McClellan Butte was my first trip with Michael. I got a call Friday evening about attempting something called “McClellan Butte” as a conditioning hike. This is another of the easier peaks off of I-90 that serve as great condition hikes, and more so, sometimes, as was the case for this peak. The weather forecast didn’t look too promising at all but since I hadn’t hiked since September and the chance to hike with someone new, I was all ready to go.
We left my house a little after 6am in drippy but warm weather. Being a dark time of year, we were hiking in darkness at 7am. For some weird reason, I kept thinking it was maybe four in the morning or so. In any event it was quite gloomy. The hike started off quite standard for Washington – dense, dark forest. We crossed three logging roads and began climbing pretty steeply up the northeastern side of the mountain.
The peak has a nice profile and is quite steep on all sides. I didn’t learn until we were hiking that the final pitch was 3rd class with some exposure. We were both up for it but didn’t have an idea about the snow conditions were like.
We continued on the classic Pacific Northwest Trail discussing the usual things like mountain climbing and Lord of the Rings and sooner than we thought, we encountered snow. The snow level was quite low and promised to be thicker up above, which it was. The trail runs along the eastern side of the mountain and eventually reaches a saddle on the south side and traverses over to the west side which eventually leads to the ridge. Before we were even to the saddle, the snow had become consistently shin deep.
On the other side of the mountain, the west side, the snow was even deeper. Of course, I’d forgotten my gaiters and snow kept packing down in my boots. Soon enough we hit the steep switchbacks on the west side which marks the short ascent to the final ridge. The final ridge looked pretty treacherous in these winter, snow-plastered conditions. As soon as we emerged from the trees, we were greeted by an Arctic blast that sent us scrambling for more warm clothing. We tentatively began up. The rock was obviously wet with snow, which covered parts of the slabs in maybe an inch of snow. Below the ridge, a steep, ice encrusted slope vanished into the clouds. Yes, this was indeed exposed. About a quarter of the way up, we were at a crux move. Michael edged out onto the face to the right and became uncomfortable and moved back. I tried up the left side which was almost directly on the ridge. This side was a good bit more stable and we chose that. After another semi-spooky traverse on the ridge proper, we were on easier terrain and motored to the top. It was pretty cold up here and after continually using our hands, our gloves were soaked. My hands weren’t too cold just yet. After a few pictures we headed down. We were more worried about the descent and though it was slow and tricky, it didn’t seem too much more difficult than the ascent. One notable difference was that my right hand was getting very cold. Finally we made it down where I pressed my hands against my stomach and quickly warmed them up. Also, I began to notice that my boots were soaked on the inside. Even though my makeshift gaiters (my pant legs were tied down with my shoelaces) worked well, moisture still got in and I could feel sloshing around my toes. I wasn’t too concerned about this…moreso, I was thankful that we were safely down from the ridge. We motored out the rest of the way, getting back to the car at under 6 hours. Along the way, we were surprised to see that a small avalanche had come through and dumped “Cascade concrete” all over the trail. Wonder when that happened? Anyway, this was the best I-90 peak I’ve done to date!