Mt Ellinor on the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula is always a fun day, but after a full 2 weeks of snow and cold weather, today’s trip promised to be something special. I had been on the phone with the Olympic National Forest Service all week, trying to get conditions. I was getting varied reports from little to no snow, all the way to waste deep powder. With inconsistency running rampant, I figured the best way to see what was up was to head up.
Loading in my car, full of climbing gear (Ice Axes, Crampons, Helmets, etc…) and the locally famous owner of Einmaleins, we headed northwest from Olympia, uncertain of the conditions we would meet, but certain a good time would be had. As we made our way up to Lake Cushman, we stopped off at a view point and I snapped this picture:
As we continued up the forest service road to Mt Ellinor, visiblility started to drop and soon (at about 2300ft) we encountered the first snow. The snow wasn’t bad or on the road until we reached the lower trailhead, where we ended up parking. Past the lower trailhead, a car with 4-wheel drive and at least a 8 inch clearance is needed to get to the Mt Ellinor Upper Trailhead/Jefferson Divide Road. The upper trailhead and parking lot is 100% inaccessible. With around 2 feet of snow, we saw the tracks of a large truck with chains on unable to make it to the parking lot. At the parking lot, it is completely snow filled, as seen here:
The trail from the lower trailhead starts with little snow, but after about 3/4 of a mile, the snow is steady. While not too deep, the snow quality is poor and not as crunchy as one would like. However, with each step, the snow increases and walking becomes easier. For about a mile in this section we followed a set of footprints, but they turned back, and soon we saw no other signs of life, be it climbers or hikers.
Where the lower trail and upper trail meet, it is quite snowy, as seen here:
This is the area where you really need to watch for falling snow from trees. Huge sections of snowdrift, built up on trees are constantly crashing down on and off the trail. A quick way to tell if you might get hit is that before the large snow drift falls, it will appear as it is snowing in just one section. I barely missed getting hit by one and ended up covered in some snow from residual branches. Be careful, be aware and you should be fine.
Toward the end of the switchback section of the trail, near where the summer and winter trail split, a large rock forms a small cave that is littered with giant icicles. I suggest stopping here and checking them out, as they are impressive.
As we trudged up the switchback section of the Mt Ellinor trail, we noticed that the snow was becoming less compact. We also noticed rabbit and deer prints along the trail, but failed to photograph them. Soon, as we reached the intersection of the summer and winter trails, we were in powder up to our thighs. We continued until my Altimeter read 4600ft and we reached a clearing. It was a struggle to get through the snow, as it was covering trees and rocks, but still powder. Sinking up to my groin repeatedly while gaining elevation, soon our hike became a swim in powder. We discussed continuing on, but as we were talking, clouds quickly rolled in and it started snowing. Knowing it would take another 2 or 3 hours to climb the last 1000ft, we decided to turn back and head home.
While a summit did not occur, we did basically all we could do. Even with snowshoes, I feel that reaching the summit in these conditions, while possible, is not advised. When the snow becomes more compact and crunchy, Mt Ellinor will reign supreme with it’s winter glissade route. For now, she remains quiet and snow filled, with only the mountain goats enjoying her beautiful summit.
Until next time,