Early Winter in the Highlands Part 3 of 4: Summitting Haley Mountain
The first of the cold temperatures each winter feel so extreme. When the single digit days came in late November, my friend Lisa and I decided it was time to attempt a climb on my back yard peak, Haley Mountain. At just over 5,000 feet in elevation, this mountain presides over the Forest Service road and it's surrounding playground where I spend a lot of time year round. In the spring, summer and fall, I love to run and bike on this road and its connectors. In the winter, I put on my Fisher Back Country skis and make tracks. I feel so blessed to have this public land available for my use. It is even more fun when I have opportunities to share it with others, like during the Highlands Halloween Hundred Trail Un-run (H3) Ras and I host in October each year.
I felt stoked to have this adventure planned that I could share with Lisa. Our Chesaw Short-Tail Grouse Preserve hike had been so great that I wanted to have a day of at least equal excitement.
The afternoon served up a good dose of excitement for us that equaled many of our other adventures. To start with, the day's high temperatures only reached about 9 degrees. It was chilly. It was the kind of cold that makes it so that you can't stop moving, you can't take off your gloves for more than a second and your water freezes shortly after you've left the warm comfort of your home or car.
Lisa and I left my house and traveled along the snowy single track trail for about 1/4 of a mile before we reached the Forest Service road. We decided to hike to Haley Divide, roughly 4 1/2 miles away along a gentle uphill grade, gaining about 900 feet in elevation. We kept up a good pace to keep warm and chatted all along the way. Before we knew it, we had reached the divide. We decided to turn toward Haley and start climbing.
Earlier as we had climbed along the road, we could see a ridge line that would have taken us to the top. We could have approached this line by taking a number of different connector roads off of the main service road. We decided against this plan for two reasons. The first reason was that Ras and I had seen a huge hunter's camp being set up just a few days prior, in the area of these connector roads. The season was open for bow hunting. A camp that took several pickup loads of gear to set up was intimidating for Lisa and I to be too near. We did not want to cross paths with these guys. We are both courageous in the back country, but this seemed like asking for trouble.
The second reason for just taking the main road straight to the base of Haley and climbing up from there, was that 8 degrees is bitterly, and even dangerously, cold. We were bundled up well, but we didn't want to waste any time exploring unnecessarily. It would be worth tackling any terrain we came across to take a straightforward approach to the summit.
Lisa opened a package of Hand Warmers as we climbed over blowdowns and worked our way from the divide to the flank of Haley. We started our climb, carefully and confidently. I followed Lisa's lead. The snow was scant, and it didn't cause any problems for us. It was so cold that the snow was bone dry and had no icy or slippery quality to it at all. After about 10 minutes of climbing, we came to a band of large, stable rocks. Off to the right, we could clearly see cliffs. This was not the way to go. To the left, the grade was much steeper and the rocks were the same as they were directly in front of us. We had already been climbing over some rocks and were finding good, stable footing. We decided to continue straight through.
I was wearing my Altra Lone Peak 1.5 trail running shoes. I had thick Smart Wool socks on and my feet were staying warm. The wide toe box in the Altras allows for thicker socks in winter without causing the shoes to become too tight. I was finding good footing and I was impressed with the way my Altras were flexible enough to squeeze into tight spots between rocks. The grippy soles clung onto the rocks as I scrambled over the top of them, now on all fours. The lug soles grabbed into the frozen earth, topped with a skiff of snow, each time I stepped on solid ground rather than rock. I checked each foot placement a couple of times before committing; a mistake would mean big trouble up here in this type of cold. I never felt shaky. I moved slowly and surely. I watched Lisa up ahead of me.
The views from this vantage point, high on the side of Haley Mountain, amongst the huge rocks that made up this hunk of geography, were outstanding. I could see far below to the Okanogan River valley. I was surprised that I could see it from here. There were many other surrounding hills. The most dramatic of the views were those right in front of me though. The trees on this mountain were huge. Remains of silvered snags still stood; massive, withered and covered in bright green lichen. Old giant pine and fir trees towered around Lisa and I as we climbed towards the summit.
Finally, we came out of the rocks and the grade became easier. I was able to stand up and hike again. I felt powerful and brave. I was climbing up this peak I had only looked towards the top of for about 4 years now. I had always wanted to climb it but had never committed to it as I had on this day, with this adventure partner. We were doing it, despite the frigid air, the snow, the at first seemingly threatening rock band. We were now just hiking up through dried grasses and some of the most mystical giants amongst whom I had ever walked. We both slowed down and looked around in awe. We were quiet, almost rendered speechless. When we did speak, the only thing either of us could come up with with was, "There sure are some big trees up here."
