After climbing Rainier, I thought I was hot shit and that I could tackle any backpacking trip with ease. I was so so wrong.
A girlfriend of mine that I met from my mountaineering class with Bushwhacker Climbing Club, sent our section an email asking us to join her on her trip with the Bushwhackers. I love this gal dearly and I’ve wanted to check out McMillan Spire for a while, so I jumped at it.
As part of my research, I googled West McMillan Spire and found a good selection of links showing gorgeous photos of the hike. What it didn’t show was the scary amount of climbing you have to do at the end. It’s hiking on loose scree for 20 or so minutes, then another 20 minutes in loose rocks, then another 20 in class 3 rock climbing. The rock climbing part is easy enough, but it’s the fact that it’s really high up and one slip could kill you or leave you badly maimed that was freaky. Either way, I am alive and well now. So here’s the trip report.
Five of us started late intentionally knowing it would be easy. We even stopped to grab a burger in Marblemount right before signing in at the ranger station.
The first camp was around 4 miles 1800ft in. When we got to camp, Sandy, this climb’s leader (also the only one that has done this climb before) told us we were at camp, and we all thought he was joking because we had been hiking for maybe two hours or less. He actually had to confirm that we were indeed at camp a few times before we believed him.
Once we believed that we were at camp, everyone hung up their sweaty wet gear to dry on the trees. The mosquitoes were so bad that night. They were also particularly fond of one camp member, Chris. He had to sit in his tent to eat his dinner because they kept dive bombing him, like they loved him so much they wanted him to eat them back.
There were some bear poop earlier on the trail so we were careful to bear-bag everything. We hung out a bit by the creek near the camp because that seems to be the only place the mosquitoes were afraid of. They wanted our blood so badly that we called it an early night to avoid them.
This day was set to be brutal and we all knew it. Knowing it didn’t help, it’s like bracing yourself for a kick in the nuts, you’d still be rolling around the floor in pain. Right from camp, the climb uphill started with a gain of 4800ft in about 2-3 miles with another 2 miles or so of traversing. This trail was part of preserved backcountry trail, so no trail work was allowed, which meant the only trail around was created by boots.
There were a couple spots where we saw illegal trail maintenance with stumps across the trail having been sawed off, but that’s about it. Sandy said because this trail was gaining popularity, the trail was more stamped out. Far as I could tell, we were partially bushwhacking. Near the end of the uphill climb, the “trail” was really straight uphill climb with tree roots to help. We had to ditch our trekking poles for this climb.
Once at the top to the uphill climb, the long traverse begins. We were very fortunate to have Sandy as a guide, because the trail was still partially covered with snow, and we watched another party get lost and he had to help guide them. It’s definitely a bit of a maze if you didn’t know where you were going. Another party we spoke to got completely lost and wandered around the hills for the better part of a day.
After trekking for nearly eight hours, we came to the saddle that drops down to our camp at Terror Basin (if that name sounds ominous it’s because it is).
From the photo above, West McMillan Spire is the shark fin looking peak. We set up camp and washed our disgusting self, covered in sweat, DEET, and sunblock, in the deliciously freezing creek running through camp.
It was cold but it was too much of a treat to feel clean after the slog up. After we got around to feeling fresh like spring flowers, we gathered on this cluster of rocks next to camp to watch a party climb West McMillan Spire.
The party of two guys climbing up that day was doing this hike in 2 days: they hiked from trailhead to camp, dropped packs, climbed the spire then camped, then hiked out the second day and drive home to Oregon. I don’t think I can recommend doing the same. The place was so gorgeous, it was such a treat to do it at a leisurely pace to take it all in. When we asked them why they rushed it, they said, “Every minute that we spend here is another minute closer to a divorce.” That is reason #479 why I am not married.
When we watched them climb, they made really good time from camp to the snowfield. Then they disappeared into the rocks for longer than we expected, we started to worry about them a bit. Sandy said it would take about an hour each way up and down the shark fin, but they were traveling so quickly that we thought they might finish faster, but it wasn’t so. From looking at the mountain, I thought the shark fin didn’t look like a bad climb, like it’s mostly not steep, I was so wrong.
At night some of the mosquitoes found us and we retreated to our tents.
When we got up around 7:30a.m. the spire was shrouded in a marine layer, so we weren’t in a hurry to climb into that opting instead to wait for some of it to burn off first. We got ready at a leisurely pace and ate breakfast slowly. Finally around 9a.m. we got our crampons on and headed out.
At first, we thought the crampons were a waste of pack weight, but as we climbed higher and the snow became crustier, we were very grateful for them.
The hike up the snowfield was surprisingly easy and felt really short. I helped kick steps the last leg of the snow climb and even that wasn’t too bad, so it must be certifiably easy. Then we got off the snow and all that “easy” changed.
