I thought I was ready for the challenge of Mailbox Peak. I hike nearly every weekend on trails that on their own can be called a workout. I joined a gym in the early December and my weekly routine now includes a stair climber. If that’s not enough to conquer a mountain, what is?
The traffic is light in the wee hour of Sunday morning when I drive to the trailhead. Red strip of soft sunrise color lines with the horizon. Near a small town of Issaquah, I drive into a layer of fog. Temporarily the town, the mountains, the highway, the blue color of the sky became concealed behind the mass of impenetrable gray. All distractions removed it feels so peaceful and calm. I turn on music and try to relax before the climb.
In the past, there was only one way up Mailbox Peak. Relentlessly up, gaining 4000 feet in 2.5 miles. Sign posted at the trailhead warned of frequent search and rescue activity due to the difficulty of this unmaintained trail. The sign is still there, pinned to the aging board but other things have changed. There is a new parking lot now with white lines marking the parking spaces and with bathrooms. There is also a new trailhead, and a completely new trail, finished just few years ago after the trail gained popularity on social media. The new trail also climbs 4,000 feet, there is no way around it but you can now do it in double the distance which makes the climb significantly easier.
In the past, the only challenge was to climb to the summit of the peak. Now it starts right at the base of the mountain where the parking lot if often full to seams, no matter when you arrive. If you are lucky there might be a spot left there or at a small overflow lot by the main road. I am not lucky. I have to drive quite a way to find a spot and then I have to walk the distance back to start my hike.
Finally at 9:45 a.m. I am on the trail. The first half mile follows an old road, wide and mostly flat. I make a good time. While on this road I pass the new trail. One day, when my knees creak, I might be thankful for the less demanding route but today I did not come for an easy climb. The good old sign warning hikers about the difficulty of the unmaintained trail came to sight, my prompt to turn off the road. I walk into the forest. I take a deep breath under the green canopy of evergreens. I feel good. I feel really good and optimistic about my ability to kick the mountains ass.
Ten minutes later I arrive at the first switchback. When I hiked Mailbox Peak for the first time in 2006 there were no switchbacks at the lower part of the route. We simply climbed up. At one spot the path was so steep and slippery that somebody drew large nails into a fallen log for people to use to aid their ascent. A couple of years later smooth path snaking up the hill was carved in the area as if somebody was trying to create a real trail here, and maybe they were, but the effort was dropped just few hundred vertical feet higher and was never picked up again, and so the larger portion of the climb remains as relentless and it ever was.
There are other hikers nearby. I can hear their voices. A group of three I’m guessing. Once in a while, I greet a downhill hiker or one that passes me. But for most of the hike, I’m alone. Just me, my thoughts, and the quietude of the forest that have not yet awoken from the night’s sleep. Later, when the sun touches this side of the mountain, its bright rays will be dancing on glossy leaves of the underbrush and on the moss draping from trees. Pine needles fallen on the ground will pick up the golden glow of the rising sun. The birds will start to sing. But for now the colors are dull and the forest is silent. The hill is taxing. My legs hurt.
I reach the middle of the climb. I always forget how steep this section is. The trail weaves through a forest floor of exposed roots. The path, blends with its surroundings. Sometimes a blaze on a tree points me into the right direction. Sometimes it’s footprints carved into the dirt that lead the way. The direction is almost always unswerving up. Tall step-ups through a ladder of roots that burn in my thighs. Vertical sections of loose dirt that stretch my calves. I swear that I will never climb this mountain again, just like I swore many times before, and I proceed up, in an excruciatingly slow pace. Sweat drips off my forehead and burns in my eyes.
Just when I start questioning why the heck I am doing this to myself, I arrive at the intersection where the old and new trails meet. From here everybody continues on the same thread. I breathe a sigh of relief. I still have a decent hill to climb but the trudge through the forest is now over.
Soon after the intersection, the trail opens to the familiar view of the Hwy 90 sneaking its way through Snoqualmie Valley. On the horizon, I can see snow-capped peaks of the Olympics. It’s a darn good view.
I reach boulder field through which a path is laid, the most recent evolution of the trail. Some people still choose to scramble through the talus on the north side of the path but most I can see today are taking the new, more solid route. One more hill and I’m going to be at the top.
The last hill is always hard. You look at the mountains in your neighborhood. You know you have already climbed more elevation that it would require to summit either one of them. Yet there is more to go. The tread is lousy, the hill is steep. But I love it. It’s the reason why I come back time after time, why I put up with the climb and the pain that won’t leave my legs for at least two days. Back in 2006, I summited Mailbox Peak in June. The hillside was covered in Bear Grass. The air carried its honey scent. I have never seen Bear Grass before. I fell in love with the flower. I fell in love with the summit of Mailbox Peak. The mountain kicked my butt that day. Just like it kicked my butt today. Just like it will likely kick my butt next time again.