Going the Extra Foot: The Value of Self-Issued Challenges

Climbing 40,000 feet in a month of weekends, it turns out, is really hard. Even in a month with five weekends.

I knew that, of course. If it weren’t difficult, it wouldn’t have meant anything as a challenge; but I had a plan. “I got this,” I thought, “but you know – it’ll keep things interesting.” Wink wink.

Then the month actually started. Hiking – as much as I love it – is a second priority. I had a new job. I also had a lot of things planned with friends – a dinner party the first weekend of the month, a wine tasting trip the second weekend. I didn’t want to short-change any of that.

And then I got a head cold. It was inevitable. Whatever else a new office might be, it is an ecosystem of unfamiliar bacteria and viruses just itching for fresh blood.

All of which, as I said in the last email update I sent out, had left me at less than half of my goal with just two weekends to go. The first of those weekends didn’t go as planned, leaving me further behind the eight ball as the final weekend approached. The weather forecast was for rain, both days. Friends were getting together on Hood Canal. As I pictured myself hiking alone in the rain, I also found myself debating how important it really was to hit some arbitrary target I tossed out casually at the beginning of the month.

I also found myself totally unwilling to throw in the towel, which felt a little odd. Why was it so important to me to see it through? It wasn’t just that I’d have to email everyone and say I didn’t make it for no other reason than I didn’t feel like it (although that would suck – I have my pride). What I realized was that announcing your own personal challenge is just a way of saying: “This is important to me.” It’s why it has to be something truly challenging. If you aren’t putting yourself out, the challenge doesn’t mean anything.

And if I just gave up because I didn’t want to climb alone in the rain, it’d be like saying I don’t care.

Truth is – I do care. Someone recently asked me what hiking means to me, and I immediately replied: “Everything.” The mountains are where I go to get healthy – physically, mentally, spiritually. Hiking connects me to where I’m from. Wilderness and trails and preserving access to them are things I believe in. It’s why I do Hike-a-Thon.

So needless to say, I went. Here’s how the whole month played out.

Weekend One: The Dinner Party

Hike-a-Thon always starts with a dinner party. Hey, I don't make the rules!
The traditional Hike-a-Thon always starts with a dinner party. Hey, I don’t make the rules!

In the middle of the first weekend of Hike-a-Thon, we were hosting a dinner party. I wanted to be a good host, and I wanted to make every weekend count. I had to! Since I was doing no hiking the second weekend, I needed to average 10,000 feet on each of the available weekends of the month, and that meant I needed to squeeze a lot in on the first weekend. Saturday morning, I got up and headed to Mailbox, the closest, tallest hike that wouldn’t take me the whole day. I got back in plenty of time to help get ready (although Denise shouldered the bulk of the load – one of many times she made it possible for me to pursue this crazy quest).

The party went until midnight. As I went to bed, I didn’t know if I would get up the next morning in time to hit the trail. I didn’t set an alarm. As it turned out, I woke up at 6:00, packed up and went to Mount Pugh to ring up another 5,300 feet on a beautiful day.

Elevation total: 9,300 feet. Off to a good start!

Weekend Two: Wine Tasting and an Obligatory Head Cold

The only mountain I would summit this weekend was Red Mountain. I drank wine. That's what I'm saying here.
The only mountain I would summit this weekend was Red Mountain (pictured here, in the distance). I drank wine. That’s what I’m saying here.

I had these visions of taking in a hike on the way to Benton City to meet up with friends for a weekend of wine tasting. I quickly realized how totally impractical that was – I wouldn’t join the group until probably 4:00, even if I woke up at 5am and did something easy.

I also had this idea of hiking outside of Tri-Cities Sunday morning, despite spending all day Saturday tasting wine. It didn’t help that I was in the throes of a head cold I got from my new co-worker. There would be no hiking this weekend!

Elevation total: 0 feet new – 9,300 feet total. I have some catching up to do!

Weekend Three: Under the Weather

Oh, don't mind me. I'm just a tiny furry creature that's going to pop out of the rocks and look at you before hiding in the rocks again. Nothing...to...see...here.
Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just a tiny furry creature that’s going to pop out of the rocks and look at you before hiding in the rocks again. Nothing…to…see…here.

