Thanks to the guy at Marathon Sports back home who made the logo! I think it’s going to have to stay here because I cannot for the life of me figure out how the hell to get it next to the title above. Eventually I’d like to have a few things added, like lists (everyone loves lists), hike of the month, and a few more categories, but for now it’s all about learning to hike, climb, and run. Elevation profiles are in the Strava links when provided, and if anyone would like a GPX file of my route, comment and let me know, I usually have one. Comments, blog suggestions, and recommendations for peaks are always welcome! Doesn’t matter whether it’s a hike, run, or climb.
Recent updates: I have started an instagram! have_tent_will_travel (because some bastards took havetent_willtravel and havetentwilltravel). Not much to it right now, but I figure it’ll keep things moving during the dreary winter days where we can all reminisce on that one time it was sunny for a record streak and we were sick of the sun hoping for rain.
You know those trips where expectations are sort of at rock bottom, and then everything ends up being amazing? This was one of those. We had our minds set on the Chiwaukums, but upon getting home Saturday night and realizing there was way more fresh snow than we anticipated followed by a sunny day, we figured we’d hedge our bets and pick something less ambitious. The stoke was tempered, motivation was fading, we were pitching ideas like the Tatoosh for the 183498th time or Hyak laps. Guys. It’s going to be sunny. There’s fresh snow. Let’s explore somewhere new. I pitched Sasse Mountain, which honestly I had really only heard about snowshoers doing, but looking at caltopo, there were definitely some sweet bowls back there. And assuming those bowls were full of snow, that meant skiing.
Distance: ~10mi round trip
Elevation gain: 3600ft (5,700ft highest point)
Weather: 50’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 2hrs
Did I Trip: Powder faceplant, yes
We met on Salmon La Sac road at 7am. There are two options to this peak: skin like 6mi up a road (boooo) that avoids most avy terrain and then go cross country at the end, or boot up through a forest (boooo) cross country from the start and negotiate some forested avy slopes. We chose the latter, because skinning roads is boring and booting straight up is fast.
Except we couldn’t find the trail. I’m still not sure where it starts, but we could see the old roadbed the trail follows for a bit from the road, so we just walked straight to that and followed it. It was dry. Really dry. We negotiated a stream crossing and started to gain elevation, only to find… more dry slopes. Where. Was. The. Snow. We started to worry that there wouldn’t be any good skiing. We started to lower expectations. “I mean, this is boney, but I’d ski it” “yeah it’s not bad” “dust on crust but mellow enough maybe it won’t suck” “it’s still a workout at least” “yeah better than staying in town” “all backcountry skis are rock skis right” and finally, FINALLY we got a glimpse of the views. Panoramic views of the “Snoqualmie Pickets” (heard that the other day and love it), aka the chain of Lemah/Summit Chief/Bear’s Breast, with Hinman and Daniel to the east. Okay, okay, so at least it’s freaking gorgeous here.
And then we rounded the corner onto the first sharp ridge. And BAM. Beautiful open ski slope, right in front of us. Dane did a quick shear test on the snowpack since it was a similar aspect, and about 8″ slid cleanly off. Okay, so we agreed that while we were all drooling at the prospect of skiing that face, we weren’t going to do it. And that was fine, because after a few more rolling humps and bumps and transitions from windblown pockets of powder to scoured ice and cornices along a ridgeline, we found out the face was frozen solid. Avy danger? Nah. Skiing? …nah.
My skis popped off twice traversing steep icy slopes as we sidehilled to avoid cornices, so I booted it the rest of the way up the ridge, postholing the crap out of Dane and Robert’s skin trail. “Why’re you setting such a shitty skin trail?” “Why are you so shitty at skinning?” Dane and Robert carried us along with their trash talk. We were almost at the top when I realized that we hadn’t gone nearly far enough to be at the true summit. Dammit, this was that knob on the way, Not So Sasse. Which was way sassier than Sasse given its ridges and cornices, and actually had better views due to the lack of trees at the tippy top. You could even see Stuart poking out over Jolly Mountain. We skiied down to the saddle between the two setting off some baby storm slab sloughs in the process, and quickly skinned up true Sasse, which was covered in burned trees, was far more mellow than it looked, and you spent like 15 minutes traversing 500ft to gain 10ft of elevation to get to the “summit.” But along the way, we were oggling the shady tree runs coming off to the west. And from the summit, we decided to ski directly down to the bowl through the trees. We started off on ice, timing turns for pockets of powder. But three or four turns later, we had PERFECT POWDER.
We giggled all the way down. HOW is no one else here?! Powder stash!! Bluebird powder day! Darting through open burn zone trees leapfrogging our way down we popped out into the bowl only to find… someone’s skin track. Dammit! It’s been discovered! But uh, should we utilize this and do another lap? No one protested. Back up we went. And the second run was just as good.
One interesting thing about this area is that it was part of a massive wildfire called the Jolly Mountain complex back in 2017. Not So Sasse and its ridgeline as well as some of the lower glades look like they were spared, but it is always fascinating getting to a view point and seeing blackened toothpick trees for miles. This is the same fire that affected Hex mountain, a very popular snowshoe slightly further south. Towns to the south of here had to be evacuated for almost a month until the fire was contained and naturally put out by the first rains in fall.
We decided to follow the mystery skin track on the way out so we could avoid regaining elevation and skiing mediocre ridges. We figured worst case scenario we could traverse waaay south to meet our skin (or boot) track. I was cruising and about to thread the needle through two trees and WHAM suddenly I was face down in the snow, mouth stuffed with powder, blinded by snow, skis still attached and still perpendicular to my body. Like the skis had stopped and my body kept going. Turned out I wasn’t as deep in the snow as I thought, I just had eaten a bunch of it and my sunglasses trapped quite a bit against my eyes. I oooohed and ahhhed and groaned while Robert shouted “Are you okay!” and I figured well he can hear me so he knows I’m breathing, and eventually got enough air to respond “yes I’m in one piece.” Feet of powder (or slush) tend to be quite forgiving. But then I had to wrangle fully buried skis out of extremely heavy snow, which required more core strength than I’ve developed or maintained during covid.
I popped around the corner rght beyond that sneaky patch of sticky snow only to find Dane patiently waiting above a second bowl! I don’t have an excuse regarding why we didn’t ski this bowl… we should have, just to tag it. But we were focused on adventuring our way out, and so we traversed to another mellow ridge, where we found….
