What doesn’t kill you …
Posted by joeabbott on July 28, 2013
A friend of mine invited me to climb Eldorado and I know I’m not in top-shape, so it was time to train hard. One of my favorite training hikes, albeit, a bit far from home, is Mt. Pugh. Standing just over 7200’, it provides the opportunity to hike roughly 5300 vertical feet in just about 5.5 miles. A solid workout if there ever way one. And it’s on that route I found myself spent and laying on the trail just below the summit when disturbed by a hiker coming off the top.
Let me tell you how I got there.
Getting to Mt. Pugh
Drive up Hwy 9 to Lake Stevens; from there turn onto Hwy 92 just a couple miles north of town and head east. At Granite Falls, drive through town and get to a stop sign at S. Alder Ave; turn left (north) and you’ll find yourself on the Mount Loop Highway.
The Mount Loop Highway wends and winds gently for some 30 miles or so to Barlow Pass … a spot nearly indistinguishable from any other place on the road except the road here bends north, it changes to a gravel road, and there’s a sign indicating such.
Continue north just over 10 miles and you’ll see a fairly well marked Mt Pugh Trailhead sign. Turn up that forest spur and park about a mile and a half further up at the actual trailhead.
Trail to Lake Metan
The trail, in my mind, is broken into three sections: to the lake, to Stujack Pass, to the summit.
The first section, to the lake, is reasonably boring: about a mile and a half of solid trail that clings tightly to the contours of the mountain and makes no apologies for starting to gain elevation immediately.
However, because you do start grinding up right out of the car, it’s nice to look forward to a reasonably quick stopping spot (Lake Metan) and you’re rewarded with peekaboo looks at a clearing through the trees as you head up. In the pictures below, you can see the character of the trail at this point and the lightening of the sky as I start to approach the lake!
The trail is through classic second growth forest: old enough to have a bit of girth on the trees but plenty of signs of prior logging activity for those looking for it. But, the timber industry gave me some great roads to access this wonderful area, so I hold no grudges!
The lake itself is fairly non-descript: no water entry or exit, it’s a largish stagnant pond and the flies and mosquitoes are out in force around it. I felt some burning in my heels, so I stopped to tape them up before continuing. And off I went to the second phase …
Trail to Stujack Pass
There are times when I’m walking a trail I feel powerful: my strides are confident, my footfalls sure, and I’m moving at pace; a giant within his domain and surveying a world wholly familiar. Then there was how I’d felt heading up Stujack Pass: spent and drained, plodding an endless stair in a stark and barren landscape; a puny puny man.
Stujack Pass gains roughly 800’ in a quarter mile and while the picture at the introduction of this piece is from the top of the Pass, it doesn’t do the steepness any credit whatsoever.
The photo to the left is as I just about hit the clearing before the Pass; the picture on the right is a small “camp area” at the base of the scree field leading up to the Pass.
In the pictures below, I was having a bit of fun at the challenge that lay before me.
The way up, however, is fine for the most part. The trail is over rough scree but it’s very solid and won’t move. Also, there are a lot of wildflowers in the area and it’s fun to look at the pretty colors and gentle shapes of these mountain blooms: mountain lupine, fireweed, Indian paintbrush, shooting star … all quite delicate and lovely.
At the top of the pass you get a break before the next leg of the journey …
The way to the summit looks impossibly improbable as a destination. The picture to the right is the view from Stujack Pass and the way is hardly obvious.
You gain the low ridge in the foreground by scampering up slick heather, muddy granite, and hard-as-stone ice and then chase that up and down until you get before the large blocky summit in the background. From there you ascend a sloping ledge to a cleft and traverse to the right on downward sloping ledges to a rounded mound just beyond the false summit (the two points) you see in the picture below. The entire way you’re following reasonably clear trail signs and there’s never a question of being truly off route.
I’m shooting the composite picture to the left from a point on the low ridgeline. The route follows the top of the ridge above the snowline on the right edge of the picture; where the ridge meets the summit block, you find an obvious ramp up before threading around to the left and behind the right shoulder seen here.
The picture below is the “trail” as you head up. Look for the trail signs leading from the bottom-center of the picture off to the right and away.
As I got just behind the false summit, I simply lay down in the trail and asked myself if I really wanted to continue or if where I was at that point was good enough. I’d climbed Pugh before and didn’t remember the exposure and certainly not the fact that it was a bit spooky. I was also dog-tired and needed to rest; my heart had been straining a bit too long.
I awoke to footsteps coming from above, and estimated the owner was about a half dozen yards away. I got up and out of the way and the fella coming down was genial and one of those instantly likeable people. We exchanged a few words and he shared that the top wasn’t even 10 minutes off, even at a slow pace. So with our parting, I continued up and, true to his words, within a few minutes I summited Mt. Pugh.
It was a tough hike but, happily, my legs weren’t sore, just very tired. I spent the better part of an hour on that summit, enjoying the views, the fact that I was alone, and that I’d knocked off a goodly hike. But, sooner than I’d wanted, it was time to pack up and head home.
The way down was without incident. I got a bit off trail following that low ridge below the summit but above Stujack … I just clung to the ridgeline too long. At one point I looked down on hearing voices, saw that I overshot the trail to the Pass, and traversed down to intersect the trail. The snow and ice made things trickier than I’d hoped. I had instep crampons but managed to trip on some mud-slick heather and gave myself a little ice-rash. It stung but there was no hurt.
At the Pass I nodded to a trio of hikers who didn’t appear to be ready to go farther on the trail, stowed my crampons, and headed down the steep scree field.
Trails take on a unique quality on the way down. A path that seems smooth and even on the slow, plodding way up, becomes more root-strewn and rocky on the quicker pace coming down. Before I got to Lake Metan my knees were sore and my feet were afire with pain. I’d estimated I was a mile or so from my car so I started counting strides, thinking I took about a 3’ step, I hoped I’d get to 1000 and then be there. At 1200 I stopped counting but it wasn’t long after that I found myself by my car and eager to get my boots off.
The mosquitoes were ravenous, however, so I had to jump in without changing and drive off the forest road and down to the Mt. Loop Highway before I pulled over and was able to change into clean, dry clothes and put on a pair of sandals. Bliss.
Mt. Pugh is a great hike in its own but really good for preparing a climber for bigger challenges. I’d be to the top of this peak again, sooner than I thought, but was happy to be off this time. The trip up Pugh definitely will make me stronger but it’ll take a while before I realize that strength. For now, I need a rest.
Thanks for looking in.