By Travis Burke, Operations Manager in Seattle
Testing summer gear is a wonderful experience—up in the mountains, awash in wildflowers, bumblebees wobbly buzzing among the paintbrush and lilies under forever blue skies. It’s warm, carefree. But as those skies cloud over, the bees go to ground, and the flowers drop petals and shrivel, it’s time for winter gear testing. Not so much fun.
To try out our new Columbia gear, I chose an overnight up off the Mountain Loop Scenic Highway in Washington’s central Cascade Mountains. The Loop’s high country is absolutely spectacular, drowning in vistas of Glacier Peak, Baker, Rainier, and the Monte Cristos. Even the Puget Sound and the Olympics pop out on occasion. As luck would have it, the previous week of Pacific Northwest rain broke cold and sunny right on my testing weekend, and the Three Fingers Lookout trail started calling my name. This adventurous trail includes a 10-mile mountain bike, followed by a five-mile hike up to Goat Flats to camp, a morning stroll up to Tin Can Gap overlooking the Queest-Alb Glacier and then a ridge scramble to the lookout. Perfect for testing the hardiness of our new gear.
I thought about the different types of fun on the drive to Granite Falls—Type I and Type II for the uninitiated. Type I fun is that wonderful kind of easy adventure that brings a smile to the face during the planning and implementation—say hiking Royal Basin in Olympic National Park in early summer with my significant other. Nothing but good times, good views, and a dash of whiskey overlooking Royal Lake while clouds swirled but couldn’t quite form down valley. Type II fun is everything those sunny days are not—a little apprehensive in planning and brutal in implementation. It makes for great stories after the fact, but during the “fun,” you just wish you had hit snooze on the alarm clock and stayed in bed. In the back of my mind, I knew this trip had the makings of Type II, but I couldn’t keep heading higher and higher up an old logging road with those doubts! Besides, the snow-capped Olympics in the distance were beautiful, and the peeks and glimpses of the Three Fingers massif goaded me onward.
I came to the bridge where the road had been blocked by large boulders. It was time to start biking. With my pack precariously balanced on my back, I pedaled uphill in the crisp fall air. The road wound around the lower slopes of Meadow Mountain, past washouts and waterfalls edged in rime ice. My slow slogging uphill kept me warm, but ominous frosty landscapes lingered in the shade. My bag leaned from side to side awkwardly as I huffed and puffed upwards, – and I’m not afraid to admit that I walked my bike at some steep sections – , but finally after two or so hours I saw the dilapidated trailhead off in the bushes. The message board was slowly being reclaimed by the forest, and the path that left the logging road looked not much better. Like a treacherous and gloomy trail from some Grimm fairy tale, the path ran patchy among boulders and brush, and disappeared quickly into the dark forest.
I stepped wobbly off the bike, rearranged my pack, and headed off into the primeval wilderness. Very quickly it grew apparent that this trail was not going to permit easy travel. Every twenty feet or so some obstacle reared up—fallen trees, huge ponds crossed by icy logs, deep ice-mud. The trees grew wild here, and shoved themselves into the path, darkening the forest floor. Views of Three Fingers disappeared as the trail traced some vague streams and back bowls. Beyond Saddle Lake, ice crept onto and covered the route, which now passed sub-alpine tarns and dried heather. Finally, I crested the ridge to Goat Flats. Here lived the sublime—stark crags and peaks ranged in all directions, the low-angle sun flashed off the Puget Sound a vertical mile below, and the ghostly shape of Rainier loomed as a purple mass of snow and ice to the south. The flats themselves were a mix of alpine meadow and frozen lakes drizzled happily down on the shoulder of Three Fingers Mountain, whose intimidating rock face and tumbling glacier rose sharply to the northeast.
Now was the opportune time to test some of our new gear. I had the new Columbia down jacket, and I hoped it would keep me warm in the coming cold night. As the temperature dropped, the wind rose up—the outside air seemed to sit somewhere in the vicinity of zero degrees. I huddled in my sleeping bag as the wind really started to howl. It’s alarming to think that only a few millimeters of material separates the sleeper from a very unpleasant time, but I stayed snug and warm even as the wind screamed and battered at my bivy sack.
The next morning, I waited until the sun touched my camp, partially to avoid stepping into the early morning cold and partially to let my sleeping bag unfreeze from the bivy. The jacket had kept me warm but condensation on the inside of the bivy sack had frozen the outside of the sleeping bag! After a cold breakfast, it was time to head up to Tin Can Gap. It’s a beautiful trail from Goat Flats, all views and narrow path clinging to the mountainside. After the frozen switchbacks, I arrived at Tin Can Gap. The Queest-Alb Glacier dropped from mammoth ice blocks precipitously to aqua blue and black crevasses below. The rock spires of Three Fingers thrust out of the glacier, and the fire lookout winked brightly in the morning sun. A fork of the Boulder River rumbled in the distance, the only sound on that quiet ridge. I enjoyed the absolute solitude for some time, watching the light move across the stone and ice. I decided against scrambling across the glacier alone to the ladders that led to the lookout, discretion being the better part of valor. Eventually, I had to return from this magical place, back to the forest, back to the car, back to the road, back to the interstate, back to the city. It’s the hardest thing about heading out to the mountains: You can’t stay.
I left Tin Can Gap and began to descend the mountain—crossing even more ice than the day prior. Coming back by Saddle Lake, the surface had lightly frozen over. It was much colder than yesterday and the temps were continuing to drop. I trudged through the dark forest again, carefully placing my feet to avoid invisible ice and chilling water. Still I stumbled and bumped my way down the path, grumbling at each fallen tree and tripping root. Achingly close to the trailhead, my foot slipped off a frozen log and I ended up calf-deep in cold water. Ugh. My bike was covered in frost, and I had a long downhill coast ahead. My hands felt like those blocks of glacier ice gripping the brakes. But my unwieldy pack meant I couldn’t just fly down the trail. So I rolled on, self-generated wind cutting into my face, aching fingers clawed around the handlebars, toes cold in a slowly freezing boot. Good times.
But by the time I reached my frost-entombed car, I was happy (and my face definitely felt frozen in a grin!) I had been up on the mountain, the gear had worked and kept me warm when required, and I was through the end of another Type II adventure. Despite the freezing temps, laborious “trail,” slog of a bike ride, and my slowly de-numbing toes, the journey was worth it. I smiled at my mud and frost covered face in the rear-view mirror and began to countdown the days till I could next return to the mountains.
 The dreaded Type III fun is not fun while planning, doing, and even post-adventure. For example, Joe Simpson’s epic on Siula Grande. For myself, I consider a 16 mile patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Type III—120 degree heat in 70lb body armor, wading through neck-deep irrigation canals, replete with sphincter-clenching spookiness—definitely Type III.