21 February 2016
Mailbox Peak – Old & New Trail, North Bend, Snoqualmie – Central Cascades, Department of Natural Resources
7.5 miles, 4000 ft. climb to 4822 ft. maximum elevation
I did it. I made it up to Mailbox Peak on my second attempt. I wasn’t planning on trying to conquer this beast again until late spring, when I would be assured victory by the weather gods rather than potentially face another white out defeat moments from reaching the iconic Mailbox. But, I was invited to hike with a group of incredible female mountaineers as they begin training to (re)summit the even more iconic PNW stratovolcanoes of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker.
Truth be told, I initially declined the invitation when the offer was first extended. The list of names included had me cowering with intimidation. These remarkable ladies are competitive athletes in various, if not multiple, disciplines and have expertly climbed to the top of some of the tallest peaks in the region. Little ol’ me, a relative newcomer to this ever-changing landscape of outdoor physicality, is nowhere near the caliber of these experienced women. There was no way was I going to embarrass myself. But, after some encouragement from the hike organizer (and ego-boosting on my end), I agreed to join the adventure. Oh boy…
I found myself attached to a group of four strangers early this Sunday morning. Yes, solitary me – the same person who can barely answer the phone to chat with her best friend from high school – willfully chose to hike with accomplished people I did not know. I had briefly met the organizer a few weeks ago atop Hex Mountain. I knew only that she was affiliated with The Mountaineers and had summited most all the stratovolcanoes in Washington within the past year. This was all the information I needed to realize I was quite possibly in over my head. Unfortunately for me, I discovered this truth while bringing up the rear on our way up to Mailbox Peak. It was too late for me to turn back now.
We went up the Old Trail, which hadn’t much changed from my only other try. The initial section was still dotted with fallen trunks as the trail loosely followed the creek, before steeply winding its way up the mountain. This masochistic boot path is a favorite training ground for every hiker intending to reach the highest peaks of the land, well, at least in the Pacific Northwest. I say masochistic because it holds no intrinsic value to those who climb its callous route aside from the blood, sweat and tears its unruly rocks, roots and branches prescribe as a rite of passage. It didn’t help to see graffitied on one of the diamond markers a foreboding warning of “F this never doing it again.” What the heck was I doing here? I have no plans to dip my nose into any craters!
Our group of five quickly split into two: a married couple, who include competitive cycling on their resume, and newbie me tagging alongside two ladies on a regimented process to conquer their chosen summits. While the hikers I accompanied had voluntarily added extra weight to their packs in the effort to simulate the conditions of future expeditions, I had whittled mine down to the bare necessities so I could keep up. I admire their fortitude and grit. Yes, the Old Trail to Mailbox Peak requires some determination just to climb as a regular day hike, but it takes an enormous amount of pluck to repeatedly train on this severe terrain under extreme circumstances. What I admire even more so about this duet is that they are both educators, a professor of geology and a grade school teacher, who have chosen this unearthly discipline as their passion. I can barely follow through on my passions with my junior hiking buddies as my full time profession!
While there was less snow this time than my first attempt last month, a light coating of powder began to appear along the trail at 2000 feet of elevation. The climb became much more palatable at this point as the white added much needed beauty to this otherwise mundane canvas of gnarled roots and broken trunks. Within minutes of first sighting a gentle dusting of white, we quickly became enveloped in layers of crusted snow and slick ice. Our crampons and spikes came out in a hurry since heavily weighted packs and steep slippery slopes don’t make for a very good combination. From there, we met up with the couple who had long since made it to the junction of Old and New Trails. They were kind enough to double back and wait for us. Since their speed was no match for us, they went ahead to deliver their mail on the peak. We eventually met again on their descent as they hurried back to their fur babies at home. As for our trio, we commenced the final leg of our journey to conquer this beast.
This intersection was where my last trip to Mailbox Peak ended in failure. My partner was ill-equipped to make the snowy traverse up the exposed crest, so I was only willing to make it past the first boulder field before returning to him under blizzard conditions. Today was another day. Today offered me milder winter conditions. Today promised me the summit with experienced hikers.
I had already toughed out the roughest part of the trail. I just needed to get up the snow-covered knoll, then another, and finally a third hill before reaching the magical Mailbox. I was tired, but who was I to whine? I carried a lighter load this trip than last, and certainly had far less weighing me down than the warriors beside me. I put my head down, so as not to cry in anguish at the distance still above me, and methodically took little steps up until I made it to the first promontory and then the next. I had to stop to catch my breath and take in the view before me. Stunning. Ethereal. Exquisite.
Today wasn’t a bluebird day. In fact, it was an overcast morning with ugly grey clouds to match the frightful Old Trail. The weather forecast called for 80% chance of heavy rain, yet not a drop of precipitation had forsaken the clouds this morning. What I saw instead was a panorama of dappled white peaks all around me, with the base of Mt. Rainier rising into the clouds. After this brief interlude, I pushed myself up the very last steps to the Mailbox, but not before I was overtaken by a young lady who had charged her way up the beast in record-setting time. My humble self was once again awed by such strength and determination. Then, I, too, made it up just after her. I conquered the beast!
When we three met up at the summit, tremendous relief and joy were expounded. I now knew I could do it; my new friend and mentor knew this was a great start to her climbing season; and my new acquaintance and soon-to-be friend now knew she could successfully train like the badass that she is. We reveled in our victory by enjoying treats from home and gifts from the Mailbox, as well as soaking in the unobstructed views all around. Mt. Si, Mt. Teneriffe, Rattlesnake Mountain, and Snoqualmie Valley fully unfolded before us to the west, with Seattle and the Olympics in the distance. The eastern Cascades were highlighted by the fast-moving clouds along the horizon, while Mt. Rainier took center stage to the south.
With ominous clouds quickly moving into the area, we knew it was time to make our descent. After a steep climb, we opted to take the longer and milder New Trail down. This trail was moderately level and nicely developed through 10,000 hours of dedicated volunteer and public service. The path took us on long zig-zags across the mountainside, through snowy fields and powdered slopes. Unfortunately, the severe winter had also left its mark on this trail, as countless felled trees forced us to crawl and climb over trunks that had slid down the mountain. But, we were also treated to several falls as we crisscrossed a ravine overflowing with water. This trail reminded me so much of Ranger Creek Trail in the Palisades, with its quiet beauty and seemingly never-ending path to the base. I didn’t quite mind the extended length of this route, especially knowing how excruciatingly steep the descent on the Old Trail was during my last visit. We three made it back to the lot happy and safe, and almost dry (completely missing the downpour that raged immediately after we drove off).
This was our day to conquer the Mailbox.
I learned three things today:
- Grit is the essence to success. I witnessed first-hand how mind over matter enabled my new friend to keep going.
- Thoughtfully shared knowledge empowers everyone. My new mentor taught me technique, process and mindfulness with enough patience to encourage my success.
- I am still capable of human interaction. Cheekiness aside, I can still find the much needed path back to myself even in the company of others. That is, as long as I’m in the woods.
I cannot wait to play outside with these incredible women again. We shared laughter, frustration, euphoria and relief. They have inspired me to be more confident in my abilities, for which I am forever grateful. Thank you E & C!