On Saturday, October 13, along with a team of volunteer leaders with Seattle Inner City Outings and one teacher, I led a group of middle school kids to the summit of Mt. Pilchuck, one of Washington’s most popular and doable summit hikes. Our hike was exhilarating and there was a real sense of adventure.
On a clear day, there are 360 degree views from the top of Mt. Pilchuck: endless peaks of the Cascades to the north and east, Puget Sound to the west, and Mt. Rainier to the south. For our hike, we were completely engulfed in clouds and visibility was extremely poor. As clouds swirled around us, keeping each other in our line of sight was extremely important. Leaders were very mindful to stay on the trail and were grateful for the bright orange trail markers that assisted in our efforts. For the final ascent we scrabbled over large boulders and climbed up a precarious ladder (and by precarious I mean a little tricky and challenging, but totally doable). Our final destination: an old fire lookout perched on an outcropping of rocks at the summit.
Mt. Pilchuck fire lookout
I was the trip leader for this hike. I love fall hiking because of all the colors (entire slopes can look like they are on fire from all the blazing orange and red colors of the vine maples, ash, and huckleberry bushes). I mulled over different colorful hikes which I thought would be fun for the kids to experience, but ultimately I chose this summit hike because I wanted to give the kids the opportunity to climb to the top of their first mountain. I was close to their age when I climbed my first mountain and I wanted these kids to be filled with the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes from making it to the top of a mountain.
final ascent up the cold ladder
We did make it to the top. I was on a high. The kids were on a high. What a rush. We made it to the top and not just that, we made it in real mountain weather conditions. A cold and strong wind blew outside the fire lookout. Inside the shelter all the windows were fogged up. The kids could see their breaths. Steam was rising from the pant legs of one of the leaders. We ate the most delicious lunches of our lives (and that had nothing to do with the fact that I’d made all those lunches!).
lunch time celebration!
We beamed from ear to ear in our enthusiasm. We jabbered away about the strong wind, how cold it was coming up the ladder, how scary it was going to be climbing down that ladder. A few brave souls faced the wind and ventured around the perimeter of the shelter. The kids weren’t able to see beyond the clouds, but from the perch on the mountain, it appeared to be a straight drop from the look out. Scary AND exciting!
Seattle ICO leader on safety patrol
What an adventure. One boy said he signed up for the trip because he wanted to “lead a life of adventure.” During lunch time in the shelter I asked him how he would rank this adventure on a scale of one to ten and he said enthusiastically: “TEN!” I definitely think the weather heightened the sense of adventure. The wind puffed up our spirits and we soared. I had fun dishing out the congratulations to the kids for making it to the top and playing up our mountain adventure. Looking back I see that in the moment my puffed up feeling colored my declarations of our “extreme”’ hike. 🙂
We came down in elevation from our “high in the sky,” but we were still soaring high. Back at the trailhead there was a lot of excitement and sense of pride. I reviewed trail stats with the kids and emphasized the difficulty and physical challenge of our hike. Round trip this hike is just under 6 miles (or a complete 6, depending on the source) with 2400 feet in elevation gain. This was a real mountain hiking experience – we hiked on uneven terrain, we crossed streams, one of which was swollen from new rain and moving fast, we navigated rocks, we scrambled over boulders and climbed a precarious ladder, all of this in poor visibility. It was fun to rehash our successes, to review who made it to the top first, second, third. Even the boy who made it fifth was proud of himself, as he should be. This was not a race. This was about determination and achieving a goal.
One of my favorite moments of the day was back at the trailhead. I was one on one with one of the girls before we rejoined the group and I must have said, “that was great. we did it!” or something to that effect. She replied with downcast eyes, “I didn’t do very good.” Wow. Where were these words coming from? I was struck that she was so hard on herself. To this gal I said, “have you ever done this before?” She quietly said “no.” I told her, “you not only made it to the top, but you were in the first group that made it; you were in the first group with two other boys; you didn’t fall; and you didn’t cry.”
When I said “you didn’t cry” I saw a change in her face. I think my words began to sink in. Maybe during the day when she was wet or cold or navigating the terrain, she felt shaky inside and felt like crying, but she didn’t. I think she got it. She did something big. She was strong and brave and unwavering in her determination. She made it to the top. She not only did good, she did a great!
As a volunteer leader with Seattle Inner City Outings, my joy comes from sharing something I love with our urban youth: nature and the great outdoors. My joy comes from witnessing their enthusiasm and seeing through their eyes their experience of nature, which is often full of wonder. This hike was especially joyful for me because I was able to empower these kids. One of the biggest gifts I received was that moment with this young gal. The gift was in my being able to give of myself in a way that helped her to claim a special gift for herself: discovering the courage and strength she possessed. I have feeling that each of the kids on our Mt. Pilchuck hike discovered the gift of their power, a new or perhaps deeper self-confidence. And…their power will grow for as long as they hold on to the feeling and memory of being “high in the sky.”