A little bit about me:
I grew up in New England, Connecticut to be more specific. I was a scout. I got out once a month or so into the mountains (hills), usually for a few hours on a hike. I knew a lot about backcountry travel (so I thought), ultralight practices, leave no trace, etc. I loved skiing (so I thought), but only ever knew the ice coast. That all changed when I visited the PNW in 2011 and had my world rocked. I’ve lived here for 2 years now and have a good handle on the terrain, topography, lay of the land, and have been on many of the major summits in the region.
Let’s first evaluate your skills:
Uphill travel. The Cascades are famous for their steep relief from the lowlands of the Pacific. While we have lots of relatively flat hiking available, most of the best views are to be attained from peaks, ridgetops, and other high viewpoints. This usually means you need to power yourself up a hill for the view.
Whiteout navigation. Can you find your way with dead reckoning, point-to-point navigation in a whiteout? Do you own a GPS, know how to properly operate it, and always carry extra fresh batteries? Are you more of a map & compass kinda guy? I know I am, but I always have my iphone with the topo map downloaded on GaiaGPS (my recommended smartphone GPS app) as well.
Snow travel. Have you used microspikes or crampons? An ice axe? Any training with self-arrest? Are you comfortable on snow slopes up to 40*? Most popular hikes to summits in the spring and early summer will still be snow covered. You’re going to want to invest in some microspikes and an ice axe. The Petzl Summit is one of the highest scoring traditional piolets on OutdoorGearLab & it’s pretty damn light at less than a pound. The Mountaineers insist that as soon as you pull your ice axe out, you should install your brain bucket & gloves; I tend to agree.
Scrambling. Are you comfortable traveling quickly through large boulders, up steep gullies, and over knife-edged ridgetops? If not, the best way to get more comfortable is to spend more time doing it. Look into the Washington Scrambles book and pick your way through the beginner climbs. My personal recommendation is to time yourself on certain known ascents; then repeat them, trying to best your time. A helmet is normally recommended when there is danger of rockfall from above. YMMV.
Cross-country/bushwhacking. While there are many popular hikes, climbs, and summits in the area- some are relatively obscure because of distance required, logistics, etc. Sometimes when you want to get to a specific summit, the best approach is cross-country, on no maintained trail. Learn to orient yourself with known surroundings and move towards a chosen landmark. Good references: creeks, lakes, prominent subpeaks, ridgelines, couloirs, cols, etc.
Exposure. Do you freeze when you look down and don’t see anything for a few hundred or thousand feet? I don’t have any other suggestions than – more exposure to exposure leads to less fear. Confront your fears before they consume you.
Carrying a pack. I hope you already know what the 10 essentials are. If not, please update your pack contents prior to your next trip. You should be comfortable carrying all the 10 essentials, including 2+ liters of water (some hikes have no water available without going off-trail). I typically suggest an alpine-oriented pack with ice-tool carry capacity, some sort of frame-sheet or frame, and a good hip belt in the neighborhood of 28-40 liters for a daypack.
Wearing & carrying the right clothing. Learn to layer. I typically start out with a 150 weight merino t-shirt (in shoulder seasons & winter I go to long-sleeve) & boxers. My pants year-round are OR Prusiks – I’ll link to a review later. I don’t typically add long underwear unless it’s projected to be less than 10F outside. Socks, boots/shoes, and gaiters depend on conditions & temperature. I almost always carry my puffy down jacket & rain shell. There’s a secret layer for shoulder-seasons: Patagonia R1 or equivalent. I bought mine in a M (I’m 6’2″ & 175lbs) and intentionally slim fitting. I don’t want to create an air-layer, that’s what the puffy is for- I just want additional skin layer warmth along with breathability.
Food/water. At every rest, you should be taking a sip of water and a having a bite to eat. It’s critical to maintaining endurance and stamina on draining hikes. You should anticipate breaks, try to create a mental checklist of things to complete when you stop: tighten your right boots’ upper laces, filter another liter of water, suck down an engery gel, eat some almonds. The more you hike, you will likely notice that you need less water, less breaks, and less sucking of air. If you’ve achieved 3000 vertical feet/hour, you’re in superstar territory. Clif makes two gels that have 100mg of caffeine: Double espresso & Cherry Chocolate, learn to love caffeine. It’s a low calorie and high energy jolt to your system to keep you going after that first coffee on the way to the trailhead has worn off.
Speed. Most “fast” hikers I know are in the 2.75+mph moving speed range on trails & can ascend over 2000 vert/hour. Don’t get caught out in bad weather, improve your speed to improve your safety margins.
Some hikes to get you familiarized with the PNW:
Granite Mountain, I90
Hidden Lake Lookout
The next installation will include suggested climbs & additional ways improve your skills as a mountaineer.