Friday, June 17, 2016

Mount Ellinor

Mount Washington from Mount Ellinor
6.2 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Mount Ellinor is the southeastern anchor of the Olympic Mountains and thus provides outstanding views of both the interior of the Olympic Mountains and the southern Puget Sound area. Ellinor is a popular hike not only during the summer, but also during the spring: after avalanche danger calms down, a fairly straightforward winter route allows those with sufficient snow hiking equipment and experience to access the summit. The hike packs a pretty substantial elevation gain, but those in good shape will find the summit panorama more than worth it: although not easy, this is still one of the easiest hikes to a craggy summit in the Olympic Mountains.

I've hiked this trail twice, once in early April in a year with below-average snowpack and the second time in late May in a year with above-average snowpack; the conditions were very similar both times. My first visit was on a partly cloudy but mostly beautiful April day, setting out from Seattle with a group of four friends. We took I-5 south to Olympia, then US 101 north from Olympia to Hoodsport. At Hoodsport, just past the IGA, we turned left onto Route 119, or Lake Cushman Road; we followed the at times windy road to a T-intersection. Here, we turned right onto an unpaved road, following the sign towards Mt. Ellinor; after following this road for about two miles, we turned left onto the NF-2419, a gravel road that departed sharply to the left and headed uphill. We followed this road until we came to the lower trailhead for Mount Ellinor, where we parked.

The trail set off from the south side of the road (the left side of the road from the direction of approach), climbing immediately through forest to a ridge. The first mile and a half of the hike consisted of a steady but fairly gentle climb through the forest along the ridge, with some stretches of old growth with fairly large trees. The trail is mostly dirt, not too rocky, and generally pleasant hiking through this section.

Forest on the lower trail
At one point along the lower trail, the forest opened up slightly to the north, offering initial views of both Mount Ellinor, our destination, and Mount Washington, a taller neighbor. This view also looked out over a tract of land that had been clearcut in recent years.

Mount Washington from the lower trail
Soon after passing by the small view, the trail came off of the ridge and began cutting north and climbing through switchbacks up the side of Mount Ellinor. At this point, we ran into our first snow of the hike, which was not surprisingly for April. We donned our microspikes to get more traction on the slippery ground.

About a mile and a half from the trailhead, the lower trail came to a junction with the upper trail, which departs from a higher elevation trailhead. Summer hikers may prefer the upper trailhead to cut out distance and elevation gain; hikers in other seasons will usually find that they must use the lower trailhead due to snow on the road at higher elevations. After joining the upper trail, the combined Mount Ellinor trail switchbacked aggressively up a ridge, then veered north into a small clearing at the foot of an avalanche chute. Here, the summer routes and the winter routes diverged: the summer trail, an established route, tackled the slopes to the northwest, but was completely covered in snow and was impossible to follow in April. We instead followed the winter route, which was simply to ascend up a steep gully towards an alpine bowl between Ellinor and Washington.

The winter route presents numerous dangers, so it's important to have the ability to assess conditions and decide whether or not the route is safe and doable. The main fact to note here is that the winter route ascends an avalanche chute: if there appears to be any chance of an avalanche, it's best to leave the rest of the ascent for another day. If avalanche danger is low, it's important to figure out what gear is best suited to existing snow conditions. We were able to successfully tackle (although not without some struggle) the slope with poles and microspikes. However, icier conditions might have demanded an ice ax and crampons, while substantially softer snow would have required snowshoes. The snow was still fairly soft, so we postholed quite often, but we were able to make slow but steady progress upslope.

As we ascended along the avalanche chute, views started opening up to the south. We could see Lake Cushman and the lower southern peaks of the Olympics; Mount Rainier came in and out of our field of view.

View towards the lower peaks of the southern Olympics
The full ascent along the chute took the good part of an hour: from bottom to top, we climbed about 1000 feet in about half a mile. As we ascended, many hikers who were on their way down glissaded rapidly past us.

Winter route
The long chute finally ended after a final steep snow climb that was perhaps as steep as 40 degrees. Emerging at the top of the chute, we found ourselves in a snowy bowl, surrounded by craggy rock. The bootpath led to the left up to a false summit, so we followed the footprints. Views out from the bowl encompassed Mount Rainier, the southern lobes of Puget Sound, and many of the lower summits of the southern Olympics.

Mount Rainier viewed from the climb up the winter route
At the false summit, we realized that we were still a final climb away from the true summit, which was still coated in deep snow.

Summit of Mount Ellinor
A final uphill push put us at Ellinor's summit. The view into the Olympics from the summit of Ellinor is nearly indescribable. Layers upon layers of jagged peaks filled the view, each coated high up with the winter's snow and lower down with the dense evergreen rain forests in this rainiest place in the continental United States.

View into the Olympics
The rocky massif of Mount Washington, which lay to our northeast, drifted in and out of the scattered clouds. Farther north, the snowy peaks of The Brothers and Mount Jupiter, the Olympic sentinels visible from Seattle, formed the eastern front of the range. Yet most remarkable in the view into the interior Olympics was a distant sighting of Mount Olympus itself, crowned in glaciers, locked in forever-ice.

Mount Olympus from the summit of Ellinor
The views out to the Puget Sound were equally impressive: the many arms of the southern Sound gave more depth to our perception of the lowlands. Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens rose above the horizon, seemingly floating atop the hazy mass of lower peaks.

Ascending the chute up the winter route was a tiring and difficult challenge, but descending was fast and exhilarating. Since the day was fairly warm and sunny, the snow was soft enough for safely glissading in such steep terrain. We took two short glissades to descend from the summit to the top of the chute, then launched ourselves down the glissade chute that had already been carved out in the gully through which we had ascended. In less than two minutes, we had descended one thousand feet, probably exceeding over 10 miles per hour at some points in our slide down.

If you plan to glissade, be sure to monitor conditions when you come up and make sure you have all the necessary equipment to glissade safely. In icier conditions, an ice axe is absolutely essential; later in the season, when the snow is further melted, rocks may make the glissade much more dangerous.

Lake Cushman and the glissade chute down the winter route
The glissade ended in a run-out on a flatter, snowy field. We emptied out the snow that had found its way into our clothes and into unexpected areas of our body and descended back to the trailhead, driving back to Seattle in time for dinner.

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