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Book Chat: Flora of Middle-earth; Plans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium

Posted by joeabbott on July 2, 2018

imageOK, first off, this isn’t a “review” … just my thoughts on a book I’d read. I realize I’d been calling these sort of posts “reviews” and they’re not proper analyses of books, just me babbling on a bit. I had two choices: change how I was writing about books or set expectations appropriately. So here I am … this is not a review, just me talking about various parts of a book I recently finished. And that book today is Flora of Middle-earth; Plans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium by Walter S. Judd & Graham A. Judd.

A true Tolkien nerd would have recognized my last post having the same title as used to describe Bilbo’s 111th birthday party in The Lord of the Rings (LoTR). Perhaps inspired by my recent reading of Flora of Middle-earth, but it’s my opinion this book should be reserved to be read and kept by only that same sort of person: someone so completely rapt by J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing and worlds that she or he would collect every little thing they might find on it.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is expertly written, is decorated with over 100 woodcut-style illustrations, and contains exceptional and scholarly botanical information … but it’s a pretty dry read containing a wealth of material unassociated with Tolkien’s world. Again, there’s plenty of merit to this work, but rather than carrying me away to Middle-earth, it roots me firmly in the here and now. As it does that well, let’s take a look.

The father-son team split responsibilities on the book with the father, Walter, a Professor Emeritus in the Botany Department at the University of Florida, wrote the text and the son, Graham, an instructor at Augsburg College and the Minneapolis College of Fine Art and Design, providing the illustrations in the style of a woodcut print.

The book itself is broken into 8 chapters, but Chapter 7 is the reason most anyone would crack this book: the description of the flora found in Middle-earth. Chapters 1-6 (~72 pages) cover introductions, overview of plant communities in Middle-earth, a long breakdown of botanical classification and identification, and a handful of pages on two singular trees: the Two Trees of Valinor. After that, Chapter 7 (~270 pages) covers over 120 different plants named in one of Tolkien’s Middle-earth-based works (which includes the Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadill and the HoME series written by Christopher Tolkien). Chapter 8 (~4 pages), by Graham, touches on the illustrations and alludes to Tolkien’s own artistic talents.

The first chapters had me chomping at the bit for more, to get into the meat of the book and didn’t do a lot for me. Chapter 2, for instance, Plant Communities of Middle-earth included a diagram showing Middle-earth at the time of the LoTR in silhouette with a line somewhere north of The Shire separating the northern portion from everything in the south. These were the two areas of distinction … accurate (I guess) but hardly telling.

Judd does this a couple other times, pointing out mountainous regions and desert areas but he didn’t really need the dozen or so maps to make this point. Curiously he includes maps and discussion of the Isle of Numenor but doesn’t include Beleriand even though he notes flora from this area, and it’s vastly larger than Numenor. He whets your appetite without really expanding a lot of your knowledge of this chapter.

Chapters 3-5 were really beyond me. For someone who got the book to learn about flora in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, these chapters are a speed bump on the way to learning about that. Judd discusses the importance of green plants (The Diversity of life, with a Focus on the Green Plants), takes you through botanical distinction (Introduction to Plant Morphology: Learning the Language of Plant Descriptions), and then a lengthy identification chapter (Identification of the Plants of Middle-earth). It’d be one thing to learn this before a walk through a field, but when the plants are presented readily identified and named, it’s connected but unnecessary detail.

Chapter 6, Telperion and Laurelin: The Two Trees of Valinor, starts the engine, however, and brings you into a discussion of Middle-earth botany: a treatment of the Two Trees. It’s a brief chapter but nicely done, discussing what Tolkien created, which trees he may have based these imaginary specimens on, touches on their story, and treats the reader to an etymological discussion. It sets the stage for what follows.

And so Chapter 7, The Plants of Middle-earth, then takes you alphabetically (by common name) through the flora of Middle-earth. Each plant is introduced and includes a quote that addressed it from one of Tolkien’s sources; as an example:


(The Beech or Oak family [Fagaceae].)

In a great hall with pillars hewn out of the living stone sat the Elvenking [Thanduil] on a chair of carven wood. On his head was a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again. In the spring he wore a crown of woodland flowers. In his hand he held a carven staff of oak.

(Hobbit, IX)

These quotes are a lot of fun, as, after reading the plant name introducing the section, I continually found myself thinking back to the stories and wondering if Judd would use the quote from the part of the books I’d remembered. As often as not he didn’t, and I found those times more entertaining as he reminded me of another great part of a great literary work.

Judd then treats us to a discussion on the plant at hand; sometimes noting how often they were mentioned in the books, often mentioning the many other places the subject was found, or the appropriateness of the plant in that place and time. It was marvelous to appreciate just how well Tolkien knew his botany and placement of the plants in his world. It was clear he didn’t just say, “I need a new tree here … maybe I’ll toss in a Linden” … no, he understood the environment a species would like and made sure it was apt for the placement in his world. He also nailed the right seasons and the state of his plants at those times. I grew to respect Tolkien immensely for his diligence in this aspect of his works.

After a short discussion Judd included sections on Etymology, Distribution and Ecology, Economic Uses, and Description … but, truth be told, I scanned much of this and skipped some altogether.

Etymology was a mixed bag, with some parts dealing with aspects I was interested in, the Quenya or Sindarin treatments, and others less so, as it dealt with the common name and English and Latin etymology.

