Monday, September 8, 2014

The Conquest of Excelsior

"Excelsior! Always Upward!" This is the first line on the Washington Trails Association's page for the hike I was determined to do last weekend. Sounds like a call to conquer, right? Plus it's #3 in my 100 Classic Hikes in Washington book; I had to cross it off my to-do list.

Although, trying to figure out exactly how to do it proved to be quite a frustration. Three options are available. #1: Drive most the elevation up to the Damfino Lakes trailhead on a forest road and then hike an easy 3-ish miles to the top. #2: An easier drive to the Nooksack River start, and then do 4 miles of switchbacks to the top #3: A little longer drive to Welcome Pass, with 2.5 miles of switchbacks to the pass, then 5 miles of ridge-walking to Excelsior. My oldest daughter (not a huge fan of upward) was coming with me, so I expected her to demand option #1. She didn't. I just couldn't make up my mind.
Looked like if you stepped in this moss, it would
swallow you up like quicksand
The 12 miles of forest road to get to the 'easy' option really had me worried. My car has been acting would really suck to have it break down in the middle of nowhere. Although, there should be plenty of cars passing to rescue us; it's the most popular route after all. But lots of people, with lots of kids, and lots of dogs adds up to lots of "why the heck did we choose this way"...we really should do the 'medium' one. Two miles of switchbacks shouldn't be so bad; plus I loved the idea of walking the ridge once we were on top. So we decided Welcome Pass was the ticket...until we got to the turn off for the easy route and took it last second. Who wants to hike always upward when they can drive? Not us.
Miles of switchbacks, I laugh at thee!
Much to my amazement, the forest road was paved over half was up; we had chosen wisely! We arrived at a pretty full parking lot, but found a spot right next to the trail head. So far so good! The hike was easy as promised, with pretty lakes and a couple meadows. There were quite a few dogs and a few kids, but nothing crazy. All in all it was pretty dang perfect!

After about 2 hours we arrived at what was obviously the top, with a little more 'upward' ridges on either side.To our left we saw what I assumed was Excelsior--almost there! But then I noticed a sign that pointed in a different direction saying 'Excelsior'. It seemed weird; but a sign is a sign. Amber was already headed for the peak when I called her back.

"Sorry honey, but that's not the right way." The peak looked amazing, and just within reach; but the same sign declared that way to be 'High Divide'. I had to do Excelsior! So Amber came back, and we took the other trail.
Still quite a few beautiful wildflowers in bloom
After just a few minutes Amber turned and asked, "Why is this trail going down?"

It was a good question. Always upward should, indeed, go upward; but I didn't bring the actual map with me. I mean, this was supposed to be easy--why did I need to bother with a map?! I figured this trail would go around the 'High Divide' peak and bring us to a much superior 'Excelsior Peak', as promised by the little arrow on the sign. "It must be just around the corner", I kept insisting. But the trail just kept going down. 
Twenty minutes of going down is extremely disheartening when you were just on top of the world-especially when you know your going to have to go back up the same way eventually. Enough was was time to cut our losses and turn around.
Forty minutes of pointless hiking can really take the wind out of your sails. I guess if one was feeling contemplative, they could argue all hiking is not about destination and therefore 'pointless', and I might agree...except when you want to get 'somewhere'. In that case, not hiking in the direction of the specific 'somewhere' feels not just pointless, but counterproductive. Luckily, I brought a little wine to go with lunch; which always eases the pain of being nonproductive. After eating we felt good enough to go ahead and hike to the top of 'High Divide'; even though it wasn't the 'somewhere' we were planning on.
Is this arrow not pointing to the right?
Help me out here.
Let me tell you, that last upward is REALLY upward. There was, as to be expected, a group of people already on the summit when we collapsed at the top. I knew I would look like an idiot asking where this mystifying Excelsior was, but I had to know. "Can you tell me which one of these peaks is Excelsior?" Everyone just pointed to the ground as they announced, "Your on it". 
Excelsior, thou hast been vanquished!

I'm hoping at some point in time someone will explain to me what the hell that sign was all about. (obviously I was looking at it inaccurately...but dang, it seemed pretty clear) After getting back to the car and checking the map in my book, (I didn't want to tear it out to take it with us...when will I learn?) I discovered that had we continued on the trail I thought led to Excelsior, we would have ended up at the start of option #2. (the one with 4 miles of switchbacks-egad!) How ironic that in being so determined to get to a set destination, I was only bringing us farther away from it. I think there's some very deep life lesson to expound upon here; something to do with Dorthy having the magical shoes the whole time...but I'm just too tired to grasp it at the moment.
Are the arrows not pointing in two different directions?
I just don't get it.
Instead I'll end with the more concrete hiking lesson learned, which is #41: "Signs are only helpful if your interpreting them correctly"...but I suppose one could make that quite philosophical as well. But enough of being contemplative, or philosophical, or thinking deeply; I just want to focus on my next hike. I'm sorry to say it will probably be my last backpack of the year.
Amber is contemplating the meaning
of Mount Baker
Ha, ha...Linus and I need to learn to stop thinking so much!

1 comment:

  1. The wrong turn you took would have taken you 3,900' down to highway 542 and the trail head for your #2 option. That's what it looked like to me when I was there in August. I agree that the sign could have been worded much better. I took it to mean that was was the Excelsior Pass trail.

    Did you return downhill via the steep path you took up to that top? The other path downhill connects to the High Divide Trail, which you can take back to the junction you were at earlier. The advantage of returning that way is that you get to hike through a couple more slopes covered with wildflower - although they were probably finished blooming by this time. I'm basing that on the time of year and the fact that the picture you uploaded with the corn lily in the foreground was a place that was just covered with blooms in August. This picture - - was taken in a different spot, but at least you can see some of the flowers.