Twig Adventures

PNT Bonus Days: Kulshan

Tuesday-Saturday, August 29th-Sept 3rd, 2022
Port Angeles to Port Townsend to Whidbey Island to Sedro-Woolley to Mt. Baker to Mt. Vernon to Seattle
12 miles hiked, Gain/loss: 7412′

Thanks for sharing in my adventures on the PNT. If you want more, then here it is… a LOT more. Fair warning, this is an exceptionally long-winded post about my bonus peak bagging adventure, plus the days before and after. I recognize that all my later posts from the PNT were overly long, mainly because I wrote them much later off-trail, with access to a real keyboard. But I also had such a fun and exciting time at the very end, I wanted to capture as many of the details as I could, for my own memory’s sake.

So what better way to wrap up a 1,250 mile hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean than finishing atop the highest mountain, and only volcano, the PNT passes…10,781 ft Mt Baker. After doing some more research for this post, I’m going to proceed in referring to the mountain’s native name: Koma Kulshan, or just Kulshan. It’s one of 5 stratovolcanoes in Washington, and only second in stature to Tahoma (Rainier) in terms of height and glacier mass. It’s also the second most thermally active volcano after Mt St Helens. I saw Kulshan for the first time on Day 36 in the Pasayten wilderness and many more times up until day 56, where I last spied it from the Olympic mountains. So it was a part of my landscape for 20 days, 1/3 of the hike! I spent about 3 full days just walking halfway around it, feeling its impressive shadow. The PNT actually follows the Park Butte approach trail on the southern side…the same trail I would walk a second time to summit. Given my recently discovered love for peak-bagging (see 14er’s list), I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to culminate my PNT experience.

Wolverine and I cooked up the plan weeks before. We’d briefly been distracted by the idea of climbing Tahoma, something I’ve always wanted to do. But I was surprised to learn that a guided trip was about $2,500 and had a year-long waiting list…so that idea was out. While we were in Sedro-Woolley, Wolverine talked to the owner of Northwest Mountain Shop, Craig, to learn that a guided trip up Kulshan was about 1/3 the cost, and that he was willing to give us some discounts/breaks on rental gear. Given the uncertainty over when we’d finish the PNT, we didn’t commit to anything at the time. I called Craig on August 28th, my second to last day on the PNT, to ask if he could fit us into a scheduled trip in the upcoming week. He did us one better by offering a private guide for Sept 1st-2nd, just for the 2 of us. This seemed like too good of a deal to pass up.

I know this might sound a bit callous or privileged, but I’ve generally avoided guided trips because I’ve often felt limited by group dynamics and pacing. I’ve had experience as both a guide and participant where fitness levels are regularly too mismatched, negatively affecting the group. As such, being self-sufficient and going solo or with just one other person has just worked best for me. But I knew I lacked the skill set and equipment to go it alone on such a mountaineering adventure. Given the costs involved, I wanted to be somewhat certain of our chances in summiting. I could accept that any number of things can happen with the weather, route and members suffering from unforeseen problems like edema or traumatic injuries, but I wasn’t willing to accept falling short due to lack of fitness. I knew Wolverine was equally enticed by the dynamics of it being just us…2 very well known entities, in very good shape. It also seemed fitting, since we’d hiked so much of the PNT together and made such a good team. A chance like this might never come again, so we jumped on it.

Before I get into the actual journey up the volcano, let me briefly describe the preceding 2 days, in order to recognize all the Trail Angels who helped us with the logistics of this final leg. This was a PNT Trail Angel reunion of sorts, retracing many of my steps from the previous 2 weeks. I enjoyed Funk’s company for much of it, since he also needed to return his borrowed bear canister to the Happy House. We teamed up leaving Port Angeles, bidding farewell to Costanza and Wolverine. He was off to hike the Wonderland Trail around Tahoma and she was going to spend the next 2 days with a friend near Seattle. We took a bus to Sequim, then met with our first Trail Angel assist, Dan of Port Townsend. On a whim, I’d texted him to see if he might be running more errands in town and turns out, he was! So we got a ride back to Port Townsend with him, saving another bus ride. I was able to recover my head net that I’d left at his house a week earlier but more importantly, it was just nice to see and thank him again. Trail Angels don’t always hear back from hikers after they finish a long trail, so it was good to be able to share our success. Next, we walked to the ferry terminal, where we caught a quick ride across the sound to Whidbey Island. On the way, I could see Kulshan, beckoning me on.

