Mount Si

March 16, 2008

I visited Seattle briefly in March and wanted to do the classic hike up Mount Si while I was there.  I stayed in Redmond with my high school friend Joe Grabow and his family, and decided to try hiking on Sunday.  I got lucky in that the weather was the best on Sunday of any of the days I was there. I drove to the trailhead, which is just a little over a half hour from Redmond, and the drive there itself was really nice through some beautiful country. I passed the Little Si trailhead, which I was thinking of doing instead because the snow level was 2000 feet and Little Si is lower than that while Mount Si is over 4000 feet. I didn't bring crampons, an ice ax, or trekking poles and was worried it would be dangerous to hike in the snow. But I figured I'd go as high as I could on Mount Si, and perhaps could do Little Si afterwards if there was time. The Little Si trailhead was jammed with cars when I got there so it's good I didn't try that one. In contrast there were surprisingly few cars at the Mount Si trailhead, given that this is one of the most popular hikes in the country (something like 50K to 100K per year, up there with Half Dome I'm sure). I suppose people were scared off by the snow and also potential lack of views. I did end up seeing plenty of people on the trail though, especially as I came down, so a lot came later. Everyone was friendly and would say hello or answer me when I said it, but after a while you started to get tired because you ran into so many people. And I'm sure this was nothing compared to what it would be like on a weekend with good weather.

I brought a lot of cold-weather clothes including my mountaineering boots, which were awesome and just right for this hike. I started out wearing fleece, my Goretex raincoat, a warm hat and gloves, but soon warmed up and took off the hat and gloves, and a little after that unzipped the raincoat and fleece. I was quite warm even though the temperature I'm sure dropped down to the 20s by the top, but on the way down I did zip things up as I was using less effort. There was a little drizzle at the start and then a transition period during which I couldn't figure out if it was raining or if water was just falling from the trees. Probably the latter as I had plenty of snow fall on me from trees higher up.

Mount Si as I've said is super popular and considered the classic Seattle hike. There seem to be four reasons for this. One is how close it is to the city. The second is that it's a good length (8 miles roundtrip) and fairly steep (it gains something like 3200 feet in 4 miles) and so good training for Rainier and other mountains. Third is that the season is longer than most Cascade hikes which would have too much snow. And forth is the great views.

Well, it's certainly nowhere in the league of Half Dome or Camp Muir but it was a great hike. The one thing it lacked that day was the views, since the mountain seemed to mostly be enshrouded in clouds. I think for the most part there are only a few viewpoints until you get to the summit, as you are mostly hiking in a forest. But the forest itself is beautiful of course. And the trail is very high quality, so I was able to go surprisingly fast despite still being in poor shape. I was happy to be passing all of the locals! And no one passed me the whole day. So that felt good. There are posts every half mile so I was able to keep track of my pace, which was steady at about 3mph until the very end, which is surprisingly fast for such a steep hike. It didn't feel that steep actually so I was a little surprised, but perhaps I just had extra energy since I was so excited. The next few days my thighs were actually sore.

There were all sorts of people doing the hike that day. No kids, but otherwise they ranged from quite young to very old. Some people were just going up in jogging clothes carrying nothing; others went with dogs; others still went with huge backpacks and mountaineering equipment, to train I suppose. I was thinking maybe Mount Si is Seattle's equivalent of a Hollywood nightclub, where you go to see and be seen. So you can show off on Mount Si that "yes, I'm a mountaineer!". Well I prefer the Seattle version to the LA one! There were almost as many women as men, which was nice to see.

Here is the trailhead.

Here  is a typical section of trail lower down.

The trail was damp and a bit muddy in places, but very nice. At around 2000 feet I hit snow level, and sure enough things started to get snowy. At first it was just a little, as shown here.

It got heavier and heavier, as in the following two pictures, the second of which shows the trail.

I was prepared to stop and head down at any point it seemed too dangerous, but thanks to all the people the trail was nicely beaten down and easy to follow. Some people stopped and put on crampons partway up, but those weren't needed, and I figured it was better to work on my balance. In all but a couple sections there was no danger even if you fell--at worst you would just toboggan down the trail itself! Maybe the trail would be a nice luge course!

