Monday, June 2, 2014

Recreating in Washington

Though I love to live in Utah, I love to visit Washington.  From a recreation perspective, it rivals anywhere:  the proximity of mountains, rivers, and ocean means that they are very complementary to each other, and as such the quality of recreation is nearly unmatched.  If you are into something in the outdoors Washington has it, and usually in a pretty big way.  Over the last dozen years I’ve explored Washington more than I ever did when I lived in adjacent Oregon, which seems crazy considering that we now live in Utah, but at the time I guess I was pretty content with Oregon and now my tastes have “matured” a bit more and I need the added stimulation that Washington’s bigger terrain provides.   So when we had a window of time to go out on a road trip and Ash wanted to start in Washington (she flew out to tear around with her mom for a few days) and have me come meet her with all the toys on the roof, I was all in, and while we had absolutely no agenda, we knew that Washington would deliver, and right we were! 

After crushing myself doing the annual Grandeur Peak Fun Run and then foolishly deciding to do another “lap” - unaccustomed to the “high” heat that was all of 80 degrees - and then joining Scott and Rachel for their annual combo May birthday soiree I hammered out to Portland in a day.  Approaching P-town up the Columbia river gorge it was raining, and after the brain cookage of the day before it was great to splash up the Eagle Creek trail as a couple-mile leg stretcher; no matter how many times I hike in The Gorge I never cease to be amazed at how amazing that place is:  as deeply-emerald green as anywhere in the world, with more beautiful streams and waterfalls in a few miles than Utah has in the entire state! 

After some good work and socializing with the likes of Chuck Roth, Team Connnell, P.Ecker, and Blair I blasted up to Seattle where I was able to reconnect with Eric Fahlman and his family:
I think that’s Claire’s version of “Blue Steel” 
And then grabbed Ash after she had done a few days of tromping around with her mom on the Olympic Peninsula.  As a reference for recreation quality, that peninsula by itself has recreation that would make other entire western states blush with envy: an unusual and gigantic rain forest with a wild coastline, big and remote ski descents, hundreds of miles of rivers that go from mild to wild, incredible cycling, etc.  We had talked about spending much of our trip out on the peninsula (there was the potential for a backpack in to ski Mount Olympus and then float packrafts back out) but we headed for the nearby Cascades instead. First on our list was Mount Ruth; a little-known peak in the Shuksan/Baker area that Ash had skied many moons ago and remembered as being remote, fun, and pretty mellow (we were a bit chastened by the reports of an avalanche fatality on Shuksan just a few days prior; the NW’s late-season hammerfest of snow apparently meant that the ‘pack needed a bit more time to settle down).  

It was an awesome day; a longish and awkwardly-slow approach:

apparently the NW gets its share of avalanches as well
 means that not many people go in there, and we saw no indication that anyone had been in there this spring. But with some perseverance we saw what we'd come for:

 After a few hours we were on top oggling at Shuksan (foreground) and Baker (background:

and the very-remote and rugged Pickett range:
There's apparently a 45 mile burly traverse that's a 4-5 day adventure, or maybe one day if you're the Dorais brothers! 
we took the gratuitous summit selfie:
or two:

and then sliced our way down perfect corn for 2700 feet down to the valley floor:

 where we slogged back out.  
Alders are a tough go.
I've been thinking of doing a website called "Great Trees of the Wasatch", but after being back in the NW I think I should call it "pretty mediocre trees of the Wasatch!"
And given that it’s Washington, not too much farther down the valley was a really nice class 3-4 paddle on the North Fork Nooksack, before we headed up a nearby access road to go hit Mt Baker. 

Even though Mount Baker is only 10,800 feet, it seems long because the access points are all in the 3500’ range, making for a 7000’ gain to the summit.   As such, many mountaineers consider it to be a 2-day trip.  But we just wanted to get up and ski some good corn, so we got a medium-early start of 5:30 start (it gets light early up here in the Great North!) and charged up the trail for a couple of miles with normal ski packs, started skinning at about 5500 feet, and hit the top of the Coleman glacier easily by mid-morning:

We took one little run to take advantage of a different aspect corning up and then the cherry line of a several-thousand foot descent down the heart of the Coleman in great corn.  

