North Twentymile Fire Lookout: Lessons in Perserverance

Anyone who knows me knows I come up with a lot of bad ideas. I’m also an exceptionally happy optimist. No matter how bad the type 3 fun gets I can almost certainly turn it into the most positive experience ever.

100+ huge trees down over the trail? No problem! A notoriously hot hike in triple digit temps? It’ll be like hot yoga but better!

When I finally visited the North Twentymile fire lookout in July 2018 after 4 failed attempts, the adventure definitely fell under the character building category of fun. I will forever remember North Twentymile because it took more attempts to reach than any other fire lookout and I finally got there after spending 7 hours hiking nearly 14 miles in triple digit temps.

I suppose it’s even more fitting that there are only two twin lookout sites in Washington State, North Twentymile and Monument 83, and both of them took me more failed attempts than any other lookouts combined. I failed 6 times between them both. North Twentymile earned an award for being my hottest lookout adventure at 102°F. Monument 83 earned notoriety for a completely opposite experience that involved a failed car camping and skiing attempt in -15°F temperatures.

Of course I always say the sweet is never as sweet without the sour and indeed, North Twentymile became one of my favorite lookouts! Actually, Monument 83 did as well! I guess I have a thing for twins.

North Twentymile: a special Washington lookout.

It was on a visit to the Methow way back in 2002 that I first heard of North Twentymile, then again in 2012 while on a trip to nearby Tiffany Mountain with my dad. He’s a passionate peakbagger and map geek and pointed it out to me on a map, saying it would make a great objective. He was indeed very right.

North Twentymile is located north of Winthrop in the Tiffany Range of the Okanogan and is the 3rd highest fire lookout in Washington state in terms of elevation at 7,437’. It’s also a rather unique fire lookout site because it’s one of only two lookout sites in the state with twin lookouts on its summit: an L-4 cab tower built in 1947 and a rare, beautifully restored D-6 cupola from 1923. Since the log cupola on Monument 83 is technically on Canadian soil, I suppose you could argue that North Twentymile is in fact the only twin fire lookout site in the state.

North Twentymile’s charming D-6 cupola is the last standing in Washington and one of the last in the entire Northwest. It’s considered by many to be the most true to its original design of any D-6 cupola remaining thanks to the detailed restoration efforts of the late Bob Pfeifer. In 2015, Bob secured a grant through the Forest Fire Lookout Association and combined with his own significant monetary contributions as well as volunteer time, spearheaded a project to restore this historic structure. After his passing, his son and other volunteers completed the project in his honor.

North Twentymile and its twin fire lookouts.

Try, try again.

Getting to the summit of North Twentymile isn’t necessarily tough, but the trail does climb roughly 4,400’ over 6.5 miles through burn scars from the 2006 Tripod Fire. It’s exposed, hot, dusty, filled with burned snags, and often has blowdown. Even at 13 miles round trip it’s not the toughest to get to but it’s still a jaunt.

My attempts to visit North Twentymile started back in 2014. I had planned to hike to the summit in July but a week before my trip, the Carlton Complex fire closed the entire area, making access impossible. To date, the fire remains the largest single wildfire in Washington State history, causing nearly $100 million in damages and destroying homes and livelihoods.

In 2015 I had to cancel another attempt due to heavy smoke and poor air quality from the nearby Okanogan Complex fires. Strike 2.

Finally in 2016, I set out with Jake dog for what I was certain would be our first summit of N20. It was a warm day in the 80s but didn’t seem unusually hot until we hit the trail. I quickly realized that 2.5 liters of water simply weren’t enough for both me and Jake. Jake dog was getting older and the hot, dusty, dry trail was too tough on him. We turned around after a few miles. Strike 3.

Even with some snow still on the ground, North Twentymile is an exposed, dusty, hot hike. Crazy Jake had a rough go with the heat in 2016 and we were forced to bail.

I returned again in 2017 but earlier in May. This time I was too early and hit unexpectedly deep snow. After a mile of exhausting post-holing, an aging Jake was struggling and I simply wasn’t prepared for miles of deep snow travel. We made it almost halfway but reluctantly had to turn around again. Strike 4.

3rd 5th time is a charm.

I’ve had to make a few return trips to places but never has one required more attempts than North Twentymile! After 4 years of failure I took it personally and in July 2018 decided it was time to finally put this one to bed. You’d think I’d learn to tackle N20 sometime other than July but weather and wildfire threats often make the window for this summit exceedingly short. I was due for some good luck and good timing.

Of course North Twentymile gave me neither.

The week before my hike, a heat wave started to build and the Saturday of my planned summit temperatures were forecast to be 102°F. Why not wait until a cooler day you ask? Well, there were also a lot of thunderstorms coming, which meant the possibility of fire and more closures. I’d been shut down by fires on this one so many years in a row I wanted to get up there!

