Another overnighter into the blanketed Olympics, the sun pushing through clouds and reflecting off the mirror snow as we hike. There are three of us this time so we are carrying two tents. Andy Stern, a young friend who has almost no experience in the mountains, had to borrow a backpack, sleeping bag, rain pants, pad from his sister and her boyfriend. Joss and I are taking him to Marmot Pass, a moderate 5-plus mile hike with 3500 feet of elevation gain.
Andy wears worn black jeans and tennis shoes, has snow boots dangling from his backpack, is layered in cotton, but he hikes without complaint, is right on my heels after the first few miles. Mossy switchbacks turn to scree and I worry about my ankle. The clouds are still dense here. We cannot see our surroundings, but the trail is obvious and when it becomes pockmarked snow, Joss’ boot-prints are easy to follow, a size 12. He has been here many times before.
I’m caboose when silver and grey catch my eye. Poking out from under the snow, as if once left behind, buried in winter storms and now melting free with spring, is a brand new Black Diamond ice axe, just my size. I’m sure I’m seeing things until I pull it out from the tiny drift and cradle it, bring it to my chest, a feigned self-arrest.
“Hoooaa!” I yell. Joss and Andy stop and look back. “Anyone lose an ice axe,” but I know they haven’t. I ask Andy to strap it to my bag. Shaking my head in amazement, we continue climbing.
Basin like a polished ivory bowl, frozen teal pond, rock as brittle as shortbread tumbles down the slope, picking up snow along the way. I almost fall headfirst backwards when my left boot breaks through a soft spot and my right boot stays planted uphill. My hiking pole catches me and I roll out of the trap, tell them not to go that way, cut left towards the hill’s crest.
We set up camp on Marmot Pass, literally next to the sign that points west towards Boulder Shelter, east-northeast down the Big Quilcene, the direction of our tracks. We create level platforms with a shovel. I teach Andy how to build snow anchors for the tent. He is eager to learn, asks lots of questions, sheds his sweat soaked under layer and I lend him my extra long-sleeve top. He writes a “gear needs” list in his journal. “By the end of the summer I want to be set up.”
It’s a cold night. The temperature drops a degree for every inch the sun drops behind the jagged horizon. My shoelaces freeze knotted, gaiters are dusted with frost. We eat tortellini with pesto sauce and vegetarian sausage, make Andy eat the leftovers, a self-labeled “garbage disposal.” I dig a three-foot hole, throw the food bags in and cover them with snow, then run back to the tent and burrow deep into my sleeping bag.
I’m using all the features: the draft collar, the mummy hood, the cinch cords. I’m actually warm enough to take my hat off. We’re at 6000 feet, cradled by snow at Marmot Pass, and I sleep like a newborn sloth.
Sunshine makes the tent walls drip. Since there isn’t a cloud in the morning sky the condensed frost at the tent’s peak has turned to rain, pitter-patter as it hits the floor and our sleeping bags. I’m the first awake. Even the boot leather is frozen hard and I have to squish my feet into them. Standing and stretching, I take in the view that was partially obscured by yesterday’s mist. It is stunning.
To the north is a whipped cream peak that shields Buckhorn and Iron. To the south are the crenellated towers of Warrior and Constance, shaded black and white by rock and snow. To the east is the Big Quilcene valley, an embrasure in the surrounding range through which Puget Sound and Glacier are visible. To the west is the winding Dungeness River valley, the steep mound that is Fricaba. The Olympics, covered in snow, could be the Rockies from this perspective. I know that in all the distance I can see, nobody is looking back. It is a feeling of fragile power, vitality, confidence, and I take the time to enjoy it thoroughly before grabbing the shovel and digging up breakfast.
Instant oatmeal again. I can barely stand it. The only thing that keeps me swallowing is the knowledge that I am receiving nutrition, a morning’s share of energy. I need it.
We hike north towards the whipped cream peak. It is early enough that the snow is still firm beneath our deep lugs. Our prints are the first on the hillside. “The view gets better with every step up,” says Andy, and he is right. Soon we are standing on the top, but there is another peak that is obviously higher a short distance north. We are all feeling good so we continue.
“Go ahead Andy,” I say. Joss and I follow as Andy kicks steps, weaves his way up chutes between steep rock, takes the path of least resistance until we are standing on a clump of stone, the highest point for miles, at 7000ft. Now we can see all the way to the Straits of Juan de Fuca, can see Baker, Glacier, Rainier. The Pacific, I know, is not far beyond the slight western haze on the horizon. Yesterday’s tracks mark the alpine meadow beneath us, a set of stitches in an otherwise seamless white expanse.
The rock is surprisingly solid here, especially for the Olympics. Joss and I boulder for a while, our bulky mountaineering boots gripping the stone, our chilled fingers clamping onto features. Against my better judgment, I climb a lumpy arête to the top of a large boulder. Joss is playing in a wide chimney below me. I am happy he is there because when I am descending, I come to a point where I cannot see the next footholds. They are hidden beneath a small overhang and it is impossible to differentiate solid knobs from flakey ones. “Down and right…further right…further…there,” he guides my probing foot to a ledge that I can feel is good even through the stiff boots. The rest is a cinch.
When we get back to the tents the sun is high. While Joss begins breaking camp I tell Andy to, “Grad an ice axe, the new one, and follow me.” I lead us to a steep crest, plant my axe there, wait for Andy.
Practicing self-arrests is tiring work, but it is important to maintain this skill and, for Andy, it is important to learn it. We do all variations: headfirst facedown, feet-first face-up, headfirst face-up. Everything with both the right and left hand. We are both tired afterwards, sweating underneath rain jackets. A mess of snow, slide tracks, miniature avalanches beneath us mark the basin, a signal of our presence.
We strip layers, throw them in the snow, help Joss break camp. Our backpacks are loaded before long. The sun is beating down, reflecting burns up our nostrils and the altitude makes everything more powerful. I’m accustomed to it, at least more than Joss and Andy are. Nobody remembered sunscreen. “Hell, the weather report was for rain,” I say, a poor excuse for an amateur oversight. Andy leads us down the hill, following yesterday’s tracks through the basin, around the edge of the frozen lake. I tell him to diverge, to head deeper into the valley where the terrain seems easier. We punch through a stand of trees and arrive at the top of a steep chute of snow. Joss teaches Andy how to glissade.
As we watch, Andy shoots down the frozen pipe like he’s in a water slide. He is rushing towards us at great speed with a huge grin on his face. It looks like he’s going to crash into us when Joss screams “Stop!” and Andy shoves his heels into the soft snow, halts at our feet.
“That was my favorite part yet,” Andy says, clambering to his feet. Broad smile, balanced red sunburn tell most of his story. I know, for Andy, this is the beginning of many grand adventures. From the way he asks questions to the eager smile, everything about him indicates a newfound passion for the outdoors that will motivate a lifetime of steps along the world’s many trails. For the moment, he seems happy to follow this one.
We rediscover our melted tracks, follow them until the snow disappears and the moss returns, and we don’t stop walking until we’re stretching and groaning at the trailhead.