Sea to Summit: A return to Salmon Mountain | get out

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As I rushed to complete the Sea-to-Summit challenge in 2020, biking and hiking from the ocean to the mountain peaks around Humboldt before weather and wildfires thwarted my plans, my friend Kelly was also chasing all 10 summits in the series (“Sea to Summit Part 1: Bald Mountain,” April 22, 2021). Unfortunately, she didn’t make it to Salmon Mountain before the Red Cap fire made some access impossible. This unfinished peak haunted her mind throughout the winter of 2020. Kelly is a pharmacist, a busy woman with important responsibilities. She oversees large hospital networks that I pretend to understand but I I don’t completely understand. In all honesty, she usually explains her job to me while we’re pedaling down steep hills. She loves – loves – riding her bike. More than riding downhill, if you can believe that.

In the spring of 2021, I told her I was willing to drive a support vehicle with camping gear, if she still wanted to continue climbing Salmon Mountain. We could do it in two days. Like many of us, she had had a difficult year on many levels and really wanted to take on this challenge. Plus, I was excited to play cheerleader. On Saturday, May 1, our pick, Kelly picked me up from McKinleyville in her truck, her long brown braid swept to the side of her grinning broadly. At the last minute, I grabbed snowshoes and ski pants from my garage and said “I don’t think we’ll need them, but just in case!” Then we drove to Freshwater Lagoon, strategizing along the way about when and where we would end up later in the country without cell service. It would take Bald Hills Road, then follow State Route 96 to Orleans, then Red Cap Road to the Salmon Mountain Trailhead, and finally to the summit at 6,962 feet.

Dropping her in the misty fog and crashing waves was like dropping a child off at school. Although she is an accomplished cyclist, I told her: “Be careful! Do you have enough water? And snacks? Kelly always has enough water and snacks. I’m the crazy guy who runs out from time to time. She was gripping and playing with her handlebars like a racehorse waiting for the door to open, then she was off.

As she cycled east and through the bald hills through Yurok ancestral territory, I returned south to meet friends at Stone Lagoon for a swim. The wind picked up and we swam against the choppy waves. We felt like pirates on the high seas and enjoyed downwind hell on the return swim. After that siren session, I turned up the heat on the truck and went in search of my cycling friend. Bald Hills Road was still so mired in fog that I could barely see the silhouette of the lupines lining the road and the eerie oak trees in the distance.

I didn’t catch up with Kelly until State Route 96, where she crossed into Karuk land. Riding from Orick to Orleans, which most consider a big effort, was like a warm-up for her. We stopped and chatted, but she didn’t need anything. The sun found us and the high winds swirled the maple leaves and blossoms until they looked like they were hula-hooping. From State Route 96, you turn right onto Red Cap Road, and it’s a long and steep bike climb to the Salmon Mountain trailhead, where we were hoping to camp.

I drove ahead to scout our potential camp spot, but about a mile before the trailhead, heavy snow piled up on the road. I have always considered myself a cautious person, although not everyone (like my mother) agrees with this assessment. I didn’t want to jam my friend’s truck, or worse, fall off the cliff. Well, shoot. Luckily I brought the snowshoes. I left a note on the truck that said, “Come back right away.” Could we finally reach the top? I had to know.

The hike up the road was pretty doable, with some areas covered in deep snow and some without any snow. We could at least access the trail and from what I could see it looked passable all the way to the top which was covered in white. It would be a 10 mile out and back hike the next day and the firs, manzanita and madrone were almost unrecognizable in the fresh powder.

We passed each other again and Kelly cycled to where the snow started, while I looked for a decent camp spot lower down. I pampered her with crisps, water, and beer, and she was so grateful that she kept smiling. We laughed at our multi-sport adventure – snowshoes crammed between a drying suit, bike helmets, tents and clothes. The truck was a mess and we were thrilled.

The next day we woke up to the sun and parked where she had stopped riding the bike the night before. With secure snowshoes we went there. The trail got harder to find the closer we got to the top. Digging the spikes into the vertical white walls and using our hands, we climbed straight up. The view from the top brought both of us to tears. We contemplated the Alps of the Trinity, the Marble Mountains, the summit of Etna and the peak Thompson. I was proud of Kelly and her tenacity, and the obstacles she had overcome over the past year. We sang Lizzo, “I’m 100% that bitch, even when I’m crying like crazy.”

These white peaks gave us some hope after such an uncertain and tumultuous 18 months. Maybe that meant the wildfires wouldn’t be as bad or the groundwater could actually recharge. The return trip was borderline terrifying as we slipped and slid down the mountain. The drive home was long and short as we discussed life, love and the pursuit of happiness. For us, happiness was on a snow-capped 6,000 foot peak, but maybe it was somewhere else for others. Anyway, we were hoping more people could see this view, with or without snow. The golden afternoon light shone through the windshield and we couldn’t believe the magic of the snow, the wayward wind and the ocean-mountain scenery of the past 48 hours.

Hollie Ernest (her) is a botanist and forestry technician. She is writing a book about her international biking adventures, gardening, and exploring corners of Northern California. Find her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.

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