…a THIRD bowl, this one with mellow glade skiing with another party doing laps on the perfect soft snow. We could see the road across the bowl and below us, and skiied straight to it, which snuck out a few more turns. Rather than regaining lost elevation, we followed the road for a bit until we could cut switchbacks and ski straight to the next stretch of road below us, though more low angle glades. Careful of gullies if you cut the switchbacks, though, there are some nasty gullies and some sneaky cliffs. But we had heard if you followed the road the whole way, you had to put skins on for some uphill, and we weren’t having any of that. Sidestepping and switchback-cutting forever.
The theme of the day was variable conditions. Crust to powder on crust to powder to ice to the stickiest shit I’ve ever skiied, and the road was no exception. In the shade? Zoom zoom. In the sun? glop glop walk whine paddle with your poles. The trees soon got too tight so we committed to skiing the road until we were at the switchback closest to our bootpack, and then we’d switch to boots and hoof it back through the woods to the car. You can follow the forest road all the way back to the main road, but it would have been a mile or two away from where we had parked, so we went back to the “trail” we took up, and were still back at the car pretty quickly.
All in all, it was about an 8 hour tour in a completely new area with a TON of terrain and routes you can safely follow even on big storm days. I’m amazed this isn’t talked about more. And it was even better by how low our expectations were around 9am that morning as we booted crusty, patchy snow in the trees telling ourselves it was better than nothing and I reassured myself that they’d still hang out with me and take my future recommendations despite this shitty one (though secretly I was just relieved to not be at Hyak or Castle).
We had a great dinner(? it was like 4pm) at “the brick place on the right when you’re driving back to i90 through Roslyn” where we all crushed burgers, fries, beer, and water. Turns out it’s literally called the Brick Saloon and despite stopping there most of the times I’m in the area, I never remembered the name. Definitely worth giving them a visit when you’re starving and parched after a trip, and I’m so happy that things are starting to open up again. This time last year, we were sneaking around, even minimizing trips to gas stations. Feels pretty good to bring some business to the nearby towns, and to wreck a burger when I’m starving instead of driving straight home, opening the fridge, being disappointed, closing it, lowering my standards, opening it again, reconsidering… you know how it is. Here’s to many more ski tours and burgers!
“Why do you think it’s called Anaconda Peak?” “Because.. my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun?” Rob couldn’t finish the sentence without laughing and I cracked up. It’s true, you need some serious buns to do this peak, especially on snowshoes, which are second only to crawling on your hands and knees as a self-propelled mode of transportation. Snowshoeing. Is. So. Hard.
I joined Rob’s trip up Anaconda at the last minute. It was organized by Tim, who is like a gecko on snowshoes and can fly up any slope of any angle at an inhuman rate of travel and he’s turned the corner or crested the knoll before you see where he went. More on that later. We met at the gas station in Granite Falls and caravan-ed to the trailhead, which we almost missed by two miles, but finally found before we got started. It’s just past the “red bridge” which is more like a pink bridge nowadays.
Elevation gain: 3700ft
Weather: 40’s and rainy/sunny (classic)
Commute from Seattle: ~1:30
Did I Trip: Yes, many snowshoe slides and a stumble or two, maybe a faceplant
We started up the Marten Creek trail, which begins on an old road that we suspected was from logging times given the second growth forest, but actually provided access to mines further up the valley by Granite Pass. The trail was wide and well graded, but must have been a bitch of a logging road (mining road?) because it was STEEP. But mossy, and beautiful, and protecting us from some of the rain that was coming down. We found a cool sign explaining that the lower section was actually an experimentation zone, like what Amber and I had seen at Little Mashel Falls a few weeks ago. After some surprisingly extensive Googling and checking coordinates of sites listed in random long term doug fir studies, I finally landed on the Stillaguamish test site (thanks to this PDF), which is where we were despite the sign saying CARSON WASH which misled me for a solid 10 minutes. It was seeded in 1915 (okay, that sign was accurate) along with four other test sites. Each site had multiple varieties of douglas fir, and the goal was to measure survival rates, health, and how well different varieties of doug fir could adjust to different environments. At this site, in 15 years, the douglas firs had grown to about 5.2m already, and by 2013 they were 36.0m tall. Only 15% had survived, which was the lowest survival rate of the five test sites but second tallest in height and the largest in diameter, partially due the Stillaguamish site’s lower elevation & warmer weather. After a hundred years of being studied, the researchers also confirmed some common sense: survival rates of seeds are better if they stay in similar climates to the parent trees.
Enough on douglas firs. About a quarter mile after the trail starts to head north and finally flattens out, you’ll notice you are fairly close to the creek (~200 horizontal ft maybe). This is where you cross the creek at a point of your choosing (the crossing we chose… I mean, it worked) and start heading uphill. Creek crossings in winter are always interesting, and Rob broke a great trail across some logs that did the job well enough. Just beyond the river we strapped on the torture devices known as snowshoes, and started to head uphill. Tim put it best. You ever want to diet? Forget it, just go on a few snowshoes and before you know it you’ll be running marathons like no one’s business.
Rob and Tim took turns breaking trail, which was totally fine with me and Trang and I assume Alex, who was recovering from a broken ankle but still decided to bring extra water as training weight. I asked what was the biggest trip he’d done so far, and the answer was “this one.” Just a casual jaunt up 3700ft of powder in snowshoes. I have happy unbroken ankles and they weren’t stoked on the day. But I spent this winter becoming soft between accutane and sedentary-ness, like a humanoid soft serve ice cream with asthma and a propensity to burn in the sun. A creme brulee, perhaps.
The first uphill section was steep but not threateningly steep, and soon enough we were on a forest road running along a ridge. We carried on to the end of the road, and headed uphill due northwest towards the south ridge of Anaconda. This was also steep, but still manageable until we got to the point we had to start making switchbacks. And when this happens, the first person basically kicks a one-snowshoe-wide trail, and the second person has to try to widen it, and maybe by the time the fourth person comes along you have a small sidewalk. Or all the steps blow out and you have misery, depends on the snow. We had a bit of both, but the ridiculously huge trees with fresh snow and patches of blue sky kept us motivated. Oh, and you couldn’t stand in one place for too long, or you risked getting smacked by a tree bomb, which is chunks of melting snow falling from the trees. That’s the real reason to bring helmets!
