View from Mailbox Peak
This is a post about an epic hike I did with my son Kyle. Together we climbed two Seattle-area peaks in one day — 20 miles total and 7000 feet of elevation. No small feat for these challenged feet! As with most successes in life, multiple elements had to come together to insure a fun and fantastic event. Here’s how it happened:
The Seed is Planted
Six months ago, I was visiting Kyle and his girlfriend Lauren in Atlanta where they are graduate students at Emory college. Kyle had just secured a Physical Therapy internship at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, meaning he’d be spending springtime near Bellingham.
“I have a goal to hike Mailbox Peak and Mt. Si in one day while I am in Seattle” Kyle casually mentioned while the three of us were out hiking. That got my attention. Mailbox and Si are each 8-plus miles round trip and 3500 feet of elevation gain. My kind of day-hiking!
“I want to do that with you.” I immediately responded. I did some quick figuring. “My ankle surgery is scheduled for late January. If we did the hike late May that would give me four months to recover.”
“Is that enough time?” Kyle wondered.
“I don’t know, but I am sure as heck am going to keep the intention of being able to do it with you in the forefront of my mind. It’s a goal worth reaching for.”
The Date Approaches
January’s surgery went off as planned. By March I was back to hiking sooner than expected, surpassing both the doctor’s and my expectations. Late March Kyle arrived in Seattle, and he and Lauren and I did Mt. Si in the snow. That was a hard hike for me— here is a link to the write-up. But success on that hike demonstrated that I could overcome adversity and left me cautiously optimistic about our May quest.
In early May, Kyle and I did an 18-miler in the Chuckanut Mountains near Bellingham— a great feat, with nearly 4000 feet of elevation. Unfortunately I sprained my good (left) ankle badly, causing me to have to favor the newly operated right one. A significant setback, as both ankles caused me serious trouble for a week. The left one healed but the right one lingered, pain so intense at times it took my breath away. I worried that I might not be able to proceed with the plan of Mailbox and Si in a day, scheduled the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
I did everything I could to bring things back to baseline. I got serious about physical therapy, icing, rest and massage. I rode my bike more and hiked less. I remained optimistic even when I felt doubtful that I could pull it off.
Slowly the right ankle improved. In the week leading up to our hike, life conspired to give me little time to exercise. As a result my legs felt fresh, ankle pain was minimal, and I felt mentally prepared for our big adventure.
The Day Arrives!
I arrived at Kyle’s at 7:00 on Sunday morning feeling good. We took off for North Bend and the trailhead of Mailbox Peak. Arriving before 8:00 am, the parking lot was already absurdly busy. We got the last spot in the upper parking lot, a good omen. We left the car at 8:00 to begin leg one of our trek.
Up the Old Mailbox Trail
There are two ways to the summit of Mailbox Peak. The most popular is via the New Trail, 5 miles to the top. That spreads the elevation gain of 3986 out to make a hard but doable hike.
The other option is up the Old Trail, 2.7 miles to the top with the same 4000 feet of elevation gain. WTA describes the Old trail as “unrelentingly steep, rooted, rocky, muddy — a torture test.” The trail is mostly straight up, with few switchbacks. We’d both done it — Kyle many times, me just once. We agreed to take the old trail up and decide later how we’d come down.
From the start my ankle felt good and my legs felt strong. I mentally broke our day into sections — up Mailbox, down Mailbox; drive to Si; up Si, down Si; go with the flow of whatever unexpected things might happen along the way. I reminded myself to be open, take it a step at a time, have fun and enjoy the cloudless day.
Mailbox challenged me in a variety of ways, and it also offered surprising insights.
The challenges were predictable — rocks, roots and huge step-ups that sometimes required a hand from Kyle. The sharp incline that never let up. I followed Kyle’s gray shorts and red shirt as he followed the white diamonds indicating which way to go. The sign at the bottom of Old Mailbox warns of getting lost or off trail or needing a rescue. I trusted Kyle not to lead us astray.
At first we hiked mostly in quiet, each lost in our own thoughts. I focused on my breathing and took stock of my physical status. I was amazed that my ankle wasn’t hurting, the first time since the surgery that had been the case. As steep as the trail was, I enjoyed every step of pain-free hiking.
I realized that hiking without pain really freed me up on an energetic level. When I took worrying about and compensating for pain out of the picture, more energy was available to focus on the trail and move powerfully upward.
“Kyle,” I said at one point when he stopped for a brief moment. “I have some realizations. Let me catch my breath and I’ll tell you.”
“Sure Mom, what’s up?”
“Here is what I am noticing and why I think this hike is working:
- Hiking in pain is exhausting! So much energy goes into surviving when it’s all about pain management. That’s not happening right now. I can navigate the challenging sections with greater ease because I’m not in pain.
- Resting my legs by doing little exercise this week is paying huge dividends. I see the benefit of heading out with fresh legs — something I rarely do.