As we approached treeline we saw a crew hiking up with full packs and all their climbing gear doing some heinous post-holing in slush, and I realized that one of the reasons that people buy big heavy mountaineering boots is because they believe the old-school Mountaineers’ mantra that more than 5000’ in a day is not really possible, so instead they slog through mid-afternoon slop – which mandates high, waterproof boots that still get wet and take hours/days to dry – in order to make a high camp where they spend their evening hours melting snow before going to bed early to wake up early to melt even more snow before going up to the top and then – after breaking camp – heading back down in postholey slush!  Ergo the need for big boots, I ‘spose…..

We ended up down in Bellingham where we were able to make the first of our many stops at the Organic, Free-range, Sustainable, Hormone-free, Local, Artisan, Tractor-Free...
No joke.....this farm is done exclusively by true horse power, taking the whole politically-correct produce to a new level!
 Co Op grocery stores that seem to be everywhere in Washington.  The forecast was for a little light rain, which bode well to shred a huge open-space area adjacent to town that is  mountain-bike only with a zillion trails!  However, as former Northwesteners we should have recognized that “light rain” is a bit of a euphemism for “deluge” and the next morning we hastily threw our soggy stuff in the car and did what lots of Washingtonians do:  Head East. 

The Methow Valley on the eastern end of the North Cascades highway is a pretty special place.  It’s in the rain shadow of the Cascades yet is tucked up close enough that it still is able to partake in the range’s copious snow, and while it has all the acoutrements of a resort town…. it is without the resort!  Which makes it great; so much so that there was an essay about it  - in an anonymous form – in the Winter 2014 Patagonia catalog.   Even though it’s always been a “secret” destination for rich Seattlelites and their second homes, the fact that the pass is closed all winter means it’s about a 5 hour trip there, which has kept the resort predators at bay and let the locals and Washington’s nordic diehards have their 220 km (not a typo!) of groomed trails mostly to themselves.  And the unplowed highway provides (snowmobile) access to world-class backcountry ski terrain with great powder in the winter and good corn in the spring when the road opens.  We had another stellar day of great north and south-facing corn off Rainy Pass (in the last few days the snowpack had gone from unconsolidated to isothermic; the beauty of Spring). 
skinning up above Lake Ann, with the North Cascades Highway down in the valley
Putting the Voile ski crampons to work! 

Nice form on nice corn.

crossing a bit nervously given the open water
And again we were able to not only shred nearby singletrack on foot and on bike:
The arrowhead balsamroot was out in full glory in WA as well as the Wasatch.
but also take advantage of the snowmelt and paddle the excellent Black Canyon of the Methow with our old buddy Jonathan Baker:
JB center, with his buddy Jeff

who with Margaret is on the verge of finishing up their cool 600 sq foot home on a 5 acre spread near Winthrop:

  In addition, Ash’s cousin Jeff and Molly live at the base of Patterson Mountain and it was great to see them (and visit Molly’s Organic, Free-range, Sustainable, Hormone-free, Local, Artisan, Tractor-Free grocery store in Twisp. 
Team Patterson
One interesting side note of the Methow portion of our trip was when we first pulled into the Organic, Free-range, Sustainable, Hormone-free, Local, Artisan, Tractor-Free bakery/store in the upcanyon hamlet of Mazama there were a lot of cars parked there and lots of fit-looking people wandering around, and it turns out that the annual Memorial Day 10k trail race was about to start.  On a whim I decided to enter, and was fortunate that the kiddie 1k race happened first so I had a few minutes to warm up.  Given the Methow’s renown for its nordic skiing I figured that this race would have some competition, and sure enough I immediately bumped into two-time Olympian Laura McCabe (whom I’d met once in a hot spring in CA in the mid-90’s and again climbing in Wyoming a few years ago) who then introduced me to a guy with the description of “He was an Olympian this year in Sochi!”  Ah, indeed, don’t let me get in the way of you moving to the front of the starting line! 