The final stretch of the south ridge was surprisingly steep, I definitely underestimated it. I expected a walk in the park, I got a mountaineering adventure, ice axe included. I think my favorite thing about Tim was the boundless energy and positivity the entire trip. I’d see one of his gecko prints sideways on a mound of vertical snow, laugh, and hear him whooping 100ft ahead of me. He and Rob were also both great at checking in on everyone. “Do you want some goldfish?” “Who needs a snack?” “Don’t forget to drink water!” “Do you want some goldfish now?” “What about now?” “Goldfish, anyone?”
We took a break just below the summit where we had a hard time breaking trail up some very steep snow between tight trees, and Trang decided to wait. Tim and Trang were prepared and she had layers, a radio, snacks, the works. She whipped out a beautiful purple goretex layer I immediately complimented and she and Tim started laughing – she wanted to return it because of the color!! No, it’s the best shade of purple ever! It was hard to tell from my gear for once, but I LOVE bright colors.
We were at the summit… maybe 15 minutes later, and Rob had the idea to save the final ridge traverse for Tim to lead since he had organized the trip. On the summit, we had sneak peeks of the surrounding peaks. Tim made sure to radio Trang so he could trash talk a bit so she knew what she was missing, at least for the 3 minutes of views we had before being back inside a ping pong ball. I think Anaconda is like Oakes lite, where you suffer through forest until the very end where you get spectacular views, except we couldn’t entirely tell thanks to the clouds. I also learned that having a great camera doesn’t mean you take great photos (literally ALL FLOPS, they are all terrible, and you will see none of them) and sometimes carrying four jackets IS useful (we were SOAKED from rain/snowbombs on the way up and a dry midlayer was amazing). And finally, Tim accepted Rob’s offer of goldfish.
We didn’t want to make Trang wait too long, so we headed down after a quick bite and some group selfies. The way down went faster than the way up besides several transitions between boots and snowshoes, and me snagging my “radio antenna” on everything. “You didn’t collapse your trekking pole all the way!” I laughed but pouted at the same time. “Because they’re ski poles 😦 This is as collapsed as they go!” I always have a pole sticking up like two feet above my head. Luckily, we glissaded much of the way down, which makes me short enough I’m not hitting branches with my antenna. At one point Trang asked how you stop sliding going downhill on snowshoes. I don’t think you ever do, you either learn to use it to your advantage or you get resigned to it. Either way you stop fighting it.
Back at the river, we found a MUCH better crossing than what we used on the way up. I was still in snowshoes and used them to dance across some rocks. Rob got his feet wet. Tim pretended to be a diva and Alex had no ankle so we (Rob gets most of the credit, actually) started laying out more and more rocks to build a crossing, and by the time Tim crossed last it was a bona fide rock bridge while we laughed on the other side. From there we had a few soul sucking postholes getting back up to the trail (I refused to put the snowshoes back on, we were so close!), and then it was clear sailing back to the cars. The sun had come out and we had beautiful afternoon light shining through the trees.
The cherry on top? We got back to the base of the trail a few minutes before the others and Rob goes “I’m going to get the watermelon set up so it’s ready when they get down.” WATERMELON?! Oh my god, it’s March and all I wanted suddenly was watermelon. It was some of the best watermelon I’ve ever had, such a perfectly timed snack. Rob carried it over to the other three and we munched watermelon marveling at the clear sunny weather and how it had turned into such a pleasant day.
This was one of the most refreshing hikes I’ve had in a long time. I hadn’t seen Rob in over a year and hadn’t met the others yet, but I told Rob back at the cars that it was a really good group of people and I hope I can join them on future adventures. Just a really good group dynamic with happy people who are just thrilled to be on their feet outside, and I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s been a tough winter for me. Not as many trips as usual, not as much skiing as usual, way less social than usual. It felt so damn good to reconnect with people and get outside, even if it required… snowshoes.
“Little” obviously has to do with the river, because these falls are anything but little. But the trail… the trail is… weird. It looks like there are multiple different ways of accessing the falls, two via a Weyerhauser road and a third from above(?), which we explored a bit but bailed because it was pointless for us. We started at the coordinates provided by WTA starting at Pack Forest, more specifically the Charles L. Pack Experimental Forest. Sounds more exciting than it is, it’s just a significant piece of land with multiple drainages, significant enough rivers and flora/fauna to use as a playground to land management. Fortunately, we get to use this as our recreational playground, too! Unfortunately, WTA’s description was either entirely inaccurate, incredibly unhelpful, or yours truly is incapable of urban navigation (most likely).
Distance: 7mi (all falls plus a slight exploratory detour)
Elevation gain: 500ft
Weather: 50’s and cloudy
Commute from Seattle: 1:30
Did I Trip: No! Neither did Amber, though her muddy clothes suggested otherwise
We pulled up to the Park Forest gate at the coordinates from WTA. Well, sort of, the gate was closed like a quarter mile before the WTA coordinates. There was a couple who parked next to us and asked if they were in the right place, to which I confidently replied “yes!” and they asked where to go and I said “beyond that gate, and follow the road until eventually there’s a trail!”
Within 5 minutes of walking, we found ourselves at some sort of… camp? Office retreat? I have no idea. Cabins and parking and we continued to follow the road until we came to a sign: TURN AROUND! Ah crap, is it closed for some reason? We got closer. “Mashel Falls is not this way. Go back to the sign and turn right.” Oh. Okay. That’s cool I just immediately got us nearly headed off in completely the wrong direction. We would have been wandering a maze of forest roads with no waterfalls. We went back to the sign, which turned out to have a trailhead style billboard with a map saying “Little Mashel Falls Reroute” which made me feel a little better. And a bright red paper saying “LITTLE MASHEL FALLS ——->” which made me feel less better. So, that drives the theory that WTA’s directions are out of date.
We walked across a field (new red sign “falls —>”) went left/counterclockwise around a pond (another sign “falls —–>”), and popped out onto a Weyerhauser road (signed), which we followed for what felt like forever (with more signs). Our new friends knew this route, and had just been following us hoping for something shorter and faster. We unfortunately soon left our new friends behind as they took a break, though we got the advice “you’ll cross a bridge and then the trail will be right there!” which kept us from doubting ourselves too much as we passed backyard after backyard after backyard and no signs and more backyards. Infinite backyards. Twilight zone levels of gravel road and backyards.
