100 Peaks #3: Sourdough Mountain, my Favorite “Neat Small Peak”

I’m writing about 100 somewhat arbitrary peaks in the Northwest.  Here’s the list.

“West coast snow peaks are too much,” Gary Snyder writes in “The Climb,” “If you want to get a view of the world you live in, climb a little rocky mountain with a neat small peak.”

It’s true. Very big mountains can feel like an entirely different plane of existence. You are so far above the normal cycles of human life and even of ecology. Everything is literally frozen in seemingly lifeless, infinite time (though of course there is actually life and change) and feels very distant. My favorite “small” peak, Sourdough Mountain, though it seems like a long drive for many Seattleites, feels very close to home.

It’s a total coincidence that I share a muse with Gary Snyder, who was a fire lookout atop this mountain. I’d been forcing my friends up what they claim is a tedious climb for years before I read any of his work. The last time I visited Sourdough last summer, I decided to do this loop described on Jessica’s blog. It’s a 22-ish mile hike of Sourdough, Pierce Mountain, and the town of Diablo that I was anxious to do– and surely I would have time to finish by early afternoon to make my dinner date in Seattle.

Wade and I started up the climb from the strange trailhead in Diablo. It’s tucked behind a building in a sparse, military-like company town for Seattle City Light employees. Normally, having driven 3 hours for a hike to find an industrial area would be depressing, but Diablo is home to a hydroelectric plant, and SCL was the first US electric company to become carbon neutral. Instead, seeing the source of my electricity inspired a sense of respect for the unexpected interconnectedness of my community, an almost geological appreciation for systems that are often invisible.

The climb out of the little “town” is steep, but I didn’t notice because there is such variety on this trail. There were boulder fields, damp forests, a fairytale creek with fractally mosses and wildflowers in at least eight different colors, every one of which was individually desktop-background-worthy. I recognized a set of exposed switchbacks where my housemate questioned agreeing to come on this hike years ago.

At the top, after peeking inside the preserved lookout where the beat poets wrote and remembering loaves of sourdough bread eaten here on hikes past, we continued along the Pierce Mountain Trail. Immediately, the trail was lost among intricate lichens and big rocks– it didn’t seem like many people came this way. There were all the familiar joys of a ridge hike: the way visible in front of me, the broad open sky, the hardy and strange vegetation. Below were the milky turquoise waters of Diablo and Gorge Lakes.

At the end of the ridge, we descended into a brushy hell of trail hide-and-seek, plunging our entire feet into mud and getting cut up by thorns and fallen trees. My assumption that we would jog the entire thing after the summit was obviously not valid. Staying on what was supposed to be the trail didn’t help much, as even my weight often immediately destroyed what little trail there was in a muddy slide. I was astounded that this much underbrush could possibly exist, despite being covered in snow for half the year. Eventually, we met the Big Beaver Trail, mercifully another normal trail that gets regular use. This part was long and graded, and we did get to speed up as we ran through this totally different area, an archetypal shady northwest forest.

Gary Snyder wrote a lot about the delicate cycles of nature and his relationship to them. It’s easy to gain an appreciation for both slow and fast processes in the landscape that informed some of his poems. Sourdough changes drastically every season, most parts of the hike becoming unrecognizable under feet of snow in the winter. From the top you can see glaciated peaks as well as the candy colored lakes, made weirdly two-dimensional by “rock flour,” which comes from the glaciers slowly grinding down rocks into a dust that becomes suspended in the water. Then this flour-rich water powers our homes. I couldn’t find an explanation for the name of this mountain, but something about the unexpected double meaning of the word “flour” makes the Romantic in me want to compare the transmission of hydroelectric power to the propagation of active cultures in sourdough bread.

Overambitious metaphors aside, it’s healthy to be reminded of where your utilities come from. Generally, electricity and watersheds are taken for granted by most people. I’m reminded of what Rebecca Solnit wrote of herself, “I lived in a city where it never snowed without my realizing that every drop from my faucets was snowmelt.” We dropped back down to where we could see the dam, gleefully crossing the monumental concrete structure spanning a loud dramatic rush of water that made the magnitude of power generation easy to appreciate. Underneath the incongruous European-style lampposts we saw a couple of hikers transfixed by the swirling patterns. Since we were behind schedule and our car was a few road miles away, we walked with them a bit farther and asked for a ride, which they gladly gave us in exchange for some gummies.

One of the hikers was visiting the others from someplace flatter, and their generous offer allowed me to see my visiting friend in time. She recommended the Solnit book I quoted above, and the indecipherably complex network of my existence carried on, powered by that impossible jewel-like water.

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