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I spotted the Golden Gate Bridge beneath my plane’s window, as we approached San Francisco for a landing.

In early February I took a trip to Nevada to visit my cousin Debbie. She is one of my favourite people in the whole world and we had not seen each other for years. Several snowstorms were rolling through the region during that time and I became afraid that if I made the two-day journey by car, I would get trapped in one of those storms. Instead I made the one-day journey by plane for less than the cost of gas!

I arrived just before a storm hit. On our way home from the airport it started to get bad and we even had to re-route due to an accident on the highway. By the next morning, their neighborhood was a winter wonderland.

These hills are right outside my cousin’s neighborhood and I decided to hike up to them.

I had brought winter gear with me, so I bundled up and walked out the front door with my camera. We had not yet had any snow at home in Rainier, so this snow was the first snow of the winter for me!

I walked through the sagebrush and juniper and spotted a dozen rabbits bouncing through the fresh snow, leaving their tracks everywhere. I wanted so badly to capture them in photo, but as I tried in vain, I remembered the expression quick like a bunny.

My views of snow, sagebrush, rabbit tracks, and mountains as I plowed through the snow up the gradual slope.

Here I found a rabbit highway.

Sagebrush has a beautiful smell that rose up around me as I tromped through. I picked a few branches to take home with me.

I don’t know what this bush is, but it is also pretty.

Every now and then the sun would break through and light up the landscape.

We had been checking the road conditions online all morning, waiting to see if a particular pass would open up so we could head up to stay the night in a cabin we had reserved in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The overnight snowstorm had closed highways all over the place. Lines of trucks showed up on the traffic cameras, one line waiting to go East, and the other waiting to go West. Everything stopped in the middle due to 4-8 feet of freshly fallen snow.

We had decided earlier that if the roads weren’t open by 2pm, we would have to give up on the trip because we would need a couple hours of daylight to safely drive up as far as we could go, then snowshoe into the cabin, hauling our gear for the night, and dig the cabin door out of the snow so we could get in. It would not be a good idea to take any chances in this kind of adventure when temperatures drop quickly after dark and we would be in snow depths over our heads. I checked the time and saw that it was time to head back to make sure I was there by 2pm.

When I turned around, I saw the neighborhood at the bottom of the hill.

Snow can make even a mud puddle look pretty.

Highway 88 remained closed all day. The next morning Debbie and I were getting restless. We packed up for a road trip up there anyway, just to see all the snow. We brought our cameras, but it was hard to get many good photos. It was still snowing in the mountains, even though there was blue sky and sunshine in the valleys. We quickly crossed the Nevada/California border and spent most of the trip in the California Sierra. Roads were open as far as Kirkwood Mountain Resort, but just after the entrance into the parking lot, we could see the gate across Highway 88, where no traffic was allowed because the plows had not yet been able to clear the roads sufficiently.

At Kirkwood Mountain Ski Resort, the snow was absolutely appropriate.

Parking lots were packed with people excited to get onto the slopes buried in several feet of new snow.

This car had obviously been parked here yesterday, before the storm began. I had to chuckle that the owner was thoughtful enough to raise the wipers, but apparently had not planned on 4 feet of snow!!

Looking across the creek that runs through the center of the Kirkwood resort. You can see the ski slopes behind the buildings.

When we were done looking around at the ski resort, we then looked for places to take photos. That was a challenge because plows had only time to clear a path for cars, but not enough time for luxuries like clearing extra space on the side of the road to pull over, out of traffic. Deb and I could not find many safe places to stop.

Here is the wall of snow at one of the plowed pull-outs that we found.

A ray of light burst through snow showers.

In this one I was trying to highlight the icicle in the branches.

And then the sun blinked out and it was back to snow.

Down in the valley again, there was less snow but more sun.

My cousin Debbie is an accomplished photographer.

The road trip into the snow kept us from feeling the disappointment of not being able to stay in the cabin overnight. The next morning we all woke up early and Debbie took me back to the airport in Reno. My flight left on time, just ahead of another snow storm.

Mt. Hood above Timberline Lodge

After our long trip to the Fossil Beds, Vlad and I decided a short trip to Mt. Hood was a good choice for our next mini road trip.

I spent time reminiscing. Tara and I used to live in Portland, on the east side of the river. That meant access to this particular recreation area was quicker and easier than others. Heading for the Mt. Hood area was our go-to. Also, my Grandma Trulove used to live near Mt. Hood, and I visited when I could, and took her to optometrist appointments. All my memories from those days came flooding back. I pointed out the road to Grandma’s retirement home, the road to our favourite camp site, our favourite breakfast place, our traditional stop-for-sweets place.

It had been raining all day, so we had no views of the mountain. I was disappointed because in my opinion, the magnificent view of Mt. Hood up close should not be missed. But…I have not yet found a way to control the weather. As we got to the lowest slopes, however, we broke into sunshine and blue skies.

A surprising crowd of snowboarders was making the most of the snow that hasn’t yet melted. The snow field makes it all the way to the parking lot.

I was surprised at how busy the mountain is…but then I realized that June is early in the summer. That means, all the snow has not yet melted. Most schools are out and the kids are getting in a last few snowboarding runs before it’s too late. The chair lifts weren’t running, so skiers hauled all their gear up the mountain on foot!

We walked from the parking lot up to the lodge and I remembered how much my mother loved this lodge. She had a particular fondness for old Park Service lodges, and I remember her delight here. I remember some of the things she especially liked, such as the mail slot in a log, and the carved stairwell posts. I recalled when we snuck through the guest doors and ran through the hallways exploring anything we could get into, just because she loved it so much. Oh man, I miss my mom.

Entrance to Timberline Lodge

Huge fireplace is the centerpiece of this beautiful lodge.

The chimney disappears into massive timbers.

The lowest level

Generous use of wood and iron is found throughout.

Timberline Lodge sits at 6000 feet elevation. The average snow depth in season is 21 feet. If you decided to hike from the lodge to the summit, it is 3.6 miles away with an elevation gain of 5000 feet. The Lodge was built in 1937. There are guest rooms and two restaurants, and four levels. The lower level contains several small museum-type displays of bits about the history of Timberline Lodge, with original cast-iron hardware, a replica of the bedroom where President Roosevelt stayed, a replica of what an old rescue center looked like, dedications to the U.S. Forest Service and the Camp Fire Girls (A group similar to Girl Scouts. My mom was in Camp Fire Girls for many years because my Grandmother was the troop leader.) Care has been taken with the choice and display of artwork inside. There is a three-story fireplace. How do they do that?!? In full view everywhere are massive, massive timbers holding the place together.

Happy Birthday Elisia!

We ate lunch at the Rams Head bar and toasted to my friend’s birthday. Then we headed out for some exploration. We followed the main trail that all the snowboarders were taking, to walk to the top of the snow field in order to ski to the bottom. And then do it again. The trail is steep and I was gasping for breath. Luckily there were amazing views so I kept explaining that I needed to stop and take photos for my blog. Wink wink nudge nudge.

Behind the Lodge are many trails that criss-cross up and around the mountain, including a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

This chipmunk was a normal size, unlike the one we saw at Mt. St. Helens.

To the South we could see Trillium Lake and Mt. Jefferson behind Timberline Lodge. Mt. Jefferson is 46 miles from the lodge. In this photo you can see people lugging their ski gear up the hill to the top of the snow field. You can also see the snow field with teeny tiny snowboarders going down to the parking lot.

Up close and personal with Mt. Hood

I played in the snow on the way back down.

