Hiking Chilco Peak

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  • Chilco Mountain Trail is a 3.6 mile, lightly trafficked, out-and-back trail located near Athol and west of U.S. 95 that features a great forest setting and is rated as moderate. The trail is multi-activity, dog-friendly, and best used from May until October. (Photos by Jason Wilmoth)

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  • Chilco Mountain Trail is a 3.6 mile, lightly trafficked, out-and-back trail located near Athol and west of U.S. 95 that features a great forest setting and is rated as moderate. The trail is multi-activity, dog-friendly, and best used from May until October. (Photos by Jason Wilmoth)

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In fall, snow slowly chases me out of the mountains. I may make some ill-fated attempts at gaining back the elevation so easily accessed in the summer months, but really, I just give up the mountains until spring. Then, I begin chasing the snow back up the slopes.

Town is always much further along into spring than the mountains are. I begin getting antsy to be up there, looking down on everything from above, I’ll hike wherever I can at the valley level, stretching out the muscles in my legs.

I like driving up into the mountains and seeing how far I can get; I love charging up through snow, white stuff flinging out behind me like the guy down the street running his snowblower. When the road eventually becomes impassable, I just turn back around, sometimes not very easily, and retrace my ruts back down through the snow.

This year, my wife and I decided to try and get through the snow to one of our favorite overlooks for our anniversary. We had both on separate occasions tried to drive to the saddle but been turned back by snow. The road to the lookout comes just to the north of Chilco Peak before heading away and down a different ridge. We had an awesome evening cooking dinner on our tailgate and lounging thousands of feet above the lake in our hammocks.

As we were heading home, I looked up towards Chilco Peak and saw a slope still held firm by winter.

I have been thinking about the hike to Chilco Peak for several years, having heard from my wife that the summit was surprisingly alpine like.

In town temperatures recently hit those first 70- and 80-degree days and I imagined the snow quickly melting away from the road to the trailhead. My mom read about someone online who had tried to get to the trailhead the week before, but got stuck in the mud and snow… I decided to try anyway. Often, I get by surprising well on a little known technique introduced to me by a friend (that’s you Brandon!): “BF and I” - short for Brute Force and Ignorance.

I took the complicated principles of “BF and I” out last Sunday and drove up the Bunco Road, all the while mentally preparing myself for some type 2 fun. I turned around the shady side of the mountain and kept waiting for the snow to appear around every blind corner. But it never did.

I reached the trailhead and instead of finding remnants of winter, I had to find parking amongst the seven other trucks which were crowded in the saddle where the trail begins. I was disappointed not to have the mountain to myself but hoped I would still find some quiet.

The trail begins in the lush forest where ferns and mushrooms grow, but quickly gains height to where trees grow like old men, with wispy beards hanging towards the ground, and when they move about their bones creak as if complaining about the age of the world.

I swore I heard a child learning to play the violin up in the trees, the winds, which my wife calls “uppers,” were roaring across the tree canopy causing trees to rub against each other. I paused for a few moments and listened to the dubious symphony, then resumed my pace up the unrelenting grade.

As I gained the ridge, I entered that strange season which seems to only happen in the mountains, where patches of snow are rimmed with flowers, bees buzzing around.

Soon, though, the trail was overcome by snow and this is where I saw my first hikers. My canine hiking partner, Ostia, pushed his way past and I excused myself in turn, then came out onto the exposed ridge and was immediately blasted by cold winds. I dug into my backpack for the sweatshirt which I had left on the seat in my truck, two miles down the trail.

Finally, finding the need for “BF and I”, I charged up the last quarter-mile of trail to the true summit, knowing that if I slowed down, I would be cold and miserable. I turned up the collar of my shirt and trudged forward and up, over boulders and snowfields, past groups of hikers, all wearing winter coats and taking selfies, to the summit of North Chilco Peak and the remnants of the old fire lookout which once worked the almost-alpine summit.

I snapped a few photos as the skin of my face began to feel numb and stiff. I looked around at the remnants of the lookout, including rusty bedspring, and began thinking to myself, “it was 60 degrees and sunny just down a few hundred feet and around the corner, where the bees had been buzzing.” So I turned around and began rushing back down to the world where spring reigned supreme.

That was just about enough winter for me.

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