I’ll admit, I thought I’d be backpacking out earlier than June once I lived out here. But that didn’t happen this year. I’ll have to plan better next year to get us out towards Hells Canyon next April or May for an overnight. The mountains simply have too much snow for our backpacking gear to handle comfortably, especially as a first trip of the year when we’re getting all our muscles warmed up and reminded of what it is we like them to do all summer.

On Friday, after I was done with work, my husband and I drove out toward the Brownlee Campground, and then past it to the East Fork Brownlee Creek (258) Trailhead. There was an RV already parked at the trailhead, along with a truck attached to a trailer partially filled with cut wood. We parked out of the way of that group, absent when we arrived around 6 pm.

Ambrose’s pack was a nice 22 pounds, while mine weighed in at 20.4 pounds. This is ridiculously light for both of us, but it should be, considering the amount that we spend on lightweight gear. And even with a pack so delightfully light, my body was, as usual, not really ready to haul that gear up a mountain. I stayed behind Ambrose, playing follow the leader. He actually got and stayed ahead of me a few times on the hike in, but he was never out of sight.

We only hiked about two miles in, and then took a side trail we’d previously explored to find a place to camp. Much of the area was very overgrown, and surrounded by old burned out trees reaching skeletal black limbs into the sky. It took a bit of time to figure out which flat-ish spot would be the best for spending the night. We didn’t even start cooking dinner until about 8:30 pm, as the sun’s light was lost behind a ridge, and I began to regret bringing my fleece instead of my down jacket.

I did look at the forecast before I packed, but for some reason I didn’t consider the wind as a factor. A low of 40 degrees without wind is totally fine with my fleece. But the spot we had chosen had its fair share of wind, a steady breeze coldly cutting through my pants. I should also have worn thicker pants. And I took too long to take my bra off; we’d hike far enough for me to get sweaty, and nothing keeps me from warming up like having a wet or damp bra on.

I picked our tent spot and got the tent put up while Ambrose got water from a stream we knew was flowing nearby from our explorations last week. Once he had water, he started cooking our dinners while I inflated our sleeping pads and got our sleeping bags uncompressed. The spot that I’d chosen was a bit lumpy, and a bit tilted, but definitely not the lumpiest or the most tilted that I’ve ever pitched. Not a site that we’ll probably come back to, but it would work for the night.

I admit, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to eat a whole 850 calorie meal by myself when I was at home. But once I was out in the cold, with the sun going down, and not quite adequate clothing on? Oh, you best believe I ate that whole thing, and quickly, before it got cold.

Even with a dry long underwear top replacing my wet bra, I was still feeling more chilled than I like. Typically, Ambrose and I are in the tent well before the sun goes down. We tend to “go to bed” around 7 pm, which means we don’t stay out in the cold losing heat. But on this trip, we had no choice but to stay outside until nearly 9:30 pm. When we both got into the tent and into our sleep clothes, I was still feeling really cold. I was regretting, again, not having my down jacket, and wishing I’d brought a heavier weight of long underwear bottoms. But I had my possum socks, and Ambrose loaned me his balaclava to wear over my own. I felt like I would never warm up, but I knew that I’d just eaten a whole bunch of fuel (food). If I could just fall asleep, I’d warm up. Or if I could just warm up I’d fall asleep…

And, before I knew it, I found myself waking up overheated. I took off Ambrose’s balaclava and ventured outside the tent to empty my bladder. A full bladder requires body heat to maintain the urine at body temperature. The sky was clear, and absolutely encrusted with stars. If it wasn’t so darn cold, I would have stayed out longer to find some constellations.

Back in the tent, I focused on getting warm, snuggling into my quilt and scooting closer to Ambrose. He’s an excellent source of heat, though to really use him as a furnace, I’d need to stick myself inside his quilt. Our quilts don’t mate, so that’s not ideal to do when it’s this cold. That technique is for when I’m very cold, but the general temperature is relatively warm.

In the evening, Ambrose and I had discussed when we would get up, and we ended up agreeing that either I’d say when we were getting up or Ambrose would if I waited too long. I’ll admit, by morning I’d kind of forgotten that I was supposed to be the one to say when. I don’t know when I first woke in the morning, but I do know I went right back to sleep. And then I spent some time just basking in that comfortable space between sleeping and waking, where there are no demands, and no expectation. Just the cold air biting my nose, and the possibilities of the day not yet defined.

Around 8 in the morning, Ambrose was done waiting. I was about ready to get up as well, but I was hoping for a bit of sustained sunshine. We’d had a couple minutes of sun when Ambrose decreed it was time to go, but it promptly got hidden behind clouds, much to his chagrin. We got dressed and ready to go. I kept my long underwear bottoms on under my hiking pants, and Ambrose kept hid midweight shirt on under his hiking shirt, because it was still quite cold, especially with the wind.

Packing up felt pretty easy, falling into familiar patterns of action. We did our hiking warmups, and then hit the trail, making it the quarter mile or so back to where we’d left the main trail before Ambrose needed to stop and dig a hole. I sat down and waited, because I wanted us to stay relatively close together on the way up. Relatively close, because I also wanted to stretch my legs. Once he was finished and we were on the move again, I let myself go as fast as felt comfortable. Ambrose was soon out of sight behind me.