It was warm up there – in the 60s. I had a sweater but didn’t wear it. I also tore off my long-sleeved t-shirt and just wore a summer top. I wondered how warm the skiers were in their coats and boots and backpacks. We passed one man on the trail heading up who turned to us and said, “I’ll give you a dollar if you carry this for me.”

When we left the mountain and headed back home, we burrowed beneath clouds and drizzle in no time, and it was a grey cold trip all the way home.

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

Josh and I stop for a break in the neverending switchbacks at the beginning of the trail.

Slopes dressed up for Autumn.

Switchbacks and foliage.

I used to joke that the only reason I worked was to earn the money and vacation time I needed to get out and hike. I hiked much of the year, with multiple big trips. These days I am grateful to get out once a year. My annual hike is worth celebrating though. What joy to be on a trail again.

The Enchantments Area in northern Washington state is so popular that people can only get hiking permits by lottery. I did not win the lottery this year (again), so I had to purchase outside the peak season, which ends October 15th. The earliest permit available was this past week, October 24th-27th. That’s pretty late. I paid my fee and told myself that if the winter snows had not begun in earnest, I would hike. If they had, I would consider it a donation to (That’s a marvelous website, by the way. Please check it out.)

The Snow Lakes trailhead begins just outside of town on Icicle Road heading out of Leavenworth, WA. Hit the link there and just look at a couple of photos to get a sense of the town. It is totally kitschy and totally touristy but oh, so, beautiful that it’s worth every potential drawback. I reserved a room at the Leavenworth Village Inn, where I have stayed before, and was equally pleased. They offer a military discount, which I used. This lovely little Bavarian-styled town is smack in the middle of Oktoberfest. So Plan B was that if the trail was snowed out, I would drink some ale. Admit it, you love my Plan B.

Prior to the trip it rained and rained and rained and then! Tuesday morning was spectacular.

Sun lights up a lingering thimbleberry leaf.

Because it was so late in the season, and also because I don’t have my mountain legs anymore (spending most of my life decomposing in front of a computer screen all day long), I invited a friend along. As you may recall, this is not my usual approach as I really do prefer hiking alone. However, I am also smart! And hiking in the mountains potentially in snow, for days on end, alone… Well, let’s just say I was relieved when Josh said, “Sure, I’ll go.” (of course, I am stubborn enough that I would have gone on alone anyway if he was not interested…but that’s a psychology session for another day)

Sunrise hits the peaks over Nada Lake.

The trail begins with a shameful number of brutal switchbacks. Up, up, up. I am a good hiker when it comes to “up.” I complain, but my trusty little legs just keep going. Josh (big tough guy) was feeling strong that morning and teasing that we should do the whole 18-mile loop in a day, then do it again the second day. It was his first backpacking trip ever. So I just smiled and kept plodding along. After 1000 feet or so, he was humbled. I offered to let him go ahead and set the pace. Gasping on breaks he insisted that I had to be in front of him for motivation. “I can’t let you beat me at this!”

Trail descriptions really downplay this part of the trail, recommending to start at the other end because there isn’t much to look at on this side. I beg to differ. It’s truly magnificent, and especially so in October, where yellow trees pour down mountain valleys like molten gold. The air was crisp and hinting at afternoon warmth. The sky blue as only October blue can be.

Morning sun on Nada Lake.

The sun drops early in the evening these days, but we made it to the first lake before it got dark and set up the tent while it was still light. It got really cold, really quick, and soon we escaped into the tent for shelter.

Wednesday morning was beautiful and I was energized as I boiled up water for coffee and made breakfast. It was the debut of my new MSR Whisperlite stove. My old whisperlite had been a solid and reliable companion ever since I bought it in 2000. This last camping trip, when I watched the eclipse, it stopped working. I suspected the lines were clogged. Prior to this trip then, I took my little stove out on the deck and pulled it into all its pieces and began cleaning the fuel line. I went into the house to grab some steel wool for scrubbing the soot, and when I came back out I saw that a gust of wind had come up and the teeniest little stove piece had bounced away, off the deck, and likely through a crack and into the weeds underneath. I hunted on my hands and knees under the deck with the slugs and spiders that day for approximately 4 hours (remember how I said I am stubborn?). And then I went on Amazon and bought a new stove. Whatever I paid for that last one, 17 years is a good run and I did not feel bitter about the purchase of a replacement. The brand new stove worked great (of course I had tested it before we left).

Here I am resting during the hike up from Nada Lake, where we camped the first night. Look at that slope! Wicked steep.

Then we loaded everything up and went uphill again. This was a short hike, only a few miles and 1000 more feet. It wasn’t as pleasant as the first day because we were tired, but also because the clouds rolled in while it was still morning, and a light rain began to fall. It rained all day long, but luckily just a light rain that frizzed my hair but didn’t soak through anything. We found a spot to camp at Upper Snow Lake at about 5400′ elevation. As we were looking for a place to camp, we met two hikers that had just descended from the next lake up. They said to be sure and use our ice cleats and snowshoes because of all the ice and snow on the trail. Well, we didn’t have either. Most of my hike life I’ve been a fair-weather backpacker and only recently learned that camping is fun when it’s cold, too. But I won’t go so far as to invest in snow hiking gear. I’m not crazy.

Enormous granite boulders were strewn about, making us feel small in comparison.

You know I love to eat good food in the mountains!

We spent the remains of the day running around in the forest and climbing on rocks. You can act like you’re 10 years old when you camp in the mountains. In fact, it’s pretty much expected.

It rained harder in the evening, and rained during the night. Thursday, to my delight, it dawned spectacularly clear again. It was the warmest day so far and after the fog burned off, not a cloud to be seen. We were still chilled from the wet night and took a long time to get moving. I was trying to decide whether to do a day hike up to Lake Viviane without snow climbing gear. It must have been noon before we were finally packed up. Didn’t even try to dry the tent out. Everything was just going to have to be wet. I was tired and after a tentative query to Josh, who didn’t really warm up to the idea of a few more thousand feet, I committed to heading back down the mountain.

Morning on the shady side of the lake. Still trying to thaw out so I can pack up my gear.

A mountain called The Temple rises above a little peninsula in Upper Snow Lake.

Sand formations in Upper Snow Lake, which is also a reservoir, as you may have guessed, as part of the water district for the city below.

I was intrigued by the patterns and shadows in the sand.

McClellan Peak commands the view of Upper Snow Lake.

This was the hare’s turn to shine. After the stolid and steadfast tortoise was a clear victor in going uphill, the hare practically caught the trail on fire going back down. We went down all 4000 feet in just a few hours – a record for me. He was very patient at first, because we found a couple of places awash in sunshine and I wanted to do nothing but lounge. I wet and re-braided my ratty hair. I climbed up and down hills and boulders and over logs with my camera. I snacked. I smiled. Josh laid on a rock in the sun and didn’t say a word. But when I finally gave the green light and we hefted our packs and buckled in….whoosh! He was gone.

The rest of the day I barely saw my traveling companion.

Sunshine and blue skies make a paradise at Lower Snow Lake.

And hiking alone is my comfort zone, so it was no big deal. But I did get very tired. And my feet were aching. And then my knees started to hurt, and still I had not caught up. Sometimes he would spot me from hundreds of feet below and holler up, “Everything ok? You taking a nap up there or what?” I would signal a thumbs up and voom, off he’d go again.