Distribution and Ecology was similar to Economic Uses in that it abandoned Middle-earth as a whole and addressed real-world details. While I got the book to know where and when plants were noted in Tolkien’s world, I care much less that Horse-Chestnuts, for instance, are a group of 12 species with distribution throughout our Northern Hemisphere; or that the Rowan, again, for instance, are widely used as ornamentals due to their showy white flowers and bright orange or red fruits (often held through winter).

After these sections, a Description follows, that focuses on the details laid out in the distribution and identification sections above. I admit to skipping many of these parts as it was dry for me and felt antiseptic alongside ents, hobbits, and elves. A short portion of the description of Hart’s Tongue:

Description: Herbaceous, evergreen fern, with short, erect, unbranched stem that bears brown scales. Leaves (or fronds), alternate, clustered, simple (and rarely apically divided, cleft) linear to oblong or slightly obovate, with a prominent midvein but the other veins obscure; the apex acuminate to acute , the base cordate, the margins entire and sometimes slightly undulate; the blade with a few scales on the lower surface or nearly glabrous; the petiole elongate, grooved on the upper surface, with scales toward the base.

Yeah … entire pages of this sort of stuff. Again, scholarly and associated, but hardly the stuff of fantasy storytelling.

The illustrations in the book, while distinct aren’t always enjoyable; either the artists style or the woodcut capabilities lead to distorted faces, or squat and hunched over figures. This is a shame because when Graham focused on the flora, the effect was quite nice. Or, when he kept the characters in silhouette (looking at you Sorrel) or when the characters looked normally proportioned (as in Niphredil) the result was rather pleasing.


While I’m not wholly taken by the result to Flora of Middle-earth, I can’t be anything but avid for the effort behind this work. The approach, to its ultimate detriment, is scholarly, the references and bibliography vast, and the commitment to the topic is nothing short of fantastic. I often imagined the Judd’s poring over the thousands of pages of texts and associated works by Tolkien and other authors, tracking quotes and references. Impressive.

I was genuinely surprised at how many plants were noted throughout the Tolkien legendarium and how well they were appropriately placed in his Middle-earth. It was interesting that, of all the plants noted, only potatoes and tomatoes were inappropriate (due less to being agricultural products than not being available as historical English cultivars … both being native to the New World); well, maybe tobacco, too, although Tolkien referred to it as “pipe-weed”, to avoid direct disassociation.

The book as a whole has a place in my library, as I’m a true Tolkien nerd, and I’m happy I’ve read it and learned a bit. However, I can’t recommend it without being super-clear that this is not a whimsical look at the flora of Middle-earth, but a treatise and scientific approach to plant-life in Tolkien’s universe. And to you, the reader of this blog: apologies for the length here and, as always, thanks for reading.


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A party of special magnificence

Posted by joeabbott on July 1, 2018

Suzanne had a birthday and it celebrated a milestone: 50 years. And it was done right.

We catered food, had simply perfect weather, and opened our home to some close friends and family as well as a few goats. Yup, actual goats; and to be more precise, four 2-week old baby goats. It was great. Suzy’s blog covers the event better than I could, so please check out her So I never had ponies post. My contribution was building the enclosure for the goats!

We had planned on getting a few cattle panels, that are just 4’x8’ heavy duty wire sections that we’d zip-tie together to build an area the goats weren’t able to escape; however, Barbara (the lady who manages the Puget Sound Goat Rescue) didn’t appear to have enough sections so I offered to build a few “simple sections” that we’d attach together to create something suitable. Suzy and I discussed the height requirements, mapped out roughly where they’d go, and then I sat down with my friend SketchUp to mock up an option using standard 2×4 and 4×4 lumber. It came out pretty good.

Here was my stab … five 4×8 sections and two 4×4 sections, with one of the 4×4 portions only attached at one side, allowing it to swing open and act as a gate. As we were planning for this to be on our “plateau”, a graveled area in the backyard, it was going to be on an uneven surface and the section attachments required some flexibility.

2018-06-16 09.08.43

I planned for this to only take a few hours to build, but during the construction we decided we needed to cover the faces with plastic fencing mesh, so it took a lot longer … two four-hour sessions or so. Also, after getting the basic three-slat sections completed, we realized we didn’t need to angled stabilizer, which saved us almost $40 in lumber! Nice!

As always, our garage doubles as my workshop and this time we didn’t even pull out her car! It was a pretty simple construction job.

2018-06-16 16.23.322018-06-16 16.25.05

After the build, we hauled them to the rough location in the backyard. Suzy moved the fire pit, allowing us to use the seating stones as a place for guests to sit, as well as a fun little something for the goat-lings to climb on. Then we had to determine how to put it together.

I considered metal stitch plates (a construction item that’s simply a thin sheet of metal with a bunch of holes in it … you can drive screws through the plate, into two wooden pieces butted together) and even actual hinges. I discarded both as potentially dangerous (sharp edges on the stitch plates) or costly (hinges!!) and decided to just pull out some 3/4” tubular webbing I had in my climbing gear boxes.

Using the webbing, I’d attach the free end of a piece to one of the posts with a screw, circle the post with the webbing (pulling tight), and then fasten the other end to the other post. I did that a couple times on each connection and it held perfectly tight.

I am including a bonus cat picture as a gift to those who have read this far into my post!