With Jake dog nearing 13 at the time, I left him home and hit the road to suffer through this one alone. I kicked off my adventure on a Friday afternoon, enduring an extra long bumper to bumper 5 hour drive to the Methow Valley in my hot Jeep with no air conditioning. I did one last weather check while driving through Winthrop and saw that the storms forecast for the following days were especially eager and now in the forecast for my summit day. An unexpected wind shift had also occurred and the previous days blue skies were slowly filling with smoke from BC wildfires.

Yep, North Twentymile was certainly giving me no break indeed.

I told myself I should get an early 5am start so I could get off the summit before any storms started brewing. I got to my camp spot on the Chewuch much later than planned and crashed hard. So hard in fact that I forgot to set my alarm and slept soundly until 8am. Oops. I guess my later start would have to do. I crossed my fingers storms would hold off.

Two steps up the trail I cursed my extra sleep. At 9am it was already hotter than Hades and the smoke in the air was doing nothing to quell the blazing sun. Regardless, the thought of storms helped push me quickly onwards. I’ve tangoed with storms one too many times on a lookout summit and really didn’t want to do it again!

Hello North Twentymile, we meet again! You and your snaggy little overgrowth…

In barely a mile I was already covered in dirt and ash from the burned trail. The smoke in the air dried my throat and the sun blazed down relentlessly. In the heat of July there were no flowers and no animals. The air was heavy, hot, completely still, and lifeless. Smothering.

As I hiked along I could hear the tantalizing sounds of Honeymoon Creek running far below me, steeply impossible to reach. Only the occasional color of beautiful fireweed gave me something to enjoy. It was a brutally hot day.

Fireweed is such a stark contrast to the burned trees. It’s really beautiful.

Even a perpetual optimist like me who finds the silver lining in everything was struggling but I just could not fathom making a 6th attempt on this summit. I pushed onward in obstinate stubbornness. The trail was dry, dusty and littered with enough rocks, snags and debris that every few steps I’d take an annoying slide. It was like hiking on ball bearings and marbles.

The trail isn’t extraordinarily steep and I should have been able to make fast time. I simply couldn’t. Every time I tried to push the pace I slid on a rock, pulled a Fled Flintstone on loose debris, or ran straight into a burned out snag. I felt like I was constantly being tripped up and my usual giddy self was becoming uncharacteristically somber.

The dry loose trail to North Twentymile. Not so fun in the height of summer on a triple digit day.

For extra fun, there was a downed tree every 30 yards or so. All were pretty easy to detour around but they were sharp and sooty. My hands and legs were covered in scratches and I already had ash smeared all over me. I was certain I looked like Pig-Pen.

About halfway to the summit I noticed storm clouds building. Shit. I picked up the pace and tried to go faster. The trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain, passing over a few teasing, muddy trickles of nearly dry streams. Only one, definitely nearing its last breath, was appetizing enough for a refreshing splash. I poured the water over my head, only making my ashen self dirtier.

The trail straightened out and climbed up the ridge, becoming very faint and tough to follow in spots. The invisible stretches weren’t long but with the burned out terrain it was easy to imagine wandering off and dying a slow heat-related death trying to find my way back.

“Do not get off trail” I told myself.

Coming back down I took a photo of this section. Sure, you can see the trail a bit ahead of me, but it gets pretty invisible in places and is much too easy to lose. In this kind of terrain it would be tough to find again.

Luckily some horses had been up recently and their tracks helped me stay on course. Given I was making a solo attempt in ridiculous heat with storms likely inbound, getting lost wasn’t on my agenda. Sure, I had a map and GPS, but it’s always my philosophy that not getting lost in the first place is the best policy. I paid pretty close attention to every step and turn, carefully checking my bearings. I looked up and made eye contact with the only animal I’d see all day, a lonely doe resting in a tiny bit of green shade.

My only little friend on the trail.

She watched me, probably wondering what the hell I was doing out there. I passed her again on the way down and wondered where her friends were. She was the only thing I saw all day. The trail eventually crossed a saddle and I got my first glimpse of the twin lookouts. Yes!!! I was going to make it this time! Or was I?

I made the final hot push to the summit, which was refreshingly greener and cooler than the rest of the hike. At long last after 4 years of trying and 4 unsuccessful attempts I had finally reached the summit of North Twentymile! The only thing missing was Jake dog by my side.

As I threw up my fist to cheer, a cloud of black flies and horseflies descended almost immediately. Fantastic! Nothing like reaching the summit and sharing it with Satan’s spawn. At least there were no mosquitoes. See? I still had some optimism left in me.