At one point as I was about to step over a pile of bark from a tree that had fallen over the trail, I noticed that some of the pieces of bark had been shaped into an arc. Only the curve was sideways, making it look like the letter “C.” And I laughed out loud. Yes, that is something he would do: leave me a message to let me know I was not forgotten. What a sweet gesture. It kept me going for another 15 minutes and then I was just about to despair in pain again, but I came across more bark that was indisputably an “R.” And that time I really laughed! That crazy guy was going to spell my whole name! Sure enough, 20 minutes later I found a “Y.” And it wasn’t until “S” that I finally had the sense to take a photo.

T in red needles was my fave.

Camera hanging around my neck and still I didn’t take a photo until I got to the S.

After T and then A, I spotted him waiting for me at a great place beside Snow Creek where we had stopped to eat something on the way up two days before. He asked how I was doing and I said, “I want my L!” I told him I was in pain and was about to suggest a longer break, but he took off my pack and proceeded to transfer about 15 pounds from my pack to his. Well, he did need a little slowing down, so I let him. I am proud and stubborn, but…

It didn’t slow him down at all. Zoom! Gone again. I found my L. And you would not believe this, but he did my last name too.

Berries hanging over the trail were begging for a photo.

Don’t you just love the fire colours of the season?

The lovely day and the lovely foliage did as much to cheer me as the letters on the trail. I kept plodding along, but tortoises apparently are not made for rapid down hill trekking with no breaks and no meals – just snacks on the go. My feet were killing me and I had to stop a lot to sit down and get the weight off my soles. Josh hit the parking lot, ditched his pack, ran back up the hill to where I was, teased me for napping, then took my pack and went back down again. It was still daylight when I finally hit bottom. Well, you know, “finally” as in finally caught up to Josh. But in terms of backpacking down a mountainside, we really smoked.

I’m glad I took the chance on the late season pass. Everything worked out perfectly. It didn’t snow too much before last week, and the weather was splendid for two of the three days. On the trail is where I find my bliss.

Though marijuana use is now legal in both Oregon and Washington... this is the high I'm after.

Though marijuana use is now legal in both Oregon and Washington… this is the high I’m after.

Before I left, I told my neighbors I would be gone all week, and by way of explanation I said, “The reason I work is so that I can hike.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Aside from taking care of Tara, and having a house to call home base, the reason I have a job is so that I can save up vacation days and then pay for my play time. Two things top the list titled Play Time: 1) travel, 2) backpacking.

I reluctantly left my comfortable-as-a-cloud hotel mattress behind me in Leavenworth, Washington, ate breakfast at Kristall’s (with a name like that, I had to), and found the trailhead in 15 minutes. I was on the trail by 8:20 am and in no time I had left civilization well behind me.

Looking from the first set of switchbacks toward the western edge of the town of Leavenworth, and the road to the trail head.

Looking from the first set of switchbacks toward the western edge of the town of Leavenworth, and the road to the trail head.

I climbed 3500 feet in elevation in about 5 1/2 miles to Nada Lake – the one you see pictured at the top. There were so many switchbacks climbing up and up and up. On this trip, unlike last year’s, my spirits were soaring, the weather was amazing, and the sights along the trail were constantly photo-worthy. Yes, it was a rough climb, and I was tired, but not discouraged at all.

This is called the Snow Creek Wall, and is popular with rock climbers. On my way up, and back down, I looked carefully, but did not see any climbers on the wall itself, though I did see climbers making their way through the valley back to the trail.

This is called the Snow Creek Wall, and is popular with rock climbers. On my way up, and back down, I looked carefully, but did not see any climbers on the wall itself, though I did see climbers making their way through the valley back to the trail.

Funny thing about the higher elevations: Spring comes so late that Fall overtakes her. Here fireweed continues to bloom, while Autumn turns the leaves orange.

Funny thing about the higher elevations: Spring comes so late that Fall overtakes her. Here fireweed continues to bloom, while Autumn turns the leaves orange.

These bleached white ferns caught my eye.

These bleached white ferns caught my eye.

What month is it? It's the month for oranges and reds and yellows!

What month is it? It’s the month for oranges and reds and yellows!

Cedar trees reach their fingers out to soak up a bit of Snow Creek.

Cedar trees reach their fingers out to soak up a bit of Snow Creek.

I gave myself a break and stayed the first night at Nada Lake. I have not been able to hike all year, and I also have not been exercising regularly. I wanted to be smart about this and save some reserves for the days ahead, since pushing too hard out of day-one-excitement can lead to injuries.

For my campsite I chose a cute little peninsula that I assume is usually below water, based on the signs of lake level around the shores. It’s the end of the season, which means water levels are at their lowest.

As soon as I spotted this peninsula jutting into Nada Lake, I knew I wanted to camp there. Look at the incredible aqua blue of this lake - isn't it remarkable?

As soon as I spotted this peninsula jutting into Nada Lake, I knew I wanted to camp there. Look at the incredible aqua blue of this lake – isn’t it remarkable?

While searching for a way to get to the peninsula, I took off my pack and gazed up at the far end of Nada Lake. Look at my pack there, on her back with her legs curled above her like a dead beetle.

While searching for a way to get to the peninsula, I took off my pack and gazed up at the far end of Nada Lake. Look at my pack there, on her back with her legs curled above her like a dead beetle.

Home Sweet Home. It was as splendid as I imagined it. Who needs a designated camp site?

Home Sweet Home. It was as splendid as I imagined it. Who needs a designated camp site?

I had loads of late afternoon sunshine, so I took my time and cooked up a nice meal for an early supper. I’ve mentioned before that I eat well when I’m camping. The down side is that my food weight is higher than most reasonable back packers. The up side is that… well… I eat really well! And, I always carry wine with me, because one must celebrate her accomplishments, and I like to celebrate with wine.

My supplies for my first supper: Thai curry with chicken, fresh broccoli and mushrooms.

My supplies for my first supper: Thai curry (yes, I used coconut milk) with chicken, fresh broccoli and mushrooms. There are apricots in the photo too, but I did not use them.

Finished product! It hit the spot. Once I cleaned my plate and everything settled, I filled the plate and ate this much again! ha ha

Finished product! It hit the spot. Once I cleaned my plate and everything settled, I filled the plate and ate this much again! ha ha

Wednesday night I had pasta with alfredo sauce, sausage, and sundried tomatoes. I did not bring milk for the alfredo, but with powdered milk, real butter and pre-grated parmesan, that sauce was mouth-watering despite being made with lake water. I use a lot of water camping, and I just boil all the nasties out of it, so it’s safe. In 15 years of back packing, I have not yet been sick from the water, so I’m pretty sure I’m doing it right. I had originally intended to make the alfredo and pasta with chicken, but I was not in the mood for chicken on a second night and opted for sausage instead.

Thursday night I had burritos with rice, refried beans, pre-sauteed onions, cheese, salsa and fresh avocado. There are no photos because I got back to camp late and ate in the dark. I discovered that chipmunks love avocado, when I accidentally left one half of the shell outside by the camp stove overnight, and in the morning found it spotlessly clean with teensy tinsy teeth marks all over it. The avocado trick I learned from back packing mentor M, who took me on my very first trip ever, in 2000. M showed me that if you pick a rock-hard avocado in the store, and carry it for a few days in your pack, it’s perfect!

