Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not Every Outdoor Experience Goes Well

Sometimes you are just better off staying home. OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it took me a while to digest the disappointment. Almost nothing, not even the weather cooperated with my attempt to get to the top of Mt. Ellinor.

Yes, that is the mountain that has received a lot of bad press over the last month. A group of three were injured in late May during a glissade (sliding down a mountain on your butt). A week later, a 33 year old woman from Centralia slipped, fell and began an uncontrolled slide down the “chute”.

With all the attention the mountain had been receiving lately, it was still hard to tell if one could hike to the top and back without an ice ax. Many hikers climb Mount St. Helens just for the fun of glissading down the shoot adjacent to Monitor Ridge. That didn’t mean you had to donate your butt to the mountain, you also have a choice to ease your way down the andisite boulders.

The question I couldn’t answer about Mt. Ellinor was if there an option to come back down the mountain without an ice ax and the ability to self arrest (stop)? There was almost no information available on the internet. It was clearly one of those times I would have to learn in person. So with a forecast of breaking clouds in the afternoon, I headed for the mountain in the southeast Olympic Range with the expectation of have a rough, physical day. I went without family members expecting to join others along the way.

The lower trail is very handsome and snow free.

To get there, drive to Hoodsport and take SR119 8 miles passed Lake Cushman to Forest Road 24 and turn right. The way to Mt. Ellinor is well marked. Take a left on FS 2419 and drive as far as you dare. I would suggest going only as far as the lower trailhead. The road deteriorates to the point where only those with ice in the veins want to continue. As it was, I drove as far as I could, turned my car to face down hill and hiked to the upper trailhead when a large part of the road separated into a canyon below. In hindsight, it was the one good choice I made this day.

A well used path was blazed in the snow until I got to the base of the "chute".

All was going well until I reached about 5,000 feet. The snow became very deep and while going uphill was fairly easy, the downhill trip among the trees was going to be a challenge. And the forecast? Those clearing skies that were going to give me an amazing early evening view sitting along side mountain goats never came. At 5,100 feet, I scoped the landscape with my 30 meter visibility looking for a route that wouldn’t require the use of an ice ax.

The view up Mt. Ellinor at the base of the "chute".

It wasn’t worth it. I turned around and completed the one good choice of the day. Since I hiked to the upper trailhead, I was going to be able to complete a loop of about six miles down to the lower trailhead and then back up the road to my car. The last part of the loop went through some wonderful old growth timber, but most of the setting featured clear cuts and fire scars with a mostly cloudy, shrouded view of the Hood Inlet and the eastern slopes of the Olympics.

So here is the information that I really needed. There is a summit trail around the south side of the mountain that was still buried under snow. It is for experienced hikers (read, fearless of heights) even during the best of weather conditions. During the winter, climbers head straight up the chute, an avalanche path on the east face of the peak. It is a route reserved for those with basic winter mountaineering skills and the aforementioned ice ax and the ability to self arrest.

For me, Mt. Ellinor will wait for another day either later in the summer or with an ice ax at my side.


mossymom said...

I won't do Ellinor in the snow after my scary experience there one June. I wish I had turned around but instead I summited and then had to self arrest several times on the way down alone and in the fog. At one point I started to tumble but was able to self arrest with just one hand on my ice axe, I was ver lucky. I don't mind the drive up when the road is snow free.

A great winter time hike is from Big Creek Campground to the view point near the lower trailhead.

Gregg P said...

Yes...I read about your experience. I am so glad that you are coming by to vist! Thanks!

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