We hardly need an excuse to #optoutside and we have already made hiking on Black Friday somewhat of a tradition in the Falkenburg household, however, I had to work on Friday so we decided to head outside on Wednesday instead. We had friends visiting from Arizona and we wanted to see some of that snow that has been accumulating in the mountains so we headed down to Hoodsport on the Olympic Peninsula. From here you can access any number of great hikes in the southern part of the Olympic Mountains but we were after Mt Ellinor. This is a favorite in my family, it is fairly short, fairly steep, and the views are incredible. I had been up it in the summer a number of times but never in the winter. I called up the ranger to see what kind of equipment we would need. He knew pretty much nothing about the conditions… Said there might be snow, didn’t think we would need ice axes or crampons or helmets… really a pretty useless phone call. I couldn’t find any information on it in recent trip reports and summitpost didn’t tell me a lot about equipment needed in snowy conditions. So, with a lack of information under our belts we figured it must not be too crazy or technical and headed out with one ice axe, four trekking poles, two pairs of crampons, two sets of microspikes, and no helmets between five people.
We started from the lower trailhead which makes for a 6.3 mile round trip hike. The first part of the trail is really mellow and switchbacks through some beautiful woods. The sun was out for what felt like the first time in forever, and there was a light dusting of snow on the north sides of things. Eventually the lower trail meets up with the upper trail which is coming from a higher parking lot and things get a whole lot steeper. Ultimately you will do 3,000ft in 3 miles. After a while of steep you reach a sign that says summer route. Since there didn’t seem to be a clear winter route from that point we continued on the summer route. Eventually the summer route winds its way to the bottom of a rocky slope that heads up towards Mt Ellinor. There wasn’t enough snow yet in this area to kick steps straight upwards so we continued to follow the footpath, postholing through to the jumble of rocks bellow.
Eventually we found ourselves directly bellow the summit block, still a ways down, but all there was between us and it was a straight up climb and an avalanche chute. Or people had clearly been cutting across the slope where the summer route usually heads and heading up that way. Kyle and I surveyed the scene and pretty quickly determined that we didn’t like it, not one bit. We decided we were going to turn around and everyone was fine with that. We found another little spot with a great view of Seattle, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount St Helens. That was good enough for us.
So what informed our decision? Mainly the run out bellow both the traverse and the chute didn’t look great to us. Maybe with more snow it is gentle and sloping, I have heard it is a great glissade in the winter time, but the way it is now it is dotted with dangerous rocks and there are some definite drops that could do you some harm if you couldn’t stop before you got to them. Had we all had the appropriate equipment I would have felt more comfortable. That would have meant ice axes for everyone and some sort of traction (the snow was fluctuating between soft and giving away to hard and icy). When you add ice axes and crampons into the mix I also think it wise to have helmets. That is a lot of pokey stuff you don’t want coming in contact with your head. While we were chilling on our rock outcropping we had chosen and enjoying the view we saw two people coming down who did not have the above equipment. They were falling every other step and clearly having a blast. Ah, the pleasure of being naive. I am almost 100% sure they had no idea the consequences of falling down that slope, that they didn’t realize the danger they were putting themselves in, or the position we would be in if one of them got hurt. We watched them until they were off the dangerous part of the slope and then headed down.
Bottom line, we could have summited. We could have kept pushing even though we didn’t have the right equipment and things would have probably been okay. But that would have been choosing to take more risks than Kyle and I were comfortable with. None of us were butt-hurt over not summiting, we still had a wonderful day, and no one died. I think back to before we had taken our mountaineering course and I see now that sometimes we did stupid things, not because we wanted to take big risks but because we simply didn’t know any better. We are still just beginners when it comes to mountain climbing but we have learned one of the most important lessons, when we are in over our heads and when it is time to turn around.