Before I left I baked cookies packed with things from the pantry: chocolate chips, dried cranberries, oatmeal and walnuts. I also boiled eggs. So several breakfasts were hardboiled eggs and cookies and coffee. I always bring Peets coffee (my fave brand). One morning I had sausage and scrambled eggs from real eggs that I carried. Unfortunately the container I chose to store the eggs were not leakproof, and for the rest of the trip I had a bit of raw egg on the packaging of my other food items. Ah well. I typically melt the Tillamook cheese over the eggs, but it was 34 degrees that morning and the heat would not have been maintained long enough to melt the cheese. I had to scarf it down while the eggs were still warm.

A word on dishes. The blue plate came along not simply because the cobalt blue enamel is lovely and makes my food taste better. The plate is perfectly sized as a lid for both the deeper pot, and the shallower pan that I brought. The pot is for boiling water mainly, but having multiple dishes allows me to store one cooked item while cooking the second item. You can see my entire dish selection below: one pot, one pan, one plate, one cup, one fork, one spoon. I also bring one sharp knife that can be used for food as well as for cutting rope or branches as needed.

Cleaning dishes in the mountains is an endeavor. First of all I try to avoid using soap if at all possible. It is good for killing bacteria and thus is not good for the environment. Scoop a little stream or lake water into your dish, and add a handful of sand. Use your hands to scour, then dump the dirty water well away from the shore. Since it was so bitterly cold in the evenings and mornings on this trip, I was forced to heat the water to make that process effective. Using sand is amazingly effective. You won’t believe it till you try it. The two meals with sausage, I had to use Dr. Bronner’s soap because of all the fat left behind. You want to use the mildest, most quickly biodegradable soap you can bring, and always dump the water well away from the shore, and not onto plants.

Alright, that’s my public service message for the day. Tune in next time for the rest of the trip!

Alfredo sauce, sausage, sundried tomatoes.

Alfredo sauce, sausage, sundried tomatoes.

The final meal. The pasta has a dark colour because I boiled it in the same pan in which I cooked the sausage. That made the water brown, but oh so flavourful.

The final meal. The pasta has a dark colour because I boiled it in the same pan in which I cooked the sausage. That made the water brown, but oh so flavourful.

Roughing it? Says who? I do breakfasts too. Here you see the remainder of the sausage, scrambled eggs, sliced cheese and coffee (in the coffee/wine/alfredo all-purpose tin cup).

Roughing it? Says who? I do breakfasts too. Here you see the remainder of the sausage, scrambled eggs, sliced cheese and coffee (in the coffee/wine/alfredo all-purpose tin cup).

Anyone who watched the show as often as me, will instantly recognize this image from the opening credits of the TV show Northern Exposure.

Anyone who watched the show as often as me, will instantly recognize this image from the opening credits of the TV show Northern Exposure.

This October Columbus Day was a most brilliant day to journey into the mountains of Washington state. My goal is to hit the trail head first thing in the morning and make my annual solo back packing trip into the mountains. But first! I simply had to make the most of the serendipitous location of the trailhead: Leavenworth, Washington. And on the way: the town of Roslyn.

I am a BIG fan of the television program Northern Exposure, and watched it religiously while it was on the air from 1990-95. I have also watched it again, via Netflix, exposing Tara to this quirky make-believe world of Cicely, Alaska. I still quote from the series, when the situation calls for it, and I can still hear the hawk scream right before the program starts (the hawk isn’t in the Netflix versions, btw). Once I saw that the highway to Leavenworth passed within 5 miles of Roslyn, it was a no-brainer that I had to stop.

Do not try this at home. Bravely snapping photos while driving. I couldn't help myself.

Do not try this at home. Bravely snapping photos while driving. I couldn’t help myself.

Just look at the scenery I drove through today. What a gorgeous state in a gorgeous month.

Just look at the scenery I drove through today. What a gorgeous state in a gorgeous month.

My morning went really well – the house is somewhat put into order so that a friend can house-sit for me. For those of you who read insearchofitall, my house sitter is aka Tech Support. Let’s all give a collective Good Luck and Thank You! to TS for taking on the chickens and Racecar for me in my absence.

The weather was so wonderful today. A little cloudy up to Seattle, a couple raindrops over Snoqualmie Pass, and then sunshine and 70 degrees in the mountains. After all the rain and cool temps in the Portland area, I am grateful for such an auspicious omen to begin my journey.

I had a splendid time wandering around the town of Roslyn. I highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to stop and look. It’s absolutely darling, and there are interesting things for people who are not fans of Northern Exposure. For example, there are several information stations, a monument, and a museum dedicated to Roslyn’s coal mining history. Coal was discovered here in 1886 and mined for 35 years. Northern Pacific Railroad actively solicited immigrants to move to the US to work in the mines, and people came from 26 different nations. Then the railroad brought up a bunch of African Americans as strikebreakers. So this tiny mountain town was truly international from it’s inception.

Maggie's Pantry, named after one of the main characters in the TV show Northern Exposure.

Maggie’s Pantry, named after one of the main characters in the TV show Northern Exposure.

Look at how cute this darn town is!

Look at how darn cute this town is!

Fans of Northern Exposure will also recognize The Brick.

Fans of Northern Exposure will also recognize The Brick.

“Dr. Joel Fleishman” is still painted in the window of the building that was his doctor’s office in the show.

KBHR (pronounced Kay Bear) studios is not only evident from the outside...

KBHR (pronounced Kay Bear) studios is not only evident from the outside…

...but lovingly maintained on the inside. Complete with an open book, true to

…but lovingly maintained on the inside. Complete with an open book, true to “Chris in the Morning’s” style on the show.

A little train of coal cars outside the museum, filled with actual coal.

A little train of coal cars outside the museum, filled with actual coal.

A mural at a park downtown.

A mural at a park downtown.

Random Roslyn resident I spotted while eating lunch.

Random Roslyn resident I spotted while eating lunch.

I ate at the Roslyn Cafe, with a view of Fleishmann's office.

I ate at the Roslyn Cafe, with a view of Fleishman’s office.

I wonder if the foreign miners are the background to the town of Leavenworth. I have been here before, but the place never stops delighting me. Block after block is filled with buildings constructed in a Bavarian theme. How amazed I am at the compliance of nearly every single building to fit the theme of a Bavarian mountain town. Safeway looks half-timbered, Wells Fargo has carved wood shutters and flowers under the windowsills, and even the hospital is themed. The place is remarkable. And beautiful.

One of the main streets in Leavenworth, Washington.

One of the main streets in Leavenworth, Washington.

Looking west toward the mountains I will be climbing tomorrow.

Looking west toward the mountains I will be climbing tomorrow.

Isn't it convincingly European, in this setting?

Isn’t it convincingly European, in this setting?

This dome was lovely from every angle. I include it again in the nighttime shot at the end.

This dome was lovely from every angle. I include it again in the nighttime shot at the end.

Murals can be found on 80% of the buildings. Not exaggerating.

Murals can be found on 80% of the buildings. Not exaggerating.

Nearly every view today was filled with oranges and reds and mountains.

Nearly every view today was filled with oranges and reds and mountains.

My beautiful room, right downtown, for $89 (a steal for a tourist town during Oktoberfest).

My beautiful room, right downtown at The Leavenworth Village Inn, for $89 (a good price for a tourist town during Oktoberfest).

My view of the captivating onion dome from my hotel room.

My view of the captivating onion dome from my hotel room.

Yes, even the hospital is Bavarian-themed.

Yes, even the hospital is Bavarian-themed.

A shop sign

A shop sign

Christmas shop

Christmas shop

A guest cottage. Now, wouldn't you love to stay in this place, overlooking the miniature golf course and grazing goats.

A guest cottage.

Grazing goat

Grazing goat

Even the signs are in German!