We eventually came on a small waterfall between backyards. “Is this it?” I asked. Did I drive all the way here for a small waterfall mostly covered in brush off of a gravel road? “We haven’t crossed a bridge yet, so let’s keep going? And given the signs… it’s probably signed?” And the WTA description definitely mentioned a trail eventually. And there was supposedly 500ft of elevation gain somewhere in there. So we kept walking. “This feels like the Burke Gilman.” My expectations were getting lower and lower. I hoped Amber wasn’t disappointed. Still a change of scenery, a break from Seattle, a walk with good company, and finally… was that a sign?! A trail sign!? Just before a bridge? YES! And we turned onto a real trail!
The real trail was 70% mud, and we had neglected to consider that you gain all of the elevation in the half mile to the falls. It’s slippery, and surprisingly steep, but it finally felt like we were in the wilderness and not on a logging road paralleling a highway.
START WITH THE UPPER FALLS. Because they were the most anticlimactic/least climactic. Stay on the main trail until you come to a junction with a small creek running to the right of the trail, and head left. Most of these were signed. The falls were pretty big, and in summer they might be cooler because you can log hop or wade the river to get a closer view. We didn’t want to negotiate a very slippery wet 12″ diameter barkless log to reach the island with the (maybe/probably superior view) so we settled for obstructed viewing.
The middle falls are the best. SUPER slippery, lots of mud and wet rock, but they funneled most of the water into one central fall (unlike the upper fall, which had many routes) and it was POWERFUL. You could see the mist blowing through the air and feel it thundering. Next to it was a slimmer lace-like fall, looking all dainty and delicate next to the main event. We hiked down laughing with excitement, along with two other equally stoked women. After the upper falls, the middle falls were so close and so awesome. I had brought my new camera, ready to practice waterfall pics, and triumphantly took it out only to turn it on and see “battery exhausted.” I was going to practice with my new tripod, but I guess.. not anymore. Not Today! I snuck out two pics before it died all the way. No time to change settings or reframe. Rookie mistake. I was hoping to get a pic of the more delicate falls out of frame too.
You can also walk behind the middle falls! There was so much water flow that we couldn’t get all the way behind the main fall, but we could sneak around the daintier fall and get pretty darn close. Amber (smart woman) put on her rain coat so she wouldn’t get soaked, I just risked it. The temperature must have dropped 10 degrees when we got close to the water. Apparently in summer the fall is only like four feet and you can go all the way behind it and even dunk your head/body into it, but that would have been insane with today’s volume. We figured this had to be the best part, there was no way the lower falls would be this good.
Surprise! The lower falls were pretty damn good too. We met two happy dogs, I thought Amber wiped out because she was covered in mud somehow (she didn’t wipe out… “I wish I had wiped out, because then I’d have an explanation for all of the mud”), I managed to sneak two more pics on my trying-to-die camera before we headed back uphill to the main trail. That’s the only downside – the side trails to the falls (besides the upper) were downhill, so you had to regain elevation to get back. Oh, and did I mention the slipperiness? It’s actually pretty impressive neither of us totally ate it at some point. Or lost a boot to a sucker-hole of mud.
I’m honestly surprised there weren’t more people here. Multiple access points, huge beautiful falls, only 500ft of elevation gain, 90 minutes from Seattle, dog friendly, where was everyone? It’s so accessible and quite beautiful and green despite being young growth, at least once you’re done walking past everyone’s backyards. And perfect for a rainy winter day. Or if you figure out the alternate route. In which case let me know because maybe I’ll go back with a fully charged, very much alive camera to actually frame some long exposure shots!
Another hike to strike off my OG hikes list! With no plans leading up to the weekend, I joined a mellow (but long) hike with Anita, Charles, and Emily. I had never actually been to the Middle Fork besides on SAR missions, so I was curious to get a taste of what it’s actually like and get some fresh air and socialization with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I brought my new (to me, still, despite having it for like 6mo by now) camera figuring there’d be some cool waterfalls. After all, the hike is called Otter Falls. For the sake of recordkeeping, this was hiked January 9th, I was just slow to write about it. And ah shit, I forgot to take a panorama for the top of this post.
Distance: 11mi round trip
Elevation: only 650ft!!
Weather: 40’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 1:12 without traffic
Did I Trip: No but RIP my favorite glove
We rolled up to the trailhead I think at 9am. You know me, I’m usually up by 5:30, gym by 6, work by 7:30… yeah, well, if you give me ANY slack in that routine, I’ll be late. Fashionably so. Anita has seen this firsthand several times now, where my “I’ll just have tea for 20min” turns into “omg it’s been 45min what happened where have I been yes hello it’s eve and i will be 20min late.” So to avoid this, I packed everything the night before, and set an alarm for 15min before I needed to leave the house. So I actually got there at 8:50, and hung out waiting for the rest of the crew, and they all rolled up basically at the same time like they had a telepathic connection I hadn’t cued into yet.
Anita had brought a sweet little dog she was dogsitting named Teddo who came with his own jacket and even a little doggie harness. We started off down the trail, pup trotting ahead of us after an immediate bathroom break. The trail is an old road bed, very consistent and flat and wide which is great when you’re socially starved and want to talk to all of your friends at once and not walk single file. I’m honestly not sure where the road bed ends because it keeps going past Otter Falls itself. The forest is second growth (the road bed is from an old logging road) but it’s still spectacularly green, mossy, and beautiful.
The trail hugs the Taylor River, which was the last large scale logging operation in National Forest uplands (I assume as opposed to lowlands?) according to Mid Fork Rocks. Crazy to see how wild the forest looks despite being second growth. The old logging road may have used to connect to Highway 2 – it definitely connects as a trail now, though the section through Lakes Snoqualmie, Deer, Bear, and Dorothy seems pretty trail-y and less road-y, so the rumors I’ve heard of a road connecting the middle fork Snoqualmie with highway 2 may just be that, rumors. I was up by those lakes a few years ago (came from Highway 2) wondering where some trail runners came from – the answer is the middle fork, and it’s a sweet little car to car. At this point I’ve been tantalizingly close to connecting them, minus the elevation gain between the Taylor River and Snoqualmie Lake. Which, brief aside, is stupidly named because Snoqualmie Mountain is a few peaks/ridges away and Snoqualmie Lake drains into the Taylor River.