2018-06-16 16.33.552018-06-16 16.34.002018-06-16 17.12.55

And here’s an action shot … yes, I simply stole a pic from Suzy’s blog post. I (sadly) never took any pictures on her actual birthday.

2018-06-23 13.34.43

And that was it … a bit of lumber, some creativity and time, and you get a little corral that delighted both goats and guests. And the hosts.

That was a pretty fun afternoon: a party celebrating a person of special magnificence … Suzanne.

Thanks for sharing a bit of our party.

Posted in family, Fun, Home projects | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Disturb us, lord

Posted by joeabbott on June 22, 2018

I’m a sucker for a quote and while I like a pithy turn of phrase, I was recently introduced to a longer “prayerful poem” attributed to Sir Francis Drake (1577) and I thought I’d share it here:

stormy_sea_by_alexlinde-d3y6mgd.jpegDisturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

I’ll admit it’s a big challenge to live up to those words in their entirety, but they give me inspiration and help me remember to set a high bar for what I hope to accomplish.

Here’s wishing your disturbances are in measure with your capabilities, your future is full of strength and courage, and you find both hope and love along the way.

Posted in Trivia | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

A final Mt. Rainier post

Posted by joeabbott on June 10, 2018

I carry three devices with me when I travel most mountains: my SPOT, a camera, and my GPS.

My SPOT is almost exclusively an insurance policy; I like to go alone and in places that might require someone looking for me … on Rainier, I was told that unless our aid was needed between 7AM and 4PM, the Rangers would not be staffed to assist. Ummm … OK.

My camera is for the obvious; I’ll sometimes carry my phone and use that, but only when hiking. I typically avoid using a phone (something I consider an emergency device) for entertainment purposes while on the trail.

My GPS is a unique tool that I use far less for navigation, than I do for the breadcrumbs.

When enabled, most GPS units will constantly track where you are and have been. Upon getting home, I like to upload this data into my computer to see where my trails have taken me. Sadly, on my most recent trip, I failed to turn my GPS on until after I arrived at the top of Mount Rainier. While typically not a terrible thing, on this trip my route up was different than my route down … and so in the image below I approximated my route along the Disappointment Cleaver.


Again, you’ll note the trip appears to “end” at the crater rim, but it actually started there … it was then I remembered to turn on my GPS. I’m a bit sad, but I love seeing the route through the broken up glacier around Gibraltar Rock, above Cadaver Gap. You can also see the distance going up the Cleaver put on our trip.

Here’s what the Ingraham Direct route looked like from camp … not an obvious way through!IMG_0022

And finally, two faces of mountaineering … one on the summit (yes, I should have been wearing my glacier glasses) and one while back at camp taking a much needed sit-down after the summit:

image      image

As always, thanks for hiking along with me on my journeys.

Posted in Hiking | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A summit bid: Mt. Rainier, 2018

Posted by joeabbott on June 9, 2018

A lot of factors go into a successful summit of a big mountain, and I realize now just how lucky we were. Yeah, there was a lot of preparation to offset the need for luck, but in any final analysis you rely on good weather, the team performing, and the routes being in good condition. Things lined up pretty good on our trip to the top of Mount Rainier this past Wednesday.


imageLeading up to the climb, Seattle enjoyed an unseasonably warm and dry end-of-May. This led me to a lot of excitement for that weather holding together for the start of June and during our trip. Unfortunately, the end of week and weekend just prior to our outing, Seattle started getting a lot of low clouds and rains returned. That spelled a bit of danger for the clear views you wish to enjoy when up top.

Additionally, in what I can only call a freak accident, I managed to kick a stone step in our backyard with such force, my toenail on my big toe immediately flooded with blood (I’ll lose the toenail) and I was unable to put on a shoe for two days. We actually went to the store to buy me a pair of sneakers that I could walk in. By the third day I could walk OK and on the fourth, our departure day, I was willing to put on my boots and walk uphill. It was still painful, but I managed.

The plan

Our plan was to take three days: first day to Camp Muir (a standard destination), a second day to Ingraham Flats (a camp setup in a compression zone on the Ingraham Glacier about 1000’ in elevation higher than Camp Muir), and on the third day we’d touch the summit and head home.

We chose to leave from Ingraham Flats (rather than the usual Camp Muir) to give everyone an extra day at altitude and to cut off 1000’ of climbing on our final day.

Departure Day

As we left for the mountain, the clouds were still present but rain was out of the forecast;conditions were improving over the days we were on the mountain before rains were expected to return later in the week. This was good weather for us, allowing us the majority of the “hard” climbing (heavy packs, most elevation gain) without being in the hot sun and gave us a window for favorable weather while on the way to the top. Unfortunately, weather forecasts seldom hold.DSCF2076

But, true to the forecast, we were in clouds from the start of the trip and didn’t emerge from them until shortly before getting to Camp Muir.

At Camp Muir we had planned to setup tents and re-pack them for the trip to Ingraham Flats, however, high winds and available space in the shelter at Muir made for easy change of plans as we crammed into the small, stone hut. I’d never stayed in the shelter, but it’s a bunkhouse style affair with a small shelf for cooking, flat bunk areas (top and bottom) for sleeping, and small cubbies to stow packs and organize gear. It also looked reasonably snug and didn’t show any signs of critters being about. A rare and welcome situation.


While it’s not suited for “sensitive sleepers”, I’d had very poor nights’ sleep the three prior evenings and after dinner, fell into a (mostly) restful sleep.