Even the signs are in German!

Gustav's restaurant has it's own dome.

Gustav’s restaurant has it’s own dome.

Yet another picturesque street.

Yet another picturesque street.

Dome at night.

Dome at night.

Up close and personal with Mt. Adams. You can almost feel the frigid air coming off the glaciers, huh?

Up close and personal with Mt. Adams. You can almost feel the frigid air coming off the glaciers, huh? See the hikers? (just kidding)

{click here for Part I}

Morning was astonishingly beautiful, because we finally got to see Mt. Adams without the top obscured in clouds.  And got a nice view of Mount Saint Helens, because the sun was hitting it right.  Volcanoes: I love them! Fog had formed in the valley and seeped away from us into the Columbia River Valley as we watched. It was fun talking with Arno about fog formation and fog “movement,” as I pulled out my dusty NWS memories. Fog doesn’t actually flow through a drainage, as it appears, and it was kind of cool to be science-y smart with my geeky boyfriend for a change. His job is smack in the middle of science and technology (UAVs), while mine is medical disability benefits. I like showing off, and it’s hard to brag about hip replacements and accident verification.

Spectacular view of Mt. Adams from our tent, which you see on the left.

Mt. Adams, our tent, and receding fog

Mt. St. Helens in the distance

Mt. St. Helens in the distance

Arno is the mountaineer (but my high school mascot was The Mountaineers!), and I humored him by agreeing to climb Old Snowy Mountain, the nearest peak to us, for our Saturday excursion. We loaded very lightly in daypack gear, set out, and….gosh if we didn’t hit the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) immediately. Turns out, we were supposed to take a hard left at the Lily Flats Trail yesterday, which was the way to Goat Lake. Lily Flats Trail parallels the PCT, and we had taken one of the short connector trails. Now, our map made so much more sense.

Pacific Crest Trail!

Pacific Crest Trail!

It meant we were much closer to Old Snowy Mountain than we thought, but it also meant a 9-mile hike out on Sunday. But that’s tomorrow, and today we are mountain climbing. Did I mention I’m not big on mountain climbing?

Keywords: Scary? High? Amateur?

Well, on the way we realized we were in Argentina, when we spotted the llamas. Snow, exposed rocks, alpine air, high elevation+llamas=Argentina.

Here is a shot from our trip to the Andes, with llamas and their keeper.

Here is a shot from our trip to the Andes, with llamas and their keeper.

We climbed across large snow fields (the trail crosses the Packwood Glacier), over many gurgling creeks, across meadows and beneath rocky peaks. We soon spotted Goat Lake. It’s totally frozen over still. In August! I was glad we hadn’t made it all the way there to camp, as we had considered. Then I got my visual stimulation payoff before I even had to climb the dang mountain peak. Mount Rainier! Holy Mother that’s a beautiful volcano. Three volcanoes in one day! Look at the crazy steep valley.

Steep valley with Mt. Rainier rising in the background to 14,410 feet. Goat Lake is in the cirque to the left.

Steep valley with Mt. Rainier rising in the background to 14,410 feet. Goat Lake is to the left.

Just left of the view above, Goat Lake rests in a cirque and drains by a high waterfall.

Just left of the view above, Goat Lake rests in a cirque and drains by a high waterfall.

goat vs. lump of snow

goat vs. lump of snow

This place is named after goats, for the mountain goats said to frequent the area. We were hoping for goats the whole trip. Someone casually pointed down the hill: “There is a goat,” as though it were obvious. You be the judge.

It’s pretty exciting for me to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, called the PCT by locals. This is our West Coast equivalent of the Appalachian Trail (2,180 miles and crossing 14 states). The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,665 miles long, begins at the Mexico border and ends at the Canada border, and crosses the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Just three states. We make ’em big out here. I’ve mentioned before that I want to hike the entire thing someday.

While at the ridgeline, Arno walked out onto the McCall glacier. The glaciers we were on today looked more like snowfields.

Hikers moving along the PCT as it crosses Packwood Glacier

Hikers and llamas moving along the PCT as it crosses Packwood Glacier

Arno trekking out onto the McCall Glacier

Arno trekking out onto the McCall Glacier

The highest Washington point along the PCT is 7650 feet, and a short distance from where we spotted the “goat.” We left the trail and headed sharply uphill to aim for the peak of Old Snowy Mountain, topping out at 7930 feet. We had climbed another 1500 feet from our tent.

I get so nervous climbing, but I also get irritated and impatient with myself for being scared. I want to scuttle up the side without pounding heart and sweaty hands. My technique is not to look anywhere but my next few steps, not to think about it, and to go as fast as I can so it will be over with quickly.

My signature pose when I get to a high spot. I'm on top of Old Snowy, and that's the sharp ridgeline stretching to the south behind me.

My signature pose when I get to a high spot. I’m on top of Old Snowy, and the sharp ridgeline stretches to the south behind me.

(Arno made it to the top, too. He is more comfortable climbing mountains than I am.)

(Arno made it to the top, too. He is more comfortable climbing mountains than I am.)

Then we made the long trek back down. I had talked Arno into carrying lunch with us, because I was worried about how long it would take me to get up the mountain and down again. We stopped on a delicious high ledge around 7000 feet, and had some smoked salmon and pasta for lunch and were still sorta full when we made it all the way back to camp. For a light dinner, I baked brie in red wine and brown sugar with apricots, and we had that with the rest of the wine.

Only minor thunder rumbles in the night, and for our concerted efforts to stake down our tent against a possible storm, we suffered a few mere gusts and a sprinkling of rain. We slept much better and were able to get up early.

Wet Sunday morning

Wet Sunday morning

Our view of Old Snowy Mountain from the Lily Basin Trail. That round hump on top is the point we climbed to.

Our view of Old Snowy Mountain from the Lily Basin Trail. That round hump on top is the point we climbed to.

We packed up the whole camp, ate breakfast, drank our Peets coffee, and were hiking before 8 am. Not knowing the trail, I wanted a really early start to make sure we got home at a reasonable time. It stayed wet and mostly cloudy all day, but it remained an excellent day to be on the trail.

Goat Lake was not as lovely as it could have been, since it was frozen still, and the few spare campsites up there were not at all as inviting as ours had been. The trail remained partially obscured due to snow, and we scrambled around till we got out of the cirque. Our trail out was along Goat Ridge, and offered splendid views of the valley from the east side rather than the west side, where we had spent the previous two days.

This is Goat Lake. I love that fabulous blue of compressed ice!

This is Goat Lake. I love that fabulous blue of compressed ice!

Treacherously steep slopes were thrilling and beautiful as we lifted out of the valley and away from the lake.

Treacherously steep slopes were thrilling and beautiful as we lifted out of the valley and away from the lake. You can see in the top right, the solid cloud bank we entered when we followed the trail along the Jordan Creek valley.

We crossed over Goat Ridge into the Jordan Creek basin, and that was the end of our views. The entire valley was socked in for the entire day. We beat feet downhill and my bum knee did not fail me (whee!). We stopped for burritos for lunch: filled with reconstituted beans with fresh avocado, chilies, and cheese – yum!

Around 3pm we spotted reflections off the vehicles parked at the trailhead. We had arrived earlier than expected, and made it back to Portland by 6pm. Not too shabby. The biggest loss of the trip: Arno left his REI trekking poles leaned against the truck as he changed into fresh clothes in the parking lot. Then we drove off. D’oh!

Spectacular view of Mt. Adams from our tent, which you see on the left.

