The one thing that I’ve learned since I started hiking and climbing all over these mountains is; understand your limitations and respect the mountain. Everyone has their own specific ability when it comes to physical endurance and mental fortitude. I’ve had to turn around on several occasions missing the summit on a mountain by mere hundreds of feet. I think this is an important instinct when learning how to hike or mountaineer.
Granite Mountain is one of those mountains where anything goes, really. It’s very much exposed so on hot, summer days it’ll quickly zap you of your energy due to the sun beating down on you all day. In the spring and fall, you’re more susceptible to exposure of rain, snow and sleet. Plus the cold temperatures. Today was no exception.
I wanted to hike this mountain yesterday, actually. But as I peered out of my window, I watched the storm clouds roll in from the west and relentlessly blast the Cascades with buckets of rain. Honestly, it’s not really fun hiking when the rain and the cold are hammering down on you. You’re vulnerable, cold, wet and it’s downright uncomfortable. I couldn’t put off the hike due to weather, though. If it’s one thing I’ve learned about living in the Pacific Northwest; you either go out and do what you want to do or sit on the couch and wait for the rain to stop. You’ll be waiting a long, long time.
Today was the day. I grabbed my gear, gassed up the truck and set out for the trailhead. It was easy to navigate to the trail head so I was on the trail before 10am. A good start to the morning. The rain drizzled in my face as I stayed huddled in my Northface parka. I pulled the brim of my hat down tighter on my head and pressed on. The trail serpentined through dense forest and then exposed itself on the unforgiving switchbacks that took me up through the avalanche ravine. I had to cross that thing three times.
The trail was littered with tree roots, large boulders and smaller rocks. Big steps took me higher and higher up the mountain, and as I climbed higher, and higher, it got colder and colder. The rain picked up and as I clipped through the last ravine crossing, the clouds swirled and twirled spitting rain drops at me. The wild flowers on the narrow boot path were reaching out to me, and as I slipped passed them they would brush up against my pants and arms leaving my body even more damp than it already was.
Once out of the forest, the real fun began. It’s called Marmot Hill because the hillside and the meadow is littered with large boulders and wildflowers. Marmots have made this their home. Although, I didn’t see any, (probably because of the poor weather conditions) this was where the trail started to fade in and out. Route finding skills and a keen sense of direction was what got me through Marmot Hill.
As the rain picked up, it slowly started to turn into snow. Visibility started to fade, and when I looked up the mountain all I saw were clouds. I couldn’t tell how much trail I had left to climb unless I looked at my GPS but even that was having a hard time getting a signal. I knew I wasn’t going to reach the lookout but I pressed on hoping visibility would get better or a break in the weather would happen.
Hoping for the best in the Cascades on a day like this is like hoping another cashier will show up when the line you’re standing in is 25-30 people deep. The best is just not going to happen. And the best never showed it’s face. The boot path I was on quickly disappeared and I was left standing in front of a giant boulder field. The boulders were mostly exposed but around them had fresh snow. Post-holing was a real danger here and if you post-hole deep enough, you could end up with a broken ankle. Or worse. I decided to push on.
I came out of the boulder field unscathed but visibility had become so bad that I could only see a faint silhouette of a giant mountain in front of me. I had just come up a ridge and was looking at another possible mountain to climb. I was basically on a false summit.
Time wasn’t an issue. The weather conditions were making this hike all too unsafe for my blood. I had to make a decision: turn around or continue up to the summit. Since I was hiking alone, I decided to turn around. I was miserable. I was soaking wet, and the snow had started to make it’s way into my hiking boots. The snow peppered me as I turned my back on the summit. So close yet still so far away.
Granite Mountain, (among other mountains) has taught me a very valuable lesson. Understanding your guttural instincts to keep yourself safe and to not put yourself into a compromised position just because you worked so hard to reach the point where you’re at, and turning around before you reach your goal doesn’t make you any less of a climber or mountaineer. In fact, it’s just the contrary. Hikers and the outdoor community will respect you more for remaining in your boundaries and not putting yourself in a spot where you can’t get yourself out of. It’s costly, and puts more lives at risk if you do so. Just remember one thing: respect the mountain and know your limitations.
Be safe, and see you on the summit!