It was October in Washington. I had just broken up with my first boyfriend after a nasty divorce. I had been hiking quite a bit through the summer and finally bought a one man tent so I could go backpacking. I asked a friend I met out hiking for suggestions. My only requirements were this: I needed to be able to reach a place to set up camp in an hour or so as I couldn’t start hiking until Friday late afternoon (remember that it’s October in the northwest so it’s starting to get dark early); I wanted to summit something the next morning; and I had to be able to be done by Saturday evening.
The friend suggested I hike four miles up to Melawkwa Lake to camp for the night, then a “must do” summit (Kaleetan Peak) the next morning, heading back down Saturday afternoon. He had hiked with me twice and knew my ability. “This is perfect for you” he promised. I got to the trail head around 5:00 pm and started hiking. As soon as I got into the trees I could tell I wasn’t going to make it to the campsite by dark. I passed a waterfall while hiking through a clearing and could just make it out. Thank goodness for headlamps to light the way hands free. I was barely able make out the lake while setting up camp. I had no idea where I was or if there were designated camp sites, so I just found a spot that would fit my tent and wasn’t too close to the lake, then I called it a night.
The next morning I woke up to find that I was the only person camped at the lake for the night. With this in mind, I decided to forget putting on clothes and got up to check out the lake in the buff. The setting was so pretty and being alone and naked felt so good that I decided to capture it with my phone. I remember using rocks to prop it up (which i still do) and set the timer. The above photo is the result. It was chilly enough that i did leave on my hat, socks, and boots – it was October after all!
After having some cold breakfast (I couldn’t afford a stove yet), I got dressed and chose to leave my tent, sleeping pad and bag, and non-essentials at my camp while setting off to find this summit. I had done my research on this particular hike and read that it was difficult to find where the trail to the summit started, as well as difficult to follow. Knowing this, I downloaded a map onto my phone and used GPS to ensure I was staying on the trail. Even with that knowledge and using GPS I got lost multiple times. The GPS helped me backtrack and locate the trail when I wandered off. But the trail spends a lot of time in and out of screes, scrambling up steep cliffs, only to cross a ridge and drop back down again. It was flat out brutal. I had no idea. I also knew that I was the first one up the trail, but had no idea how popular it was or when I might see another person.
It was a cool, sunny morning. A perfect morning for a hike. I wasn’t too cold or too hot. It wasn’t hot enough that I would have to worry about running out of water (there is no water source beyond the lake). However, I didn’t realize the intensity of the hike. I’d done hikes considered “hard” before, but none like this, especially when I was completely alone. After making my way past several false summits, I got up to where I knew the summit was just above me. I looked up. It was a vertical climb, and not a quick or easy one. To me it looked like at least 100 foot climb up a near vertical gully to reach the summit. My body was exhausted. I didn’t bring (or own) a climbing helmet. There was no one else around.
I had a million thoughts running through my head. “Just leave your pack, then you can do it.” “You’ll be fine.” “If I fall and hurt myself how long will I have to lay here?” I had to check myself. I’d never before set out to summit something and NOT done it. But that day was the first day. It was a huge mental struggle, but I knew I needed to be safe. I stopped at the red circle on the picture above. I did not make it to the summit.
I sat down, had a beer and a snack, and enjoyed the view. Even without summitting, the view was stunning. I could see Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, the lake I had camped at, and a million other peaks and valleys. The sun was shining and I was safe. My body was tired and ready to head back down (and up and down and up and down) to camp to pack up and head home.
On the way down I passed a husband and wife heading up. It was warming up and the husband had no shirt on. They were both in shorts. We chatted for a few minutes. They asked if the tent they passed was mine and I said yes. While we were talking I noticed the husband was holding a bundle in his arm (I thought it was maybe a jacket he took off). After a minute or two I realized this bundle was not a jacket, but a newborn baby! I couldn’t believe he was carrying an infant like a football up this crazy mountain like it was nothing. Props to both of them.
When I arrived back at the lake there were quite a few people around. And I finally saw where the designated camping sites were located – exactly nowhere near where I pitched my tent. However, all of my belongings were untouched by the crowds that had arrived. After packing up I took a walk along the lake’s edge to get a better view before heading to my car to call it a day.
On the four mile hike back to my car I promised myself I would come back some day and summit that peak. With more preparedness and maybe another human being as well.