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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.