- All the anticipation about this hike is giving me a positive energy boost. I feel unstoppable!”
Kyle laughed, turned to me. “Let me add one more. Preparation. You prepared really well for this hike, doing all the PT, massage, getting in some miles but not too many. We both prepared with food, water, clothes and a plan. I think we are going to pull it off.”
We continued huffing our way up, catching more people the farther up we went. All those cars had to have people, and we passed many as we went. No one passed us. The trails merged for the last .7 miles, and at that point Kyle said he was going to book it to the top, get his cardio workout in. “Meet you up there!” He called, heading off like a shot.
Out of the forest for the final push, the views of Mt. Rainier encouraged me along. I kept my focus on the trail, wanting to arrive at the top with both ankles intact.
There were a couple dozen people at the top when I arrived at 10:00. Kyle welcomed me with a “Great job, Mom!” as I topped out. We joined the celebratory group crowded loosely around the mailbox, taking turns with photos and basking in the views of Mt. Rainier and down to the Middle Fork Valley. The summit space was small, which made the atmosphere especially alive with shared excitement.
What’s exciting about a Mailbox on top of a summit? The notes and special gifts people leave inside? The stickers adorning the outside? For me it wasn’t the mailbox, but being there with my son, gazing at Mt. Rainier, enjoying the sense of accomplishment and knowing this was the first stop on what was proving to be a well-executed adventure.
We ate a snack and discussed the way down. “I don’t want to go down the Old Trail.” I told Kyle. “I need a break in mental focus that the easier trail will provide. So far, my ankle is feeling good, and I want to keep it that way. Going down the steep way feels like too much of a physical risk and too much mental effort.”
“No problem, Mom, I figured that’s what we’d do.”
Down the New Mailbox Trail
We headed down at 10:20. The steep upper section all the way through the boulder field was busy with people coming up and down. A regular highway and hard to pass but we managed. Once we reached the switchbacks on the New trail the crowds spread out and I told Kyle let’s go for it. He increased the pace and I scurried to keep up.
As we went, Kyle asked me questions about how my business endeavors were going. I was grateful for the diversion and his interest, and we spent the next 4.5 miles talking about coaching, writing, hiking and life. Often I hike alone and Kyle’s companionship was especially welcomed. I barely noticed the relentless nature of heading relentlessly down the steep forest.
We reached the bottom of the trail right at noon. We had a stroke of good luck at the car, continuing the positive vibe of the day. A ranger was just ticketing my car as we approached it — I’d forgotten to hang my Discover Pass.
“Wait!” I called. “I have it in my car.”
The ranger was friendly and nice as he closed his ticket book. “I’ll have no trouble finding other cars without a pass today.” He commented. “It’s a busy one!” We chatted and I told him of our plan to climb Mt. Si next. “That will be just as busy.” He said. “Have you thought about doing a different hike instead? There are other trails nearby that you could do. If it were me, I’d avoid Mt. Si today.”
We thanked him and told him we’d talk it over.
The Car Ride Between Hikes
We ate our sandwiches while Kyle drove the fifteen minutes between trailheads. We discussed alternate routes as we went. Both of us like new trails, but we also wanted the simplicity of knowing what lay in front of us. It seemed easiest to stay with the original plan of climbing Si.
When we got close, Kyle pulled into the first of several parking lots. Mt. Si is the most popular hike in Washington State and sees over 100,000 hikers a year. Parking is a huge problem. We felt lucky to find a place in the Little Si overflow parking lot and opted to start part two of our adventure from there.
Looking at the map, we realized it would take some navigating to get us to the main Mt. Si trail from that parking lot. Kyle spotted the Old Si trail on the map, a steeper, unmaintained trail that took off from the lower trails and two miles later joined the regular trail toward the top.
“Have you done Old Si?” Kyle asked. I could tell he was working on a plan.
“No, and I am not really sure I want to.” I answered. “I think it’s hard and steep and I don’t know if I have another one of those in me.”
“I think we should do it, Mom.” Kyle said, eyebrows raised, nodding his head. “It will keep us away from crowds on the regular trail and it can’t be any steeper than Mailbox. Besides, we like new trails. Let’s go exploring!”
In that moment, I realized Kyle had a point and I had a choice. I could stay in the place of reluctance and fear that another steep hike would be too much, that maybe I couldn’t do it. Or I could embrace the positives of setting foot on a new trail, the peace and quiet of less people, and trusting that my body would rise to the occasion.
“OK, Kyle, you swayed me.” I said with as much confidence as I could muster. “Let’s do it.”
Up the Old Si Trail
Kyle took a picture of the map on his phone so we’d know which trails to follow. As soon as we left the parking lot my legs felt heavy and my ankle hurt, having stiffening up on the short car ride. I was a little slow and more than a little worried. About what, I asked myself more than once. I trust my body and I trust my ability to hike. I knew I wasn’t exhausted, but my body was feeling our earlier efforts.