Several of the bigger trees, mainly pine, had been struck by lightening. The character of these trees was interesting and added to the mysticism of our surroundings. There was very little undergrowth, as is common to these North Central Washington forests. We could easily hike under and through this forest of ancient trees, both living and scarred from either lightening, mistle toe disease, or wind damage. No logging had ever occurred here. I saw what seemed to be cattle trails. This interested me as I really thought we should find a different way down. I had a hard time imagining myself making my way down the steep rock band. Coming up it had been challenging enough. I pointed out these trails to Lisa and she agreed that we could check them out on the way back down.
We kept climbing towards the true summit of Haley. There were many little basins to drop down into and hills to climb back up as we worked our way to the high point, and no clear views now that we were off of it's steep, lower flanks. The snow was getting deeper and the afternoon was drawing on. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the temperatures were dropping. We decided that we would turn around at 3:00 p.m., whether or not we had reached the top, so that we would have plenty of time to climb down before dark. We had headlamps we could pull out for the service road where navigating in the dark would be much easier.
About 15 minutes after we made this decision, Lisa and I topped out. We took a selfie and immediately turned in the wrong direction to start our descent. We realized right away that we needed to follow our earlier footsteps in the snow. I led the way. It was fun to scamper down the slopes. We were soon at the cattle/game trails. Cattle are allowed to free range in here , so it would not have been out of the question that they wander around up here in the warmer summer months. This is also an area where moose, elk, and deer travel and they could have created these paths.
Lisa pointed out to me that the game trails might lead to watering holes rather than a direct way down the mountain. She suggested that it might be best to stick to the rocks, the same way that we had come up. I told her that I knew I could do it, but that it might feel a little bit intimidating to me once we got there. We also said to each other that it probably wasn't even that long of a stretch of the climb that we were actually in the steep, rocky area. It would seem like less of a big deal on the way down. And it was. I again followed Lisa's lead through this area. I liked the technical challenge to foot placement, the careful focus it took to work through this area and the overall sense of adventure I was experiencing. Before I knew it, we were out of the rocks and working our way back towards the divide. I felt giddy and joked with Lisa at how much easier it seemed to me than I initially thought. Then I slipped as I was getting ready to climb over a large downed tree. My knee came down hard on a frozen rock and because of the cold, the pain was riveting. I knew I wasn't injured and there was no time to mess around anyway, so I just took some deep breaths while Lisa made sure I was okay. I was just happy that it had happened where it did, after the technical rock scrambling, where a fall could have meant something serious.
We got back out to the service road and hiked fast towards the warmth of my house where I had red lentil soup waiting in the crock pot. I had also baked vegan pumpkin bars. Lisa had brought fresh spring rolls and this feast by the woodstove would warm us after our final 4 1/2 mile easy downhill hike.
Interestingly, our bodies felt warm enough in the cold dark as we hiked. The only place that got painfully cold on both Lisa and I was our hips and outer thighs. I guess the muscles in these areas of our legs were not having to work very hard during downhill hiking so they just couldn't stay warm enough. It was now about zero out. I decided next time I head out in these kind of temps, I will need another base layer for my lower body. I had on 2 wool hats, 1 fleece UltraPedestrian beanie, a Smart Wool neck warmer, the hood from my Smart Wool sweater, the hood from my Brooks' Thermal Hoodie and the hood from my down puffy. Head warmth is important and it is also easy to shed these layers as body warmth increases. I like to bring a dry pair of gloves with me as well. Even on really cold days, my hands will perspire from the work of uphill hiking, running or cross country skiing. It is important to have dry gloves for moving downhill, when your energy output is less and it will take more help from layers to keep warm. I like to bring my down puffy in my pack to put on for any pausing on the trail or for when my body temperature decreases on the downhill. Sometimes I might end up shedding it again after I'm warmed up. I try to keep in mind that in a situation where I'm injured, it will be well worth having this extra layer. If I am going to be out for more than an hour in the winter weather, I will bring along a pair of down puffy pants as well. I use my What An Adventure (WAA) pack which accommodates these extra layers easily. I like the front and side pouches for convenient access when I just don't have the ability to fiddle around in the cold. I had my Hand Warmers up front, just in case. It was easy to stow away my Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z poles in the back of the pack in outer mesh pockets when I no longer needed them on the technical down climbing.
Five hours later, now sitting by the woodstove, Lisa and I enjoyed filling Ras in on the details of our climb and having a cup of hot tea. I felt exhilerated and was excited to tell him about the old forest and the rock scrambling. Our hips and outer thighs began to feel painful and burn as they warmed up again. We had the soup and spring rolls and began scheming on future winter adventures.
I like the idea of climbing some more local peaks in the winter. It creates a whole new level to approaching a local peak when the days are colder and shorter; the air is windier and carries with it a chilling bite; snow is underfoot; and the color of the sky imparts a sense of seriousness to the undertaking.