We caught a bus to the Happy House and were showered with more treats from Rebecca and John. They invited us to stay the night and suddenly I was in the midst of a Trail Angel tug-of-war, as I’d already confirmed with Skip about staying another night at his house. I hadn’t wanted to assume that we could stay at the Happy House, since officially they still weren’t hosting thru-hikers. But being the wonderful and generous couple they are, they couldn’t resit making the offer. They hosted Steady and Buck30 when they came through a few weeks after us, as he was one of their first thru-hikers dating back to 2012. At least in this way, I was finally able to unite Skip with Rebecca and John, long-lost neighboring Trail Angels. They’d talked on the phone before but had never met in person. Skip came inside when he stopped to pick us up, which ended up being quite a lengthy visit. Turns out, both he and John shared a passion for rebuilding cars!

After a nice visit with everyone, we said goodby to the Happy House (may we meet again!) and went back to Skip’s to enjoy his sauna and crash hard in his cozy upstairs loft. A big reason for staying at his house was that he was driving to Mt Vernon the next day to run errands, which was exactly where I needed to go! Lacking a better plan, Funk came along for the ride. Skip dropped us off at the library to get some work done, where we said perhaps a final goodby. He had plans to move to Montana in the upcoming year, to be closer to his family. But maybe our paths would cross there someday. Funk and I went for a late lunch while we called upon the generous assistance of more local Trail Angels, Kelly and Dan. I’d contacted Kelly a few days prior to ask if I could borrow some extra clothes for the climb, namely a pair of hiking pants and a few additional layers. She’d graciously agreed and was going to meet me later in the day when she got off work. She also offered to drive us to Dan’s house in nearby Sedro-Woolley, my staging grounds for the hike the next day. I’d happily taken Dan up on the offer to spend another night on his living room couch. Funk accompanied me there too, since he’d missed meeting Dan the first time through Sedro-Woolley. Dan was incredibly instrumental in helping SOBO PCTers this year, as well as the PNTers. He planned to be doing more thru-hiking himself in the years to come and I hoped to stay in touch with him about his travels.

Plus, for the second time in as many days, I got to introduce 2 more trail angels that lived close to each other. Kelly came inside to hang out for a bit and we had another fun night swapping stories about the PNT and PCT. Some may recall that Mary Walker and Kelly met for the first time when Kelly came over to meet me at Mary’s house. Mary and Kelly learned that they actually had some crazy connections (too convoluted to go into here), but didn’t know each other before that day. To complete the circle, Dan later sent me a picture of him and Boon the dog, from when he also visited Mary for the first time. I really hope that they all become good friends and get to tell lots of silly stories about thru-hikers. On this topic, take note: Trail Angels do often communicate with each other, so any bad behavior will follow a hiker up and down a trail.

Finally the day of our trip was nigh. The plan was to hike to base camp, practice some mountaineering skills, then go to bed at hiker midnight for an early morning summit bid the next day. Dan dropped me off at the shop just as Wolverine arrived, wishing us both luck. Craig introduced our guide, a young and energetic lady, Shiona. We would be a trio of 3 badass women climbing the mountain. How perfectly fitting. We spent some time at the shop getting all our gear together. Normally this sort of endeavor would require much more substantial gear than what I had for my summer kit. But the weather was forecasted to be exceptionally warm, with lows on top the volcano only in the 40’s. Thus I stuck with my 30 degree quilt and rather pathetic collection of ragged clothes, with the exception of the pants and other few items I borrowed from Kelly. A climbing harness just doesn’t work well with a dress.

I still needed to rent boots, crampons, an ice axe, helmet, and harness, yet Craig generously only charged for the boots and crampons. He also supplied some dehydrated meals, a stove and fuel, the tent (already up at base camp), ropes, and other little pieces of gear required for rescue from a crevasse, should we unfortunately need it (no!). Shiona would carry most of the climbing gear but we needed to pack our personal items such as clothes, quilt, air mattress, boots, crampons, harness, helmet and other small items. Despite the additional climbing gear, it all ended up being less weight than what normally goes in my pack. I only needed one day of food and was able to leave behind my tent, stove, fuel, and other miscellaneous items that are only required for a long thru-hike (chargers, electronics, toiletries, etc). I wore my regular trail runners for the approach trail, so fitting the bulky mountaineering boots in the pack was a trick, but I managed.