It was great to see the cupola freshly restored and painted. I was able to go inside for a look and though the windows were shuttered and it was mighty hot, I had shelter from the annoying flies. The taller L-4 tower was locked but the stairs were open almost to the top. Tauntingly, the horseflies stayed down below, waiting on me to return. I almost considered never coming down if not for the storm clouds building in the distance.

The view of the cupola from the tower with more smoke obscured views than I would have liked.

Despite the haze from fires, the views were still decent, though the taller peaks of the North Cascades were sadly obscured. I poked around on the summit for a good 30 minutes or so and really wanted to stay longer, but it was nearing noon and I had no desire to tango with storms.

The excitement of reaching the summit kept me focused most of the way up but on the way down I hit a new low of suffering. All the rocks, loose debris, and super dry trail conditions made for an annoyingly slippery descent.

I went as quickly as I could, spurred on by developing weather while cursing this dry, rocky trail. The heat and sun were draining me with every step. With every foot of descent the air grew hotter and my throat was parched and sore from smoke.

About two miles from the trailhead I pulled out my water bottle to drink the remaining few sips of my water and slipped on a rock. My water bottle went flying, spilling the last precious drops. I momentarily lost my mind, cursing at the shrub and waving my arms around. I can only imagine what someone would have thought.

There I was, wild eyed and frizzy, covered in dirt and ash, cursing at this rock and shrub.

I somehow managed to pull myself together. As I covered the last two miles I began to sing under my breath “the wheels on the bus go round and round”. I know, it’s stupid, but it’s my fittingly appropriate struggle bus song! It was such a long, hot slog out I was still fully convinced there was a chance I could die up there. I had solace in the fact that maybe the doe would find me.

A lot more smoke on the way down.

The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.

I could only think about ice cold water. And maybe an ice cold beer. The gurgling sounds of unreachable Honeymoon Creek didn’t help. As if to add insult to injury, one last rock right before stepping off the trail to my Jeep sent me sliding. North Twentymile certainly had the last laugh.

I sat down to change my shoes and took stock of myself. I was covered in a heat rash, convinced my feet have never been dirtier, and I’d never felt more charbroiled. I heard loud rumbles of thunder in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. The hike had taken longer than expected but somehow I made it out in one dirty piece. I survived 7 hours and nearly 14 miles in 102° heat. What the hell is wrong with me!?

I grabbed the water from my Jeep and it was so hot that instead of a nice cold drink I got a nice hot shower. I probably needed it.

The post-North Twentymile carnage. 

45 minutes later I made it back to town. Too tired to even bother cleaning myself up, I grabbed an outdoor table at the Duck Brand and garnered some curious looks while I guzzled cold water and a cold beer while simultaneously inhaling my dinner. It wasn’t until another diner asked me if I was a wildland firefighter that I realized I was still ridiculously dirty and smeared in ash. I’ll take it as a compliment!

That night after visiting North Twentymile, I slept soundly in my camp along the Chewuch while lightning storms ignited 17 new fires across the Cascade Crest. The fires put a wrinkle in the rest of my fire lookout visiting plans that weekend, so I was exceedingly happy that I had finally made it to North Twentymile. I spent the next day making a repeat visit to the always entertaining and friendly Lightning Bill at Leecher.

At the time I said I’d never go back to North Twentymile again but I knew that was a lie. The summit is one of my top 3 favorite fire lookouts in Washington State and definitely one of my most memorable lookout adventures. I may never go back on a triple digit day though ever again!

Since my 2018 visit.

Since my trip in 2018 I’ve moved back to the Methow Valley and with North Twentymile in my very own backyard, I’ve stepped up to help maintain this historical site. In partnership with Mike Liu, the retired former Methow Valley District Ranger, future maintenance and work parties at N20 include another coat of paint on the cupola and possibly some roof work on the L-4 tower. Some folks, including Bob Pfeifer’s son Eric, have expressed interest in installing a plaque or tribute to his father at the summit in honor of his great efforts to restore this beautiful lookout. I hope that we can do so this coming year.

In fact, I returned to the summit in October 2020 to repair damaged shutters and button the little cupola up for winter. This time instead of sweltering heat and smoke, I almost froze to death on the summit in icy winds. Oh North20. Always the last laugh! I’m counting the days until I can return and see what else North Twentymile has up her sleeve. Maybe I’m due for a winter attempt though it’s far more likely I’ll have amnesia and try again in July 😉

With a friend at North Twentymile in October 2020 doing some shutter repair and buttoning up the cupola for winter.

A huge thank you to the late Bob Pfeifer, his son Eric, and the other volunteers that so lovingly and beautifully restored this special D-6 cupola tower. The L-4 cab is not forgotten either, it’s due for some maintenance that hopefully can be completed soon! As always, please remember to treat these historical structures with the utmost care. Many volunteers have sacrificed time and money to ensure these structures are here for us and future generations to enjoy.