The creek crossings were extra hilarious with Teddo. Everything was covered in a thin slippery layer of ice, so Teddo got a ride across each creek thanks to the handle on the back of his harness. He was incredibly tolerant of being treated like a sack of potatoes, though he’d whine waiting at the other side if the rest of us weren’t fast enough. The trail honestly was much of the same. Trail, second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Rinse and repeat.
At the first major river crossing, which thankfully (maybe) had a bridge, I decided to take out the new camera and see if I could get some of those long exposure waterfall shots I’ve seen others take. My pack immediately fell over at my feet, threatening to dump its contents (camera on top!!!!) into the river 15ft below, but I snagged it just in time. I spent the next 15-20min messing with my camera wondering why I spent an hour on reddit instead of researching how to take waterfall pics before leaving the house. But I think I got some that were passable.
Unfortunately, it turned out I hadn’t snagged my pack fast enough. I put the camera away, and a glove was missing. Nowhere to be found. Presumably swept downriver who knows how far, only to rot away in a stream never keeping hands warm again. I bought those gloves I think at SeaTac on the way to run a marathon in Moab years ago, when I thought I had forgotten gloves and panicked. Turned out I had remembered gloves, but the ones I bought still ended up becoming a personal favorite, as they were very light but completely windproof and good for frigid fingers. That’s definitely one of the worst clothing losses I’ve suffered on a trail. Up there with my hat coming down from a one day assault on Snowfield and my Patagonia puffy coming down from the Ptarmigan Traverse before the Bachelor Creek drainage was brushed out. And this one doesn’t even have the epic story. Just a glove dropped into a creek 😦
We carried on as I rallied past my injured pride and regret for losing my poor glove. It had a good life, it saw some cool places. We briefly debated going to Marten Lake, which is a short steep detour from the Taylor River/Otter Falls trail, but decided to continue on to the falls instead. Emily kept us occupied with stories of her WTA trail work parties and middle fork history (she has like a perfect mental map of the middle fork, it’s wild), Anita kept us laughing with quotes from movies and dating mishaps (dick videos apparently are a thing nowadays), and Charles had us cracking up with his stories about hikes with Anita, including a hike he bailed on that was like a half mile long. Charles also did not judge my abject ineptitude at photography with my new camera, including waiting for me at one point while I was totally, helplessly absorbed in figuring out the camera and oblivious to anything else. Bigfoot could have run past me and I’d have had no idea. I didn’t expect anyone to wait, but I also realized when I snapped out of my camera world that I was grateful he did.
The turn off to the lake is like a free for all. There’s no real trail, just a bunch of trampled ground and all routes lead to the falls. The falls are GORGEOUS. I didn’t realize how huge they were, and we can only see the bottom ~500ft! The water technically falls something like 1,200ft. Emily had memories of being a teen and climbing up the rock to use it like a waterslide wearing denim shorts. We had a short snack before heading back to the main trail to push a little further to a second (smaller) waterfall. We came across a HUGE erratic split in half, and followed a social trail next to it thinking it might lead to the river or some views. Instead we suddenly found ourselves standing upon a bed of freshly cut boughs, which I figure might have been where someone slept… because I couldn’t think of another reason to have laid out freshly cut evergreen branches like that. And on our way back to the main trail, someone caught eye of an old brown tarp set up like a lean to. Pretty sure someone was living back there and we had almost stumbled across their space. Wouldn’t be the only one doing that back in the middle fork drainage.
We turned around for good at another waterfall just a bit past the turnoff to Otter Falls. Emily kept me occupied with other creepy middle fork stories, and brief side trips down just about every significant social trail we saw. Which I love. At one point we heard Anita getting excited telling a story to Charles and Emily laughed and said “well we’ll never run into any bears with them around.” True, and anyone who knows how I feel in the woods knows I am very thankful for that.
We were back at the trailhead around 3:30pm, temperatures dropping quickly since the whole valley was so shady and sunset this time of year was something like 4:30. I think because of the lack of elevation gain it felt like a pretty fast 11 miles, even though in hindsight we only did ~2mph. Must have been how starved I was for socialization. I was excited to get home and read up on middle fork history, but I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. But for when I’m not too busy adulting or getting outdoors, that’ll be the next rabbit hole to go down. Emily, if you’re reading this… be warned. I have questions.
I gotta give a huge shout out and thank you to Anita for pulling this all together, especially kind of last minute! It was so refreshing to get out with such a fun group while the country was threatening to implode. And thanks to Emily for the wealth of knowledge about the area and the hike suggestion (I think Otter Falls was her choice), and to Charles for unknowingly probably protecting me from whatever middle fork spirits would have captured me while I was becoming one with my camera. Hope we can repeat the adventure someday!
And some three-quarter ass trips for good measure. And yes, most of these can be snowshoed too! But snowshoeing anything is a full ass endeavor unless you’re just popping up to like Glacier Vista or Skyline Lake on pre-trampled trails and making hot chocolate and ramen in the sun. It’s freaking hard and you don’t get to go “wheee!!” all the way to the bottom.
Sometimes you want to get out and ski, but you don’t want to spend 4hrs thrashing in the brush in the dark going uphill and 4 more hours slogging to the top and 2hrs skiing ice/being bitch slapped by trees and crying back to your car. That used to be my definition of a ski trip. Yeah, it’s more rewarding maybe, but it’s not realistic, especially as responsibilities start creeping up. Turns out I can’t actually only do chores/errands/adulting just on weeknights. Actually sometimes I need a weekend day for chores, which sounds SO old and SO boring and SO domesticated. And growing up I was told only boring people get bored, so I am now a boring person. SO. We need to mitigate that. And I’ll do anything to avoid using PTO on a weekday for chores. Oh god. Stage an intervention if I ever do that.
Oh, and usually when these days happen my mind is already fighting off baseline choring anxiety (for example right now: “oh shit, I forgot to respond to that” “oh shit, I didn’t pick up those screws” “oh shit, i need to get olive oil” “god dammit, I was supposed to ship that” “you still don’t know how to get new blinds for your window, they’re gonna be entirely broken aka see through any day now you cannot keep avoiding this” “you NEED to sell that dress, dude” and “fuck, I need to figure out what to do with the (full) trash can that some asshole added to my trash cans”) so the capacity for additional challenges is low.