Spectacular view of Mt. Adams from our tent, which you see on the right.

Arno and I have been dating two years and never once had been backpacking together. Until last weekend.

Lupine and Bear Grass

Lupine and Bear Grass

He’s crazy about the outdoors. Hiking, cycling, rock climbing, cross country skiing– you get the picture. I am crazy about camping and backpacking. We’ve been saying to each other, “One of these days…” for too long. In May we planned our summer calendar (yes, we have to coordinate calendars! It was not superfluous because –>), only to find we had only two available weekends from May through September when we would both be uncommitted. As it was, I made the weekend available by canceling plans to go to Eugene for the Cherokee celebration of culture, highlighted by a visit from our Chief John Baker, out from the Nation. I swear, my life is just so dang full…

We pulled out maps, nearly salivating at all the possibilities. Arno and I have this tendency to look for places we’ve never visited before. We want to do things for the first time together. Is that sappy? Yes, I think it is. He suggested Mt. St. Helens, but I told him I feel a little disloyal going there because I’ve already promised a Seattle friend I’ll do St. Helens with him someday. East of Mt. St. Helens is the Goat Rocks Wilderness. The guidebooks say it’s really popular, which typically we try to avoid. We did some Internet searches and it seemed rather pretty. We found a perfect length loop (which is hard to find), that had a side trail connecting to the PCT and perhaps the opportunity to scale a peak. Done deal!

Aaaaand a pretty cool view of the blown top of Mt. St. Helens above our tent, too.

Aaaaand a pretty cool view of the blown top of Mt. St. Helens above our tent, too.

North on I-5 and east on Hwy 12 takes you out to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Take a right turn onto a Forest Service road, drive a very long time to a very -very- large parking area for a trailhead. The largest parking site at a trailhead I can remember is the Canyon Creek Lakes Trailhead in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Snowgrass Flats Trailhead may have it beat. I estimated around 50 vehicles parked when we eeked out a spot on the side of the road. At least this one doesn’t have the same bear problem. And if that’s not enough parking, Berry Patch Trailhead is right next to it, best suited for stock animal parking. Well, not the animals; their trailers.

We got a very late start. It was a compromise due to aforementioned busy schedule: I did nothing Thursday night except wind down and try to disconnect from the work week. Friday morning we slept in and then had a home cooked breakfast. Ahhhh…. THEN we got ready to go backpacking. So, we arrived at the trailhead around 3:30pm. Yikes! We were worried there would be no campsites available.

The pack was heavy. I am not conditioned. But the mountains!  This was the opposite of my High Lake hike in June, which had no views. This was amazing!! Pack weight sitting awkwardly?  Shoulders pulled back, feet hurt, damned biting flies eating you alive? – whatever. Just LOOK at that! And that!

The Money Shot. This is TOO DIE FOR. Taken a few steps away from our tent. I can't even say enough about this wilderness area, because no words can even, possibly... Just... LOOK at this.

The Money Shot. This is TO DIE FOR. Taken a few steps away from our tent. I can’t even say enough about this wilderness area, because no words can even, possibly… Just… LOOK at this.

Me in a field of lupine. Tired and delighted.

Me in a field of lupine. Tired and delighted.

Bird in a stunted tree near our camp

Bird in a stunted tree near our camp

The views opened up almost as soon as we began. We started the hike at 4650′ so perhaps that helped us get us up to treeline sooner. It’s so alpine here that treeline is where 35-year-old pine trees are 10 feet high, because their roots can only go as far as the ground thaws, or as far as the topsoil goes down until it’s only rock.

There were fields of wildflowers in every direction. The colours were stunning. The perfume of all those lupine in bloom was purely intoxicating. I can hardly do it justice, the sweetest honeyed blue smells wafting every time the wind picked up.

Five miles in, we came to what we guessed (correctly, it turned out) was the actual Snowgrass Flats area. We passed the Lily Flats Trail, because we didn’t recognize the name and wanted to go to Goat Lake. We continued directly ahead, as we had been heading. Another mile in, and I was close to wiped out. It was evening, and there were campsites.

Surprisingly, with the jam-packed trailhead, and people everywhere on the trail, there were many many campsites to be had. Lots of nice fire pits and cleared and level spots with views. The one we selected ended up at 6400 feet. We had traveled about six miles and climbed 1700 feet. (Compare that to High Lake, when I climbed 2000 feet in 3.75 miles.)

Sunset on the mountains. Old Snowy is on the left.

Sunset on the mountains. Old Snowy is on the left.

Arno and I split camp tasks really well. We’re both used to doing everything ourselves (single parent mode), so it’s a joy to launch into any task, knowing your work is half done already – by the other person! He began sauteing onion and garlic for his bacon carbonara, and I began putting up the fabulous new tent he just purchased. The zipper failed on my old tent, so he loaned me one of his for my last hike. I subsequently griped about how heavy it was. So he purchased a tent for backpacking, and this one is spacious and weighs hardly anything! (Big Agnes Copper Spur, for those of you who want to know.)

Arno and me in the mountains

Arno and me in the mountains

Overnight we were BLASTED with thunderstorms. From the photos you see the weather was lovely during the day. In the evening, clouds gathered, but it was still warm, and relatively calm, dry, and nice. I had become familiar with the NOAA site forecast for the weekend (I was a forecaster for the National Weather Service for 11 years, and just can’t use any other weather website.). We both knew that thunderstorms were forecast and we had the rain flap up. But nothing prepared us for KA-BLAM! Just like in Batman comics. POW! The lightning glare burnt through our closed eyelids, the thunder cracked, wind gusts yanked at the guy lines, and rain simply gushed from the heavens. For. Hours. And. Hours. And…. we stayed dry. And when everything settled the heck down, we slept in late.

{click here for Part II}

Me in the wind at the summit of Mt. Fuji, giving the peace sign for a photo, in the way that so many Japanese do.

I have wanted to climb Mt. Fuji for many many years. I don’t know how it got into my head. I met a Japanese exchange student when I was in the 11th grade, so perhaps that is when the thought first lodged itself. Whatever the path followed by my synapses, the fact is that when I found out I would be working in Japan this summer, one of my very first thoughts was, “I have to climb Mt. Fuji.”

Every time I get to a new base, I read their latest magazine. In Sasebo’s June publication, I found an upcoming weekend Fuji hike that caught my attention. The timing was perfect. I’m not authorized to take vacation days during my Japan trip, so I am forced to work within weekends. It was to be a joint venture between the Single Sailors groups of several bases, including two of the bases at which I work: Misawa and Sasebo. It took some strategy to get myself to Navy base Atsugi, where the trip would begin. After a week at Misawa, I was supposed to take Friday as a travel day to Sasebo, then hang out for the weekend and go to work Monday. Instead, Friday I took a taxi to the local train station, rode the Aomori line to a Shinkansen train. Rode that to Yokohama, then took two subway trains (with a slight delay due to getting onto the wrong subway train in Tokyo and having to backtrack) plus another taxi, in order to arrive at Atsugi. I dumped my gear in my room, then found group leader Jay at the recreation center and he helped me with paperwork and payment. Jay told me he would be stopping by my lodging at 2:45am to pick me up.

