Mt Aix, 06/29/08-06/30/08

After a good week or so of searching guidebooks and websites for a high-altitude trail that maybe–just maybe–wasn’t completely covered in snow, I finally came across a few different references1 of the Mt Aix trail. Most were at least a year old, and therefore the conditions they described weren’t really applicable to this Spring’s stubborn snows and late melt; but there was a trip report from the end of May at that was quite detailed. I decided that a month’s worth of southwestern exposure–including the three or four 80-90° days leading up to the day(s) of our hike–would’ve had a significant impact on the snow level, and that if we were lucky, we’d be able to make it prett’ near to the top. With the weather clear and hot, we’d also be able to fully appreciate the views that everyone assured would be there if it weren’t for those darn clouds. So: good weather, good views, and a hike with a difficulty rating I’d have to hide from Nicole. I stopped at REI and bought myself the Bumping Lake #271 Green Trails Map.

Since this weekend was our first wedding anniversary, we decided to elongate the trip by car-camping somewhere near Bumping Lake on Saturday night.

I have to take time out here to mention that this was our first time driving along WA-410, and it definitely will not be the last. It’s a great drive with amazing views. At one point, just after entering Mount Rainier National Park, I believe, there’s a great reveal of The Mountain, which led Nicole to exclaim: “Mother of God!” I don’t think she was very far off.

Mt Rainier from WA-410

Mt Rainier from WA-410.

Once off of Highway 410, there seemed to be dozens of side-of-the-road sites along Bumping River, but since it was a beautiful Saturday, almost all were occupied, and we didn’t even bother turning into the Forest Service pay-sites. Just before Bumping Lake there’s a no-fee Forest Service campground called Bumping River Crossing, and that’s where we pulled in for the evening. It had an outhouse and we brought two bottles of Cristalino that we weren’t going to carry up Mt Aix the next day, so it was more than adequate. The campground was populated, but still nearly half-empty, and we settled into a quiet site away from the river and collected twigs and branches for a small but necessary campfire–for the S’mores, of course.

The next morning we leisurely prepared our food and set off for the trailhead. There had been signs posted perpendicular to Bumping Lake Road that stated that roads 1800 & 1808 were closed at the junction, but we found them both open and the few miles up to the trailhead were snow-free and easily handled by the Explorer, and had we driven the Focus, I’m certain that we wouldn’t have had a problem either; our alley in West Seattle has worse potholes.

I forgot my watch at home in a drawer so we had to check our iPhones periodically to get the time. (After we got home and I imported my photos, I realized that the time signatures of my Nikon D40 would give me enough info to make reasonable estimates on travel times, etc.)

I snapped a photo of the trail marker at 09:04, and we were off.

For the first 30 minutes or so, the trail was pretty much a small gravel road, with a very gentle incline. In fact, I did notice some tire tracks, even though this trail is within the William O. Douglas Wilderness. They couldn’t have gone too far, though, because shortly after you enter the Wilderness, the trail narrows and enters the woods. Almost immediately there’s a creek crossing, and at 10 feet wide and only inches deep, even at this time of year, I’d recommend letting your boots get slightly wet instead of trying to maintain your balance with a 20-40 pound backpack across the downed log bridge. Nicole didn’t quite make it across, and on the return trip we both decided it’d be best if we tiptoed through it.

Then the trail begins in earnest, and there’s a few blow-downs to step over. From here on, it’s all switchbacks, some longer than others, and some steeper than others. At the southern end of some of these switchbacks, you’ll come within earshot of rushing water, and there are a few side trails that promise a glimpse of a waterfall, but don’t really deliver unless you feel like going a bit off trail. I could make out a bit of it through the trees, and it was running pretty strong, but I’m sure later in the season it’ll be considerably weaker–and quieter.

More switchbacks–many of which have noticeably been cut again and again by boots–please, stay on the trail! An hour or two in, we were passed by a group of three day hikers headed up to the summit. In maybe another 30 minutes, at 11:27, we ran into the first snow, a small amount alongside a stream that seemed like a great candidate to refill our water supply. We were making slow progress with our full packs, but those packs also meant we weren’t in any particular hurry. We’d been stopping pretty often for breathers and water, and though the trees weren’t completely thinned out yet, it was starting to get pretty warm.

Nicole at the first snow

Nicole at the first snow.

For the next 30-45 minutes, parts of the trail were covered with up to a few feet of snow, but in every case but one the trail was visible on the other side of the snow, and easily picked up. In one case, the snow covered the southern end of a switchback, so you started up snow in one direction, and then came back in the other. All were pretty easy, and there was less of this snow on the way back down the next day. It should all be gone in no time.

Jeremy, feeling the heat.

Jeremy, feeling the heat.

By noon the tree-cover was considerably less and we were well past starting to feel the heat and the weight of our packs. We hiked for another hour or so and came to a very nice campsite with great views of Mt Rainier and a water source. Corroborative reports indicate that this site is probably about 3.5 miles in and over 6000’ up. The boots were off, the tent was up, and Nicole was “resting” by 14:00. That’s ~5 hours since we’d left the trailhead, but we’d stopped for lunch, filtered water, and generally took as much time as we needed to get there. While I was snapping some photos, another day hiker passed us going up, and going up quickly. This hike is hard, but I’m sure it’s a lot less hard if you’re not carrying a full backpack.

Nicole, managing to rest in our oven–or tent.

Nicole, managing to rest in our oven–or tent.

You can ask Nicole more about that, because sometime between 15:00 and 16:00 we set off toward the top, me with a slightly less heavy pack and her entirely without one.

