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Hex Mountain

by Amanda Phillips
woman snowshoeing on the Hex Mountain Trail above Cle Elum Lake

An incredulous round of laughter erupted from my lungs as we plunge stepped down a snowy ridge on Hex Mountain. I simply could not believe that we were the lucky ones, able to experience this glorious day. There are times when the sheer awesomeness is lost and it is only when looking back that you realize how incredible those moments were. This was not one of those days. As the sun pushed through the stormy clouds and we were treated to expansive views, I knew that this was one of those perfect winter days in the backcountry.

Yesterday, I turned 30. A decade ago, hiking was not a part of my daily life. I loved spending time outside, but it was much more likely to be at the beach or an urban trail. It took several more years of making foolish decisions and a few wise ones too before I took to the trail as a way to find myself. And find myself, I did. Each boot print built me into the independent outdoor woman I am today. In all of the exercises of imagining my life at age 30, pushing up a snowy hill to look out on peaks, lakes and forests was never the dominant daydream. Now that I am here, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I have no idea what the next decade will bring, but if it brings me more days like last Monday on Hex Mountain, I will be a happy girl.


The Road Walk

I picked up Meg at 7:15 on President’s day, ready for a sunny day in the snow. After a weekend of storms, snow and chilling winds, the prospect of a weather window for President’s day was thrilling. Add to the fact that we had been spending the past few weeks mapping out our backpacking plans for the summer, we were inspired and ready to go. We confessed to each other that neither of us go much sleep the night before, as we were too excited for what the day held for us. Our objective: Hex Mountain. 

I climbed Hex Mountain the previous year, but between then and now, the Jolly Mountain Fire ravaged its flanks, and parts of the trail were nearly unrecognizable. Usually, I wait more than a year before repeating a trail, but the fire damage changed the landscape enough that I was itching to go back as soon as possible. I am always a sucker for visual proof of nature’s incredible power. Hex Mountain is also a lovely snowshoe. It is steep enough to feel like you are doing more than just a flat stroll, a ridge walk for much of the route, with some incredible views and it is in Salmon La Sac, so weather is often nicer on this mountain than the entire western side of Washington. 

Road walk to Hex Mountain
Road walk for Hex Mountain through burn zone

We parked at the small pull-off just past the fire station and made our way to Forest Road 116. The road starts fairly low and had old consolidated snow and ice. Given the well-forged trail, we strapped our snowshoes to our back and made our way up in boots. I promised Meg that the first chunk of the route was flat and it wasn’t until we reached the trail that I remembered that it wasn’t flat per se, just less steep than the main trail. It wasn’t long before we were shedding layers, despite the 23ºF weather. There are a few false trails, but between my previous visit and consulting our gps, we easily made it to the trail head. 

Before long, we entered into the burn zone, and began to see black trunks and golden hued needles. At first glace, it looked like a fall day in larch season, but instead developed into skeletal burnt trees. When we turned off the road and onto the main path, the sun stretched shadows long, without leaves to interfere. The wildfire started on August 11 and eventually consumed 36,808 acres, burning for over three months. To see the aftermath was humbling. 

shadow of trees on snow near Hex Mountain

The Trail

As we stepped off the road and onto the trail, we left the icy consolidated snow that was littered with snowmobile tracks and onto fresh, fluffy piles of new snow. There was only one set of tracks in front of us and we began half-breaking trail. The slope significantly increased and we slowed, partly from exertion but also partly from the beauty that was unfolding before us. After a short walk through the burned forest, we reached the ridge. From there we could see our final destination, Hex Mountain, and the long walk before us. The route follows a steep ridge, but stays just outside of the avalanche zones. The avalanche danger was considerable after the storms over the weekend so we were extra careful to stay away from the edge of the ridge and risk setting off an avalanche from above. 

Woman posing with pine needles in the snow near Hex Mountain
Snowy ridge through burn zone in Salmon La Sac
Golden tree against blue sky near Hex Mountain
burned tree trunk from the Jolly Mountain fire in Salmon La Sac
woman walking on a snowy ridge in Salmon la Sac

We reached the first plateau and were treated to stunning views of Cle Elum Lake, snowy peaks and picturesque clouds. We slowed for a moment to catch our breath, then continued our ascension. We walked along the ridge, admiring dramatic cornices, boulders and fallen trees.  

After more ridge walking, we entered the second forest. These trees had less fire damage and were still covered in snow. It was like entering an entirely different world. We wove through the flatter section, over small knolls in heavy, wet snow. Before long, we reached the sharp right turn that took us on Sasse Ridge over to Hex Mountain

Trees burned in the Jolly Mountain Fire in the snow
Woman snowshoeing in a wool skirt at Hex Mountain
Burn zone in snow at Hex Mountain

Here, the trees turned a dark, charcoal black, a stunning display against the brilliant white of the snow. We reached the base of the summit and pushed forward. The mound had turned icy after the windstorms of the weekend and we had to dig our spikes in to get enough purchase, but eventually we made it to the top. 