Weather threatened our adventure

There was a large group of mostly very young, fit Sailors, and me. I reminded myself that they may have their youth, but I have a bucket list. We drug our sleepy selves onto the bus and the driver was underway at 3:30am. The light drizzle from the morning had turned to an outright rain. After an hour, the firehose was opened, and buckets of rain came down amidst crackling flashes of lightning. I was sitting up front, so I heard Jay when he said to himself several times, “I may just have the bus turn around.” Even though the water on the highway was two inches deep, and lightning and mountains are not a good mix, I crossed my fingers and silently begged, “Please let us at least try. I don’t care if it rains!” By 6am we were at the 5th Station. Miraculously, the rain had stopped. The black clouds were lifting and thinning, and the low clouds were dissipating to clear our view to the higher clouds.

The sky from the base of the mountain gave me hope.

The  5th Station is not the only place to begin, but a popular one. The map I carried showed that I would hike through a 6th station, 7th, 8th, and 9th before arriving at the summit.

We gathered for a group photo for AFN (American Forces Network) while Jay handed out hiking sticks pre-branded with the stamp for the base, then began hiking at 6:30am. The beginning of the trail is deceptively flat, winding through shady forests. We did not see any more of the deer that we had spotted from the bus as we drove to 5th station. I was overdressed for 7500 feet, which, even though much cooler than Atsugi, still felt around 50 degrees. I had on insulated thermal pants with windbreaker-like hiking pants over the top. Thick wool socks and high-topped hiking boots. I could only bear a t-shirt at first, because my bottom half was so warm.

Incredible stacked lenticular clouds pile up above 5th station. Any meteorologist or pilot knows this means WIND!

Deceptively easy incline to the trail at the beginning.

I was soon feeling the incline on my legs and in my deeper breaths. I began to doubt myself right away, in a bit of a panic. I have not been doing the kind of aerobic workouts I prefer for the last year because of a knee injury. Instead, I have been working out on an elliptical and a stationary bike, and doing 15-minute runs when my knee can take it. I had been fretting that I had not conditioned enough, and my early fatigue made my hopes plummet right away. “Well,” I tried to tell myself, “At least I am on Mt. Fuji. That is something.” My boyfriend, Arno, the best support in the world, had emailed me the day before that climbers agree that actually getting to the mountain is a big part of the overall challenge. “Just the fact that you’ve made it to Atsugi and you are actually going to Fuji is something to be proud of,” he had said to me in an email.

Stunning images spread out before us as the sky cleared after the terrible early morning storm.

This is me before I have any idea what’s ahead of me. :o)

We rose above treeline right away, and soon there was very little to look at along the trail but a mixture of black and red pumice. I had used some tricks from my days of backpacking with my friend Margaret, who always taped her feet with duct tape before beginning a hike. I had no duct tape, but I used a whole bunch of bandaids on the bus, and taped all the usual trouble spots before I put my boots on. (btw, duct tape is the best hiking tip I have ever received, you must try it!) I had a bandana tied tight around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes. I settled into the trail, put one foot in front of the other, and thought about the long days I used to hike with my friend, and Margaret’s suggestions to keep drinking water, and snack a lot. I actually wasn’t hungry for several hours, but I did drink water. I had a 3-liter Camelback bladder in my pack, with the tube coming out over my shoulder for easing sipping all the way up.

Retaining walls protect the mountain from all the climbers.

The 6th Station was a crude but sturdy hut of wood with a very clean interior that none of us were allowed to touch with our filthy boots! There were a couple of people outside who caught our attention by asking in English “stick? stamp?” and collected our sticks and our yen and carried them to the people who remained inside the hut in their slippers. Soon the sticks reappeared with brands burned into them. There was another person who leaned out one of the hut windows, selling ramen and cool drinks and trinkets.  It was nice to reach the 6th station, but I felt discouraged to be so tired, so early into a climb. I had paid 200 yen ($2.50) to get a stamp burned into my stick. I paid another 200 yen to use the toilet to rid myself of the last bit of coffee left in me that I brewed after my 2am wake up call. I realized that getting a station stamp branded into my stick was a legitimate reason for a rest stop, and vowed to get every darn stamp that was available. And then, too soon, I began plodding ahead once more.

Climbers above me, making their way up the endless switchbacks.

I was cheered by the very happy people on their way down the mountain, piping out “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (good morning) as they passed. These are the people who had climbed up at night, in order to be on top at the sunrise, which is supposed to be an especially revered sight. These particular hikers, however, must have been in the middle of the lightning storm. I wonder what their sunrise was like.

A man branding sticks

To distract myself from feeling my fatigue, I took breaks by taking photos of the beautiful valley below us, that included a couple of towns and several lakes. We could see that the higher parts of the mountain were entirely obscured in fog. I wanted to photograph the views as long as there were views. Before I knew it, we were at the 7th station. But it was getting harder to climb.

Climbers look at the valley while they rest.

Unexpectedly, the next stop came very soon. I was a little confused, but did not resist another chance to pay 200 yen for a stamp and a rest. There was always a line for the sticks, which gave an even longer rest, but I never let myself really stop. I instinctively felt there was value in continuing the forward momentum. We were climbing directly up the side of the mountain, on short switchbacks. Up, up. Those who reached the summit would climb nearly 5000 feet. We came upon more stops in quick succession, and I paid to rest each time!

A portion of the trail where we clambered up over rocks. That is one of the station huts above us. (We are eager to pay 200 yen for a stamp.)

When the next stop came up again, unexpectedly soon, a fellow traveler remarked outloud that he could have sworn we already reached the 7th station stop, and more than once. The woman collecting sticks understood English and she smiled and nodded. “This is the fourth 7th Station,” she said. “It’s the last one. Next you will reach the 8th Station.” Aha! Obviously entrepreneurs had capitalized on climbers’ desire for stamps and rest. At that stop I saw a woman hand a bowl of hot ramen out the window, and it occurred to me that I was hungry. It was about 9:30am when I pulled some homemade trail mix out of my pack and munched a few handfuls.

Lake below and stunning clouds above

This is what the slope would look like if there were no tourists and no trail.

On we slogged, up the switchbacks. My breathing became more labored, and the struggle to lift my legs became more noticeable. There were portions of the trail that required clambering over rocks. Thankfully, these volcanic rocks, though wet, have fabulous rough surfaces and my boots grabbed them easily. In many places I had to pull myself up with my hands, and even the hands of hundreds of thousands of climbers before me had not made those rocks smooth.

Dirty snow fields were still melting in the middle of July, while it’s 87 degrees in the valley below. This is when we began to enter the clouds.

Yes, that many. Estimates are that around half a million people climb the mountain each year, and this has been the case for many years. There were all kinds of people, mostly Japanese, but many foreigners as well. Children and elderly included. Naturally, when I say “we” I am referring to my fellow travelers. Sometimes I recognized them from the bus ride that morning, but generally we were all unknown to each other. I can’t say strangers to each other, because we were sharing something intimate.

My hiking buddy, with the bandana on his head. This was our view the rest of the way to the summit.

After the last 7th Station, I stopped beside the trail to put on more clothes. I had climbed inside the clouds, and it was cold and wet and very windy. I put on a long-sleeved merino wool shirt, a merino wool hoodie over that, with a rain shell over the top. I dug out my gloves too. And my fleece cap. And I was still cold. But I kept going. I could no longer see the mountain above me or below me: just clouds. So I put a foot forward, and then another.

By the time we reached the 8th Station, everyone was suffering. Climbing was slow for all of us. Slog. Rest. Slog. Rest. One of the most challenging things was the fierce wind, that tried its best to blow us down. Several big, strong men ended up on the gravel. Once when I stopped for a breather against the slope, allowing people to climb on past me, one of the wind gusts came up. A line of climbers with focused faces all suddenly dropped in unison, to reduce their profile in the wind. It made me appreciate how much we were all dealing with: very steep climb, lack of oxygen, and sandblasting wind that hit without warning. We cheered each other on, despite not sharing a language. The children’s faces got serious as they faced the trail ahead of them. Some people looked directly down at the gravel path in front of them to keep focused and steady.