Once we found Old Si trail and turned onto it, the grade steepened considerably. Not as steep as Old Mailbox, but over 1000 feet a mile. Again Kyle lead. I told him I wouldn’t be as fast and that he could go ahead if he wanted to. I didn’t want to hold him back but I had to respect my body as I eased back into finding a hiking rhythm. “It’s okay Mom, I’m feeling it too. When the trails merge I’ll crank it out then.”
As we hiked I reminded myself to take it a step at a time, not focus on the top, just be present with what I was up to. I found that a new kind of strength became available when I stepped back from expectations and fear and approached the steep climb a step at a time. I consciously and repeatedly chose to travel the path of having fun instead of giving into anxiety.
“Kyle.” I asked at one point.. “Why do you think we define this as fun while others think it’s nuts and totally not worth the effort?”
“Well first off, Mom, my friends call you a beast, so I think that has something to do with it. Clearly we both like to see what our physical bodies are capable of, we like to go long, challenge ourselves, and explore new places along the way. I think you gave me that ambition.”
Those thoughts inspired me through the final push to where old trail met new. I was ecstatic and energized once we reached the new trail, knowing we were near the top. As we’d discussed, Kyle sprinted off here, calling “Meet you at the top, Mom!” as he once more disappeared into the masses.
We’d only seen four people on Old Si, but now the trail was BUSY. I was determined not to let anyone pass me, continuing the game Kyle and I had started earlier. Holding my own as a hiker makes me feel strong and capable. It feels good to power up at a good steady pace, and be inspired by the voice inside me that says “Yeah, you still got it Kathie”. Far better that voice than the one that takes me to a place of doubt and fear.
We could have been done once we reached the lunch spot on Si. Kyle was waiting for me there, but so were dozens of others. It was crazy, people everywhere, trying to find a safe spot to stop amongst the rocks to comfortably enjoy the views.
“Let’s keep going, Kyle.” I said, inspired by my new found energy. “Have you ever done the Haystack, the true top of Mt. Si?”
“Nope, have you?” he answered, trying to work his way past the multitudes.
“Just once, and it was a long time ago — back in my rock climbing days. Shall we do it? If you’ve never been I want to be the one to take you there. It’s a bit of a rock scramble but I know we can do it. Are you game?”
“Sure, why not.” Kyle answered.
We found the trail to the Haystack and the crowds slowly thinned. Most people don’t do the Haystack, which appealed to our desire to get away from the crowds again. As we approached, Kyle commented, “Mom, I don’t know anyone else who would want to do this after everything else we have done today. I am glad we are doing it though.”
“Me too, Kyle. I’m loving it all. What more could we ask for? Sunshine, a great workout, great company, and, so far, very little physical pain. Pretty much a perfect day.”
The scramble up the Haystack is not for the faint of heart. I rock climbed a lot in my 20’s, so the action was familiar, though more challenging after knee replacement and all the foot and ankle surgeries. Kyle hasn’t done much climbing and exercised appropriate caution as he hauled himself hand over hand up the steep face.
At the top, there were only three other people there. We basked in views of Mt. Rainier again, as well as an abundance of lower peaks, this time overlooking Snoqualmie Valley. We were temporarily on top of the world and could see forever.
Tired and happy, we enjoyed the relaxation and huge accomplishments of the day. “Where’s the helicopter for the ride down?” I wondered aloud. Neither of us were looking forward to the relentless down. We agreed to take the regular Si trail for reasons similar to Mailbox. I wanted to move quickly without having to worry about tricky terrain.
Down the Mt. Si trail
Getting off the Haystack required meticulous down-climbing and focus. After that the trail down was uneventful and fast, though I felt every step. Kyle was feeling it too. We commiserated about the perpetual downhill, but without complaint. Long ago, I gave up complaining on the trail — what’s the point, since I chose to be there? That’s something else I love about hiking with Kyle. His attitude stays upbeat and positive regardless of what transpires on the trail.
We spent the way down talking about what contributed to the success of the day. Here’s what we came up with:
Recap of What Went Right
- Planning, preparation and anticipation for the day.
- Team work, camaraderie, checking in with each other, stating our needs.
- Similar hiking styles, pacing, and a desire to avoid crowds.
- Flexibility and willingness to adapt to changes in plans.
- Fabulous weather, great views, strokes of good luck.
- Maintaining a sense of adventure throughout.
- Remembering to focus on HAVING FUN.
- Communicating deeply and enjoying each others company.
As this post goes up, Kyle is on a plane back to Atlanta for his last year of grad school. We had a stellar 11-weeks while he was here — seven hikes, two bike rides, and a true deepening of our relationship. Thanks, Kyle, for generously sharing your time and taking to the trails with this grateful Mom!