Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hiking Mount Pilchuck: A Mountain of Firsts

It all started on a cool, misty summer day when I was just nine years old. That day ever-cheerful camp counselor Marge led a group of girls from Hidden Valley Camp up Mount Pilchuck. Thus began my lifelong love of the mountains, hiking, and the verdant evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

We began ascending through dense forest, then up a subalpine rocky trail, and finally scrambled over a pile of huge slate boulders to a weathered old fire lookout enshrouded in clouds on the summit. 
We couldn’t see much past the big windows of the lookout, where we huddled inside eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But I was hooked. What was out there to see beyond the whiteout surrounding us? I wanted to come back.

Historic Mt. Pilchuck Fire Lookout
Since then I’ve hiked up many peaks and along miles of trails throughout the Cascade Mountains and in far-flung places like New Zealand, Bhutan, and the Italian Alps. But Mount Pilchuck was my first. And what girl can forget her first?

Recently I had the pleasure of taking fellow blogger Tea of Tea & Cookies on her first hike in the Cascades to—you guessed it—Mount Pilchuck. I figured she might as well walk through a beautiful forest, enjoy dramatic subalpine scenery, and get spectacular panoramic views on this hike not much more than an hour from Seattle.

Tea has spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking in California’s Trinity Alps and Sierra Nevada Mountains, but is a relative newcomer to Seattle. Like a good outdoorswomen, she was well-prepared when I picked her up, even bringing sweet little homemade scones and a small jar of her peach-blackberry jam to share with me.

I, on the other hand, was not so prepared. As we neared the turnoff onto the access road from the Mountain Loop Highway east of Everett, it hit me.  Another first—I forgot to bring my hiking boots!

The middle portion of the Pilchuck trail is extremely rocky. At some points along the trail you have to look for yellow arrows spray-painted on the rocks to stay on course. Regardless, there I was, in Mary Jane-style Keens with my twisty ankles, so I tightened up the straps and headed on up.

While the first part of the trail travels through lush forest, about a half mile on the trail skirts the edge of a massive clearcut that wasn’t there when I first scaled Pilchuck. Then we emerged onto the rocky upper slopes of this westernmost Cascade peak, occasionally passing remnant cables from the ski area that operated here in the 1960s and '70s.

Unlike many heavily forested western Cascade peaks, Mount Pilchuck is lashed with steep cliffs that drop precipitously from the summit and upper ridge. Every few years some unfortunate soul ventures off trail too close to a cliff edge and perishes, but not the guy pictured below, thank goodness.

We scooted up the trail, angling along the moderate western and southern upper slopes to the final boulder field, where it’s hand over foot to the ladder at the base of the lookout and then to the top. And time for jam and scones, which were delicious. (Thanks Tea!)

I never tire of climbing Pilchuck, regardless of whether it’s clear or cloudy. When the sun shines, the world drops away at your feet, with views stretching across Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains, south to Mount Rainier, and a host of lesser Cascade volcanoes and peaks. When it’s cloudy, it’s still a beautiful landscape to pass through, rich with lovely native flora like alpine heather (P. emepretriformis), and a good thigh-burning workout.

Not bad for a first, huh?

How about you? Do you remember your first hike or outdoors experience, and how did it affect you? Join in the conversation by leaving a Comment below. 

When You Go
Here’s a map showing Mount Pilchuck, which is about 12 miles from Granite Falls and less than a mile or so past the Verlot Visitor Center on the Mountain Loop Highway. After several miles driving up a dirt road to the trailhead at 3,100 feet, it’s 6 miles round trip to the 5,341-foot-high summit. If possible, avoid sunny weekend days because of the crowds you’ll encounter. You do need a Discover Pass for parking here. And don't forget your hiking boots!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Eating in Italy: The Sublime to Divine

As I write this I’m on the plane back to Seattle from Rome. Sigh. I love my Pacific Northwest, but when in Rome…

“Enough of the mountains and canals, where’s the food porn?” says a friend on FaceBook when I post pictures during my Italian trip. After all, a trip to Italy is just as much about eating very well as it is about seeing gorgeous people, fabulous art, and picturesque towns.

So I oblige.

It’s nearly impossible to eat truly bad food in Italy. For starters, it’s all about what’s in season and grown and produced locally. As my friend Lisa, who lives in Liguria, says, “At the grocery stores they label what’s grown in Italy and what’s not. The imported produce section is very small compared to the Italian-grown section.” Most stores where I shop in Seattle label Northwest-grown produce and imported produce, but locally grown takes up the smallest space (except at our wonderful farmer’s markets).