It was really cool how the scenery made the transition into more and more winter as you got higher. And the trail too changed, with somewhat icy conditions lower down in the snow area where it was thin and had been packed down, but then easier going higher up where the snow was thicker. It was cool to get a real feel for that. At one point there was a guy having real trouble going up--his boots were slipping all over the place. Maybe they were smooth, because I walked straight up with no traction problems. Ah, I love my mountaineering boots.

I did the hike "Kaya Yuki style" with no breaks or stops (except to take a few pictures). I didn't drink or eat anything on the way up. I started at 10:20 and was at the top by 11:48, so 1:28 to get up at a 2.7 mph pace, not bad for 4 miles hiking and a 3200 foot elevation gain. Near the top I passed some people coming down and they said it was clearing up so I might have a great view. And indeed as I walked along one narrow section I could see fragments of a great view in between the clouds--I almost slipped and fell down a steep slope as I was distracted by this! However I think they must have seen the break in the same spot and assumed that meant the summit was clearing, which it was not.

I ran into three older guys at the top, and my first question was "where is the view?" Nothing at all could be seen. I thought the summit area would be much bigger, but it was hard to tell because there was thick snow everywhere, and a foot track over only the tiniest portion of it. I was afraid to try to walk anywhere else, lest I sink in snow up to my waist or worse fall through into empty space. I took a sip of water at the top, my only drink the entire hike (I didn't eat anything), and asked one guy to take a picture of me in front the Haystack, the pile of rocks one can climb in better weather to get to the true highpoint.

The guy who ended up in the picture with me is putting crampons on, and incidentally his boots are the same model as mine! I spent only 4 minutes on the summit, leaving at 11:52. Really there was nothing to do there, and I wanted to get ahead of the three guys who were about to head down themselves. I knew going down was going to be more treacherous without crampons or hiking poles, and was careful. However in one spot although I knew it looked icy I took a chance and immediately ended up flat on my back. My backpack cushioned the fall and I was fine. After that I was even more careful and didn't slip again.

Since I had a lot of time (Joe wouldn't get home until 2pm, and I didn't have a key) I thought I'd try taking an alternate route back which would result in a semi-loop. It would be longer (actually maybe only a tenth of a mile or so it seems) but would give a little change of scenery. I took the branch at Snag Flats that the book suggested; the only sign there said "creek" which made it unclear this was a real full loop or just a small spur to the creek. I was a little worried things would deadend at some point and I'd have to backtrack and end up very late. Also I was worried since I hadn't noticed the branch lower down that should lead back to the main trail.

In any case I followed this alternate trail and it was very nice. The first thing I noticed was that there was no sign that anyone had been on this trail recently. This was good and bad. There was more snow on it since it hadn't been melted by so many feet stomping on it. But on the other hand the dirt section lower down was less muddy. The trail seemed narrower and rockier than the main trail and so was a little less pleasant in a way, but it was still very nice. And I didn't see another soul the entire time! Amazing how easy it is to get away from people with just a slight variation from the main path. So I really enjoyed this section.

The biggest reward, however, was something that had eluded me on the main trail--views! I had some terrific views finally, especially at one point. Here is one example.

The picture below zooms in.

Lower down was a tree broken over--I swear I didn't do it--and you can actually see some sunlight.

I made it back to the main trail (the branch off is unmarked and a little subtle) and rejoined the masses of people on it, repassing some people who no doubt wondered how that could possibly happen. I made it down at 1:24, so 1:32 for the descent; as usual I'm slower going down (to be fair it was longer this way, though). Some parts I could go very quickly, even jogging, but I lost time being careful on the icy sections and of course taking pictures.

A great hike in any case!  On the way back I stopped at the town of North Bend to take a picture of the mountain so you can actually see what it looks like! The picture below is toward the south and the opposite direction.

This picture is Mount Si rising above the ranger station.

This is the impressive steep face; the hike itself actually goes up the forested ridge to the right or even behind that. I made it back to Joe's place around 2:20, and played golf on a 9 hole executive course with him and his oldest daughter.  I can't wake to make it back to Washington to hike more there!