Travel to high camp

I continue to refer to Ingraham Flats as “high camp” for the simple reason that (to me) it sounds pretty cool. High camp evokes distant and remote corners of the world at altitude and out of touch by normal folks. There’s a sense of adventure to it. But, in reality, it’s just over a ridgeline from Camp Muir.

imageOn Mount Rainier the exposed ridges between glaciers are regularly referred to as “cleavers”, with Camp Muir at the bottom of the Cowlitz Cleaver and our route heading up Disappointment Cleaver. To position ourselves for the summit run, we’d pass over a feature called Cathedral Rocks, using the Cathedral Gap as our entrance to the Ingraham Glacier.

DSCF2085We weren’t in a hurry so our morning was leisurely, getting out of the shelter sometime around 10AM and arriving at our camp at noon. It seemed to take us a while to get harness and ropes sorted out. I forget how little experience some of my fellow teammates have until we participate in any sort of rope work. Seeing them, my early climbing days comes back to me: my fumbling with the rope, the questions about what is right and what isn’t, just getting your gear squared. Happily, I felt solid after so much time without being on a glacier and found myself waiting on my team.

It was a good first-glacier experience for some at least one of our team, as we headed across the high bowl of the Cowlitz Glacier, up the rocky flank of Cathedral Rock and onto the awaiting Ingraham Glacier.

DSCF2092 Stitch

Our camp was a couple of snow bunkers, shallow depressions with high built-up walls between where we’d put the tents and the prevailing winds coming off the summit. One of the shelters was big enough for two tents (Ron and Cy in one, Tim and I in another) and Heath and Dan shared the other shelter. With the shovel I brought we had camp setup quickly then went about “making water” (melting snow and then filtering it just as it got to a liquid state … which saves fuel), and finally preparing our dinners.

After the meal, we had a quick discussion and refresher on setting in a boot-axe belay, a common way of providing a secure and quick anchor on the glacier. Happily everyone remembered or picked up the skill quickly and we were ready for bedtime around 5PM. DSCF2115

We set our alarms for midnight.

Which lends itself to a quick word about getting up at midnight: it’s hard to just doze off at 5PM!

For the most part, you just rest. Those who can still their minds and get real, restful sleep prior to a big summit are few, and I’m not one of them. Additionally, I was going up with a hydration bladder and wanted the water in it to be as warm as possible, so I was cradling 2.5L of water next to me. First, it was cold; second, I was worried I’d roll over on it and burst it if I wasn’t careful. So I spent about 7 hours in the hazy, drifty sort of rest that’s not sleep but not a bad substitute.

Heath had used melatonin to get a good night’s rest previously and did so again this trip. It’s a natural substance that the body produces to put oneself to sleep but, not having used it previously, I was reluctant to experiment.

And then midnight came.

Summit day

We’d targeted departing camp around 1AM but I was hoping for better; in the end, we did just a bit worse, leaving around 1:15AM.

imageI will note, a bit sadly, that my training partner Tim chose not to continue on from high camp. He was feeling OK but didn’t believe he was up to the rigors of the final push and he didn’t want to jeopardize the success of the team. While we had talked about bringing warm gear and leaving someone anchored in at a safe point if they couldn’t go on, he didn’t want to be “that guy” either, and so we changed our formation from two three-man ropes to a single five-man rope: me, Cy, Dan, Ron, and Heath as the anchor.

The beta we got from nearly everyone was: the Ingraham Direct route was coming apart and should be avoided. So we stayed to plan and ascended Disappointment Cleaver.

The Ingraham Direct (ID) route is essentially a line from the Ingraham Camps to the near crater rim, lending itself to threading through a broken up glacier. It’s more direct but relies on a series of early season snow bridges.

The Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route heads up a rocky rib, so it’s reliable in late season, but hadn’t been much traveled, as the longer route.

In the picture below, the approximate path for the DC route is in green, the ID route is in red.


I was on the pointy end of the rope … as the lead is sometimes called … and found it more than a little off-putting to be traveling a route I wasn’t sure of, in the dark, and up steep terrain. A lotta work and more than a little confusion.

DSCF2134Typically the DC route heads up the Cleaver, and then ambles along up the glaciers to the summit, taking a circuitous route to the north to avoid a crevasse before coming back southward and then to the crater rim. I was surprised then, upon getting to the top of the Cleaver, to find the route immediately headed south to intersect with the ID route, just atop the crevasse maze (avoiding objective hazards).

But let me talk a bit about the Cleaver. The route stays on snow and ice when possible, but crosses a number of rocky sections, even doing minor scrambling on the rock. The route isn’t well marked and because you’re looking for crampon marks on rock and ice, you don’t have a lot to go on. A team typically short-ropes (ensuring only a small section of loose rope between climbers) on this part to avoid rock being dislodged and damaging people or the rope. As you can see from the close-spaced SPOT track marks, it took a while to get through this section.

It was surprising that, either because my eyes aren’t what they used to be or because I’d slept in my contacts, I was unable to readily find a couple of the flags when we got to the top of the Cleaver. Both Cy and Dan helped me to locate my next mark and we quickly were on our way. I did note that nearly every other climbing party headed up the ID route. I’m not sure if they purposefully misled us in which route they were taking but as the first team out we went to the DC and yet very few others did.

We intersected the ID route just before a few other teams and so felt pressured to stay in the lead. Mostly because there’s no place to pass on the narrow, steeply sloping trail. And so, doggedly, we marched to the top, hitting the rim around 5:45AM.

