Rebuilding History & Hearts

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we hear from volunteer Allison Swanson on the Everett Branch's rebuilding of the iconic Mt. Pilchuck lookout.
Allison Swanson Allison Swanson
Mountaineers Volunteer
November 19, 2019

"What are those?” I asked, pointing to the four hikers who had pulled off the trail to don microspikes and crampons. It was a frigid, late Saturday in February 2015 on Mount Pilchuck. At this point in my outdoor career I was a sport climber, a casual hiker (at best), and had only backpacked a handful of times. You can imagine my reaction to seeing people take these grizzly-bear like claws from their packs and attach them to their boots.

“Those are crampons, but don’t worry, we don’t need them,” my boyfriend (at the time) replied. All my outdoor excursions and experience had stemmed from him over the course of five-plus years of dating, so I trusted his judgment on the situation. Our little adventure up to the lookout had been overcast, but dry and without snow or other trail hazards, making sense that you wouldn’t need such equipment the rest of the way up. Boy, were we wrong.

Many other hikers were turning around at this point, most likely deciding a day out was a day well spent no matter the distance traveled or elevation gained. Not to be deterred by a little snow, we nibbled some snacks and continued up the trail without deliberation. Rocks, which had been greeting our boots along the way, began to take on the glassy sheen of ice, something I am now all too familiar with. We ventured on and slowed our pace as we began to slip and slide over the icy rocks, only to encounter thicker ice on the trail with crunchy, unforgiving snow encasing the landscape around us. What happened to the nice, dry trail we were on before?

We came to a steeper section that, now coupled with the ice and snow, was proving to be quite the obstacle. My partner took my hand to assure my safe passage up the trail. As the trail leveled out, we spotted an older hiker just ahead of us moving cautiously, microspikes and ice ax working together like a well-oiled machine to avoid mishap. The folly in our ways was beginning to dawn on me as I saw the hiker move with relative ease across the ice.

“That seems like overkill. Why doesn’t he just use a trekking pole?” I wondered while contemplating the next tree trunk or boulder I could rest a hand on along the Slip’N Slide that had now become the trail. He stepped to the side to allow us to pass, all the while giving us a look that suggested we had no idea what we were in for. “Just kids.”

He turned out to be a smart, smart man.

After much slipping, sliding, and small animal-like yelps from my mouth, we arrived at the lookout find the view socked-in and only a few other diehards (who were probably wondering how the hell we got up there unscathed and without microspikes). While I had initially felt accomplished at having made my way to the top when so many others had turned around, I began to feel mild embarrassment for having been unprepared. I was again reminded of this as I began to descend, comically sliding down on my butt to avoid injury.

I learned a lot during that hike and filed it neatly away in the ‘Dumb Things Done Outdoors’ folder. Only a month later, I started working in the accounting department for The Mountaineers, thinking I had just landed one of the coolest jobs in the world. Climbing in my free time? Hiking with coworkers on the weekend? Count me in! Along with a variety of the mundane, administrative tasks (that someone inevitably has to do), I would soon find out that the mission and work of The Mountaineers is so much more impactful than just climbing and hiking.

A painful breakup during that same year left me feeling lost and aimless, as does any major loss of someone near and dear. An emptiness settled into my gut and all I wanted to do was feel anything other than the storm of emotions rolling through me every day. A few months after the breakup, I graduated from the Alpine Scramble program and signed up for Basic Alpine Climbing to fill my time and thoughts. I also joined the Seattle Alpine Scramble Committee and slowly began devoting most of my free time and hobbies to The Mountaineers. I started instructing, co-leading trips, and sharing the trail with a whole medley of amazingly skilled humans. Every trip, every carpool, every workshop, and every field-trip, I found myself truly inspired by all of these people who had also suffered their own losses, big and small, but had found comfort and relief from that pain. After many summits and alpine starts, salty sweat, glittery snow, chossy rock, and unforgettable sunrises, these Mountaineers showed me how to heal through mountain therapy. Having received that gift, I made the decision to always give back to The Mountaineers in any way I could, because the mountains are something you share; they are unparalleled in the ways they touch people. I aimed to continue giving that gift to those who came to the club looking to fill that emptiness or curiosity that was begging to be transformed.

Filled with a newfound passion, all that held me back from a sweet, new Basic Alpine Climbing badge on my profile was a stewardship activity. I had been perusing the website trying to find an activity that piqued my interest when I saw a posting for restoration at Mount Pilchuck. Ignoring the minor PTSD that came at me thinking about penguin sliding down the death trap I once called ‘The Pilchuck Trail’ a year prior, I signed up for it.

