It’s not too often I go into hikes and climbs with a low chance of reaching the destination. As someone who likes to be outside for the views, the saying that “it’s about the journey, not the destination” is somewhat foreign to me. I’m all about fair weather summits where you can see a mass of mountains all around you. However, I was determined to make the most of day off and rallied 3 others to join me. Due to the late season snow and cool temperature May, our Washington snowpack is thicker than I’ve seen. This means that most any summit hikes are snowbound, especially ones that feel more remote and alpine. Stillaguamish Peak has been on my list for quite some time. And spoiler alert, as the title suggests, we did not make it. So unfortunately I can’t confirm or deny what the last part of the climb looks like. I will say, however, that we had a full-on adventure despite not reaching the summit.
I had been volunteering at a local mountaineering club in as much capacity as my healing knee would allow. It was enough to get to know my team decently well but not enough to have fully bonded over the sufferfest that mountaineering is known to be. Somehow I talked two of them out of hiking Muir to do my climb. I was confident in their ability to do this. They had braved all sorts of weather to practice snow travel and navigation in the last several months.
Planning for the climb, I found several route descriptions from the Washington Scrambles book to the Mountaineers page and Summit Post. I checked Sentinel Hub for the latest satellite imagery and determined when we’d hit snow. It looked pretty snow covered at the top, which meant a fairly straightforward walk to the false summit. The off-trail work in the forest would be short between the trail and the consistent snow.
We took the forest road to the Perry Creek Trail (rather than the Dickerman Trailhead) after realizing that it’s no longer gated! Shaved off a mile or so each way. The Perry Creek Trail did not disappoint. It was all of our first time on the trail. I think its primary usage is to Mt Forgotten and Stillaguamish Peak, both which are more serious than a simple hike. Though perhaps later in summer people will hike up the valley to enjoy the summer PNW vibes.
Left and right we were met with waterfalls stretching hundreds of feet tall. We simply had to stop to take pictures to remember our amazement. Not to mention all the cute wildflowers that lined the trail. I had somehow missed the part where there was a creek crossing and Madison kept mentioning it. I honestly thought we could just balance on rocks all the way across. But when the trail neared the giant Perry Creek falls, I started to think different. We finally arrived at the crossing and there was no way you’d keep your feet dry.
I quickly determined the best way through was barefoot. I don’t think everyone was convinced. The grimaces on their face was evidence of the discomfort. I then realized this would likely be one of a few new things my former students would encounter on this climb. We all agreed, that was not fun, but at least our feet actually felt refreshed once they warmed up in our shoes. This is when the trail started to take on some serious gain. After 2 main directional switchbacks (there are many mini ones, don’t get too confused!), we began our off trail work. I’m not entirely sure that there normally is a trail here since typically you take the trail to the Saddle before finding an unmaintained trail to follow the ridge. Given the amount of snow, I knew it would be extremely difficult to follow a trail even if it existed. And if not, we’d be traversing a steep hillside, which is quite inefficient. So straight up we went.
My next realization is that my friends were used to traveling on snow in the basic mountaineering class. Bushwhacking or off-trail dirt travel would be new to them. It takes a while to trust that your shoes are grippy enough to hold you on dirt when it feels slick. There’s an art to picking your way through the forest, finding slightly flatter steps and zig zagging up as needed. Poles are also extremely helpful off trail!
Just as everyone was beginning to feel defeated by the forest (little did they know that among all possible bushwhacking, this was fairly benign with a fairly little ground cover), we finally found consistent snow to climb. I was elated! I knew everyone would find comfort in kick stepping up a snowfield over the annoying dirt. And to my delight, everyone’s apprehensions dissipated. Somehow I ended blazing most of the way up. It was only supposed to be about 800 feet from trail to ridge anyway. But the last 100 feet, the snow started to peter out. It is my least favorite since you have a thin layer of snow and slick plants underneath. Nothing is grippy.
For better or worse, I don’t share my own opinions until after and until I see how everyone else is doing. There was little hesitation before everyone followed my way up the meadow. Yet another skill that was not taught in the mountaineering course. You’re grabbing onto the little bits of plants there, carefully balancing so your feet don’t give out under you. Just when I wondered if a trail would appear given the lack of snow, we soon found the faint trail and we had hope that it would stay like this to the top of the peak.
Unfortunately the snow free trail only lasted a very short 2 minute walk. As we rounded the corner, we were met with more deep snow. But it was much less steep than our off trail work, so we sauntered along the ridge, and finding ourselves closer and closer to the peak. But time was ticking and morale was not high given the previous struggles and lack of sunshine. We had one more big piece to navigate through and though I was confident there was a way, I was not sure we’d get through in an efficient enough time. No one asked for a 12 hour day. Unanimously, we all decided to stop at the cliffside we found. It was the first major view we had seen all day. There were aqua blue lakes and pretty snow runnel patterns. The sun started to peek through the clouds and other mountains would come in and out of view.
Exhaustion was starting to set in and we had to get going again. Everyone had different sections of the path they were worried about. I held onto hope that our snow free trail would remain that way until it connected to the main trail. Not long after we passed our initial ascent intersection to the ridge trail, we started to hit more and more snow patches. Soon, we couldn’t even figure out where the trail connected and decided to just descend on the snow. Amazingly, the snow runout was long and easy to go down. We narrowly avoided slipping down the lily carpeted meadow.
Following the fall lines the mountain was exactly what we needed to retrace our old steps. We met up with the first snowfield we ascended on. And it was time to face the forest again. To everyone’s surprise, the dirt was not as bad as it seemed. Perhaps it was because everyone was wearing boots instead of trail runners, which are usually a bit grippier. In a few minutes, we were back on trail. Trying to be efficient, we decided against switching back into our soft shoes until after the creek crossing, another source of anxiety for us. By the time we reached the creek again, the sun was shining. With confidence, we each strutted across with ease. Smiles replaced furrowed brows. We were home free.
While there were many unexpected situations we came across, I’m proud of everyone’s attitude for taking up the challenges we faced. Sometimes there’s only so much you can prepare for. And we may have expected a more optimistic route, conditions can change drastically between days. We never put ourselves in a situation where we couldn’t just turn around. Given more time and energy, I think that we would have reached the summit, but given our circumstances, I was more than happy with the transient views we got. And mostly, I’m happy to see how far my friends have come. From their first outing, scared to learn self arresting while sliding uncontrollably on steep snow, to carefree confident steps up an unknown-to-them mountain, they’ve certainly become the kind of mountaineer ready for what gets thrown their way.
There is no longer a gate at the Perry Creek Road. It’s well graded and no potholes! You can also start at the official Perry Creek Trailhead, a shared parking lot with the Mt Dickerman trail.
With the true summer trail, you would continue on trail all the way to the saddle before finding a narrow unmaintained trail. Due to snow we went straight up after the second main switchback. We were able to find the trail at 5180 ft, but that’s not always the case in steep snow. We were unable to follow it back to the main trail and had to descend fall line.
The creek crossing will obviously vary throughout the seasons. This time of year, we were unable to cross without getting feet wet. Bring sandals or be prepared to go barefoot.
Since we didn’t make it to the true summit, I can’t confirm the quality of the scramble, though it looks solid!
Leave No Trace: be careful when off trail and where you step. Heather is extremely fragile! Sometimes it’s inevitable, but be kind to the plants and try to stay on snow when possible.