We drove up to the trailhead via the same 5 miles of forest service road that I so loathed walking weeks before. Who knew I’d actually prefer the walk, though! Experiencing the twisty and bumpy road in the backseat of Craig’s SUV was torture on my stomach. I was as car sick as I ever get…a good reminder why I didn’t hitch the road walks on the PNT. Fortunately, I knew from experience that the sickness goes away as soon as I start walking again. I was also hoping to spot a PNT hiker or two along the way, but we didn’t see any. In fact, I hadn’t seen a single one while retracing 50 some miles of the route through the Puget Sound. We hiked about 2 miles up the Park Butte trail, following in our exact footsteps on the PNT. We then turned onto new territory up the Railroad Grade Trail, traversing the top of a moraine wall for another mile and a half to the upper Sandy campsites. The hiking was very easy for Wolverine and me, a little less so for Shiona. While only 21 and very fit, she was really weighed down by her beefy mountaineering-grade equipment, plus some extra group supplies. Guides don’t have the luxury of carrying lightweight packs. Nor do they get much practice with or endurance for setting a fast pace, as their clients are almost always much slower. She suffered from some previous injuries and told us a crazy story about how her skiing partner had to be medevaced from a terrible fall just last spring. I was beginning to wonder if this mountaineering stuff was worth it.

A good view of our work ahead. All the more reason to have come back a second time, as this view was denied the first time I hiked up this trail.

At the camp, we went in search of Craig’s duffel bag, which he stored with another guide service’s gear. Some of the guides were just returning, which made for an awkward interaction as they wondered why we were sifting through their stuff. Then we had fun trying to figure out how to set up the tent and squeeze our meager belongings inside. The 2-person mountaineering tent that Wolverine and I were supposed to share was very small (they usually are), so she elected to cowboy camp. At least this late in the season and surrounded by nothing but rocks, there were FINALLY NO mosquitos. And it wasn’t even cold… Shiona stripped down to her sports bra. We were at about 6,000 feet for the night, so not really that high. After camp was made, we went to a nearby snow field to practice using the crampons, ice axes and rope. It was quite the learning curve figuring out how the crampons were attached and other related details. I jumped (almost literally) head first into practicing a self-arrest with the ice axe, getting it wrong (I made the catch with the axe extended above my chest) and thus immediately strained my right shoulder. I’d watched tons of videos on the maneuvers but it’s always different when you actually practice them yourself. Sometimes I let my belief in my athleticism get the better of me, as I just assumed this was something I’d be good at. I’d thrown myself into a slide (with not much of a run-out before some rocks), then panicked a bit when I realized how fast I heading down the hill. My teammates were impressed that I quickly manged to catch the axe and stop my slide, but my form was bad. I needed A LOT more practice at this but my shoulder was now hurting, so I couldn’t try much more. My other observation from the practice session was that crampons rock! I was amazed by how much snow-stepping confidence they gave me.

This was more practice in a less-steep area, where I should have started in first place. Trouble is, it wasn’t quite steep enough to really slide.

After a mostly successful session, we headed back to camp for a quick dinner and then to bed. I couldn’t resist staying up for the amazing sunset, viewed from the tent. It was a surreal scene given all the smoke in the valleys. We’d been so incredibly lucky not to be affected by smoke or fires the whole summer…up until this last little bonus hike, that is. While I’d been hiking through the Olympics, multiple fires had broken out in the Cascades. It’s kind of crazy that just because of one line of thunderstorms, some 200 miles of the PNT, from the eastern Pasayten wilderness all the way to the western side of the North Cascades National Park, were now effectively closed. There were more fires in Montana, too. The fires has stopped or detoured many hikers I’d met or knew were behind me: Buck30, Steady, and Eric, to name a few. Somewhat ironically, I’d just seen a PNT-hash-tagged post from a hiker declaring he was going for a Fastest Known Time, just after finishing the CDT. Had he bothered with doing any prior research to learn that a large part of the trail was currently on fire? Seemingly not. In the name of being Insta-Famous, it’s much easier to simply promote an FKT attempt than to actually follow through with setting one. I pondered these things as I gazed at the last hazy rays of sunlight before the golden orb was extinguished by the not-so-distant Pacific. I was too excited and perhaps a bit nervous to fall asleep right away, so it was going to be an all-too-short night.

Very a-typical of my usual campsites, protected in the trees. Here we got to be mountaineers!