It’s hard to remember the sapped feeling I had, but the time it took to go just that 3000’ tells the tale. The weather was so cold, all water bladders froze, regardless of whether you’d warmed them to body temperature. Even my Nalgene bottle held slushy-like liquid, as it had started to freeze, too. The winds that were forecast to gust in the mid-teens, felt to be well over 20 mph and were constant, making for wearying travel.

But, we were the first to top out and took our time getting across the crater to the true summit. We offered Ron the chance to touch the top first, but he demurred and Heath marched up and was that day’s First. Unfortunately, due to exceptionally vexing weather, we chose to head down without many pictures or enjoying the view. Surprisingly, the long string of headlamps we saw earlier didn’t materialize as an equal number of people summiting, Either because of weather or team conditions, many didn’t head to the top, stopping around 13,600’ or so.

On the way down, I offered Heath a chance to lead. We had decided to go down the ID route as the DC had many treacherous sections that gave serious consideration for safety. That meant, however, we’d be trying the route that we’d been warned against … in spite of the fact that nearly every other team took it up. It seemed like a safe choice.


And so Heath led us down, being (in my opinion) a fine route that had potential to come apart under a few days of warm weather, but perfectly safe that day. I’m actually surprised people were concerned but we each have our own measures of what might be “risky”.

For me the greater concern was my toes! While the one I’d bruised earlier was screaming, I was also having trouble with the big toe on my other foot…misery loves company? The result was a very painful walk down, to the point that I was “walking differently” and that ultimately gave me a number of other blisters.

At camp we celebrated our measured success (I wish Tim had been able to top-out with us), tore down camp, and roped up a final time. As I was fairly spent, Tim offered to take all the tent … and more if I needed it. While I might have wanted it, I should fairly shoulder my own load, but I did appreciate him taking all the tent. We all got to Camp Muir, took a nice long rest, and then ambled down to Paradise, with Heath and Dan (the youngest) marching out front and the “over 50 crowd” picking up the rear.


I’m surprised at how pained I was from that outing. While I expected to be fatigued, my legs felt real discomfort in the day after and the one following that. I’m better today, but honestly surprised after all the training and our three-day approach. It’s perplexing. But, I have another summit under my belt, my family, friends and coworkers all generously applauded my success, and I can get on with a Seattle summer. It’s been a heckuva journey and surprising how challenging it can be to get in shape with you have a little grey in your hair. Perhaps a reminder to avoid falling out of shape.

And, just the day after we got down, the weather turned again and it’s been raining the last couple days. While the weather wasn’t prefect on the mountain, we got pretty lucky.image

Thanks for reading this far, your company is appreciated. Safe travels to you.

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And now to return to my normally scheduled life

Posted by joeabbott on June 7, 2018

Sometimes you invest yourself so fully in something you lose sight and perspective on all else; I’ve just returned from one of those journeys. I’ll post more about my successful summit of Mount Rainier but for now, I’m happy to have done it … and to be done with it.

Here I am just a dozen steps or so from the true summit with Liberty Cap in the background.


Hoping your adventures are less cold and windy!

Posted in Hiking | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Yet another climbing post

Posted by joeabbott on May 28, 2018

I have a couple problems with being a blogger: I don’t do it regularly enough, I don’t write in a style that’s easy to quickly consume (I’m too verbose), I’m probably not entertaining enough (HERE ARE SEVEN THINGS THAT MIGHT KILL YOU IN THE MOUNTAINS … NUMBER FIVE WILL SHOCK YOU!), and I jump around to too many topics. Is this a gaming blog? A travel blog? A hiking blog? Woodworking? Home projects? Just too many to draw a consistent audience.

But I have been writing a lot about hiking … and today you get another. There’ll likely only be a couple more this year: one for Rainier, another for the annual Test Lab Hike, and maybe something I do solo or with Suzy. But I’d be remiss to fail to post about Mt. Adams last weekend.

DSCF1923ImageMt. Adams was our chance to do a “big mountain” and really test out our gear, figure out what works, and use it as a practice run for Mt. Rainier. I was hoping the whole team could make it, but Tim had pressing matters and it was just five of us. Still a good number.

Our early beta on the climb suggested we’d need to hike an additional 3 miles to the trailhead; snow was still heavy and while days had been nice, no one had been able to drive to Cold Springs campground. Also, I had zero time for planning and was getting frustrated leading up to the outing as I felt everyone was doing a little (well, everyone but me) but no one was pulling a complete plan together. Heath heard my petulant whining, stepped up, and a couple days before we headed out I knew what to bring, who was driving, who was tenting with whom, what fees we’d incur, which route we’d be on, etc. Just the whole shebang like I like it.

Off we went.

Part of the problem with hiking Mt. Adams is that it’s a 4.5 hour trip from Seattle. It went reasonably quickly and before you knew it we were at the Ranger Station dropping off our fees and picking up our blue bags … and for those of you who do not know what a blue bag is, you’re lucky. Essentially it’s your toilet when on a glacier or other heavily traveled path without a latrine. You either poop on the snow or on a provided “target”, use the resources in the kit to scoop your waste into a bag, and then seal all the yucky stuff in another bag. After that, you carry it out and dispose at the trailhead in special containers. It’s nasty but keeps the mountain from being so.

We dropped Dan’s car off at a nearby campground and then all piled into Ron’s truck for the trip as close to Cold Springs campground as we could get. I rode in the bed with Heath, and Cy and Dan rounded out the crew in the cab, and on a rut-pocked road we made it to within about a quarter mile of Cold Springs! I’m not sure if the Ranger Station has bad information or old information, but the sun had melted away a bunch of snow and it saved our feet a long walk.image

Those of us not driving jumped out and moved a few fallen limbs and stones so Ron could park his truck on the shoulder and we then grabbed our gear and started the hike to camp.

The trip in was uneventful. We started around 4700’ and planned to camp at the Lunch Counter: a flattish area on the southern side of Mt. Adams around 9100’. It’s a bit less elevation than the Paradise-to-Camp Muir trip, but similar enough to provide a good test. As we approached the Lunch Counter, rocks started poking out and when that happens, the snow tends to be thinner … I think the dark volcanic stone picks up the heat from sunlight and draws it under the snow to melt things below the surface. Anyhow, we were prepared and donned our snowshoes and avoided a lot of frustration as we walk on the snow, rather than post-holing and punching through (like a number of other hikers who passed us by later, when we were at camp).

DSCF1947imageIt was chilly and the skies were overcast but we setup camp quickly. Heath and I shared a tent, Cy and Ron shared an identical tent, and Dan sheltered his bivy between the two; we had a rising rock formation behind us, a snow slope between us and the summit, and were generally well shielded from any winds. Nice camp.

After setting up we ate our freeze dried meals and then started melting water. I was concerned that this would take all night but with five guys, we got a good setup going. Two people would tend the stoves, keeping them going and continually filling the pots with snow; one person manned the pump filter, continually cranking while a stove-tender moved the end to whichever stove had liquid water; another person would hold a water bottle that was being filled and he’d pass it to the remaining person to dump into whichever water reservoir needed it. Good system.

And then we slept.

Ron awoke us at 4AM and under headlamps we ate our cold breakfasts, strapped on our crampons, and in the chill morning, headed the two miles and 3000’+ to the summit. I kicked steps out of camp, enjoying that the now crusty snow was holding my weight. Previous hikers had stomped a trail into the snow but warm weather and overnight cold, snow, and wind partially obscured it, so there was a little work in re-establishing the trail. We pretty much headed straight to the summit, up over a feature called Piker’s Peak: the false summit. Or, more accurately, the near side of the caldera that just happens to be a bit lower than what is considered the true summit.DSCF1955

At one point I stepped out of lead, letting others kick steps. By the time we started hitting really steep terrain, Ron was in the lead. I felt badly for him as the snow had so little moisture in it, that his steps would break apart. The adage: two steps forward, one step back was never more apt.

DSCF1949DSCF1954I will note that around this time I remembered something about mountaineering I’d all but forgotten: the amount of willpower it takes to keep on. Somewhere on the steep slow to the false summit I got the lead again through the poor quality snow: I was laboring, chilled by a shrill wind that was getting to my neck, still groggy, my water tube had frozen so I couldn’t drink, and feeling taxed overall. I wanted to be about anywhere else and being in the lead again was making me grumpy. And that’s when I remembered to stop talking to myself that way and get on with getting to the top. Anyone can summit a mountain … I truly believe anyone can. You just have to keep going. And that’s what separates those who do from those who don’t.

That notion is stupidly simplistic and falls apart in many situations, but getting to the top was hard, it was not going to get easier, and I just needed to keep moving to be one of those who made it. And so I kept stepping and remembered that mental toughness is as important as physical toughness.

At the false summit we took a small break, admired the distant true summit, and then I headed out. I kicked across the top of the mountain and started to the summit but stepped out to let Ron finish us off. It wasn’t hard climbing but there’s a tiny tiny thrill at being the first on top of a mountain. Even if it’s the first of your team … that day, Ron was first of anyone. It was his first volcano and first big mountain. Nice.DSCF1962

Low clouds still covered the surrounding area but we got a great view of Rainier. Pictures were taken and before another crew hit the summit, we were on our way down.image

The trip back was equally uneventful: just a lotta steps. At camp we put on the snowshoes as the snow was getting soft and ambled down under heavy packs. I was clearly “in a zone” on the way up as I didn’t remember much about the trail in. Hard to miss the way back to the cars, though, as many steps had carved a deep rut.image

And that’s about it. Unmitigated success, a wonderful trip, and some good company … everything you could want in an overnighter in the mountains. DSCF1985

Apologies for an overly long story and thanks for getting this far.

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The calm before the storm

Posted by joeabbott on May 27, 2018

Yesterday was my last training hike and it’s a welcome end to a long spring of getting in shape. While I’ll still attend spinning on Tuesday, do my Tiger Mountain hike Wednesday, and yoga on Thursday, I won’t have any long hiking trips before my Mt. Rainier bid early that following week. I feel I could be in better shape but I’m starting to peak and my body desperately needs a break from the constant abuse. And, it’d be nice to see more of Suzy, too!

That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t share that I’ve seen Mt. Rainier in many phenomenal moods and yesterday was another chance to be awestruck by this beautiful mountain.

Tim joined me and proved reliable company. Conversation comes easily, as does the silence; he’s a good partner. But the mountain was on full display. We left the parking lot under a light mist but broke out of the clouds around Panorama Point. We had a long way to go but we weren’t rushed, so we enjoyed a short break here, taking in blue skies and the rapidly retreating snows.


