Friday, December 23, 2011

December 2011, Mt. Ellinor Report

3am came early. Much like all 3ams always have. I consider myself a night owl, so waking up early typically doesn’t come after an early bedtime. However, having received 5 hours of sleep, I rolled out of bed, got ready and jumped in my car, ready for the day’s journey. Typically my morning ritual is much more complex, but the night before, I was too excited and packed everything I needed early.

Putting my car into gear, I backed down the long driveway, driving mostly on grass until I hit the main road. The fog was thick, so driving by braille was my best bet this early. Hitting the road, I got out of reverse and I was officially off toward highway 101. From Olympia, the route to Mt. Ellinor is pretty easy. I take Interstate 5, exit 103 to get toward the right routes, and at 330, the road was as empty as my coffee cup, having downed it all in the last 5 minutes.

I exited I-5 and soon was heading toward my next exit, highway 101 toward Shelton, Washington. These roads are an easy drive all year, aside from the random speed trap. I maintained the suggested speed and soon I was passing through Shelton, only 15.7 miles from Hoodsport, Washington. This drive to Hoodsport is best done in the dark, as the road doesn’t give you much of a view and the towns are neither scenic, nor interesting. Again, when driving out here, don’t exceed the posted speed, as most small towns make a large percentage of their revenue on tourists getting popped for going 45 or 50 in a 35 mph zone.

(Editor’s note- Hoodsport is where you are supposed to purchase your Forest Service Pass. Please read this as “Do not stop!! Continue past the store/visitor’s center that is never open and enjoy your fee free day!”)

At Hoodsport, take the main left in the small fishing town and head toward Staircase, the main entrance to the Olympic National Park on the east side of the park. The road leads you up and into the foothills, lifting you out of the fog, giving glimpses, even in the dark, of the large mountains to the west. Rising in elevation, you soon weave around along the border of Lake Cushman, a popular summer hangout. Soon, the road comes to a stop sign, both leading to a dirt road. Take a right; you go to Staircase and the Olympic National Park. Take a left you get to forest service road number 24. After turning right, drive down this dirt road (watch for potholes!) for about a mile and a half. You will come to a small clearing and FSR 2419 will be on your left. To get to Mt Ellinor, you must take this exit. One day I wanted to see what was past this, so I meandered my way through forest service roads and came across more than a fair share of backwoods gun ranges, shot up cars, and even troll dolls in trees, watching my every move. Unless you are feeling adventurous in a whole different way, go up forest service road 2419!

Driving up FSR 2419, watch for potholes, downed trees, fallen rocks, bunnies, owls and hawks. I have been on this in all seasons and time of the day, and always see at least 2 of the things on the list. During the day, you can see a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains, but I would focus on the road, as it is narrow and windy, and in winter days, can get icy and snowy fast. The day I went up, the snow was prevalent about .5 miles from the lower trailhead, and by the time I got to the lower trailhead, 4wd was needed to proceed any further. Dejected, as the lower trailhead adds another 3 miles roundtrip, I got out of my car, grabbed my gear and headlamp and started the hike.

From the lower trailhead, the hike to the summit and back is 6.2 miles. However, unless you are used to working out on stairs, it feels a lot longer. The lower trail head is around a mile long and gains about 900ft. The Washington Trails Association says that this is a good warm up to get ready for the serious elevation gains that starts from the upper trail-head, but if you can, go to the upper trail-head and save your energy. The lower trail is not that scenic, despite being in the woods and walking along a ridge. If you are a big fan of gaining elevation with no view, do the lower trail-head all the time. Right now, the trail is decent, though a few downed trees make for interesting maneuvering if you have a heavy pack on, as I always do.

Once you make your way up the lower trail and converge on the upper trail, the snow is visible on the ground. The normal, steep switchbacks that allow for a quick climb are icy, so be very careful as a few members of my group (my father) fell numerous times on the ice. Trekking poles or an ice axe are needed, and no, a walking stick will not cut it. Soon (a steep mile hike), you meander out of the trees and have a choice to go to the summer route of climb the avalanche chute. Right now, this intersection has about 4 feet of snow, but the trail is pretty easy to see, thanks to Mt. Ellinor’s popularity.

Typically in the winter, you want to climb the avalanche chute for 2 main reasons. One, it is well travelled, and two, it is much easier to do in the winter than the summer route. This trip, being an unseasonably dry winter, I decided on the summer route. This is where I need to tell you that Mt. Ellinor is STEEP. In fact, climbing Mt. Ellinor is almost twice as steep (at 1100ft climb per mile) as Mt. Si, which is a 787.5ft climb per mile. Mt. Ellinor is also steeper than climbing up to Camp Muir which climbs at about 1000ft per mile. To think that this is an easy route is naïve, no matter what shape you are in. Climbing it this last time, I used crampons and an ice axe to get to the top. It is dangerous, but if you are with someone skilled and you have the right equipment, pushing yourself up to the top, getting a view into the belly of the Olympic Mountains is worth the sweat and sore legs.

At the top, take a break; eat some food and hydrate, because your fun is just beginning.

Remember that climb that took so much out of you? Well, not you get to experience it the other way, glissading down the mountain at speeds from 1-40 miles an hour, depending on your desire for thrills, and of course the snow condition. I opt for the faster route, jumping on my booty and sliding down, controlling speed with my ice axe. While this may sound dangerous, stupid and reckless (and any other word with that meaning), I can assure you that it is amazing fun and you will want to climb back to the top again, just to get the thrill of a Glissade under your belt.

Make sure you go with a skilled guide (me) to teach you the basics though, as with anything, you need to know the right way to do it.In reality, Mt. Ellinor is a struggle to get up, a great training climb, and a beautiful mountain, offering views of not only the interior Olympic Mountains, but Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helen's and even the city of Seattle on clear days. Right now the snow is piling up, making it the ideal winter wonderland. Despite the struggles of climbing it, everyone who accomplishes the feat of summiting asks the same question when we reach the trailhead. They ask, with a grin on their face “When can I come back?”

I recommend this to anyone and everyone. While steep, I trust you can climb this mountain, see amazing things and above all else, get back in touch with nature. Take some time, wake up early, drive to the trailhead and experience Mt. Ellinor for yourself, I promise you will not be disappointed! For More Pictures, look at our Facebook!

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