I knew I had some ground to make up, but I wasn’t feeling my best heading into the third weekend – the head cold was hanging on. I got up late Saturday, not sure if I’d get anything in or not, but knowing if I didn’t get in some elevation, it would basically be over. I rested up and late in the afternoon, Denise and I mustered the gumption to head to Granite Mountain, figuring to have a picnic dinner on the summit at sunset. We were met with oppressive heat and humidity early on, then clouds and bugs at the summit; but hey, we were out there! Successful hike (and a pretty nice picnic at the lookout).

Sunday, we headed to Vesper Peak, where we sweated it out on another day where the clouds wouldn’t budge. It was the worst of both weather worlds: clouds and heat combining to keep a lid of stifling humidity over us the whole day. I made the summit, but couldn’t see anything in the clouds. It was just enough to keep the challenge alive…if barely. On the way, we got the highlight of the whole month – an encounter with a playful stoat, something we’d never seen on any trail anywhere before.

Elevation total: 8,100 feet – 17,400 feet total. That left 22,600 feet in four more days. Tough, but not impossible!

Weekend Four: A Wrong Turn

Objects in the picture (like the cloud) may be greyer and angrier than they appear.
Objects in the picture (like the cloud) may be greyer and angrier than they appear.

I had a plan. Hit Ruby Mountain on Saturday, then Abernathy Peak. That would get me 11,000+ feet. Then the following weekend I could hit Crater Peak and Sourdough Mountain for another 11,000+ feet. If that didn’t quite do it, I’d get in one weekday hike to make up for the weekend I missed.

There was one small problem: I’d never been up Ruby Mountain before. It’s a long trail, and the second half of it is abandoned and no longer maintained. At the first serious windfall, I followed what I thought was the bootpack left, only to have it peter out. We persisted for another 1,000 feet of elevation, navigating backcountry up a forested ridge before finally admitting it was going to be a very long slog to the summit (if we made it at all). We had our lunch and headed down.

My plan was in tatters. I’d lost 2,800 feet against my goal. There was nothing for it, though – had to lick my wounds and live to fight another day. I had failed to heed a lesson I’d learned on other backcountry routes: when the trail disappears, you probably missed something. Go back to the last place you saw it and look for it again.

That next day, we woke up in Winthrop, planning to hike to Abernathy Peak, which would get me roughly 5,200 feet. Knowing I needed to make up lost ground, though, I decided to move Crater Mountain up. Off we went, under a weather forecast calling for afternoon thunderstorms.

Sure enough, as we got closer to the summit, I could see a massive thundercloud parked directly over it. We made Crater Lake without getting rained on. Denise planned to hang out by the lake while I hit the summit. 45 minutes after we parted company, though, the skies opened up. It didn’t rain – it hailed. There were two claps of thunder. I would find out later that Denise headed for the truck. I headed…for the summit?

I wasn’t feeling very optimistic as I slogged up Crater’s shoulder. Standing on a summit (one completely bare except for a metal pipe sticking straight out of the ground where a lookout used to be) in a thunderstorm is a bad idea. Completing a class 4 scramble in rain and hail – also a bad idea; but I tried not to get ahead of myself. Was I in danger now? No. Was it safe to keep going? For now. So I kept going and told myself: as long as the answer to those questions stayed the same, I could keep going until I ran out of mountain. On that logic I made the summit.

I have never spent less time on top of a mountain. I dropped my pack 100 feet below the top, sprinted up, saved my gps track, and then sprinted right back down.

Back down at the truck, Denise was enjoying sun and beer along Canyon Creek. It was like a whole different (much more pleasant) day.

Elevation total: 9,600 feet – 27,000 feet total. 13,000 feet to go!

“Weekend” Four and a Half: A Sanity Check

Views like this - it's one of many things that keep me climbing and hiking.
Views like this – it’s one of many things that keep me climbing and hiking.