Later, as I gasped and climbed a wide part in the trail, beside a 70-something man who was also gasping, a lithe and tanned runner in a t-shirt and shorts came jogging between us. We watched as the runner dodged a few more climbers and headed up the next switchback, out of sight. The old man and I burst out laughing. That was the first of many runners I saw that day, who ran up and then down the mountain, and did not bother carrying water, packs, or sticks.

I never got to the point where I suspected I would not make it. I kept a close eye on the time and each time I did, I knew it was still possible with the time I had left. But I am a practical person and I started to wonder if I was going to be able to finish. Time is only one concern. I had taken one of my prescription migraine pills already, to fight the headache that had been building, and I suffered from a terrible headache anyway. I went through a couple of switchbacks feeling nauseated, which made me angry to think I might have to turn back for altitude sickness before my body gave out. I knew that headache and nausea are common symptoms of high altitude sickness. My right knee was reminding me that it was not healthy, and my heels were hot from the rubbing boots. I hoped I wasn’t getting blisters.

More than those things, I was slowing down considerably. By this point I had begun to climb with one of the sailors from the morning bus ride. Our pace was apparently the same. At station 8.5, we made a longer stop. We kicked back as well as possible in the unceasing wind. I ate a sandwich and a guy sitting across from me says, “Hey, you look familiar. Where do I know you from?” I answered that I had no idea because he wasn’t on the bus ride with me. It turned out he is based at Sasebo, and remembered me from the visit last month. “You’re the VA Rep!” How crazy is it that a random hiker on Mt. Fuji recognized me, and it turned out to be a co-worker, Curtis, from Fleet Family Support Center at Sasebo.

After that stop, the sailor I was hiking with came up with a plan to stop at every switchback. Then we met two guys who had a strategy of walk 10 steps, then rest. Yes, it was that bad! We would stop and rest, and I’d feel good and strong, and then I would be completely wiped out 3 steps later. Three steps! As though I had not rested all day. We would groan and make faces till we got to the next switchback (about 30 feet), then drop onto a rock, or lean against the wall, chests heaving. My climbing partner, like me, also would not really stop. As soon as we had caught our breath, we were both up and at it again.

The 9th station was empty, so no stamp there. But we went through the first Torii (gate), got a little inspired. We were driven by habit at that point. Each stamp I received was directly above the previous one, so the stick was nearly branded end-to-end. I wondered if there would be space at the top for the final stamps.

The second Torii! We knew we were close, but we couldn’t tell how close.

At the 8th station they had cheerily told us, “Only two more hours to the top!” At station 8.5, “Only one and a half hours to the top!” How far was 9th Station? It seemed like we should be close. A little fire burned inside, and whispered something like, “You did NOT just climb 5 hours to wimp out now!” Then the people coming down from the top starting confirming it for us. “You’re close, keep going!” “How close?” we begged. First they answered 50 minutes, then 30 minutes. But the trail was getting harder; straight up the side, switchbacks every six feet, wind roaring through and blasting us with volcanic gravel. There were chain-link handholds that I clung to, head deeply bowed, each time the wind blasted us. When there was a taller step (larger rock) in front of me, I would pause, then put one foot up onto it, then pause, take a breath, and puuullll myself up onto the step, then pause. The smaller rocks were shorter steps to take, and thus easier.

Me at the Torii

We were in dense fog, and the visibility was only about 20 feet. We had no way of seeing how much mountain was left. But then! The second Torii! It was not the top yet, but we knew we must be nearly there. Slowly, slowly we drug ourselves up the rocks, and finally, there was a bigger hut than usual, and we had made it! “Is this it? Is this it?” I asked, and smiling people confirmed: The Summit! I was so relieved, because it meant I could stop climbing.

At the summit, one can circle the volcanic crater. I headed down the trail a ways, and could not see a dang thing. Dense fog still obscuring everything, and the wind was crazy fierce! I had to keep ducking behind structures to stay upright.  So I gave up on the crater idea. I turned around and wandered back to see if I could find my traveling companion again, and he shouted my name from a hut along the way. He had found the curry he was looking for, then kept a lookout for me. This guy had climbed before, and told me that the curry on top was expensive, but it was the best curry in the whole entire world. I knew what he meant. Like Theresa Panza in Don Quixote had said, “Hunger is the best sauce,” climbing that mountain ensured that the curry I ate at the top would be the best. And it was. My knees went weak, it was so good. And expensive. And I didn’t care one bit how much I had paid for the best curry on the planet.

In the hut at the summit, this man hammered an inked stamp into our sticks, then said, “Congratulations” in English, and presented us with a little prayer on a tiny wooden board, which I tied to my stick.

When we emerged, we saw a miracle had happened: the clouds had cleared and we could see all the way to the base! A weak ray of sun periodically touched our faces. We euphorically took a few photos in the sandblasting wind with sun. We had rested 45 minutes, and it was time to descend.

The views on the way back down were so much better now that the fog had cleared!

The trip down was – yes – very hard. But nowhere near as hard as going up. It was a different kind of endurance. Going up I was out of breath and fatigued. Going down I had pain. Right away, both knees began to hurt from all that pressure. Heading down a steep, steep slope, using my knees to hold myself upright with every step, took all the tolerance out of my joints. Oh, it hurt. But there was no other way to get down other than to keep walking. My sailor friend also had bad knees. His hurt worse than mine, and he stopped to put on a knee brace just below the summit. The track down was through pumice gravel; a different route than up. We would take a step, and slide to a stop in the pebbles. Five thousand feet back to the 5th station.

Climbers on the trail, and the valley below.

We talked a lot on the way down because we had the breath to do so. We stopped often, but that was to rest our knees, and not to catch our breath. Finally at 4:30pm we reached Jay, who was waiting for us at 5th station. It had taken us 5 1/2 hours to reach the summit, and 3 3/4 hours to get back down. We drug ourselves onto the bus to wait for the rest of the crew to show up. Our time to go had been scheduled for 5:30, but two people remained missing. Because of cell phone coverage on the mountain, Jay had some information. One had gotten lost. One had suffered knee problems. Since we didn’t know the extent of the injury, Jay asked for a volunteer to head back up the mountain with him to help the Master Chief who was in pain. He later got word that the lost guy had found his way again, and was heading back. Master Chief was ok, just had to go easy on the knees. Kudos to the sailor who volunteered to head back up after reaching the bottom. The lost sailor had reached the summit at 11:30, and had taken 8 hours to get to the bottom. We finally pulled away at 7:30 pm.

It had been a long day, but Fuji was not done with me yet. Near the bottom of the hill, our bus hit pavement grooves that had been intentionally cut into the road to make a song as a vehicle drove along them. Our driver explained it was the song of Fujisan. Neat! About twenty minutes later, I was nearly dozing in my seat, and Jay whispered to me, “Crystal! Look at the mountain!” It was pitch black by then, of course, but in front of us we saw a beautiful sparkling zig-zag trail up the side of the mountain, and stretching all the way to the top. “Is the trail lit?” asked one of the Sailors. “No,” Jay told us. “Those are the flashlights and headlamps of the night hikers, heading up to be in place for sunrise at the summit.” It was an incredible sight to hold as my final memory of Fuji.

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