As I hiked, I tried to think about my posture and consider how I was moving. My habit had been to hike with forward rounded shoulders, and now I held them farther back. I found myself leaning forward as I hiked uphill, and focused on retracting my chin. My shoulders actually felt pretty good with the pack on; usually my first hike of the year gives me shoulder agony as I get used to the pack. I mean, maybe it was the fact that the pack was only 20.4 pounds, but I think my improved posture had something to do with it as well.

My timer went off just below the junction of the East Brownlee Creek Trail with the Dukes Creek trail. Ambrose was still behind me, but visible in the distance, so I chose a spot for us to take a break and waited for him to catch up. Pretty much from this junction on, the wind, which had not been slacking before, intensified in both strength and chill.

After a drink and snack break, we hiked on. The trail continued to climb, and my legs were feeling the burn. But I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to press on to the top of Brownlee. I passed right on by where we’d headed off trail the last time we came up this way. That way led to Cuddy, and I wasn’t going there.

Continuing on the trail made for a much easier hike, though I still had to watch my footing. There were plenty of loose rocks waiting to trip me up if they could. Before long, I’d made the saddle, where the wind was blowing yet harder. I cinched my hat strap more tightly. No way I’d be able to rescue it if it blew off while I was on the side of a mountain. I paused to take pictures and let Ambrose catch up.

Of course, I paused in exactly the wrong spot, because after Ambrose arrived he walked about five steps past me and let me know that the wind wasn’t blowing as hard there. I moved to join him, and the wind was much calmer; it was eerie.

Then I led Ambrose along a road, directly towards a snow bank. Well, road is a generous description. There were two ruts, almost at a height and distance that would match a vehicle. Snow had only recently melted away from this section of the road, and it was a kind of tacky mud.

I had thought the high point I could see from the saddle was the peak, but the road led me along to the side. I asked Ambrose to bring out the GPS so I could confirm that I was heading in the right direction. Our GPS didn’t actually have Brownlee marked, but I could see that we were heading in the right direction. I led us around the patch of snow on the road, and then the road descended a bit before curving back up into a copse of trees and a deep bank of snow. I also led us around that one. Near the top of it, my timer went off. The peak was very close, so Ambrose and I dropped our packs in the lee of some rocks and continued on up.

And then we were on the high point. Not really a peak, more like a high meadow. There was a jumble of rocks that drew my attention, and I saw an old USGS marker partially chipped on one. Then I saw a coffee can, which I knew had to be hiding a peak registry. Sure enough, under the coffee can was a glass jar with a cardboard sign proclaiming Cuddy Mountain and a small, damp notebook in which I inscribed our names and the date. We both went over to the southern edge of the high point. I wanted to see if I could figure out where my house should be, but I think I’d need a good telescope for that. Not something I’d typically haul up, but who knows, maybe some day.

Then we went back down to our packs where Ambrose suggested that we eat a hot lunch. It was a bit early for lunch, not being quite noon, but we were both ready for it. We each had a peach blueberry crisp by Trailtopia; an excellent hot meal. We watched the clouds paint patterns on the landscape below us as we waited for the food to be ready, and as we ate.

After eating, we headed back down the way we’d come. The sun had disappeared behind clouds, and the wind was now blowing in our faces. I was glad for all of my layers as I made my way along the trail. I wished for a scarf to protect my face, but alas, that was not among my packed gear, so I just endured.

I waited for Ambrose at the junction; I knew he knew where he was going, but it’s a thing with us. At that point, we agreed to meet at the car and I took off down the trail at a good clip. The wind was still cruelly cold, and I wanted to get down to where the weather was nicer. Not long after we parted, I saw a couple coming up the trail, so I sat down on a rock at the side to let them pass. They asked me the time and said they were headed to Cuddy.

I didn’t think they would make it before their stated turnaround time, but I wished them luck anyway. They’d need it in that wind with their short sleeved shirts.

A bit farther down, I was surprised to see four more people hiking up, two youngsters and their parents it seemed. I stepped off the trail again and exchanged a few words with the “dad” of the group.

After a while, I realized that I needed to dig a hole for myself. I figured I could make it down to the next junction where there was sufficient flat space to make digging a hole easier to do. I put my pack down at the junction where I knew Ambrose would have to work extra hard to miss it, and then I went to find a spot. I actually couldn’t find a good spot by the time Ambrose got back. In fact, I was frustrated, unable to dig far enough into the ground for a proper hole, so I went to say hi to Ambrose. Then I was able to get my business done.

On the final leg down to the car, I came across one more pair of hikers, along with a very happy doggy. Again, I stepped off to let them pass. Then I made all haste to the car so I could wait for Ambrose and get ready for the drive home. I only ended up beating him by about 12 minutes. And then I drove us home., arriving around 3:30 in the afternoon. We had a whole overnight backpack, with a peak, in less than 24 hours. Now THAT is the LIFE!

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