The Smell of Old Snow in the Morning

There is always that moment when you wake up at 4am to go climb where you look at your partner and both of you are thinking, “We could just go back to sleep…”  There is always the opportunity to bail because it is so early and dark out and you are so tired and you bed is so comfortable.  That is why I leap out of bed, as soon as the alarm goes off.  I cannot allow myself to hit snooze, or even think about not climbing.  I have to seize the moment that is awarded to me by my phones beeping summons, and just get up.

On Friday our transition from bed to the car went smoothly.  We drove the hour and fifteen minutes from Olympia to Mount Ellinor’s lower parking lot with pop songs blasting and pop tarts for snacking.  We where on trail by 5:30, leaving our lonely car in the parking lot with no company, we where the first to arrive at this popular climb.

You may remember that we actually attempted this climb with some friends back in November.  The snow conditions turned us around because we hadn’t brought sufficient gear.  Since then Kyle and I have been planning to go back.  Ellinor isn’t really a technical or challenging climb.  It is pretty short, not a ton of elevation gain, and really it is just a walk up.  But Ellinor is special because it is one of the mountains that is the gateway to the Olympics.  As you climb, if you look over your shoulder, you see nothing but water and flat land to the East.  Far far away you can glimpse Rainier and the Cascades, but mostly your eye is drawn to the Puget Sound.  But as you climb westward you can feel that hidden behind the ridge ahead are mountains, the mountains of the Olympics, spreading out before you.

We reached the cut off to the winter route as the sun was coming up.  When we climbed it in November there wasn’t enough snow to make the winter route an option yet.  It had snowed recently but it was too early for there to be a good snow pack.  Now there was less snow on the trail and on the road but when you reached the winter route there was suddenly thirty feet of snow providing a clear path to the bottom of the chute.  The chute, which is the winter route to the top, is straight forward enough.  Just a long steep haul.  When we got to the bottom of the chute we were awarded our first views of the Puget Sound, our first rays of sun, and the glissade chute.  I had heard that the glissade off of Ellinor is epic, but after Adams I figured I would never be impressed by a glissade again.  Ellinor’s is a shorter, steeper glissade, but the impressive thing about it is that because it is such a popular mountain the chute is about two feet deep with banking sides.  It looks like a bobsled track shooting down the mountain.  You kick steps next to the chute as you go up and my excitement and terror for riding it to the bottom grew throughout the climb.

Ellinor’s slopes have been ravaged by climbers.  There are some spots where people have pooped right in the middle of the stampede of steps leading to the summit.  The chute is covered in foot prints, and all the snow looks old and weary, with a thin coating of pine needles and grime.  But as we pushed onwards I had a big shit eating grin on my face.  That smell of old snow mingling with the warm pine scented wind that was blowing in, that is one of my favorite smells.

Ellinor has a seemingly endless bevy of false summits.  You get to the top of the chute and you think maybe you will have to traverse a little but no, there is a huge expanse between you and what looks like maybe it is the summit.  Of course once you traverse over to the next hill and climb up it you discover that you are still not on the summit and yet another traverse and a little hill lay in front of you.  At this point you don’t dare to hope you are actually there so you whoop with delight when you pop out on top to the most incredible views.

Kyle and I didn’t hang around on the summit for very long.  It was getting hot and our biggest concern of the climb was loose wet avalanches, so we had a snack and headed down.  Of course when you have glissades all the way you to the bottom heading down takes a total of five minutes.  The glissade chutes where everything I had been imagining them to be on the way up.  They where terrifying and exhilarating.  I had never actually done a glissade steep enough to understand the potential dangers, but this one schooled me.  You have to be so careful not to dig your feet in and you have to really dig your ice ax spike in to keep your from sliding out of control.  The glissade chute was super steep and still icy because the sun hadn’t crested the rim.  Poor Kyle, with his bigger mass, had to get out and walk for part of it because he was gaining too much speed and couldn’t control himself.  I just screamed and squealed all the way to the bottom.  It was one of those activities where I was able to recognize how sore I was going to be the next day as I was doing it.  Sure enough I could hardly lift the arm I had been using to control the ice ax the next morning.

After a quick but life changing glissade we sped to the bottom of the trail and high tailed it home.  Back by 11am.  Life resumed.  But there is something about an early morning climb that gives the rest of the day a sense of accomplishment and makes anything else you do seem relaxing.  You let out a lot of sighs of contentment.  You are fulfilled.  I wish every day involved an early morning climb.


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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

6 thoughts on “The Smell of Old Snow in the Morning

  1. Wow… sounds like so much fun! I took a mountaineering course and practiced a little glissading, but haven’t had the opportunity to do it since. So cool, and really enjoyed the photos as well!

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