Bullshit Mountain Traverse

Elk Mountain Summit, no view

Our first day off to run in 2018 (Wednesday, 4 April), and I was thrilled. While on a family hike a month or two ago, I noticed a trail sign with some good distances on it. I looked them up when I got home, and discovered the Tarbell Trail-- a 24.75 mile loop in southwest Washington in the Silver Star Mountain and Grouse Mountain area. After lots of research, I was excited to have planned our first adventure since it's usually Ann who does the work.

Well now we know why that's the case. After a bunch of rescheduling, we finally settled on Wednesday, 4 April for our run. On Tuesday, Ann called the ranger station and was told that part of the trail was closed for logging and that there was also snow. Last-minute back-up plan: the Wilson River trail. It's a 22 mile point-to-point trail that's safe from snow, we've only run it twice, and it's been three years since we did the whole thing.


Our starting point, Elk Creek 

I picked up Ann in the morning and we refined our plan as we drove. We decided to start at the Elk Mountain trailhead, go up the Elk Mountain Trail, take the Elk-King Traverse over to King Mountain, Take the King Mountain Trail down to the Wilson River Trail, and then run out to the Tillamook Forest Center and back. The total was about 27 miles, with the out-and-back about 15 miles, so we knew we might have to cut that short. The weather was also less than ideal. It had been gorgeous and sunny on Monday when we were originally supposed to run, and it was cool, cloudy and misty today.

The Elk-King Loop

We parked and took the short, steep-feeling section of the WRT to Elk Mountain. As we started up the very steep Elk Mountain with its warning signs, Ann hung back a bit. She didn't like the dripping, overgrown bushes on the narrow trail brushing our legs and soaking us through. I said something flippant like "it's supposed to be 60 today" and we continued up.

Very steep, with a dire warning

It was so cloudy that we couldn't see much. Every time the trail came to a view point, it was just white. By the time we summited Elk, we were really in the misty clouds. I looked around for the traverse trail, which seemed to careen down the rocky edge of a 4-foot drop-off. It was slick and steep, and I lowered myself down carefully. Once down there, I couldn't see where to go. There was no evidence of a trail. Ann looked around the top of Elk Mountain, but confirmed that this was the route. So I picked the direction that seemed most likely, and as Ann climbed down, discovered traces of the trail. We were off!

Ann in the clouds

Except that the trail was awful: narrow, crumbly, and slippery. Then there was a patch of snow across the trail; not a big deal to skip through. But then there were bigger patches, then a blanket of snow covering everything, and then it got thicker and deeper.

I wanted to turn around, but Ann thought it would be harder to go back. What we had come through was tough going up, but going down would be even more slippery and treacherous, so we continued on.

The first, tiniest sign of snow

Early on, I gave up trying to stay dry or clean. I sat down on muddy rocks to slide on my butt rather than risk slipping. I grabbed drenched bushes to help pull myself up steep climbs. That meant that by the time we got to the cold, snowy section I was soaked through. Being dressed for a day that was set to reach 60 degrees, I was freezing.

Ann had wisely brought a pole, and I eventually found a good stick. I took off my sopping wet gloves and clutched a warming packet in one hand and the stick in the other. At one point I couldn't tell if my hands had warmed up from exertion, or had grown numb from my tight grip and the cold.

Oh look, some snow across the trail

We finally made it to a trail junction, and I wanted to try going down the Elk Creek Trail. Thing is, neither of us knew anything about it. Ann convinced me to continue on the traverse to the summit of King Mountain-- it was only 1.3 miles more.

You can imagine how that turned out.

Okay, now there's more than just a patch of snow

The snow got deeper, the trail steeper, the drop-offs longer, the fog thicker. There was a narrow ridge where we had only the single-file footsteps of some idiot who had gone before us, with a sheer rock wall on our left and nothing down to the right. I was scared; Ann forged ahead and I simply followed.

Past the ledges, we had a climb so steep there's no way we would've made it without the footholds formed by that idiot's steps. At times it was impossible to determine the trail, so we'd look around for those footprints. Without those, we'd have cast about, lost. Or maybe we would've chalked it up to being impossible, and not continued through the snow. Who knows!

Seriously, this is a lot of snow now

We finally reached the top of King Mountain, and I let myself feel relief. Until I thought about heading down the mountain in that snow. Jangly with nerves, we started downhill. The trail itself was mostly clear, some snow on either side, spilled across the path every once in a while. Soon we came to two women wearing cotton t-shirts on their way up. We warned them to avoid the traverse, and asked about the conditions of the King's Mountain Trail. Relieved to hear it was clear, we continued down.

All snow. I am not dressed for this.

Soon, to our surprise, it was warm enough that we had to take off some of our gear. The front side of the mountain was like a wholly different season: it was spring! Lush green plants, lovely wildflowers, and warmth! Finally, we were both enjoying ourselves.

Since the snowy traverse had taken a few hours, we had now spent 5 hours on only around 13 miles, less than half our original plan of 27 miles. But we were mentally and physically exhausted. So we ran right back to the car and drove to the nearest Dairy Queen for our favorite post-run treats, vowing the whole way to never do Elk-King again.

Can we be done with the snow now?
This is where I wanted to try anything else but the traverse

So there's a rope. A few other places were worse but had no rope.

WTAF is this trail

Super steep, but thankfully past the narrow drop-off ledge section

Sweet relief, we made it to the summit of Kings Mountain!

First dicentra of the year

Just a nice, spring-like, snow-free trail

Relive 'Elk-King (bullshit) mountain traverse'


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