I don’t claim to be a sophisticated foodie, but I do like relatively simple and well-prepared seasonal food. I thought about titling this post Pasta, Gelato, Formaggio, and Prosciutto because that’s what I ate a lot of in Italy—but then there was that sublime marinated and herbed artichoke. And the exquisite zucchini flan with carrot sauce, the raddichio-laced insalata mistas, the incredible vino, and more. Notice a pattern?

Pasta Parfetto

A plate of perfect al dente tagliatelle pasta topped with sautéed porcini mushrooms and cipolline onions (in season of course), a few shaves of parmesan reggiano, and a sprinkling of fresh Italian parsley had me raving “Spectacular!” to my Italian host. 

“It’s just pasta,” he muttered modestly. But I’ve never had such a savory, delicious dish of pasta before. And I really don’t think it’s just because I was sitting at a lakeside café in the Alpine foothills on a lovely autumn evening. Then there was dessert.

Another night our host Mario whipped up a quick meal of cinghialle ravioli al burro e salvia (fresh wild boar ravioli coated lightly with butter and sage—it’s hunting season in Italy for cinghialle). Again, spectacular!

Much of the pasta served by the Italians for Italians (and us outsiders lucky enough to eat places where the locals eat) are very simple but perfectly executed. A fresh rigatoni with sausage, pepper, and pecorino cheese was just sprinkled lightly with ground sausage and cheese. Very satisfying. No big chunks of meat or heavy cheese you’d often find in North American Italian restaurants.

Pizza Alla Romana

The farther south we traveled, the more divine the pizza tasted. Yesterday in Rome I shared a Pizza Alla Romana, a thin-crust pizza topped with a light tomato sauce and olive oil; fresh buffalo mozzarella, arugula, and tomatoes; and shaves of pecorino. Superb. As I slowly chewed eat bite, I closed my eyes to savor and remember the taste of Rome.

Gelato e Sorbetto

Italians love their gelato, and so do I. Artisanal gelaterias throughout Italy make gelato and sorbetto fresh daily with seasonal ingredients. Each flavor captures its essence in every creamy bite. One hot day in Venice was a three-cups-of-gelato day—my favorite there was the icy pink grapefruit and Italian plum sorbetto combo.

But then I can’t forget the fresh grape, hazelnut, and chocolate combo in Novara, or the pistachio and amaretto in Manarola along the Cinque Terre, and the apex of my gelato experiences: the transcendent raspberry, peach, and blueberry sorbetto at famous Giolotti in Rome.

Rustic Roasts

So it wasn’t all pasta and gelato. At historic La Campana in Rome, where we dined on a tip from a friend (thanks Barry!), the succulent roasted baby pig with potatoes was superb. As my friend Jenifer said, “If I was a cat, I would be purring right now.”

The rustic manner in which the pork was served, with hunks of meat still on bone tucked inside a layer of crusted fat, sent me to an earlier era, perhaps a few centuries ago. I’m told La Campana is Rome’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, although some wonder if that’s just urban myth.

So while I am glad to come home to the Northwest to catch the end of the apple harvest, I gotta hand it to the Italians. They know how to eat. I hope you are able to enjoy such culinary splendor too.

When You Go

In case you make to Italy, here’s a list of some of the places I mention above:

Pasta (primi) and entrees (segundi): Ristorante Imbarcadero in Pella on Lago d’Orta north of Milan, where I had the porcini tagliatelle.

Trattoria Monti in Rome, where I got the rigatoni with sausage and beautiful artichoke contorni, which has a sophisticated neighborhood cafe vibe and is frequented by Roman regulars.

Osteria Cinghialle Bianco in Florence, opened by a British ex-pat in a building that dates to the reign of King John. We had fresh roasted cinghialle there with polenta, hmmm.

Also La Campana a few blocks north of Piazza Navona in a side alley is a popular standard with both tourists and Romans. Don’t go too early (before 9) if you don’t want to be dining in a room full of Americans.

Trattoria Romana is an unassuming place we just stumbled on near the Tiber River in Rome, where we had the wonderful pizza outside in a stone-covered courtyard.

I’d like to recommend my friend Lisa’s home near Sarzana and her amazing cooking, but sorry!

Gelati:   In Venice, my favorite was the Gelateria Artigianale Le Mele Verde. Wonderful, unusual flavors and a really nice proprietor. My credit card fell out of my wallet there and he ran outside the shop to find me on the street and return it. La Borsa, right off the Piazza del Republico in Florence, is expensive but excellent. I had been there when I was in college, and found it again many years later. I provide a link above to Giolotti in Rome. Be sure that the gelateria sign says “artigianale” to ensure they use the freshest, best-quality ingredients.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hiking Another Northwest: Italy’s Val Sesia, Val Vogna, and Spectacular Alpine Scenery

Occasionally I do stray outside the Pacific Northwest. I'm currently enjoying the marvelous outdoors, people, and cuisine of Italy.

