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Sea to Summit: Signal Peak 

click to enlarge At long last, the pillar marking Signal Peak.

Photo by Corrina Karomoff

At long last, the pillar marking Signal Peak.

My planning for Signal Peak began with, "Where is this?" I had never heard of Signal Peak before. It's to the southwest of Black Lassic, sort of behind it as you approach from the northwest. There are several routes, all of them challenging. I didn't want to go alone, but wasn't sure who else might be up for this masochistic quest. It would take two days, totaling right at 100 miles but with about 15,000 feet of climbing. Packing our own gear (bikepacking) would also be required. It being July, with most of the route remote and inland, water would also be a challenge.

The only person who seemed interested was Corrina, a friendly acquaintance I had admired from a distance. Her proficiency in mountain biking, surfing, rock climbing, snowshoeing and probably five more sports was slightly intimidating, in addition to her long, black hair and muscular arms. I cautiously asked if she was up for this adventure. She had never been bikepacking but said yes.

I drove to pick her up in the predawn. We touched the salty water, at Mad River Beach, our foggy mindset matching the weather, rode back along West End Road to my house which was conveniently en route, and sat on our back steps petting my neighbor's cute dogs while my husband brought out espresso. We left before we nullified our early start, sleeping bags strapped to handlebars, and pedaled up. Up, up, up we went for most of the day, toward Horse Mountain. I invited the fog to linger as long as it wanted to. After we popped out of it, the heat was on. We traveled up Bald Mountain Road and ran into an old coworker of mine, a forester who coordinates logging operations and is always pleasantly chatty. Amidst the dusty and dirty traffic of logging trucks, he joined us in a turnout for lunch, the dust coating each of our sandwiches equally.

Corrina's steeper gears forced her to charge the hills and I was impressed, but not surprised. We eventually reached Forest Service 1 (FS-1) and filtered creek water into our bladders and bottles until they were bulging. We forced our legs to go a little farther than they wanted and, after 50 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing, we found a camp spot hidden from the road. Conversation flowed easily over pesto pasta and, as we got to know each other more, I felt like I was making a lasting friend with whom I could share the memory of this painful quest for a mountain top and still laugh about it. We both brought thick sleeping bags for the fickle and chilly weather at this elevation, but no tent to save on weight. The night stayed warm while we sweated in our bags, with bugs buzzing in our ears like the little devils they are.

In the gilded dawn, we felt the weight of the day's task and the time of dusk. Even in these long days of sunshine, we both felt a sense of urgency. We cycled on the heart-rate monitor-shaped hills of FS-1, sampling ripe berries and remaining cautious on the potentially catastrophic potholed descents. On a steep uphill, I heard a familiar voice say, "Glad to see you in your native habitat!" It was my old neighbors, Jared and Yana, also foresters, on their annual pilgrimage to Hyampom for firewood. I hadn't seen them in ages and was delighted. We caught up on the happenings since COVID started and stopped traffic (Jared's dad in the pickup behind them) while we chatted. Their encouragement put a pep in my step and I caught up to Corrina, my hands and face stained from the berries.

After seven or one million climbs along the ridge, we descended onto State Route 36 headed east and the heat came for us. It was like descending into a blow dryer on low, the dry heat pulsing mercilessly. Dizzy and woozy, my stomach flipped its switch to nausea. Drunk with this fever-weather, we wove to Mad River Burger Bar. That the stand was out of ice cream seemed criminal and made me sadder than is appropriate for an adult. We stared at each other over fries and cokes, both too hot to eat or talk much.

We swung a left onto Van Duzen River Road as its black asphalt baked us and bathed us in sticky tar smells, and at one point I stopped for no reason. Corrina asked what was wrong and all I could say was, "I just need to not pedal for a moment. I feel like we are never going to get there." We ached to swim in the river but stubbornly forced ourselves to continue, knowing we might be pressed for time. We ditched as much gear as we could at the base of the final gravel climb, ignorant of the brutality awaiting us. My saddle sores were getting the best of me. Corrina was also near her limit, and we inched forward from one patch of shade to another, like puddle jumping minus the fun.

With great relief, we reached the trail. I felt like I could walk forever if I could just get my bum off that seat. We stashed our bikes in the bushes and hiked 1 mile to the summit. I wore my helmet to shield my eyes from the lowering sun and scratched my legs on the bushes as we scrambled our way up, Corrina navigating. At 6:30 p.m. we reached Signal Peak, marked by a crumbling pillar. We absorbed the 360-degree view and felt the lightness of body and satisfaction of mind that comes from reaching a goal. Back at the trailhead, Tom's waiting truck was our return ticket and we regaled him with the mishaps and adventure on the drive home. Then we plotted our next sea-to-summit for the following weekend, an arduous undertaking to Salmon Mountain — that one I had already found on the map.

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Hollie Ernest

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