To be fair, if this last part was about 10 feet off the ground all the way up, it would be easy. It’s just that it’s about 8000ft up and one mis-step could be a last that was a bit disconcerting.
I’m also very terrified of heights. Yes, it makes perfect sense that I like climbing mountains.
The first part of the scramble, consists of loose scree, which is a lot like the stair-climber at the gym, your legs seems to be moving but you’re going nowhere fast. Up, up, slide down, repeat.
After the loose scree, comes the loose boulders. It’s a little better than loose scree in the sense that you can actually get somewhere. The only problem with loose boulders is that occasionally a large boulder gets dislodged and makes a run for it, so if someone is below you, that someone is a human bowling pin. Also loosing a big footing like that is jarring.
Then finally comes the large boulders. Some of this is simply walking on granite slabs, which is really nice, some of it requires a good hand and foot hold to climb up. This part would be stupid simple if not for the height factor.
And then summit. We were just happy to get to the top. Sandy and Chris kept telling us along the way up to look down and see if we would be comfortable with climbing back down. This got all of us thinking. Ronda thought about her kids and didn’t push for summit. I was scared just looking down, let alone climbing back down, but I pushed on. Chris told us to not push ourselves too hard because the mountain with still be here for us to try again. When I heard that, I must have been thinking out loud, “Oh, hell no I’m not doing that hike up to Terror Basin again!” I didn’t even know I said that out loud. However at summit, Laura said, “Yeah, I thought about what you said about never hiking to Terror Basin again, and I pushed on like you.” My inner lazy self is a magical motivation speaker.
I gave Laura a big hug at the summit. We were too glad to be done with the climb. Then came the super hard part. Down climbing. The worst part of down climbing was trying to find a good hand and foot hold looking down, while trying to suppress a heart attack.
With the uphill, it’s quite a bit easier to look up for a hold, and concentrate on task at hand without looking down. I told myself to not look down while going up, now I’ve lost that little bit of mental luxury. Chris and Sandy had to coax the two of us down. There was a point where Chris had to climb down ahead of me to help locate a decent hold because he was telling me which way to go, and I would get there there and say, “You sure? This looks like a sheer drop to death from here.” Sandy helped guide Laura down. The girl is awesome, she’s only done a couple short backpacking trips in her life with zero rock climbing skills and she push herself up the spire. She also came out with the most battle wounds but she laughed about each and every one of them.
After what felt like five hundred years, we saw Ronda, who kept shouting at us and we kept telling her we couldn’t hear her. As we got closer, we realized she was being looked up and down by a giant goat.
Laura got excited because she had never seen a goat in the wild before. Since it was her first goat, I told her to name it. She decided to call it Frank. Those of us that brought a camera immediate started snapping photos of Frank, which has an obvious distaste for paparazzi because he stalked off. When we finally got back down to the base of the shark fin to rejoing Ronda, Laura and I gave each other even more enthusiastic hugs than the summit hug. WE. LIVED.
Ronda told us Frank had been giving her the come hither look for a while and she had been trying to shout at it to scare it off. Instead of scaring it, her shouting got Frank more excited and he was visibly breathing harder and kept shifting toward her. She was happy to have us back in her corner.
The hike on the snowfield back to camp was nice and easy with some good glissading action thrown in. There were talks of hiking up one of the smaller mountains in the basin, but Laura and I were still recovering from the hysteria of our near-death experience on the spire and politely declined. We opted to have a leisurely snack break at camp then an even more leisurely paced dinner. After dinner we gathered on our view spot and watched the sun disappear behind the Picketts while trading embarrassing stories.
Another party of two guys moved into the camp across from us and they brought with them weather reports of potential rain the next day. We went to bed early to get an early start out.
The camp was completely shrouded in a midst when we got up at 6a.m. The hike back out was going to be long because of the steepness, so we guesstimated that it would take us 8 hours. We made hot breakfast to try to use up some 5 cans of fuel that we brought (we only used 1.5 cans). After we packed up, we put on our crampons to climb back up the steep snow saddle leading up to camp. Yet another day of waking up to a steep climb. Glorious. When we got up the saddle, we could see the sun trying to make a breakthrough, but evils of Mordor was trying to overtake the elven village.
Overall the hike out was pretty uneventful, it was just painful and long. Since all the plants were covered in a fine midst, parts of the trail were dangerous slippery roots, but everyone survived.
Once we got back to Camp Mosquitoes, we gathered at the creek to rejoice and wash our faces. From there it was a nice easy stroll out.
We stopped by a wonderful burger joint on the way out with a very interesting burger menu:
They even had kangaroo burger as their new lunch special. I really wanted to try the kangaroo burger, but when I asked the waitress which burger did she most recommend, she said hands down the buffalo burger. Being 4 days out with crappy dehydrated food, I wanted something that tasted good more so than adventurous. The buffalo burger did not disappoint.