Beeb Beep Beep went my alarm at 2:30 am. Ugh. This sentiment lasted for only 30 seconds before I was wide awake. My thermometer read close to 60 degrees, so it wasn’t too hard to peel myself from my quilt. I looked out the tent to see my steadfast hiking buddy also eager to get started. I got the stove boiling water and coffee half chugged before we made the call to rouse our guide. She’d slept through her alarm, an easy thing to do when you’re a mountaineering pro and not near as excited as us newbies. But I did have to chuckle at the notion that it’s the guides who usually have to rouse the clients, not the other way around. We were also very self-sufficient and efficient in doing our camp chores, thus we were all still ready by 3:30 am, setting off just as a group of 7 were also leaving. I’d expected there to be even more groups on the Friday morning leading up to Labor Day weekend, but surprisingly the rest of the mountain seemed quiet.

We hiked a short way to the edge of the Easton Glacier, where we sat down to don our crampons. Something about having claws on my feet was the key to unlocking my inner-mountaineer. I felt instantly transformed. We roped up to each other, just as we’d practiced the day before, and were off. Such a rope configuration is standard for ice travel, just in case someone breaks through a crevasse. Ideally, the other group members will keep the person from falling all the way in. Hotsprings guy would have been so incredibly impressed to know that 3 women were now climbing up a volcano, on a glacier, past crevasses, IN THE DARK! I know, I at first thought it might be scary or difficult too, but the grade was actually very mild and the cracks easy to see and bypass. In reality, there was a pretty defined path, laid out by the guides. We hiked with our axes in one hand and a trekking pole in the other. With light packs and a slow but steady pace, the effort felt like nothing. Both Wolverine and I later confirmed with each other that we wanted to go faster, but we were already well-ahead of schedule.

After about 45 minutes, we stopped briefly to collect and drink water, a custom guides have to strictly enforce since most clients aren’t used to setting a schedule of their own for such routine functions. We were kind of pros at knowing our requirements when hiking, so the stop wasn’t really needed, but I was fine with just gazing around the glacier and admiring the stars. The group of 7 caught up to us just as we started moving again, which was unfortunate because we got stuck behind them, going even slower. Fitness levels being equal, a smaller group will always travel faster than a larger one, especially when when roped-up. It’s the turns on the switchbacks that really slow things down. Shiona must have sensed us chomping at the bit, so she called ahead to the other guides to ask them to let us pass. They obliged but I imagined some hard stares. They appeared to be a more experienced group, as each member was carrying rescue equipment, not just the guides. I suspect they were taking a longer training course and we must have appeared to be pretty run-of-the-mill tourists just wanting to get to the summit…albeit exceptionally fit tourists.

We made it to the crater rim just as the sun was rising for some spectacular views across the fumaroles and ice. I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing sunrise from the top of 3 volcanoes that I’ve climbed: Haleakala, Mauna Loa, and Kulshan. What amazing formations. We could also see Glacier Peak nosing above the smoke, but none of the other volcanoes to the south. I’d really been hoping to see them all, but it was not to be. Later in the day, we couldn’t even see Glacier Peak, the smoke became so thick. We took a long break to snack and pee at the rim. I learned that being a female and wearing a climbing harness is not a good mix. This time, we were well-enough ahead that the other group was still taking a break when we set out. Looking around, we saw no other groups ahead or behind. We’d be the first to summit this day.

At this point, we began the most challenging part of the route on tight switchbacks up a steep face to the final ridge. The guides had beaten a fairly banked path, so it was not as scary as I expected. My clawed feet made me feel invincible. In low-snow years, this section can get very rocky and exposed, so we were glad for some snow. Contrary to most thru-hikers’ experiences, packed snow is a mountaineer’s friend. We did well with our rope and axe transitions and were soon on the easy sloped ridge leading to Grant’s Peak, the summit hump. Here we could relax and take in all the views. It was 8:30 am by the time we made it to the top and I think we only traveled 3 or 4 miles, but Shiona assured us that it was a new record for her while leading a group. The wind was a little strong and my puffy very weak, so I didn’t spend much time getting the best photos. But we were most pleased and that’s what matters. The 360 view revealed plumes of smoke rising from the nearby fires in North Cascades National Park. More chaos was striking that area but fortunately for us, the massive maw of Kulshan was very quiet this day. What a way to go, were the volcano to decide to speak. Something to ponder standing on the top of a living, breathing giant.

These Pacific stratovolcanoes rise so much higher than their surrounding Cascade mountains, I felt taller than I’ve ever felt on a Colorado 14er.