Over the next mile or two we saw the dark and white mountain in glorious contrast to the skies, with shrouding mists blowing about. I resolved to come back here with Suzy, who’d love to see this firsthand.


Beyond this point I found a playful marmot, although my guess is that he was looking for handouts from passersby. He got nothing from us and quickly scooted to the next group of folks, in hopes for a meal or at least a snack. I wanted to get a photo of him, but he seemed camera wary and I never got off a good shot.

I’m always disappointed in my photography efforts but I keep trying … clearly trying the same thing time and again isn’t the solution. Not sure what I should try differently (given that I use a point-and-shoot camera) but I continued to be buoyed by the wonderful grandeur about me. You really should get out this way if you have a chance.


I laughingly include this picture because I didn’t realize how silly I looked yesterday. My pants are a light tan and my shirt a grey, but in the strong sunlight, things get a bit bleached out and so, in addition to a white hat that Tim had given me, I look a bit foolish … but I was clearly having fun.


On the way up, we stopped every 1000’ (of elevation) or so, resting our feet, grabbing a bite, and enjoying the outdoors. I got ahead toward the end but always made the best of having a few minutes to myself.



The last thousand feet or so to Camp Muir are a grind: you’re tired, the Camp hides itself behind the rising slope of the ground, and when you finally do see it, you have another 20 minutes or so of trekking left. It’s a challenge when you mostly just want to be done and have a good rest. But, we train not just for the body but for the mental toughness you need to keep shouldering on. And so I did.


I got in a bit earlier than Tim, enjoyed a sandwich and a bit of chit-chat with a few others who arrived at the Camp before me. When Tim got in I continued to loll in the sun and then scouted the route we’d be taking a 10 days from then. On the far side of Camp Muir, beyond where folks setup their tents, is a glacier upon which a trail rises to Cathedral Gap … below is the larger view with a close-up of the Gap following.

DSCF2053 Stitch


I expect by the time we head up this route, the Gap will be far more melted out and we’ll have a lot more rock and pumice to negotiate. Still, the path should well avoid the forming crevasses and I’m thankful once more for an early season date for our climb.

After this we headed down, making good time but seeing a lot of contrasting weather: the sun of Camp Muir, the mists below 7300’, and then the low clouds at Paradise. It was a taxing and wonderful day.


And that’s it for training. A little more work this coming week to stay tuned but enough rest that my feet recuperate and I have a chance to get my gear dried and prepped for the “big outing”. Thanks for dropping in and seeing what I’ve been up to!

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A modest success

Posted by joeabbott on May 27, 2018

Well, I got a new SPOT, the Gen3, and tried it out on a longish hike yesterday … I didn’t get the results I’d wanted, but I’m still calling it a success as I learned something. Let’s chat (again) about the SPOT.

imageimageA SPOT is a device that sends GPS coordinates to a satellite that are then uploaded to a service. Based on whether I’m “tracking” or “checking in”, I can tailor a list of recipients to either view my progress on a map or get an email with message and link to see a single location on the map. It’s a nice system and I think of it as my “get out and hike” pass … Suzy is never pleased when I hike alone but has agreed to me going out solo if I’m carrying the SPOT. I’ve done a lot less solo hiking this year but it’s still fantastic security insurance, as she watches my progress while I’m on the mountain.

The new SPOT was acquired when my old SPOT stopped being reliable. I’ve been a customer since 2008 and so, while my old unit was out of warranty and no longer made, they offered me a Gen3 at a pretty significant price; and they paid for shipping. Nice.

When it arrived, I noticed the new unit came with a handy carabiner and I planned to use it. While I normally rigged something up to position my SPOT on the top of my pack, it’s not handy to hit the buttons, and so I was hoping just clipping it to the pack would be OK. Additionally, I carry a camera and GPS with me so I already look like Inspector Gadget and don’t want another device hanging from my pack strap … the SPOT went onto the back of the pack.

Partway into the trip … the now-familiar Paradise to Camp Muir hike … I decided to lash the SPOT down a little more securely. As you can see from the map to the right, this was needed. The SPOT transmits from its faceplate, so having that pointing skyward is necessary. I imagine that prior to lashing it down, the faceplate was flipping about and unable to focus on the sky. Hence, my first SPOT message being received from halfway to Camp Muir.

While I got good reception thereafter, notice it stopped transmitting somewhere around Panorama Point on the way home. Again, I’m assuming my jostling about from aggressive plunge-stepping down a slope caused the device to flip around and I lost signal again.

So, how can this be called a success? Mostly because I learned something … something I can use to do things better next time! I’ll likely go back to attaching it to the top of my pack. The new SPOT design has little slots at the top and bottom; I plan to use these to attach loops of thin elastic string, and then connect those to four strap buckles situated on top of my pack. I think it’ll work out great.

Well, thanks for dropping by as I try to find ways to stay safe in the mountains! You stay safe, too!

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A new day, fresh batteries, and am I a misanthrope?

Posted by joeabbott on May 13, 2018

Well, I returned to Mt. Rainier to hike to Camp Muir again and it was quite a day. A bit of a spoiler here but the weather was fantastic (evidenced by the awesome v-shaped sunburn I have on my neck), my SPOT appeared to perform flawlessly, and there were so many people on the mountain that most of my inner dialog involved saying rude things to them … fortunately, I keep my mouth shut a lot.

Time to take that trip along with me again!