Intending to devote one day of the weekend at the lookout and then head down that evening, one of the many great friends I met through The Mountaineers signed up with me. I, on the other hand, decided to take a less luminous approach by suggesting a night hike up on Friday and leaving Saturday evening. Also being of the adventurous mindset, he agreed. Headlamps blazing and packs on our backs, we hit the trail at 11:pm Friday night, navigating our way along the familiar rocky terrain. We arrived in good time to set up our camp just below the lookout in a little clearing that provided privacy and protection from the wind. After breakfast, we reported for duty with the other volunteers to meet our fearless foreman Lou and begin the restoration. We had a wide arrayof volunteers that day including scramble students, climb leaders, and even a freelance photographer who was there on assignment for another publication. With the morning starting out a very Northwest shade of grey, we began chipping away layers of old paint while exchanging stories of different climbs we tackled and peaks we bagged. Everyone threw their time and energy into the mountain as we had done countless times, but this time it was different; our devotion was giving back to what we loved.

The work was tough and we proudly wore the day’s efforts all over ourselves. Evening began to settle in and, as work concluded, we shuffled into the lookout, leaving a trail through the tiny chips of paint that littered the deck like freshly fallen snow. That evening we ate as a family, smiling and admiring the freshly sanded floor and bare walls that provided us shelter, as it had done for many before us. In the middle of exchanging laughs and backcountry meal tips, the curtain of clouds lifted to reveal one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. Awe silenced our lips as we all filed slowly out of the lookout to sit on surrounding rocks. Despite the chill in the air, we watched the sunset cast growing shadows on the lookout and our tired faces. Cold hands, warm smiles, splendor. This is why we venture outside. This is why we continue to be stewards of the mountains, lakes, forests, and trails. This is mountain therapy.

Going back to the tent that night, we decided to stay another day and continue what we started. The sunset from the night before had brought with it a bluebird morning a perfect day for... roofing?

“Have you ever built a roof before?” asked Lou, knowing full well we had most likely never built a roof that didn’t involve Legos.

“No, but I’m sure as hell excited to learn!” I replied with an ecstatic smile. Lou returned the smile, handed me a drill, and lead the way up the ladder.

After some direction from Captain Lou, my friend and I rebuilt the north side of the roof high above the clouds and under a brilliant sun, like building a castle in the sky. Lou would occasionally climb up the ladder to check on our progress, which must have been up to snuff as he would give a nod at our handiwork and climb back down without a word.

As the sun began to wane, we packed up camp and headed back to the car. There wasn’t much talk on the way down because all the dialogue was within my head and heart. Less than two years before, I was young and in love as I clumsily found my way up Mount Pilchuck only to be rewarded with less than stellar views.

I had learned so much since then about mountaineering and had gained a whole family of Mountaineers who helped show me a new path when I felt the most lost. It was as if the parting of the clouds on my first night of stewardship, revealing the meditative sunset had also revealed just how different I was and how far I had come since my first time up there.

While the relationship perished, my love for the mountains and for the people who help protect them was smoldering. This was the pinnacle of my goal in giving back what was given to me by protecting and restoring something that could be enjoyed by those with adventure in their hearts. The Mountaineers taught me to love the outdoors and in the process, also taught me the importance of conservation and stewardship. Our work ensured that future generations of adventure-seekers and wilderness explorers would be able to return to the Mount Pilchuck Lookout to walk across the well-trodden floor, run hands along the deck railings that have felt many, worn hands glide across them to peer out over the clouds, and watch the sun rise and set through the delicate panes. Helping restore the lookout was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had during my outdoor career because it brought every experience, relationship, and skill I had learned under the shade of one tree: the tree of giving. And with outdoor recreation, one of the best ways you can give is by being a steward of conservation.

The first time I stepped on to the Mount Pilchuck Lookout, I was young and in love. I’m still young, but now in love with the mountains.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2017 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


Learn more about the Everett Branch's upkeep efforts on their Lookout & Trail Maintenance Committee page


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Eric Burr
Eric Burr says:
Wed, Nov 20, 2019 11:09 AM

Restoring and maintaining fire lookouts is close to this old retired national park ranger's heart, because I know they are the first essential for rational fire management, instead of the current ignorant idiocy of fire fighting.