Usually I am the one pushing my husband to get out of the house on the weekends. It’s not that he’s not adventurous, it’s just that after traveling for work all week, he usually needs a break on the weekends.
He was a trooper for my birthday, completing his travels and then turning around and going on a five-day motorcycle trip with me around Vancouver Island. We returned on a Wednesday night, and I didn’t make plans for the following weekend, assuming he would want some time to relax and recover.
So I was somewhat surprised when instead he suggested we get up early that Saturday morning and hike Mount Si!
Although we like to hike and be in the outdoors, we are by no means seasoned hikers. We have some of the gear and some of the experience, but we still have lots to learn.
Our friends, however, are serious hikers, recently completing Mt. Rainier. They invited us to hike Mount Si with them during their training, and we always declined. We heard it was a fairly difficult hike and were sure we would be holding them up. We told ourselves we would get in better shape, tackle some smaller hikes, and work our way up to Mount Si.
With a 3,150-foot elevation gain via an eight-mile roundtrip forest trail full of switchbacks, I always heard you needed to prepare for Mount Si. I was surprised Brian wanted to go try it with very little training under our belts, but we’re preparing for an even bigger hike with his brother in mid-August so it seemed like we needed to rip off the band-aid. If we couldn’t complete Mount Si, there was no way we were going to be able to complete Dirtyface.
And so, at 5 a.m. on Saturday, I found myself in a car, headed for the Cascade Mountains. We arrived around 6 a.m. and there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot. We packed some water and our cameras in Brian’s backpack, grabbed our trekking poles, made a final pit stop, and hit the trail.
Despite all the clamor about the 100k people who hike this trail each season, there was hardly anyone on the trail during our hike. I highly recommend going early and hiking at your own pace, with opportunity to look around at some of the amazing old growth trees still thriving in the midst of the woods.
I was sweating pretty heavily by the time we were half way up, but at no point did I think I wouldn’t be able to complete the hike. Before I knew it, we were at the clearing marking the turnaround point for most hikers at 3,900 feet. It was a clear day, and we had incredible views of Mt. Rainier.
The clearing was made up of big boulders, scrubby bushes and small pines, and the occasional patch of wild flowers. Up ahead was the final rockface of Mount Si, the small Haystack sitting atop the rocky peak (see the picture at the beginning of this post). Brian read that you could scramble to the top, and he was certain we could handle it so we continued up a less defined trail toward the rock face.
I don’t know how you defines scrambling, but what I was envisioning was something akin to this Wikipedia definition:
Scrambling is “a walk up steep terrain involving the use of one’s hands.” It is an ambiguous term that lies somewhere between hiking, hillwalking, mountaineering, and easy rock climbing.
What we did over some of the boulders as we made our way to the rock face is what I would call scrambling. I packed up my trekking poles and at times needed to use my hands to navigate over the giant rocks in an upward manner.
What we did to summit the inestimable Haystack was full on rock climbing. For several hundred feet. Straight up the side of the mountain. With no ropes or support.
It was without a doubt one of the most challenging, terrifying and rewarding things I’ve ever accomplished.
On three different occasions on the way up, I told Brian I wanted to turn around. It was really scary. He kept reminding me we were already a third/a half/three quarters of the way to the top and might as well finish it. So we did.
The view was AMAZING. There were two other guys there when we arrived, and soon after they headed back down so we had the entire summit to ourselves.
We carefully crawled around the rocks, taking pictures to prove we somehow actually did this, and checking our hiking app, which said we had made it to 4,114 feet. A 3,348-foot gain from the parking lot.
For that short period of time, I felt like the hike and climb were totally worth it.
After about 30-40 minutes of taking in the view, the most terrifying part of the journey took place– the descent. Brian went down ahead of me and talked me through every move all the way down. This also sometimes required grabbing my foot and placing it on the next ledge because I couldn’t see where there was a hold and was trying desperately to abide by the rule of keeping three points of contact on the rock wall at all times.
On several occasions I had to stop and just cling to the cliff, my entire body tense and my mind willing me not to think about what would happen if I slipped and feel several hundred feet to my death. On one occasion I actually cried. It was horrible.
About half way down a group of guys started to climb up, and I was relieved to find that they were all terrified as well. They didn’t spend much time at the summit, and soon we were all trying to make our way down together. On a couple of occasions I laughed, because we were all saying how dumb we were for doing this. I was so grateful for the company and their commentary, which took my mind off my fear.
We finally made it to the bottom, and I couldn’t wait to hike down and call this experience a success. We had an uneventful hike, passing tons of people who had gotten a much later start, and spent some time in the parking lot loading into the car and finding a local bar where we could have a celebratory beer and lunch. Brian was kind enough to capture my before and after pic:
The burger was ok; the beer was delicious. It was a perfect end slate to our experience, and I was ready to head home.
White the happy moment clinking beers and celebrating our achievement is how I would like to end the story of our hiking experience, it’s not the full picture.
I destroyed my knees on this hike and have been suffering the consequences ever since. For days I remained a little shell-shocked and couldn’t stop thinking about clinging to the cliff. It really was a scary experience that’s lingering with me.
Those truths said, here are my Mount Si lessons learned:
- Go early. And I mean actual early like we did, not Seattle early (which is apparently 8-9 a.m.). After all the online hullabaloo about how busy the trail gets, I was expecting the worst. At 6 a.m., we had the place to ourselves. It was light out, it was cool out, and by the time we were heading back down, the place was packed. It wouldn’t have been remotely as enjoyable a hike sharing the trail with hundreds of other equally sweaty people.
- Know your limits. Am I glad we climbed the Haystack? I’m still not sure. On the one hand I didn’t think I could do it– but I did do it, and that brings a sense of accomplishment. Also, the view was one of the most amazing I’ve seen, and it was in fact better than the view at the trail turnaround. HOWEVER, it was actually probably fairly unsafe and somewhat dangerous for us to do it with no training or experience. There were a number of other people in very good health and shape who hiked to the rock face and said no way. I said it too, but I let my husband peer pressure me into doing it. He made up for it by helping me get back down, but there is no way I would ever recommend someone without training or experience attempt it. I also don’t recommend doing it alone. If something were to happen, I don’t know how you would get yourself out of there. I believe in pushing your limits, but being smart and safe about it. What we did was definitely walking that line.
- Use your trekking poles. Total rookie mistake, but I was so relieved to be off that rock face and was in such a hurry to get back to the comfort of our car that I didn’t really use my trekking poles on the way down. It toasted my knees, and I’m paying the price weeks later. Use your poles. Take breaks. Create your own switchbacks so you’re not putting all your weight dead straight onto your knees. Alternate your leading leg when you’re climbing over rocks and roots. And more importantly, take preventive measures. Stretch and strengthen your muscles and tendons by getting in reasonable shape before tackling an intense hike, especially if you’re in your early 30s and old, like me. I will absolutely be reworking my approach to hiking moving forward, and unfortunately it’s because I learned the hard way.
Summiting Mount Si is definitely one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had since moving to the Pacific Northwest. I hope you experience it too! Happy hiking!