And thus, half day half ass tours are born. You might still feel like a poser, but at least those $700 skis are on your feet and not gathering dust in your basement while you sign refinancing papers and weep over tea remembering when you used to actually be cool and found adventure in untouched wilderness and powder and views instead of finding vague glimmers of grandeur in newly lowered interest rates.
1) Okay, we’ll start with the obvious: Paradise. What’s great about this? The road is usually well maintained and you can go as slow as you want, just pull over for the braver souls with bigger balls (and maybe smaller brains). The gate doesn’t even open until 9 so if you live in Seattle like me, you don’t have to get moving until like 7am. The most used skin trails are quite mellow, but there is a GREAT mix of terrain from open slopes to treed slopes and basically flat to avalanche territory and cliff jumps. And you can bring your snowshoe friends! If you are really nice to your snowshoe friends, they might agree to take your keys and pick you up at the Nisqually Bridge after you ski all the way down the Nisqually instead of just going back to Paradise. Oh, and if it’s clear, you can stare at Rainier or the Tatoosh all day, obviously. And when there isn’t a pandemic, you can stop at Elbe Bar & Grill and get a Boingo Burger on your way home. Copper creek is also great, but it can be packed. Also, despite Rainier looking grand, this is a great option when it’s socked in by clouds, because it’s less distracting and you can find treed slopes for contrast so you don’t get flat light vertigo.
1.5) Castle/Pinnacle Saddle. This is like Paradise, but closer to the Longmire gate with a more specific objective and feels a bit more alpine. It’s only something like 4 miles round trip, and not that much elevation gain. Also, if you camp up there in shit weather, you can line every aspect of the bowl with your own tracks before anyone else gets there the next day since the gate doesn’t open until 9. BOOM. You’ll feel like a boss until you wipe out hitting a patch of scoured ice skiing down with your overnight pack in front of another party. Not that’s ever happened, to me, at least. A friend. Obviously.
2) Artist Point.Similar to Paradise, usually well maintained road, lots of varied terrain though main skin tracks are quite mellow. Great for snowshoe friends too. In fact, you can just walk some of the trampled trails with no snowshoes, just be ready to posthole and faceplant if you step 12″ too far off track. And you can stare at Baker and Shuksan if you go to the right areas! And you can pay for a lift ticket and ride the chairs if you get lazy, or have a beer at the lodge and just stare at Shuksan. Downsides? It’s far. You’re probably leaving home at 6am. The lot will be packed. You might wait in line for parking. Snowshoers are traffic cones you’ll probably be dodging all day, including your friends, who you’ll wait for because you’re nice. Avy classes everywhere. People doing dope jumps make you feel like a nerdy wuss pretending to know how to ski. Also great for cloudy/socked in days, despite the ridiculous views on clear days.
3) Yodelin. Slightly more adventurous and not great for snowshoers. Not sure about views because I’ve never been there on a nice day. So I choose to believe that this has no views ever, and therefore is perfect for socked in days with flat light (woo, trees!). Usually space for parking, but Stevens Pass can be messy with a train of cars going slowly turning into the ski resort next to assholes still trying to do 60 mph to pass everyone on compact snow and ice with the occasional un-chained prius. You do actually skin to the top of a thing, which is cool. Two things, actually, since there are two minor peaks to check out. You do have to consistently head skiier’s left as opposed to true line of fall (or line of fall and then flat traversing for what feels like forever), though supposedly there’s a more direct line I haven’t found yet. There is also some neat history – this used to be a ski resort (with cabins/lodges/chair lifts) until the cabins were wiped out by a MASSIVE avalanche in 1971, killing four people. Interestingly, Yodelin is now known as a good place to go tour on high-avy-risk days due to its (mostly) mellow slopes and consistent tree coverage. Still looking for a map of where those cabins were, but the old concrete base of one of the cabins is still easy to find. Oh, one more downside: beware of sledding kids on your way out.
4) Kendall Fun Zone – yeah…… uh… fun…. I mean… it… has… skiing? It’s at Snoqualmie. Views are meh. You can listen to the highway the whole time. Park at the first lot on the right at exit 52, walk under the highway carrying your skis, and hop onto the snow just north of the highway. But Snoqualmie is low. It’s often wet. It’s often heavy. It’s often full of the other 500 people who woke up that morning and decided they wanted a short tour, so the bottom is a luge track and the top is already all chewed up by other people’s turns and “damn snowboarders scoured this” but turns out it was just skiiers survival slipping around other parties/trees/ice/backcountry moguls/dogs/children/lost snowshoers/rogue branches. You’ll also have to scout every corner on the way out or you’ll take down an innocent person on their way up while you battle ice. If you just got a dump of fresh powder and get there at 6:30am to beat everyone up? Sure, the trees are great, just knock out a few laps real quick and gtfo before the hoards come. Dru Bru opens at 11 so apres-ski can start early.
5) Hyak – not fun per se, but if you just want to rip some laps and get some vert then I guess this is your solution. Views? Who needs views when you’re pushing for laps. No views unless you like looking at ski resorts or highways. Expect people. This is like the Vantage of skiing, except it’s a $1000 fine or something like that if you’re caught while the lifts are open. But if you do the Hidden Valley area, you can choose between black diamond runs, blue runs, or a green cat track alll the day back to the parking lot, and that’s just the front side! There’s a world of groomed cat tracks on the backside too!. But don’t try to pee in the bushes, you might get rudely called out by ski patrol, including a surprising “I’m so sick of you people.” You people. Backcountry skiers? I assume the contrast between yuppie ski resort patrons and dirtbag backcountry skiers peeing on trees just highlights those of us that don’t like waiting in line with 100 people for an indoor 2 stall bathroom during a pandemic.
Honorable Mention: Skyline Lake: The stuff on the back is fun, and you can get to Tye, but Skyline itself is underwhelming and shorter than Yodelin and highly trafficked (so you’d be lucky to get fresh tracks). Parking is also a nightmare now that everyone and their mom skis/snowshoes/snow camps/sleds/splitboards/swims in snow so let them have their space to learn and try just a liiiiittle harder to find something better for yourself.