We said a quick hello and congrats to the other group that was arriving just as we were departing. The descent was even easier and my clawed feet a joy to play with. For some reason, Shiona stopped to shorten the rope and put me in the front to lead on the steep switchbacks. I embraced the opportunity and enjoyed a bit of freedom. We readjusted again at the rim, with her in front. Going down the broad face of the glacier, it felt a lot longer. I couldn’t believe how far we’d come in the dark. We contemplated practicing some glissading, but we would have needed to take our crampons off to do so. Instead, we practiced some foot-skiing techniques. Despite the crampons being very effective at gripping, I discovered that they can also permit some controlled sliding when the glacier surface becomes slushy. It was a lot of fun skating along. We stopped to gather water straight from some surface runoff, not bothering to filter of course. It doesn’t get much more pure…AHHH! We also got to admire all the cool formations we couldn’t previously see in the dark, spouting neat terms like bergschrung, crevasse, and sérac. While the hike to the top of the volcano was fun but rather straightforward and non-technical, the true value of this adventure came from getting to hike across a glacier. Who knows how much time any of us have left for such experiences, so I was very grateful to finally witness what it’s like. I’d encourage anyone reading this to do the same, while you still can. I wish this part of the day could have lasted longer but alas, we’re fast hikers.

We reached the start of the moraine, where I sadly took off my crampons. The boots came off just a little bit later at basecamp, where I was surprised by the lack of protesting from my feet. In comparison, my trail runners felt like feathers, but also very unstable and weak. How had I managed so many thousands of miles in such wimpy shoes? We took down the tents and packed all the gear. We shared a few swigs of Fireball in celebration of our success, which Kelly had so thoughtfully added to my pack days before…Thanks Kelly! Base camp was now crawling with people…seemingly, we’d just missed the crowds! Proceeding 4.5 miles down the approach trails, we must have passed 50 more people. Many, but not all, had big packs with mountaineering equipment. I felt so lucky with the timing of our hike, as the summit was likely to be a zoo the next morning. We also ran into one very slim backpacker, looking rather like a thru-hiker. It was Morgan, who we’d we stayed a night with in Eureka! He was the kid who’d asked me how old I was when we were at the rodeo. Ha ha. (later he reached out to ask for Shiona’s phone number…still trying his luck at dating from the trail, I guess. Ahh, to be young again). It was fun to run into him, fulfilling our hopes in meeting one last PNT hiker. We wished him well for his last few weeks. Hopefully we also convinced some others to try the Kulshan alternate PNT finish!

I slept almost the entire ride back to Sedro-Woolley, happy to avoid a repeat of my car-sickness. We unloaded our rental gear at the shop and thanked our guide (meaning we tipped her well). I hope she found us to be easy clients. It’s nice when ‘work’ feels more like just a fun time on the mountain. Craig did us another favor in giving us a ride to Kelly’s house in Mt Vernon. We’d kind of invited ourselves over, needing to return her borrowed gear, but she most graciously offered us a restful night’s stay in her guest bedrooms. We got to play with her adorable buns and grandchildren, plus eat lots of great food. She even gave me a ride down to Seattle the next day, on her way to hike a section of the PNT in the Olympics. I’d have loved to join her on the hike but I had to admit to myself, I was all hiked-out…at least for a few weeks. I just wanted to veg on a couch for a bit. As a finally treat, I met with Jenn, the daughter of my good friend and #1 Trail Angel, Jon in Arizona. Jenn and Jon were my very first Trail Angels at the start of the PCT. I’d flown into Seattle to stay at Jenn’s apartment for a day before Jon drove me to Harts Pass. So things had really come full circle staying with Jenn again at the end of my PNT adventure, 4 years later. It was really great spending some quality time with her. We nerded-out on House of Dragon episodes and went on dog-walking outings. I flew back to Denver from Seattle a few days later.

This was our reward for hiking up a volcano…bun snugs

Again, thanks so much to all the PNT trail angels that were so instrumental in making my final days such a blast….Dan of Port Townsend, Rebecca and John of the Happy House, Skip, Kelly, Dan and Jenn! I regret I couldn’t see Mary and the Marc’s once again. Also a big shout out to our guide Shiona ‘Creature’…one badass adventure woman, and Craig at Northwest Mountain Shop. And as always, thanks to my hiking buddy Wolverine. This was a first class adventure, one I will not soon forget. Thanks for sticking it out through this long post!

2 comments

  1. Awww, my little Fiver bun 😭…he sure took a liking to you. I miss him.
    I’m so grateful I got to play a small part in your grand adventure. I hope our paths cross again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: