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Three mountain high

East of Seattle, a challenging day in the cascade range

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / October 14, 2007

NORTH BEND - In the weeks before we were to hike three mountains in a day, my friend Brent Frei, a large man who talks the same, carried out an intimidating "drip marketing" e-mail campaign.

One morning, I opened my inbox to find photos from an 8-mile training hike Brent had taken on a mountain frequented by many Seattleites looking for a quick fix of the Cascades: "To the top of Mt. Si in 1:15. Mt. Rainier salutes in the distance."

On another afternoon, he sent a report of a hike up Mailbox Peak, 5 miles east of Si: "Tree roots provide helpful stair steps straight up the 20-50 percent grade but in spacings that could not pass code in a land occupied by 10-foot-tall humans. The trees nearly lean flat against the hillside despite pointing straight up."

It had been Brent's big idea that I join him in a Seattle suburb and head east against the I-90 rush hour with Mount Si, Mailbox Peak, and Granite Mountain in our sights. He had climbed all three a year earlier - more than 22 miles up and down 11,000 vertical feet in a day - to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Soon after I committed to the plan, Brent sent word that he had invited along a friend, who happened to be an Ironman triathlete and former Army Ranger. Brent, a former college defensive lineman, apparently could not drum up someone who had run across the Sahara.

I, on the other hand, am a writer. Living as I do on the North Shore of Massachusetts, my training consisted of sprinting up and jogging down crooked stone steps in a 373-year-old cemetery, and paddling a kayak in ocean swells. Time and geography conspired against me: I e-mailed Brent, requesting that he FedEx a Cascade mountain to Eastern Massachusetts.

Brent: "Pick a steep hill for this weekend and go up and more importantly down it. It's the downhill that will wipe you out on the triple."

Mount Si: "This is the easy one, right?"

At 6:30 a.m. on a September day that would bring blue skies and 80 degrees, there was still a dusky dawn, as though the day were not ready to begin. We pulled into an otherwise empty parking lot, took long swigs of water, stowed energy bars in packs, and set off at a brisk pace.

Starting our assault at Mount Si, with a 3,900-foot summit that stands as a short sentinel at the edge of the Cascade Range, was to begin with logic and reason. Friendly firs towered over shadowed terrain. Fallen needles cushioned pathways and nerves. Upward incline arrived gently, after a few minutes' walk, with wide, smooth switchbacks.

Brent - 6 feet 7 inches and 245 pounds - informed the Ranger and me that he would save his talking for the descent. So I settled in behind the Ranger, Mark Albedyll, who now works in federal law enforcement.

Midway up, where switchbacks came more quickly, we talked about Ironman triathlons - one-day races with a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. Mark had done one the year before, for a second time, in northern Idaho.

I asked him to name the most difficult physical challenge he'd ever experienced. In one day, or longer, he asked.

One day.

"Definitely the Ironman," Mark said.

And longer?

"Ranger school," he said.

Then came tales of swamps and sleep-deprivation, of drill sergeants and long runs with uncertain end.

It made our effort seem easy, and suddenly, at 7:52 a.m., the trail opened at the base of a granite haystack, Mount Si's sharp summit. (Note: Times are as I marked them, at certain benchmarks, in a diminishing state of coherence. They are subject to debate, and inaccuracy.)

Beneath us, fog obscured pastures and quickly-multiplying housing tracts in the Snoqualmie Valley. Farther west, skyscrapers in Bellevue and Seattle bowed beneath the rugged ridges of the Olympics. To the south, 14,400-foot Mount Rainier rose so clear and confident that I thought Brent, what with his long arms, might be able to touch it.

After 10 minutes for drink and denial of what lay ahead, we descended. We encountered a group warming into their ascent near the bottom. Afterward, Brent piped up:

"What you'll notice as you go is a change in personnel. Here on Mount Si, there are computer programmers and day-hikers. On the others, you pass people on the trail who look like they're training for the Iditarod."

Mailbox Peak: 'Oh, it's that #&@!%* steep!'

We had enjoyed 30 blessed minutes of soft-seat luxury - munching power muffins and ham sandwiches during the drive to Mailbox Peak - when, at 9:50 a.m., we arrived at the parking area.

How do you prepare for chaos?

As we set off down a gravel path toward the trailhead, Brent tried to impress upon me just how hard the next two hours would be. The trail is not maintained and climbs 4,100 feet in just over 3 miles with hardly a switchback. It rises from base to peak as though following a plumb line.

Yet Mark walked silently as Brent held forth, and I thought, Hah! Mark's not worried. Then, as we turned left onto the thickly-wooded trail, Mark weighed in: "The thing is that one stretch when you come up above the tree line."

Uh-oh.

We scrambled to grab tree trunks with sweaty hands. Bark on the uphill side of trees - from people going down as much as up - was worn smooth as glass. Really. I leaned against one narrow trunk and nearly fell over.

After an hour, we came to a short, sideways section of trail that Brent and Mark had dubbed "Recovery Ridge."

Brent: "It's interesting to note that the rest periods here - the easy parts - are the hard part of Mount Si. . . . As you keep going, Mailbox becomes almost a caricature of itself, because you can't believe something can be so consistent in its relentlessness."

Rare comments that broke the ensuing silent struggle were punctuated with flying spittle. Little was uttered that can be repeated in family-friendly fashion.

But then, at 11:30 a.m., just in time for a peanut-butter-flavored CLIF Bar lunch, we cleared the tree line and there, up that last stilted stretch of stone, stood the peak decorated with two mailboxes.

(Inside one, among other miscellany: a golf ball, a hardback edition of Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs & Ham," a dog bone, and a box of Altoids.)

Rainier loomed to the south, but also Mount Adams, nearly in Oregon, and in the other direction, Mount Baker, only 14 miles from the Canadian border. Seattle's urban sprawl was a memory. Mount Si lingered 5 miles to the west, as though it were a cute cousin trying to hang with the big kids.

We were walking, step by step, mountain by mountain, away from civilization, and into the wilderness.

Enough reflection, though, as 10 minutes had passed and it was time to go down: Ouch! Ugh! Oof!

Granite Mountain: "Not so fast, Rubber Legs!"

When we were in college together, Brent and I had a friend with the nickname Phineas J. Whoopee, for the know-it-all professor who advised Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley on their animated adventures. Once, when the nicknamed "Mr. Whoopee" tanked early in a track race he had been leading, another friend, Tom DeMerit, coined the term "Whoopee Wall," for that otherwise promising point at which things fall apart.

With two mountains down, including the most menacing, Brent, Mark, and I were feeling good at the base of our final climb, Granite Mountain, at 1:55 p.m. Despite differences of training and experience, we were all tired enough to temper our actions with wisdom and lingered by the truck to down extra Gatorade, apples, and energy bars.

Hikers heading deeper into the central Cascades often begin or end at the Granite Mountain trailhead, and a map showed longer routes winding north, west, and east. It quickly became clear that the 4-mile Granite Mountain trail would be a combination of elements of our first two climbs: manicured and long, like Si, but steep, though not so much as Mailbox.

Our tight string lengthened a bit, as each of us found a personal pace for the final hours. Midway up, where the tree line ended and the mountain opened in wide, rocky fields, the trail wove around boulders.

Brent and I plodded along together, steadily. It had been years since we'd had this luxury: time to share a journey.

We turned from breathless banter to serious conversation, about new relationships, with children, and old, with parents. We talked about the accumulation of wealth and the meaning of poor.

Out on the mountain, it was that easy. With good shoes, loose clothes, and plenty of water, success was left only to wits, energy, and determination. On the first two mountains, the test had seemed a solitary challenge. Here on the third, our discussion delivered distraction and strength. What was one more summit, when climbing in the company of a friend?

In softening sun, we took those last steep steps and, at 3:55 p.m., stopped at the top.

I-90 buzzed silently in the canyon to the south, as it had all day. This far east, though - only 14 miles from Si, but deeper than that in its separation from the city - the flow of traffic was thinner. The drivers were travelers, cresting Snoqualmie Pass and descending east to Washington state's dry side.

The familiar peaks of Rainier, Adams, and Baker were there, too, but now we were among them. The high alpine terrain seemed more buffered from the wider world. Just beneath the summit, to the north, two turquoise lakes lay still.

Ten minutes passed more quickly than before, and too soon we were humping back down, the going not as hard, but more painful. Feet were sore, legs unsure. Entering the tree line, Mark, Brent, and I, again in a tight line, shuffled across dry earth.

Brent: "It's getting a bit dusty here, at the end of the cattle drive."

I moved to the front, and the thickly-wooded trail rejoined another, angling toward the parking lot on a gentler course. Soon we would be heading back toward Seattle for pizza and a seat on the porch. I was exhausted and energized.

Less than a quarter mile from the parking lot, I began to run softly, just bouncing along. I was thinking of the day, the effort to get that far, all of it and nothing at all.

Then, as I picked up the pace, I tripped. I launched mightily and was airborne, legs stretched behind, arms reaching forward . . . flying!

I landed chest first, with a thud.

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

Mount Si, Mailbox Peak, and Granite Mountain are located on the north side of Interstate 90 heading east from Seattle into the Cascade Range. Each makes for a challenging few hours of hiking on its own. String them into an 11-hour outing and plan to be limping the next day.

Mount Si

Elevation at summit: 3,900 feet (nearly 4,200 with the granite spike at its top).
Length of hike: 8 miles, up and down. Elevation gain: 2,100 feet.
Directions: I-90 east to exit 31 (North Bend, 31 miles east of Seattle). Go through town, left on Mount Si Road, then a few miles to the trailhead parking lot.
Details at mountsi.com.

Mailbox Peak

Elevation: 4,900 feet.
Length of hike: 6.4 miles. Elevation gain: 4,100 feet.
Directions: I-90 east to exit 34 (34 miles east of Seattle). Left on 486th Avenue SE, then right on Middle Fork Road. Follow that for about 2 1/2 miles and park at the second of three roads on the right. A gravel footpath leads to the trailhead.
Details: Searc "Mailbox Peak at summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150711/.

Granite Mountain

Elevation: 5,600 feet.
Length of hike: 8 miles. Elevation gain: 3,800 feet.
Directions: I-90 to exit 47 (47 miles east of Seattle). Left under the interstate, left at the T in the road, and continue straight to Pratt Lake parking area. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park. Available for $30 at naturenw.org/store-passes.htm.
Details: www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/.

Where to stay

Hotel 1000
1000 First Ave., Seattle
206-957-1000
hotel1000seattle.com
A new design hotel in the center of the city. Double $220.

Where to eat

Wild Ginger
1401 Third Ave., Seattle
206-623-4450
wildginger.net
A fusion institution in an upscale setting that serves black pepper scallops, emerald prawns, panang beef curry, and other spicy, and hearty, fare. Dinner for two $100 and up.

Cherry Street Coffee House
1212 First Ave., Seattle
cherrystreetcoffeehouse.com
Walk a few blocks uphill - barely - from Hotel 1000 for a fluffy latte with a heart in the foam. $2.90-$3.25.

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