“You’re walking on history,” exclaims Mario as we start up the worn and rustic stone trail. Here in an impossibly picturesque valley in the Piemonte region of Northwest Italy, we’re blessed with a beautiful autumn day for a hike and a most gracious host.

“People traveled along this route 700 to 800 years ago from France and Switzerland in times of famine,” Mario tells us. Vestiges of ancient Walser villages and culture remain here, reminders of a Germanic people who migrated to the steep Alpine valleys of present-day Northwest Italy.

We started our hike today after driving to the end of the winding road that switchbacks up Val Vogna from the village of Riva Valdobbia in Val Sesia (Sesia Valley), a few valleys northeast of more famous Val d’Aosta. En route to Lago (Lake) Larecchio, we’ve passed a small cluster of former Walser homes and a small stone church first built in 1433, and crossed a centuries-old stone bridge built by Napolean's soldiers. History and evidence of human habitation and use, past and present, permeates the Alps.

After an hour hiking up past streams and waterfalls, through sloping pastures full of grazing bruno alpina (brown alpine cows), and a larch forest with views of Corno Bianco peak, we arrive at a large meadow. “This used to be a much bigger lake,” says Mario as we walk along a gentle stream that meanders through the Alpe Larecchio meadow, interspersed with a few shepherd summer homes. Small trout dart through the clear water. Above craggy alpine peaks pierce the skyline.

Beyond a small rise lies a much smaller alpine lake, where we plop down for a picnic of delicious local Toma del Maccagno and Gorgonzola cheeses, sausage, and bread. It’s the cusp of autumn, and the shrubs and larch trees lining the vivid blue-green lake are just starting to turn gold and crimson. No one else is here at this postcard perfect setting but us—for a little while, our own small slice of paradise.

“My life is in Novarra,” says Mario, who lives there in the plains west of Milan with his family and owns a small business, “but my heart is in this valley.” As a gal whose heart is in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, I understand exactly what he means.

Yesterday Mario took us on a rigorous hike up the end of the Valsesia in the Parco Naturele Alta Valsesia. Our trek started on a stone road built during World War II, then continued past slopes full of brown cows and up a glacier-scoured slope above timberline to a slate-roofed mountain hut (Rifugio Barba Ferrero). For much of the hike our soundtrack was the sonorous ringing of cowbells.

Although the clouds lowered and obscured our views of the snow-covered peaks above of 4,000+-meter (15,000+ feet) Monte Rosa, we did catch glimpses of a large receding glacier just a few hundred feet above. “When I was a boy, this glacier extended much lower,” Mario told us. Climate change is very visible in the Alps, where glaciers have retreated back up many mountains.

Along the way, I noticed similarities to my own Cascades—stinging nettles, larch trees, many similar wildflowers—and some interesting differences. On the way down from the rifugio, Mario stopped to pick some wild berries and offered them to me: raspberries, exactly like those cultivated in my home state of Washington but much smaller and sweeter.

We’re lucky to be here when an unusual early fall heat wave is covering most of Europe, bringing us warmth, sunshine, and perfect hiking weather. Life is sweet here in Northwest Italy!

When You Go

The Sesia Valley is less visited and more low-key than the well-known Val d’Aosta, which to me made it an ideal destination. If you go, be sure and stop by da Mario’s pub in old Riva Valdobbia for some beer and miaccia—a local flat bread folded over fresh regional cheeses and prosciutto, much like a quesadilla familiar to North Americans. Also stop by Pedemonte, a large historic Walser village with a museum, near Alagna, a ski town.

We hiked the trail number 1 to Lago Larrechio, starting at the Oratory of San Antonio in the Val Nera (Black Valley) portion of Val Vogna, a gain of about 1,300 feet in a few miles. The first day we hiked trail number 7 up to Rifugio Barba Ferrero, covering about 5.5 miles and gaining 2,200 feet in elevation.

You need hiking boots or sturdy trail runner shoes because the trail can be muddy and quite rocky in places (plus you’ll likely be dodging cow manure on the lower portion of the trail). During the summer and on weekends into October you can purchase lunch at the rifugio. Be sure and bring plenty of water, although we drank directly from some of the streams higher up that Mario knew were safe.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Little More About Me: Overcoming Adversity

I'm on the road and haven't been able to add a new post in the last week, so until I get better Internet access, here's a link to a guest post I wrote recently for professional ski patroller Kim Kircher's great blog.

With all the hiking and skiing that draws me outside in the Pacific Northwest, I've had to struggle at times to be able to get out and enjoy it. I hope you enjoy the post and visit Kim's blog often, too!

More soon from the road!