Amabilis: I had high expectations for this one and have wanted to do it for a while, but all I’m hearing right now is nightmare parking stories, a very groomed road (sometimes groomed all the way to the top!), and we weird mix of xc skiiers, snowshoers, and the occasional AT skier who decides skinning up a groomed road with 200 of their best friends will be fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll try it someday because anything is better than sitting at home wondering if you should have tried skiing, but I’ll save it for a day with a snowshoer friend or a cross country skiier. I hear rumors of small views along the top ridge but nothing jaw dropping.
Okay, here are some not-full-day-but-more-like-three-quarter-ass trips. And these come with blog posts, because they were great and didn’t all blend together like a sloppy slope of pacific northwest concrete transitioning to mashed potatoes. And you should save them for clear days because VIEWS. Except maybe Jim Hill and Lane. Lane looks at Rainier like the rest of the tatoosh, and you don’t want to sacrifice powder for sun.
6) Rock Mountain.This one was a surprise. Yeah, you’ll be pushing up some steep treed areas to start, but it mellows out above treeline and turns into another planet. Totally worth the steep grade coming right off the highway, and we only ran into one other party. There’s a traverse up here if you want more, but even just Rock Mountain for the was pretty damn good. And on the way home, Mountain View Diner. Food if necessary, but really, you just want the pie. Any of the pies. All of the pies.
7) Jim Hill. Wow. This was another just phenomenal day, and another route that’s mostly skiiers and not snowshoers. I’d recommend the Henry Creek approach over the Lanham Lake approach. Lanham Lake had significantly fewer people, but some very tedious and icy sidehilling and a lot of elevation gain in a short time. We gypped ourselves because we thought it would take longer to get down than it actually took, and the Henry Creek approach was way less annoying (though it did resemble a luge trail). Either way, north facing cold powder when we were there, with minimal effort as far as ski touring goes and surprisingly few crowds (despite being a Saturday morning). It’s amazing we have something like this as a half day tour, and you can knock out several laps of ~500ft of vert pretty quickly once the skin track is in. Also pie.
8) Arrowhead. Okay, I’m taking a unique stance on this one – you basically get the “ski route” experience of Arrowhead on Jim Hill, and both are amazing. But if you follow the snowshoer route up Arrowhead (east slopes through trees, not starting at Henry Creek and traversing), you might find some of the BEST low angle tree skiing in the Stevens Pass area. North facing aspect, stays cold and light, and NO ONE is there because everyone takes the main skin route that traverses from Henry Creek. There’s no luge track! Just the sweet “whshhhhhh” of powder on your skis making fresh tracks because the mobscene is to the west. And the ridge ski is fun too and you have consistent views of the Chiwaukums once you hit the ridge which are just outrageous. And you can take snowshoer friends with you, and you don’t have to worry about etiquette or splitting trails because there’s no one there to bitch about your inter-activity friendship! Just make sure you find the right turn off or you’ll be bushwhacking through dense steep brush and… not skiing. And the aforementioned pie.
9) Table Mountain Circumnav. More than a half day I guess, but less than a full day, and very easy/obvious navigation if it is clear and you have line of sight. Haven’t seen a snowshoer, but I guess it’s possible if you are determined? Pretty good skiing. despite being a circumnavigation, and spectacular views the whole way. Rare to get a high quality traverse in a day, but this sure felt like it, except for the ice couloir I tried to ski down from Herman Saddle.
10) Lane Peak. Also basically like Paradise or Castle/Pinnacle, but with more vert and more technical skiing. Just make sure you don’t need to rope up on the way up. If you do, wait til you’re more comfortable on steep snow. Also, this sucks when it’s icy, or when you break a ski boot at the top of one of the couloirs. But overall, it’s a phenomenal ski, and you can choose between three sweet couloirs. The zipper is the classic, be comfortable with jump turns. The fly is the easiest one, you can pull it off without jump turns and still get in some sweet steep powder (or ice, if another party beat you to it and scoured all the good snow off). And Lover’s Lane exists too, but I don’t know much about how that one compares to the other two. the best part of this is probably how those couloirs look when you’re driving the road to/from Paradise – “Yeah, I skiied that” “NO WAAAAY THAT’S RAD” and secretly it’s far more mellow than it looks from the road. Also, see #1 re: boingo burger.
Another honorable mention: Union & Jovepeaks (easy duo) or McCausland, also at Stevens Pass. Yes, you’ll skin up a road. Yeah, it’s probably chewed up and icy. But it’s worth it, especially if you hit the right conditions and know how to ski (I did not). If you’re ambitious you could probably combine all three of these, maybe even add Lichtenberg. But that wouldn’t be a half day, or a half ass.
So there you have it. Want to sleep in? Lacking motivation? Dog/child/SO/your feelings can only handle a few hours of ski touring? I got a go to list you can knock out so you don’t feel like you’ve totally lost all sense of adventure/fitness/ski capabilities. And really, only some are like that. The three-quarter days are actually pretty dope, and you’ll have actually earned food afterwards, unlike kendall trees and hyak where you pretend like you had fun and then cancel everything you just did out with beer.
Yeah yeah no one reads blogs on Sundays… but I’m excited about this one and it’s been a while so let’s go for it. Oakes is a relatively short peak in the North Cascades that has been gaining popularity over the past few years, presumably due to its amazing views and the crazy increase in people getting outdoors recently. There is no trail, but a fairly obvious route given the terrain. It has been on my list for a few years, but finding sunshine in winter, people who are willing to forego a ski day or larger objectives, and the motivation for >5000ft of bushwhacking is a difficult task. Surprising? No. Well, finally the planets aligned, and after a weekend of trying to ski ice we resigned ourselves to booting up stuff. We made a great attempt on Baring last weekend (maybe a post for another time) but had to bail before the summit, and that bluebird day of booting gave me the hunger for a winter summit. We knew most snow would be shit for skiing since there wasn’t any precip during the week, so we figured we’d pick another “cardio peak” to try and get in some elevation and views. Oakes was a perfect choice.
Distance: 7.5mi round trip
Elevation gain: 5000ft (5600ft highest point)
Weather: 20’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 2:30
Did I Trip: No faceplants thanks to a trusty walking stick. Many postholes.
We left Seattle Friday evening so we could trailhead camp given the good weather. Fell asleep by 11, my bag was so perfectly cozy, woke up to a dozen alarms we snoozed from 5:11am (i don’t… know why my alarm was set for 5:11 exactly) until about 7am since we decided bushwhacking in the dark sounded shitty and we were confident we’d be able to finish within the 9hrs of daylight that Washington has right now. The muscle memory of my legs with regards to hiking/mountaineering seems stronger than the actual muscles of my legs, so I figured worst case scenario I’d be able to hobble down feeling fine and cry about it the next two days when I couldn’t go from standing to sitting without falling part of the way.
