Winter continues to pile on the snow in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Our ambassador Stuke has taken to the lower mountains of the area to continue to improve his physical and mental conditioning for the larger adventures he has planned this summer. He takes us along on one of his most recent outings on Tiger Mountain on our blog.
I had originally intended to write about my newest method of transportation in the outdoors, cross country skiing, but when a trail runner I follow on Facebook and Instagram posted this quote, I knew that I had to veer off my planned course to write about the mountains in my backyard that I love so dearly.
Just miles from the Seattle metro area lies an area called the “Issaquah Alps”. The name was created by a local legend, Harvey Manning to describe the foothills surrounding the town of Issaquah that consist of Cougar, Squak and Tiger Mountains. Now those of us who spend time on these hills know the name is a bit outrageous but obviously it stuck. The mountains are rich in both natural and human history and in doing a bit of investigating for this piece I found myself quickly going down the research rabbit hole. Fortunately I was able to recover quickly and promised myself that later on I would give this area a proper history.
This winter in the Pacific Northwest has been a boon for alpine and backcountry skiers. It feels as though the snow hasn’t stopped falling since late November and it continues to pile up at the higher elevations as I write this. It also has been a winter full of high avalanche risk that has kept me for the most part under the treeline. I have seen a lot of frustration among fellow outdoor enthusiasts lamenting the inability to get to the places they love so dearly because of the onslaught of the white stuff. As for me, well I just turn what is available. The Issaquah Alps.
After a couple of days spent on cross country skiing on the east side of the Cascades in the Methow Valley, I returned home to the warmer and wetter west side of the state. The skiing had given my legs a bit of a rest in comparison to my usual regimen in the mountains. I had one more day off before returning to work so I decided to head to Tiger Mountain and use those trails to focus on some gain. I made the quick drive to Issaquah and parked at the Issaquah Trail center. This small park contains a statue of Harvey Manning as well as some relics of the bygone logging era of the mountain. Once packed up, I headed towards the mountain with no specific route planned.
Crisscrossed with over a hundred trails that total hundreds of miles, the Issaquah Alps are a paradise for those struck with wanderlust. The flanks of the mountains are covered with a lush green forest that is gradually erasing all the damage done by humans in the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s. Logging and mining stripped these mountains bare before conservationists intervened and convinced the powers that be to protect mountains. Ten minutes out of the city, I was entering the forest at the bottom of Tiger Mountain, in another five minutes, most signs of civilization were gone. My chosen meandering route up to the summit of West Tiger I was already warming up my legs.
The forest surrounding the trail was an explosion of green. I so often hear from people who are visiting the state for the first time just how green it is here. A byproduct of all that rain we are so famous for. The trail is wide and gradual in comparison to what I am used to. It is one of the busier trails on Tiger Mountain, but I found it to be empty on this cool morning. I enjoyed the solitude and fell into a steady even walking pace. About an hour into the climb, the mist was burned off by the Sun. Small splashes of sunlight danced around me as I passed one of my favorite characters in this area, a stump that so closely resembles a face. I give it a morning greeting as I pass by.
The climb steepens as I near the summit of West Tiger I. I ascend a trail that for whatever reason I rarely climb, Poo Top. I realize as make my way up the trail that I am in the spot that almost three years ago to the day I came across a trail runner while I was hiking. Burdened with a heavy pack, I was huffing way up the trail and looking up spotted the man gliding effortlessly down the trail. As I moved to the side, he stopped and we talked for a few minutes. He was such a friendly, engaging individual and I was taken with how physically fit he appeared for his age. As I watched him resume running down the trail I knew that I had to give trail running a try. I paused at this spot and smiled at the memory. Grateful for the fortune of him and I crossing paths that day.
Soon I found myself on the summit of West Tiger I. With an elevation of just under 3,000’ it doesn’t seem like much, but when you start below 200’, it adds up. I took stock of how strong I felt and decided to go forward with making it a day of climbing and descending the West Tigers. I quickly traversed the summits of West Tiger’s II and III which are little more than highpoints on a ridge, then jogged my way down the very popular West Tiger 3 trail. This trail gets crowded on the weekends and as such I generally avoid it but on this morning like earlier, it was relatively empty. Built on what I’m sure is the remains of an old logging road, the non-technical nature of the trail allows me to really let my eyes wander as I jog down it. After about three winding miles, I found myself at the base of the mountain once again. It was time for climb number two of the day.
Cable Line. Those two words conjure up a multitude of reactions from local hikers and runners. Varying from hate to love to a combination of both. It is not so much a trail as I scar driving it’s way straight up and down the side of West Tiger 3. 2,000’ of climbing (or descending) in approximately 1.5 miles. It’s steep, technical and I love it dearly. Last year in the winter and spring months, I climbed the trail 40 times. I did repeats, threepeats and even a sixpeat to test my mental and physical conditioning. Cable Line prepped me for the long, steep scrambles that my summer was full of. On this morning, she was in fine February shape, a mudfest from the start.
My legs kept churning as I made my way up. I crossed paths with a few hardy souls most of them descending. As I neared the top of the climb I approached a hiker slowly making his way up. I cleared my throat to let him know I was there. He turned to look at me and a broad smile flashed across his face. He exclaimed, “Now there is a smile I really needed to see!”
Being a bit winded the only reply I could manage was a quiet “always”.
Just as I hit the summit of West Tiger III, snow began to fall and by the time I had hit my second summit of West Tiger I it was really coming down. I grin like a little kid on a snow day, reveling in the change of weather. I then retrace my steps down the trails I had used to climb the mountain the first time. This time much quicker as I am aided by gravity. The miles melt by and once again I find myself at the base of the mountain. Feeling strong I make a right at a trail junction and begin my third and final climb of the day.
Having climbed 6,000’ already my legs start to feel taxed. It is a feeling I am familiar with and I appreciate how they have adapted to my demands on them. Minute-by-minute I climb through the rain, the temperature dropping enough in the altitude to turn the rain drops to snow once again. My condensed breath is the steam from a locomotive. My heart pounds in my chest, sweat drips from my nose. My quads burn. It is at these moments I feel so alive and connected to these mountains. Like Cable Line, this trail runs straight up the side of the mountain. Unrelenting. It is on trails like this that my bigger summer adventures are made possible.
For the third time on this day I stand on the summit of West Tiger III. I make a final traverse over the other two West Tigers. With over 9,000’ of climbing in just twenty miles I decide to call it a day and reward myself with a long, winding descent through the lush forest on the northern side of the mountain. These short steep climbs, followed by long descents remind me of riding a rollercoaster. The trail and my feet become a blur beneath me and the trunks of the trees lining the trail flash by. For small stretches of trail, I let gravity completely take over and I a feeling of flying comes over me. Liberating. My smile never leaving my face.
I am lost in the moment. Completely immersed in Nature and the elements. As it was once pointed out to me, we are composed of these very elements and instead of shying away from them, we should embrace them. Find the joy in the rain, wind, and the snow. Be present and see and feel the beauty of each moment. So many ask me why I return to these mountains again and again. Now I know how to answer it simply.
Here, on these green mountains, I am carefree.