Near-winter adventures don't always go as planned

The final Cascadian expedition of the season wasn't without a few hiccups
November 14, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
The group watches Vernon Brown of Bellingham fasten a rope to a fallen rock blocking a forest service road in the Central Cascades.
The group watches Vernon Brown of Bellingham fasten a rope to a fallen rock blocking a forest service road in the Central Cascades. (Photo by Elliott Almond)

CDN Contributor

SKYKOMISH, King County — Some ideas are better than others.

Those of a certain age might recall the ill-conceived snack courtesy of baby food maker Gerbers, which suggested without irony, “We were good for you then, we’re good for you now.”

All sorts of eccentrics might have inhabited America in 1974, but that was a hard pass.

Then again, sometimes plans work out even with rocky starts.

Such was the case last week when Bellingham photographer Ken Harrison coaxed nine intrepid outdoors enthusiasts to join him for a final Cascadian expedition before winter’s cold curtain slammed shut.

photo  The Bellingham group tramped across 18 inches of fresh snow to reach the Evergreen Mountain Lookout on a day when they had a break from recent storms. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

Ken monitors the weather with Jim Cantore-devotion. He noticed a break in the rapid-fire November storm systems and quickly assembled a plan. 

First, we’d summit the 5,587-foot Evergreen Mountain Lookout along U.S. 2, east of Everett. Next, we’d polish off the Heybrook Lookout at 1,700 feet above Index. We’d return to Bellingham before sunset. I was not alone in embracing the scheme. 

At Skykomish, we trundled along a road following the swift Beckler River into the Wild Sky Wilderness. We blithely continued on the unpaved section like oblivious characters in a generic horror film.

Fellow travelers noted the logging road was well-kept while anticipating the ascent ahead. Then came the moment when the road to the lookout was paved with trouble.

Chunks of granite had broken off from the cliff and tumbled onto both sides of the narrow passage.

photo  Ken Harrison of Bellingham tows a boulder to the side to make room for passage in the Wild Sky Wilderness. A rock fall and fallen tree forced Bellingham hikers to change plans on a day in the Central Cascades. (Photo by Elliott Almond)  

Not that it surprised us. Unrelenting storms cause havoc in Cascadia’s backcountry. It’s not unusual to have blown downs, floods and falling rocks.  

Our predicament called for ingenuity. We could not turn around easily. Nor could we continue, although Ken tried unsuccessfully to squeeze his new Toyota 4Runner past the rocks.

It took 10 determined souls to push the hefty granite to the sides. However, a particularly stubborn slab wouldn’t budge. 

Vernon Brown, who also drove, fetched a thick rope and lashed it to the rock and Ken’s rig. Stand back, Vern warned the troops. The rope could snap.

On cue, it slipped off as Ken backed up. Vern attached it more securely. This time, Ken towed the intruding rock a foot or two to create a clearing.

He first plowed into a sharp chunk on his right before maneuvering through the gap. Vern’s truck is wider than the 4Runner. It couldn’t creep past the rock on the right. We’d have to turn around.

photo  Bellingham nature photographer Ken Harrison surveys the road where a fallen tree has blocked passage. Harrison and friends hiked 3.3 miles to the Evergreen Mountain Lookout trailhead from here. (Photo by Elliott Almond)  

Undeterred, Ken and two others heaved with everything they had to lift the rock enough to provide Vern the clearance he needed.

We felt a sense of relief. That lasted two minutes. Roadblock number two appeared shortly with a charred fallen tree across the road. 

Well-equipped Vern didn’t pack a chainsaw with the tow rope. Someone before us had tried to cut it in half with a hand-held ax. 

“If we all started gnawing, we could get through the log,” fellow traveler Susan Wood suggested.

It was almost lunchtime, after all.

The reality hit us hard. We were not driving any farther. 

An intense discussion ensued about whether to abort the climb considering we had about 4 hours of daylight left. The group consulted Google Maps and other online apps. 

The consensus: We were only a half-mile from the trailhead. We could do this. Ken and Vern turned their cars around in case the group returned after dark.

photo  CDN columnist Elliott Almond slogs through a snowy trail in the Central Cascades on the way to a fire lookout. Outdoor adventurers in mid-fall need to prepare for snow and ice. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Goldfogel)  

The gang set off on an empty logging road cutting through a dense second-growth forest canopy of silver fir, hemlock and cedar. We passed a half mile, then a mile, then two miles — and still we huffed uphill.

We reached the trailhead after 3.3 miles. The fallen tree put us 6.5 miles in the hole.

The 14x4-foot fire lookout, furnished with a twin-sized bed and three extra mattresses, sits 1,300 feet above the trailhead. Like many lookouts, the route requires a short vertical ascent. The group faced 1.5 steep miles in snow on this day.

Everyone heading up had microspikes or snow-tread soles. Everyone, that is, but me. I left my microspikes in the drawer next to my gloves. 

It’s November, said one of the hikers, stating the obvious. What were you thinking, she asked.

Hey, at least I brought one hiking pole.

A member of our group tried another approach: “You will be fine,” Nancy said calmly.

photo  Hikers stop to slip into microspikes in order to continue their trek to the snowy Evergreen Mountain fire lookout in the Wild Sky Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

At first, she was right. Crunchy snow allowed for purchase as we passed evergreens adorned in snow.

I stopped to take photos of cloud-covered Glacier Peak and breathe in the scenic vistas. 

However, the higher the trail went, the thicker the snow. Not good, I thought, knowing my penchant for picking the way down slower than a banana slug. We had only so much precious daylight. No one wanted to drive 20 miles in the dark on a primitive forest service road.

I turned back about a half mile from the summit.

Six of the 10 hikers made it to the lookout with reports of 18 inches of fresh snow near the top. I had made the right call to stop without proper gear.

I see more snow in the future. My snowshoes and a well-stocked winter pack will tag along next time.

Let’s hope the road is clear.

Elliott Almond's outdoor column appears monthly. Email: elliottalmond4@gmail.com.

Have a news tip? Email newstips@cascadiadaily.com or Call/Text 360-922-3092



Register for email newsletters

* indicates required

Latest Stories

Natalie Van Liew’s 20 points helps Mount Baker top Bellingham
Mountaineers use big runs, long-range shooting to outdistance Bayhawks

Opportunity Council to launch new rental assistance program Dec. 1
Screenings will be open for rent-burdened seniors and families with children

Christmas trees return to state Capitol Rotunda
Rotunda spruced up for holiday joy

State Supreme Court puts ruling that gave Oregon State, WSU control of Pac-12 on hold
Decision comes after request submitted by University of Washington; makes time for full review

Sports roundup: Prep basketball is back
Nearly half of Whatcom County's prep teams have tipped off their seasons