For most of this time, I’d incorrectly assumed that the highest peak I could see was our destination, Mt Aix. Yes, I had a map. (Later, I assumed that that same highest peak I could see was Bismark Peak; wrong again, it was only an unnamed high point that hid Bismark Peak from view.) Speaking of views, the views of Mt Rainier only got better, and Mt St. Helens and Mt Adams were easily recognizable in the distance, too. While looking at a snowfield on Fake Bismark Peak, I could make out the small speck of a mountain goat, and I got out the 200mm zoom lens for magnification and validation. This was pretty exciting because it’s the first mountain goat we’ve seen, even if it was quite far away.

Our very first Mountain Goat.  Awww!

Our very first Mountain Goat. Awww!

All this time we were making our way up towards Nelson Ridge, and there was much more snow here than at lower elevations. Luckily we had footsteps (though they’d faded from the heat of the sun) to follow, and the going was a little easier with our reduced weight. Still, we kept coming to more snow and at around 17:00 we crossed the most difficult stretch, a small but tall and sharply sloped bank that required kicking in some snow-stairs and more than a bit of balance. At this point, I said, “If there’s another one like that, we can turn around.” That was the last snow we came across until we we had the summit in sight, which actually wasn’t much longer.

Nicole eating snow.  The snow would have its revenge.

Nicole eating snow. The snow would have its revenge.

Within 15 minutes of that last troublesome (for us) snow, we reached the intersection of the Nelson Ridge and Mt Aix trails. At 17:15, and 7200’ elevation, according to the map, it was a great place to stop and snap a few pictures, and maybe even set up a tent. The view to the north was Nelson Ridge, Eastern Washington descended in its logical direction, and to the south I could finally make out the true Bismark Peak and Mt Adams in the distance. West, of course, remained Rainier.

Jeremy at the ridge, with Mt. Rainier behind him.

Jeremy at the ridge, with Mt. Rainier behind him.

For most average hikers, I’d say this is as good as it gets. Or as good as one really needs it to get. I’ll elaborate on this momentarily. After 15 minutes of taking it in, we set off along the Mt Aix trail–with Mt Aix still hidden by the high point to your left as you make your way south.

Mt Aix remains hidden behind this point for a few minutes more.

Mt Aix remains hidden behind this point for a few minutes more.

It’s at about this point that the trail becomes very narrow and rocky to the point of questionable footing, and since I still had a pretty large pack on, I wasn’t entirely confident that I wouldn’t slip, trip, or stumble off to the right, which is completely exposed and offers none of the false security of at least a tree to stop your fall. A long-dormant fear of heights took me by surprise, and I dropped to my knees for a few moments to pull myself together. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this hike, it’s where my limitations currently are! This portion of the trail is pretty short, and after a few minutes of watching myself place one foot in front of the other, we rounded the high point that obscured Mt Aix, which was now directly to the east.

The summit in view, and snow before us.

The summit in view, and snow before us.

Here there was a nice patch of of snow, which thankfully didn’t slope too steeply to the edge of the Hindoo Creek basin. Still, the distance to the summit looked quite considerable, and the path visible directly on the opposite side of the snow didn’t look especially comforting, especially after my minor panic attack. To make our decision easier, Mt Adams was now covered by dark clouds, and we agreed that even though we gave up on the summit, we were satisfied with how far we’d come. Maybe we’ll come back some time with a bit more experience and make it to the top. This was actually our first attempt at any summit!

The retreat toward Nelson Ridge.

The retreat toward Nelson Ridge.

At 17:45 we started back down, with clouds slowly but steadily working their way north. While looking back at Fake Bismark Peak, I noticed a group of at least six mountain goats along its North-South ridge. I figured pulling out my camera wouldn’t result in anything near a super shot, so we just enjoyed the reward for a moment and continued down to camp, listening to the thunder get closer and closer. The snowbank that I mentioned earlier sent both Nicole and I down to its base on our backsides, one after another, which was definitely not our intention, and we were lucky to stop ourselves with our feet before we went into the trees. It was fun, once we knew we weren’t going to break any limbs.

By 19:30 we’d put on the rainfly and I took some decent pictures of the storm clouds rolling in over Rainier with the sun low in the sky. Then I had to retreat into the tent as the winds increased and the lightning approached. Thunder in the mountains seems to go on forever. For all the noise, the clouds didn’t drop a very large amount of rain–though it certainly did rain.

The storm around Rainier, as viewed from our camp.

The storm around Rainier, as viewed from our camp.

Monday morning I was up at 05:15, intent on getting some use out of the tripod I’d carried in. I sat on a nice rock steps from our tent and took photos of Mt Rainier for about an hour. Then I saw a deer on the open slope to the north, but didn’t get any good pictures because I’d had the camera set up with a low ISO and, therefore, longer shutter speeds. By the time I realized what I was doing, the deer disappeared into the trees. Still, another good reason to get out of bed bright and early.

Mt Rainier, up close in A.M.

Mt Rainier, up close in A.M.

At 07:30 we were on our way downhill, and by 10:00 we had our boots off and the keys in the ignition.

Check out the full Flickr set here.

1Mt Aix around the web, with stats and directions:

@NW Hikers.


4 Responses to Mt Aix, 06/29/08-06/30/08

  1. Wendy says:

    Wow! I appreciate your beautiful photos and writing about your adventure. I hope that I can hike up there too.

  2. jeremy says:

    Thanks, Wendy–you definitely should!

  3. Pingback: Summerland & Panhandle Gap, 08/31/08 « Don’t Look Down

  4. Pingback: The Year in Review « Don’t Look Down

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