Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?

Hikes and Trips: August 1, 2021

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
Courtenay Schurman with Mt. Rainier in the background from the lookout tower on Granite Mountain. Photo by Tonia Olson, July 2020.

While hiking up Granite Mountain early on the first of August, 2021, I pondered publishing my first blog post and what it meant to reach such a monumental goal. I also mulled over Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, and how we choose our various paths in life.

The day began as a hike to Island and Talapus Lakes. I mistook the faint orange haze for low clouds, but as soon as my dog Ajax and I got out of the car, I could smell and taste smoky particulate matter. Wildfires burning in eastern Washington. Although eight other cars sat in the parking lot, we didn’t see anyone stirring as we set out at 6:15.

The Hike

Near the one-mile signpost indicating a choice between Pratt Lake or Granite Mountain, I recalled the last time we’d hiked Granite. In July 2020, Ajax overheated and needed several rests as we descended. He’d completed several double-digit hikes this year with no trouble. Mileage wasn’t the issue. Would he do okay in cooler conditions? Should we try again?

I sent a quick text to my husband telling him we were at the same exit but headed for Granite, not Island. “Go for a little while;” I told myself. “If the air quality deteriorates, you can always turn around.” It turns out we were choosing the road more traveled, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
The orange particulate-laden haze at the avalanche gully on a muggy, buggy first day of August 2021.

At the upper reaches of an avalanche gully, I could make out the hazy outline of the mountains across the valley. We would not be rewarded with a view of Mt. Rainier even if we reached the summit. I heard a loud CRACK in the gully above and behind us and whipped around to see quaking branches.

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
Black bear grazing on berries on Mt. Defiance, summer 2020. Bears generally avoid interactions with people. Alert them to your presence by speaking or singing loudly (“bear bells” seem to attract rather than repel) and if you DO encounter a bear, give them a wide berth, make yourself BIG (sight is not one of their stronger senses), and NEVER, EVER RUN, as they might assume you are prey and give chase.

A Bear?

Only one thing makes such noise: a foraging bear. I quickly turned to see Ajax on high alert, about to give chase.  I grunted my special “No” signal with no onomatopoeic equivalent except an obnoxious doorbell. “Stay close,” I called to Ajax, followed by “bear, bear” at regular intervals until we completed the gully crossing and reached the woods on the other side.

No turning back now.

Fortunately, we never spotted the source of the noise and I forgot all about it as we side-stepped the ascending masses later that morning.

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
Ajax near where he cornered a chipmunk. On August 1, 2021, the beargrass up in the meadow was still lovely.

In the meadow, Ajax trapped a chipmunk below a cracked granite rock. I snapped on his leash to coax him past. Several minutes later, when he was once again off-leash, a marmot sounded an alert call and Ajax gave chase. When he returned to my side panting heavily, I rewarded him with more leash time until we left the meadow.

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
Ajax in the meadow on the summer route. The Lookout tower can be seen atop the boulder field upper left. July 2020.

Lessons Learned

We beat our record for the shortest time at the summit – ten minutes – because the bugs were horrendous. I made myself several promises, to:

  • Hike mid-week for the rest of the summer to avoid hordes of people and dogs.
  • Keep Ajax’s leash on anywhere bears, marmots, or picas could be, as well as dogs.
  • Visit Granite in the early season (when snow means flowers–and bugs–aren’t plentiful yet) or late season (when it’s cooler, with more breezes, clearer views, and fewer people hiking). Trip reports on WTA are of great help with planning.
  • Stick to the objectives that I set when I leave the house, or else call and leave a voice message. It turns out my text never got sent, so nobody knew I had changed our destination. Nobody knew where we were if we’d run into trouble — with a bear, with a tired dog, with smoke inhalation problems or dehydration. Dangerous practice.

The Best Part

This hike was a celebration outing for launching my first blog post. But my favorite part of the day was adding a mile in the forest after we finished Granite. Instead of turning left to return to the trailhead, we continued right. We visited several lovely stream crossings, with fewer people, no bugs, and a place to sit and enjoy a peaceful snack.

Muggy and Buggy: Is Granite Mountain the Right Path?
One of the dozens of refreshing stream crossings on the trail beyond the
Granite/Pratt turnoff, on the way to Pratt and Olallie/Talapus Lakes.

I thought about journeys and destinations, and about how Body Results clients come to me with a specific objective in mind, some of whom feel immense disappointment if they don’t reach that goal. One of my unconscious objectives for the day had been to provide a shaded hike with streams for Ajax to cross and drink from. By choosing a hotter, drier route, did I neglect him? In my defense, I carried extra water; we took frequent breaks to eat, drink, and sniff; and he enjoyed chasing critters and meeting other people and dogs.

Perhaps I neglected myself?

Take-away

As in life, when we’re thrown curveballs (like hazy skies, poor air quality, thrashing bears, or swarming bugs), we need to go with the flow, change plans mid-stride, adjust to whatever we encounter. I’ll take that as the biggest lesson on my path to a growth mindset: Enjoy — and learn from — the journey, not just the destination. The mountains are wonderful teachers. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m pulled outside again and again: to learn what Mother Nature has to teach me.

So while Granite Mountain may not have been the best choice for us on August first, whenever I learn something from an outing (whether it’s to the mountains, a new country, the local zoo, or a critique group meeting) it is the right path. And if it’s the path less chosen, then it also provides me with an education. A win-win.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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3 Comments

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  1. Thanks for the comment, Carol! Appreciate the feedback and mention of your “favorite part.” I’m always interested to hear how the blog tips are impacting people’s choices beyond the read. Cheers and happy changing!

  2. Court, this is such fun reading. So nice to be able to hike without hiking! Ha. Seriously, though, I like your structure and organizations. The headings are really working. My favorite part was Lessons Learned.