Everyone charged off the line, and soon enough I found myself alongside a couple of girls who came up to about my elbow who were very seriously cranking along at about 6:00 mile pace!  Not surprisingly, it turns out that it was Laura’s daughter, and there were other high-school looking types who were surrounding me and going at a good clip as well.  But once the 5k folks turned off I found myself in 5th place behind nordic wunderkind and a few others.  I had the 4th place guy in sight and was able to keep him at the same gap that started to close as we entered the last couple of miles.  Remembering my bike racing tactics I took took a couple of deep breaths as I came up behind him and pushed a little harder on the pedals to veritably charge past him, and this brought me to within sight of the 3rd place guy, whom I caught with about a half-mile to go.  At this point we turned into a stiff headwind, so again bike-style I tucked in and hung out to see how the sprint would be.

Now if I had an Achilles heel, it would be my sprint.  I think I was made up of about 99% slow twitch muscles even back in the day when I was a kid, and my mid-distance running career was pretty much a series of tales of hammering through to the almost-end of every race and then having whoever was nearby easily blow by me to the line as I watched in frustration. Once I started bike racing I thought perhaps the tactical/wind component of The Sprint might work in my favor, but the stories still remained the same; I couldn’t outsprint anyone, ever. 

So as I was sitting behind this guy after charging pretty hard to catch him and being pretty dang tired/sore from going at a relatively high pace that I haven’t run at in a long time I wondered if I would watch yet another guy run to the line in front of me.  But as we turned the last corner to the finish line I felt surprisingly confident and when he predictably surged I experienced a sensation I have rarely had in too-many years of these silly events:  I kicked and blew him away in the last 100 yards for the last “podium” spot (if indeed there had been a podium for the mighty Mazama 10k!).  Pretty fun.  

Post-race I was chatting with my fellow competitors, and the fourth place guy told me “I drove for over an hour to get to this race”  Really?  Where from?   “Yeah, I’m training for Ironman Canada”  Really?  Wow, that sounds hard.  “Yeah, I might do a sprint tri on Monday”  hmm.  Really.  Fascinating.  “I also do a lot of mountain bike racing” Uh, yeah…..great. Starting to look around for an exit from this conversation....  “I ran a 16:48 5k a couple of weeks ago, and I find 10k’s to be a weird distance for me, and I think this course was a little slow.”  Umm…I need to go trim my toenails.  But hey, it’s been great listening to you……

Ash and I did a nice ride that afternoon that was ended in one of the Methow’s singletrack Meccas, and Ash had gotten to an intersection before me and started chatting with a couple of nice folks there.  After she told them we were from SLC and were on a fun road trip with the toys the woman suddenly asked “Are you with Tom Diegel?”  OMG, really?  It was Caitlin, who had moved to Seattle from Vermont after doing the Grand Canyon with Team Middlebury, the New Hampshire Canyoneering society, and me!  

  I am not sure if the world is truly that small, or the circles that we travel in are just tiny……

After the Methow we moved on to the recreation mecca of Leavenworth, where we were able to do some great paddling on the Wenatchee river - with it’s renowned play spots at medium-high flows and a brewpub at the takeout:
Only in Washington....

 one of the “best rides ever” (Devil’s Gulch/Mission Ridge/Red Hill):
a 10 mile, 3000' singletrack climb/descent
this guy greeted us in Yakima Canyon
We did a little flat two mile hike and got back to the car, where we met these guys.  They had biggish packs, trekking poles, and were stretching (above) in preparation for the hike.  We asked them what they were doing, because clearly we had missed something more energetic, but no, they were doing the same flat 2 mi hike!  

and other great runs/rides as we worked our way to Yakima for some excellent Patterson family time. 

There are times when we do trips that we want to leave the car and all its trappings behind, and that’s when we do multi-day river trips and bike tours.  But Washington’s amazing quality and density of daylong adventures meant that this trip – combined with some equally-high quality socializing with excellent people – was super worthy, and we actually have already penned in spring trip next year to our (second?) favorite state.     

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