A new day

DSCF1864DSCF1859I’ve been to Rainier 5 times in the past two months: once I was stopped at Longmire due to road closures (avalanche danger), once we had brilliant weather but only hiked to 9000’ due to time constraints, another time we hiked to 8000’ due to whiteout conditions, and twice we’ve now made it to Camp Muir. We did it in fine time and felt good, but it still takes a toll: the extra effort of hiking in mushy snow where you might post-hole (sink to your knee) in, being under a hot sun for 10 hours, and carrying a lot of weight all wear you down.

But, if you’re going to be worn down, this is the place for it!

Yesterday the weather was gorgeous and we were doing well. Tim felt it took him a while to find his stride and I struggled most of the time but we kept moving. An important part of hiking that many hours is hydration and food management … keep sipping that water and when you stop, make sure you replace those salts as well as keep the carb-train rolling; being on the mountain is no time to practice your diet! I eat like a garbage scow continually pulling in calories and have lost weight over the hiking season while making no other effort to trim down. You burn some calories on the trail!

What do I eat? Well, I have a little hip-belt pouch (had been intended to keep a one-quart water bottle but I use a hydration pouch) in which I carry a small baggie of nuts, some crackers or something crunchy, and I found something called a Stroopwafel


They’re thin, light, and pretty tasty … they have 120 calories per “wafel”: with a caramel filling it’s not a diet snack. I noticed a new product in the REI power bar selection that looks a lot like these; I’ve tried them and they were good, but at over a dollar each, I didn’t get that many. When I came across a package of three dozen for (let’s call it $7 because I’m not sure at all what I paid but that’s what I saw on the Internet), I grabbed then, toss a few into a baggie, and they’re great on the trail.

But, I’m losing track of my point … the day was so clear you could see where we were heading from the parking lot!


It looked a long way away but we had all day. Our only goal was to get there in 6 hours … not a hard goal or one we’d pain ourselves to meet, but it’s what we wanted. Time to head out!

Fresh batteries

Another issue I wanted to address on this hike was my SPOT. As I’d noted, I was having very poor performance from it; so poor, I had contacted the company and they were sending a replacement on generous financial terms. As my model was no longer manufactured, out of warranty and I didn’t have their loss\replacement program, it wouldn’t be free … but, as a customer since 2008, they offered me a new unit for quite a bit off. I accepted their offer.

But, while waiting for the new unit, I put fresh batteries into my current SPOT and tried again. Every season I replace batteries so this would be the second time replacing three lithium AAA batteries in just a few months. But it made the difference! I got dozens of locations marked!


Ultimately it just says that I had discharged batteries, and for that I’m disappointed. While I like the new technology that will be in the new model, I’m not one to replace something that’s working just fine. Looks like I’ll have a backup.

Am I a misanthrope?

We got to the Park at 8AM, not a climbers’ start time, but respectable considering it’s an hour and a half drive for us. But, upon turning into the parking lot we were stunned … dozens! hundreds of people! We ended up parking in the last row and navigated past dozens of groups of people. If you weren’t skiing, you were in the minority and I had to laugh as the trail to the top of Panorama Point looked like the classic Chilkoot Trail image during the gold rush:


And while I’m super comfortable around folks who aren’t from the States, there has to be a cultural thing where others are a lot more comfortable dogging someone else’s heels. We’re on this huge mountain and people continually marched up right behind me and settled in. I would step aside, they’d look up a bit surprised, and march on. This happened a dozen times or so! It was super-frustrating. Partially I was self-conscious about being slow, but who marches right behind someone?

A couple times I’d see the line of people and, knowing that I enjoyed being out to be with Nature and just my thoughts, I’d talk to Tim and we’d create a path across new snow where no one else was marching … and, within minutes, someone would be right on my tail! It was quite disappointing. And I also suffer from the frustration that comes when you are amid other languages and don’t understand what’s being said … it’s off-putting for me. Kinda like hearing a loud-talker on the phone when you can just hear one side of the conversation … similarly annoying. Perhaps I’m just sensitive that I can’t keep up a conversation at that altitude under that physical exertion. Regardless, the outing was less a balm than it normally is when walking along the flanks of this giant.

I will try to redeem myself a little. When we got to the parking lot I noticed a middle aged Indian man helping a very aged woman down the snow-covered, slick slope that’s the final 20’ to the lot. Seeing her concern and his care, I asked if it would be helpful to use my trekking poles and they readily accepted. I walked to the lot, sat down, and tried to regain some energy. After Tim came by and said he’d meet me at the car, I looked around for my poles … and, for a second thought the couple may have confused my offer of a loan for a gift! Then I saw they were still on the slope, slowly working their way down. It was touching and I was glad I could help. When they got to the lot, they happily returned the poles and thanked me, I told her she looked great and that would be all she needed to climb the mountain! And, with smiles and a somewhat lighter spirit, I headed to the car and toward home.


I’m working up to a summit bid in the first week in June. I’m not at the point I’d like to be, physically, but I know I can do it. It’ll just be tougher than I’d like. Heavens knows I’m putting in the time, so I’m not sure what more I should be doing. Perhaps even more time. With just three weeks left, that’s a resource I don’t believe I have, so I’ll make do with where I’m at.

In spite of the pain, discomfort, and continually go-go-going I’ve been living with, it’ll be fun to summit Rainier again. Thanks for joining me as I prepare for this journey.

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