This report is long. Consider yourself warned. This is Blathering at its finest.
Exactly 100 trails ago I made my first visit to Church Mountain with PSnA, Quark and Sarah in conjunction with the 2006 Summer Solstice get together.
During that visit in 2006 we made it to the first meadow when we encountered snow and turned around.
It's been on my 'to finish' list ever since but always pushed aside mostly because there is one section where a creek crosses the road and my vehicle isn't known for high clearance.
While hiking in the Mt. Baker area last weekend, a fellow hiker provided a first hand report that the water over road crossing is no longer the issue it once was and seemed confident that my car wouldn't have any trouble. Plus, they told me the road now intersects with Hwy 542 a bit east of where it used to connect and is no longer flagged as 'Church Mtn'. The new location is at the west end of the current construction zone and the first 30 yards or so has been paved.
Fast forward to 9/4/10.
The original plan was to drive down and hike to Rachel Lake, Rampart Ridge and maybe Alta Mtn in the Snoqualmie Pass area. After 45 minutes of driving south, it came to my attention that my backpack was still at home on the couch.
I was completely annoyed, but also a little relieved. Relieved because it was raining when I turned around but still blue skies at my house.
Due to the late re-start it seemed like a poor choice to risk driving back toward the rain when the weather seemed so much better closer to home.
My new first choice destination would be Church Mtn if the weather was still nice (and the road passable) or the Chain Lakes Loop from Artist Point if the weather turned for the worse.
I confess: Navigating narrow dirt roads in the mountains in a passenger car isn't one of my Top 10 Favorite Things To Do. In fact, it's often the most stressful part of my hike. Many of my hike destinations end up being based on the road to the trail head.
Tackling the Church Mountain road was just one of the fears that kept me from returning to this trail for so long.
So many things could go wrong. Luckily, today nothing went wrong. Usually nothing goes wrong, but that doesn't seem to decrease the stress level.
The road to Church Mtn TH was located right where people promised it would be, and the water over road crossing is still just that... water flowing over the road, but it was indeed shallow enough that the crossing was uneventful. Not sure what the case would be if there had been recent rain.
Arrival at the trail head (about 11:00am) revealed 7 other cars. Since this was Saturday of Labor Day weekend (and not raining) I expected a lot more than that.
I confess: Hiking solo is a last resort. I'm less comfortable and more stressed when hiking alone. Hiking on popular trails definitely helps to reduce that anxiety; that's why my original plan for the day was to hike to Rachel Lake... sure to be a conga line of hikers on Labor Day weekend.
In the unlikely event that something goes unexpectedly or horribly wrong, knowing there are others in the vicinity provides comfort.
Finding only a few cars at this trail was a little surprising since I was hoping for more but at least there were seven or more people 'somewhere' ahead of me on the trail. Theoretically.
The beginning of the hike was rather uneventful and after 1 hour I had already pounded through 2,000 of the 4,000 ft for the day. Then I started to slow down a bit. There were a couple reasons for keeping up the fast pace for the first half of this trail.
I confess: The last thing that I want to see on any hike is a bear. If I want to see a bear then I'll just go to the zoo.
Wouldn't you know that my Bear Spray (it's pepper spray... not bear pee, Tanya!) is sitting at home on the bedside table? Didn't expect to need it at Rachel Lake.
When hiking solo, it's common for me to smack my hiking poles on rocks or make other noise simply to help prevent surprising any wildlife on the trail.
Popular trails usually don't have much bear activity around them... and that is another reason why I will frequently hike there when solo. The Church Mountain trail is not a high use trail, so the likelihood of a bear encounter on this trail is relatively high. Another personal demon that kept me moving quickly along the trial for more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Side note: You know those bears they keep finding in residential/urban areas? Yeah, the one's they capture and then release/relocate to remote areas? The one's that are now used to eating garbage and not deterred by the sight of people? Please relocate them to the SOUTH Cascades. Idaho would be just fine also. We already have plenty of bears in the North Cascades.
I confess: Cardio training has really helped improve my fitness level. While the steep hikes still require significant effort and result in heavy breathing, sore muscles and plenty of sweat, at least the leg cramps have significantly decreased in frequency and even a short rest allows for substantial recovery. The cardio has allowed me to knock off at least five high-elevation-gain hikes that have been on the to-do list for years.
After about 75 minutes the first meadow came into view. It was beautiful. The camera came out and went to work while my heart rate returned to normal.
The last of the flowers were in bloom (sorry, don't know what the flowers are... maybe fireweed?)
The Corn Lillies (or maybe they are False Hellabores) were just starting to turn golden yellow as they struggle to hang to to summer.
In the distance you can see a talus slope below cloud obscured Church Mountain. It's full of picas and marmots who whistle at you as you hike by.
About half way through the first meadow there was a group of hikers sitting down eating lunch and chatting happily. How relaxed and unstressed they were. ;)
15 minutes later there were about 10 hikers descending and they informed me that I was the last one on the mountain.
Mixed emotions about that fact as you can imagine. I tried to play it up as a positive fact.
Being alone on a mountain isn't something I like to think about. It puts me on the edge of my comfort zone. Often times I'll just turn back and vow to do it again with a hiking buddy.
Today, however, I convinced myself that after battling the water crossing and 3,000 feet of elevation grinding that took 4 years to attempt, TODAY was the day to finish this up and get it off the To-Do list.
So, logic and reason won out over Comfort Zone and eventually I made it to the Lookout site.
In the above picture you can clearly see the trail as it crosses the steep meadow and then switchbacks as it descends the slope. Also in the picture is a debris pile in the lower left corner: all that remains of the former Fire Lookout and its storage area. Well, all that is left at this location. There are a few artifacts much further down the meadow (out of the picture).
Looking down the opposite side of the ridge:
Looking up to Church Mountain Summit:
The trail continued upward from here, but being solo and now alone on the mountain (and now tired, too) meant that continuing along the scramble route to the summit was just beyond my risk level for the day. When I return with a buddy, the summit will be ours. Probably.
Here is a short video. The first part was taken after crossing the lower meadow and the second was taken from my turnaround point where the clouds were moving up and over the ridge below me.
The descent was just as scenic, but a lot faster.
Didn't encounter any other hikers on the descent until about 1/4 mile from the trail head.
No bears. :)
17 switchbacks from the parking lot to the first meadow.
~8.5 miles round trip and ~4,300 feet of elevation gain.
2 hr 45 minutes up, 1 hr 15 minutes down.
The soles of my feet were tingling by the time I reached the parking lot.
The drive down to Hwy 542 was uneventful and the water crossing was trouble free.
It was a fast and stressful hike, but well worth it all.
Isn't it always?