Today my buddy and I climbed up Mt. Defiance via Mason Lake by starting at the Ira Spring trailhead. I have climbed Bandera Mountain from this trailhead on several occasions, most recently in June 2011, so driving instructions can be found on that trip report. It was a fantastic warm (sometimes very hot) day and the views were spectacular. Unfortunately we didn't quite prepare as well as we should have the night before the hike.
My wife and I last night found ourselves engrossed in a Breaking Bad (highly recommended) season 4 marathon and I couldn't make myself go to bed at a reasonable hour. At the same time, my buddy and his wife went to an outdoor concert and imbibed a bit more than one should before a hike like this. So at 5:30 AM when my buddy knocked on my door, he looked and felt terrible and I looked - well - I felt terrible, at least.
In our not even close to peak condition off we went towards the trailhead. We of course arrived very early and were headed up the trail right around 7 AM. The trail climbs steadily from very early and it wasn't long before I thought my buddy might not make it. It was rough going early on and he was in bad shape. However, he picked up the pace with renewed purpose after getting his first glimpse of Mt. Rainier over the hills to the south and being forced to take an off trail break. Use your imagination.
The pictures below are from the trailhead to the Bandera/Mason Lake split and then on to Mason Lake. Some guides have this section of trail pegged at 3 miles but the GPS read 3.6 miles to the lake. Either way it's a hell of a climb. The trailhead is at 2200 feet and the lake is at 4200 feet but the lake is reached by a 300 foot descent - meaning you have to climb 2500 feet total to reach it.
Upon our arrival at the lake my buddy looked spent so while he rested I jumped in the lake for a quick swim. I think it's fair to say I spent about 4.2 nanoseconds in the water. It was extremely cold. We were joined by some members of a very large hiking party and shared our favorite places to hike and other pleasantries. I was impressed with Mason Lake because unlike a lot of other lakes I've hiked to, there was a lot of real estate where a pretty good number of people should be able to find entry into and views of the lake. Not everyone was forced by brush into a small area like some other lakes. By the time I dried out my buddy was feeling better and we headed up the trail to Mt. Defiance.
The following pictures are from the trail between Mason Lake and the 5000 ft elevation point of Mt. Defiance. This 800 ft climb is fairly steep but thankfully was mostly wooded so the trees provided us with a lot of protection from the sun. The portion of the trail in the trees actually reminded me a lot of the ridgeline climb of Mt. Teneriffe that I've done each of the last two years (here and here).
Upon reaching the 5000 foot mark the trees abruptly ended and we found ourselves skirting along the steep southern face of Mt. Defiance. We were exposed to the rapidly warming sunshine but were rewarded with a pretty long stretch of fantastic wildflowers and pretty flat trail. Eventually we would reach the right turn up to the summit (last picture below). If one continued straight at this junction they would end up at Thompson Lake after a couple of more miles.
I can only describe the final 600 ft climb to the summit (5568 ft elevation) as "brutal". By the time we started up to the summit the sun was beating down on us and there was little to no cover. This portion of trail is extremely similar to the climb of Bandera Mountain above the treeline. We met one hiker coming down as we ascended. We shared a couple of stories and he let us know the summit would be vacant when we got there.
We finally reached the summit after 3 hours 50 minutes, roughly 5.5 miles, and 3700 feet of climbing (my hungover buddy actually beat me to the summit by about 5 minutes - talk about recovery!) The views from the top were every bit as good as advertised. Of course Mt. Rainier was out in full glory (obligatory 5th picture below), but we could also make out the top of Mt. Adams to the southeast, Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak to the north, and even the Olympics and downtown Seattle to the west. Over 40 miles away and it was clear enough to see Seattle. Absolutely fantastic! My favorite picture from the day is the 4th in the set below. On the left hand side of the photo is the huge Lake Kulla Kulla. On the right in the foreground is Little Mason Lake and behind it is Mason Lake where I had been swimming just a couple hours earlier! And of course the hill above Mason Lake is Bandera Mountain. The photo really shows how far and how high we had climbed.
We actually weren't on the summit for more than 20 minutes before a very impressive solo hiker appeared. We learned that she is training for an upcoming 4 day circumvention of Mt. Rainier via the 93 mile Wonderland Trail. Today her plans were to summit Mt. Defiance, hike down to Thompson Lake, and then head all the way back and summit Bandera Mountain before returning to her car. Crazy impressive as the single Mt. Defiance summit alone pretty much did me in.
The photos below are from the trip back to the car. I just don't have a good enough camera to convey the number of wildflowers that were out today. The hillside was gorgeous. Later we took another break at the lake and we were not alone. There were many people hanging out around the lake by that time and several were braving the water in relaxing wilderness swims.
The 6th picture below doesn't look like much, but off in the distance was the south side of Mt. Defiance we had skirted earlier in the day. From the vantage point of the picture it really seemed a long way off.
In the end it took us 2 hours 33 minutes on the return from summit to car including the break at the lake. Our total time on trail was about 7 hours. Total distance about 11 miles. Total elevation gain about 4000 feet.