
Within minutes from the trailhead, we were greeted with many fallen old- and second-growth trees blocking the narrow trail, requiring us to literally climb over several feet of trunks and limbs to proceed on our journey. It could have been taken as a sign that we should not have continued further because within a third-mile from our start, the trail immediately ascended up the mountainside, heading due east without a switchback in sight. I was so occupied by the adventure ahead that I barely remembered hiking past the stream marking the ceaseless ascent before us. Oops! The trail’s unrelenting climb quickly went from one encrusted with frozen dirt to a boot path barely laid down through loose powder of knee-deep snowbanks.
An avid troop of hikers, who regularly make this trek and therefore fully prepared for the conditions of the trail, quickly caught up to our group of friendly strangers. They then joined up and together disappeared ahead of us within minutes. Although my hiking partner came prepared with microspikes and a hiking staff, his equipment was not enough to give him the necessary traction. I was very thankful for my early September purchase of Hillsound Trail Crampons, as it kept me upright throughout most of our hike. The spikes under my feet easily made themselves at home with each step up through the loose drifts and back down the icy packed snow. With sheer determination and unending enthusiasm, he continued up the treacherous climbing trail through the forest of young trees, over too many hidden roots and finally through a talus slope buried under a thick white blanket. I admired his jocular grit as I huffed and puffed my way up behind him.
As the sun made its way over the mountains to the east, we were reminded of why we were on this journey. The soft pink glow warmed the blue sky above as the valley below slowly began to wake up, while brilliant moments of sunlight later on guided us through the snowy trail just when I questioned my decision to attempt this route. Looking up through the tall evergreens brought me a sense of calm, with the whispering branches above evoking an awareness of how small we all are in this grand world. It was a lovely reminder that 2016 is just another year and that we will continue to exist regardless of our goals.
While we took one of our many breaks, a determined woodpecker chipped away at a trunk in the near distance. Watching this bird, as he relentlessly continued pecking his hole while thoroughly unaware of our presence, jerked me out of my self-doubt and prompted me to keep up with my partner this morning. I’m glad I kept on because we were first granted our promised vista upon exiting the forest unto the open slope. The white-capped peaks were in clear view. We could plainly see the snowy patches along the individual crests of the Cascades to the south and revelled in the distinctive winter landscape of the majestic Olympic mountains to the distant west. It was a beautiful view of my backyard – the perfect hike to start 2016 and remind me of my blessings.
As we recommenced our climb up the unrelenting snow-covered trail, the wind picked up. We could see a storm making its way toward us, as it began to redust the peaks to the south with more winter white. I hoped it wouldn’t make its way to us before we would be able to summit, but my optimism was vanquished once we left the cover of the frost-tipped forest behind us. What I initially thought was the last push to the summit quickly turned into white out conditions over the frosty slope. At this point, my hiking partner made the honorable decision to stop. The summit would be still be there for him tomorrow. I already held him with great esteem as a friend, husband and father, but his knowledgeable sense of his limits gave me a profound respect for him as an individual.
He kindly allowed me to push up the rocky slope alone, while he retreated into calmer settings to await my return. The wind was relentless at this point, making my balaclava my most prized possession then. With each step up the almost-vertical incline, now covered in deep snow, I made my way forward through the boulder field until I reached the trees above. I was thrilled to have made it that far, thinking I had finally topped the summit of this ridiculously steep trail. I WAS SO WRONG. My heart sank when I rounded the corner and looked up to see another 500 ft. of a snowy butte ahead.
When I realized my phone had completely shut off due to the frigid temperatures, I turned around to descend without any hesitation. There was no way I was leaving my hiking partner behind to wait for much longer. I had to get back to make sure we could safely return together. The fastest way down the non-existent trail was via a sled. So, I did the next best thing. I sat on my bottom with my legs out, made a slight angle to my right so I wouldn’t head straight down, and slid all the way down the hillside back to where my hiking partner was patiently waiting. As I passed a few hikers on their ascent, I overheard some commenting they had also planned to head down the same way. I have to say it made me smile to hear the positive reaction.
We made our way back as quickly as we safely could. With more hikers having tromped through the snowy trail behind us, my partner’s traction was even less effective down the precipitous slope. After my sledding trip earlier, I suggested going down that way for as long as we could. There was no one on the trail down our line of sight, so I set my self up like a sleek toboggan and descended like a luger would through the curves along the ridge. My hiking partner enjoyed his ride down as well. At least, I think he did since he continued the same way for as long as feasible. We returned to our feet once we saw hikers making their way up below us. From there, we quickly returned to the dirt tundra of the bottom trail and headed out to the road. It was lightly snowing at this lower elevation, leaving a fresh coat of flakes throughout the area.
Let there be snow!
As we made our final trek back to the car, I unexpectedly slipped on a sheet of ice covered under the new snow. After the perilous trip throughout the morning, my only injury came from our last minutes on flat, unobstructed terrain. The irony was not lost on me or my hiking partner given my long history for accidents from benign activities. Even though we didn’t make it all the way to the mailbox itself, we both agreed we would be back. I’m so thrilled to have introduced someone to the wondrous allure of hiking, regardless of the challenges and setbacks. We both lived to hike another day. I can’t wait for that day!
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
― John Muir,