Hex Mountain Summit

The sun flirted with the heavy clouds as we pulled out our lunch and enjoyed sitting. With views in every possible direction, including lakes, the Teanaways, matchstick-tree forests, Mount Stuart and even wind turbines, it was hard to know which direction to look. We enjoyed a spectacular lunch of brie on a lemon-olive ciabatta from Sea Wolf bakery (my fave!) and drank from our full thermos of tea. 

Snowy mountain range in burn zone
Two women on the top of Hex Mountain in the winter
Hex Mountain summit in the winter with a view of the burn zone from the Jolly Mountain fire

When we arrived at the top, we had a few minutes of solitude, then more hikers began to join us. As we had only been the second set of footprints, it rather felt like we were alone on the mountain and it was a fun surprise to see so many people behind us.

However, as we looked down the valley, we could see clouds gathering and snow beginning to fall on peaks across the way. We packed up our gear and started the descent, unwilling to be caught in a surprise snowstorm. 

Hikers at the top of Hex Mountain
Two women on the top of Hex Mountain in the winter
View from Hex Mountain with MSR snowshoes in the foreground

The Descent

The steep incline that hindered our progress on the way up allowed us to move quickly on the way down. The iced-over dome of Hex Mountain was slightly challenging to maneuver in tube snowshoes, but the spikes on my MSRs dug in nicely. Before too long we were back in the burned forest. The addition of dramatic clouds made it seem all the more eerie. 

Woman descending Hex Mountain into the burn zone from the Jolly Mountain Fire
View from Hex Mountain of Cle Elum Lake
Burned trees from the Jolly Mountain Fire
woman snowshoeing on the Hex Mountain Trail above Cle Elum Lake
Ridge line in Salmon La Sac with burnt trees from a forest fire

We reached the road walk then the car fairly quickly and began the drive home. We had planned to stop at the Brick in Roslyn on our way home for dinner, but it was only 3:00 and we were still full from lunch. Instead we stopped at Basecamp, a bookstore/coffeeshop combo. They made a delicious mocha and the outdoor book selection was fantastic. With a belly full of chocolate, we headed back over the pass and home to Seattle.

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Walk a ridge line to a beautiful peak in Salmon la Sac, Washington. Travel through forests, burn zones and open vistas before reaching a summit with views of the Enchantments.
Walk a ridge line to a beautiful peak in Salmon la Sac, Washington. Travel through forests, burn zones and open vistas before reaching a summit with views of the Enchantments.
Walk a ridge line to a beautiful peak in Salmon la Sac, Washington. Travel through forests, burn zones and open vistas before reaching a summit with views of the Enchantments.

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Andy February 24, 2018 - 8:33 am

Amanda, My wife came across your blog. I am the one in the green at the top and took the photo of the two of you with Mt. Stewart in the background. You can check out my photos from our Mt. Hex hike that same day here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/act98006/albums/72157691902578751. Indeed it was great day to be out in the wilderness. Perhaps we will run across each other on another hike. Happy trails. –Andy

Amanda Phillips February 24, 2018 - 10:56 am

Ah yes! I remember you and your wife from the summit. Thank you for sharing your pictures and hope to see you on the trail again!

Kedar February 27, 2018 - 2:39 pm

Hi Amanda,

Great pictures !! You seem to have a great time.
Had a question for you.
Is it possible to do this hike without snowshoes ( As a conditioning hike for Rainier)
Will that be feasible.


Amanda Phillips February 27, 2018 - 2:46 pm

Hi Kedar, the road portion is certainly possible to do without snowshoes. The main trail would depend entirely on how recently it snowed. There was only one person ahead of us so we were breaking trail for portions of the route, and the traction was helpful. By the time we were coming down, the trail was established and you could probably get away with microspikes instead. The summit was also pretty icy and I appreciated the spikes. On the day that we went, I was very glad to have my snowshoes and certainly would have been postholing without. Hope that helps!

Sarah February 27, 2019 - 11:16 am

Great piece, thank you for sharing! I’m headed up next week and it’s great to see some current snow conditions.

Amanda Phillips February 27, 2019 - 1:28 pm

Hi Sarah, hope you have fun at Hex! Just to clarify, this post is from 2018 so this is not a great source for snow conditions. The amount of snow we got this year was pretty different from last, so I am not sure how they might compare. Enjoy your snowshoe!


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