The Brothers, Olympic National Forest
Blue skies. After weeks of trying, the weather finally got things right for climbing. But only for a day. By the evening storms were slated to return, forcing Tom Lindsley and I into a one day attempt on The Brothers. Given the 6200+ feet of elevation gain and a long-ish approach, our 9:30 am start wasn't exactly optimal. Beginning our climb at 650 ft above sea level, all was green and lush in the Olympics, without any dirty snow to muck things up.
June 3-4, 2006
The gently graded trail up to lower Lena Lake gave us much opportunity to chit-chat about long distance hiking and the sort of life changes that it brings about. Being immersed in Beauty for so long helps one evolve. It helps one see things in a new way that isn't possible, at least for most people, in the comparative ugliness of normal, settled life. Upon re-entry, some of the changes stick, some fade. Each summer presents a new opportunity to re-learn that which our civil society tends to make us forget.
Lower Lena Lake was a shimmering green and of expansive size, a rare treat for the Olympic hiker. The short, three mile hike up to the lake should make it a fantastically popular destination, especially for families, but we found only a single tent put up. Granted, the tent was large enough for a dozen people, but it was still surprisingly that so few people had made the hike up.
We rounded the lake and set off up the Valley of the Silent Men, picking our way along a sometimes tortuous route. The grade was easy enough, but there was much deadfall negotiate. We soon entered the Brothers Wilderness, a land designation that gives maximal protection to the area. Lena Lake was, apparently, left out of the Wilderness area because of a proposed hydro-electric project that never got built.
We gained elevation, though the track stuck mostly next to the creek which made the grade gentle enough for conversation. We were keeping our eyes peeled for Lena Forks, where a tributary comes and in which direction we needed to head to get to the start of the climb-proper. Unfortunately, snow came into effect around 3000 feet and we spent more time paying attention to our feet than our surroundings.
Entering into a clear area with a view of mountains on the other side of the creek, I proclaimed that we were here, much to Tom's disbelief. After we got his tarp pitched and our non-climbing gear stowed away, he pointed out the obvious fact that there was most definitely not a fork in the creek. Although I concurred with his assessment, it was clear that the proper valley was somewhere in the area. We scouted further upstream, finding nothing. We returned to camp, crossing the stream, and looked up the gully in front of us. Two other hikers approached also looking for Lena Forks, just as lost as we. Tom and I set up the snow slope and found a creek coming down, which solved the problem, at least for Tom. He figured out that we had come too far upstream and that the forks were further back. We walked back down and picked up the forks about two hundred yards from our camp. A climbers trail led through the woods and up to an open, snowy meadow. We looked again at the map, the climbing description, and the terrain and worked out a general plan. Tom put his gameface on and up we went.
Four climbers from Seattle were met, pondering whether to head up or not. It was already 2:30 and it was, perhaps, four hours to the top from here. They elected to head down as Tom and I stumbled across the snow and crashed through the dense vegetation to gain a second snowy gully to the west. For 1700 vertical feet I kicked steps up the snowy gully, working hard but feeling fine as we ascended. As we moved higher and higher, Puget Sound and Mount Rainier came in to view, as did some awesome looking mountains to west.
The snow was solid enough to kick steps well, but became icier higher up, which meant more force and less hold. As rocks began to accumulate in the snow around us, we quickly donned our skid-lids, remembering that neither of us especially wanted to be flown out on a helicopter for something as foolish as not wearing a helmet. Needing a break after an hour of work, we finally outclimbed the snowy gully and reached solid rock around 4:30 pm at an elevation of about 5200 feet. Perfect for a break.
The view from our rock was stunning, but couldn't hide the fact that we were far lower than we needed to be at this time. Although the weather was holding, it was clear that if we wanted the top, it was going to take us another 90 minutes, leaving us in the dark during the bushwhacking lower down.
Rather than feel sorry for ourselves, we rejoiced at our location and our good fortune for having a non-rainy, view filled day. The Brothers wasn't going anywhere and we had had our fun for the day. Besides, we both thought it more entertaining to butt and boot slide down 1700 feet, rather than rushing the rock scramble up to top, and then rushing back down trying to race the darkness.
Accordingly, after 40 minutes of lounging, we left the rock and slid down the mountain side on the snow, taking advantage of a track made several days earlier by people with the same ideas as us.
After the rapid descent, we quickly lost the climbers trail through the woods and had to struggle mightily to force our way cross country back to the proper track. We stumbled across it by sheer luck after twenty minutes of suffering and walked into the campsite of the four Seattle climbers. They ask us if we wanted to climb with them the next day, but both of us were a bit tired and suspected that rain was coming. Tired, we pushed our way through the last stretch of woods, crossed the creek, and draggedass back to the tarp.
Although warmer here than up high, we were both wet with sweat and quickly changed clothes before diving in to dinner. Tom's innovative flexible, foldable bowl (i.e, a ziplock bag) held a motley mixture of three different instant soups, peanuts, and beef jerky. As odd as it sounded, it was really rather tasty. I had the much more conventional round of a liter of Chinese Hot and Sour Soup, a pot of wild mushroom couscous with dried vegetables, hickory tuna, and olive oil. Dinner was completed by a liter of tea and three big chocolate bars. I would have thought myself a glutton had I been sitting at home. At some point a bottle of whiskey came out and Tom started in with various clothing tricks he had picked up in Bellevue.
The whiskey flowed liberally, which meant that it ran out too soon. This didn't especially bother us as twe were both tipsy enough not to care. The sky had clouded over as we talked and laughed, laying on sleeping pads on top of the snow, watching the heavens move back and forth. The cold didn't bother us because we had warm clothes over us (and whiskey in us). The coming rain didn't bother us because we had a shelter to retreat to. The fact that we didn't reach the top didn't bother us, for we had had a grand time and were safe in camp. The luxuries we had were important to, and appreciated by, us. The choices we had made today were good ones, deliberate ones, ones that increased happiness. It is easy in life to simply follow the path of inertia, where we choose not to choose, and simply follow the momentum of past decisions. Tom and I were both trying to actively make decisions about our own lives, about how we wanted to live them, rather than falling into the cycle that society seems to demand people follow. We were trying not to act out of habit, trying not to walk a path simply because we had always walked it. But this is just talk. It is the actual living that matters.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 south to Olympia and jump on US 101 heading north. Drive past Hoodsport and continue on for another twenty or so miles until you cross the bridge over the Hamma Hamma river (signed). Shortly thereafter, make a left at the Forest Service road where there is a sign to the Hamma Hamma Recreation Area. Follow the signs to the Lena Lake Trailhead. You'll need a parking pass of some sort here (NW Forest Pass, Golden Eagle Passport, etc). Take the Lena Lake trail up gentle switchbacks for about 2.5 miles to Lena Lake. Continue along the lake and pick up the Valley of Silent Men trail, which is signed for the Brothers. Fight your way up the trail to where two forks of the creek join. You'll know you missed it if you notice the level and noise of the creek is suddenly lower than before. Or, if you make an open area in which you can see the mountains to the left, on the other side of the creek, well. At the forks, cross the creek and pick up a well defined, but easy to lose, boot track up the fork to an open meadow. Make an immediate left turn (do not ascend meadow) and go around the prominent rock feature called the Nose. Pick up another meadow (you haven't gained any elevation from the first). Ascend this directly about 1700 vertical feet to where we stopped. With snow on the ground, ice axes were needed. Helmets should be brought year round.