I knew I couldn’t do 13,000 feet in one weekend. I’d need two hikes or climbs located near one another, each gaining more than 6,000 feet, both doable in a single day. I don’t know of two that fit that description anywhere in the state. Instead, I’d need to make up for one of the weekend days I missed in week two, just to knock the numbers down a bit.

So, back to Granite Mountain Denise and I went after work one day. There was no picnic this time – just a quick jaunt with a return trip in the dark – but it did the trick.

Elevation total: 3,800 feet – 30,800 feet total. The dream is alive!

Weekend Five: No Gimme Putt

Stetalle Ridge, keyhole views of glacier-draped peaks - yeah, it's worth it.
Stetalle Ridge, keyhole views of glacier-draped peaks – yeah, it’s worth it.

Going into the final weekend, it had been a long week at work, and as with many of the other weekends, there were more important things going on than hiking. Namely, it was my dad’s birthday, which we celebrated with dinner out Friday night. I got home and didn’t feel like packing. Not even a little bit.

Fortunately, I was headed to Sourdough Mountain and staying over Saturday night in Marblemount. I had all day, so I could be leisurely and find my willpower in the morning. I packed up and headed up I-5 and quickly found weather as bad as promised. As I drove north, I hit light rain. Then as I drove along Highway 530 (and past the still sobering aftermath of the Oso slide), it poured. Was getting rained on all weekend the price I’d have to pay to get this done?

Happily, no – beyond Newhalem, I started seeing blue skies. From the top of Sourdough, I could see the rain, but it stayed in the valley just south of me. I suffered a few sprinkles, but stayed mostly dry. The drifting clouds gave me occasional views of the impressive glaciers of Colonial Peak and Davis Peak.

I felt good on Sourdough – too good. I knew I still had a lot of climbing to do on Sunday, and yet I powered my way to the lookout and then to the true summit of Sourdough in an unwisely short amount of time. It was much faster than I should have gone.

In Marblemount that night, I got a great boost – one more sponsorship. The fact that someone remembered what I was up to and was willing to support it was huge.

When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t tired from the previous day’s exertions – I was exhausted. My legs weren’t sore, but everything – my back, my lungs, my legs – felt worn out. Starting out on Ruby (again), I struggled on the early uphill sections. I was sweating like a pig, even though it wasn’t that hot.

After three hours, though, I got something of a second wind. It’s not anything I’ve experienced while out hiking before. I didn’t speed up much, but I felt stronger. It lifted my spirits and kept me going. I made the right turns on the abandoned trail, thanks in no small part to cairns some helpful party had left along the faint trail. I started to know I’d make it.

On the way to the summit, I scared a bear as I hiked through high meadows of blueberries in blowing mist. On the summit, a light snowstorm blew through – autumn coming to the high country. It’s moments like these, moments where you feel small and powerless in the presence of natural forces much larger than yourself, that give you something you can’t get in the normal pace of everyday life.

It’s something worth fighting for.

Elevation total: 11,700 feet – 42,500 feet total. Mission accomplished!


Together we contributed $665 for Washington trails (and sponsorship is still open, so I’m hoping to pick up another $40 and go over $700). The tally for now:

  • 9 hikes/climbs
  • 7 summits
  • 101 miles
  • 42,500 feet of elevation gain
  • 59 hours on the trail
  • 39,000 calories burned (if you believe my watch)
  • $665 raised

A big round of thanks to everyone for listening (or at least not asking me to stop emailing you!) and to everyone who contributed to the Washington Trails Association:

  • Mom and Dad for being the big donors again this year!
  • Jeremy for kicking off the campaign (and for a great day and great photos on Colchuck earlier in the year)
  • Linda for chasing me down to once again provide early support
  • Kristin for coming through big on the matching contribution day and for getting out on the trail with us every so often!
  • Brian and Andrea for chipping in (and for more great times on the trail than I can really ever offer enough thanks for)
  • Ann for showing that the best support is the support you least expect
  • Cathy & Ray for keeping the WTA-ICL exchange program going for another year!
  • Tommy for providing a boost when I needed it most
  • And last but not least, Denise – for not only being a great hiking companion, but for putting up with all my altitude

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