We hopped out of the truck around 7am. “Shit, are my trekking poles in the cab? Or did I forget them?” Robert opened the door to peek. “No dork poles in here.” Crap. I love those on bushwhacks and steep shit. They save my knees, they let me whack plants, they make sidehilling marginally more tolerable, I can lean on them and try to crack my back which has felt like it’s 65 years old lately, probably because 85% of my life now consists of staring at a computer screen and occasionally migrating from my basement desk to my breakfast nook desk to my countertop desk which are all within ~20ft of each other as I work from my (beloved, adorable, best ever) tiny house. But they were sitting in my trunk 100 miles away, so there I was, newly in the market for a walking stick. We crossed Oakes Creek running over the road (and creating some seriously slick frozen spots) and started looking for a good way to enter the forest.
We went into the woods maybe 100ft left of the river (looking upstream). It was schwacky, but not bad. There was ankle-to-waist-high vine maple for the first couple hundred feet (I learned I need to strengthen my soccer-ball-kicking muscles aka the ones that kick through vines) but the forest soon opened up to a moss carpet and eventually a tiny icy layer of very annoying snow. We found a bootpath along a mini-ridge in the forest which was beautiful and cruiser for a half hour or so before it disappeared again. Robert found a “sword” (a triangular piece of cedar good for whacking/chopping other vegetation) as well as a walking stick for me. Two sticks actually, one was light and the other was heavy but more durable. I chose light and fast, plus it had the perfect little nub for my fingers to rest on like a trekking pole. I dubbed it Pope John Pole II (Donald Stump felt like a cop-out, plus I’d rather be accompanied by a Pope than Trump on a climb I guess). Robert deemed his Stick Cheney, and it turned from a source of amusement fighting trees to a hiking and mountaineering tool. Thanks to my trusty stick, I was saved from multiple face plants, and the first 2000ft of gain actually went by pretty quickly in my head (2hrs in real life haaa) and soon enough we were at the first road crossing.
Despite the bushwhack/off trail nature of this peak, there is a web of roads that switchback up it from the south. You can snowshoe those, but it’s something gross like 18 miles of road walk. I have no idea what the status of those roads is for driving/snowmobiling/biking, even in summer. I assume they’re blocked, otherwise I think this peak would get a lot more summer traffic knowing you could drive to 1,000ft below the summit.
The bushwhacking between road crossings was more mellow, and we were finally starting to get glimpses of the views to come. Snow started almost perfect at the first road, but it was good snow for booting (besides the occasional tree well/posthole). We are some hi-chews, chugged some water, and kept moving. I felt good, but slow. Like 2018 or 2019 Eve would have cruised up this in a few hours, 2020 eve isn’t sure she existed, and 2021 eve is clawing her way back into existence after a sloooow year of climbing. But I figure 5k in a day off trail would be a good start.
Past the last road crossing, the route finally steepens. Nothing comparable to Baring the prior weekend (which was funny, Baring made Oakes seem moderate) but definitely a lot of sustained steep snow. I can see why people used to use those big ol ice axes on top of huge wizard-staff style alpenstocks, the walking stick cut nicely into snow. Better than a trekking pole for sure. We had ice axes, but never felt compelled to get them out. There were several icy stretches that were fine going up but would suck to come down without crampons, so I committed to donning crampons at the summit even though I knew I wouldn’t want to. (spoiler: it was a good call) The snow alternated between that frozen crap and bucket steps (aka really good booting conditions), and while trailbreaking wasn’t easy, Robert insisted on doing all of it. To build fitness, or character, or something. I offered to give it a go but I mean… I’m not going to complain if you want to break the entire trail and I just have to climb stairs behind you. In fact that sounds lovely. Except that I get complacent, and then I posthole purely because I stop paying attention to walking. So you can’t win em all.
Okay here’s the one downer about Oakes: Views don’t really happen until like the last 100 vertical feet, if that. That’s why you should just look at it as a cardio trip. But when you get to the top. Ohhhh my god. Everything due north of Oakes is a surprise as you crest the summit. You can see Bacon and Baker and the very tip of Shuksan, and Blum looks enormous, and the entire Mystery traverse is laid out in front of you. And Despair, Triumph, and Thornton peak look staggeringly massive and truly alpine with jagged, icy, rocky spines. The topographical relief of the North Cascades is absurd. At some point I said to Robert “How is it that we’re on a peak that isn’t even 6,000ft tall and I feel like we’re on top of the world in the middle of nowhere?” “…Because it’s the North Cascades.” And he’s right. They’re the best.
We only spent ~30 min at the summit. I could have spent hours. The views were so awesome and I so desperately wanted to see sunset. It hurt to even think about it. But it was almost 1pm, and we wanted to be back at the car within daylight, so we started back down. We figured we could get down faster than we got up, especially given how much we were dragging the last 1,000ft.
We ran into a group of four about 2000ft below the summit. Right after Robert said “so at this point think it’s safe to say there’s no one else up here? By this time of day they’d all have turned around if they weren’t within 1,000ft unless they want to come down in the dark…” It took us probably 90min, maybe longer to top out from where they were, but they’d have the benefit of a solid bootpack and no navigation required which would have saved us a lot of time. But it was still almost 2pm, and I wondered if they’d summit or bail because the lower part of the descent would be miserable in the dark. Or maybe they were aiming for sunset views, in which case I hope they see this and share pics.
We literally cut our time in half on the way down, and that includes an unfortunate 30min terrible sidehilling-through-vine-maple-slide-alder detour because we dropped too low without contouring west. We had found a bootpath, and when it ended, I didn’t realize how firmly skiier’s right our track turned. We kept following the line of fall, and so when we started a downward traverse to the right to meet the route, we ended up just paralleling the route through 40 degree slopes on the side of a huge drainage until we finally rounded back onto the mellow slope the route follows. It probably would have been easier to just climb up the drainage back to the “face” that the route follows. The route basically threads the needle between 30-50 degree forest and snow. If you stick to it you’ll be fine, if you get dragged down into the drainage because you weren’t paying attention/thought it didn’t matter then you’re going to have a bad time sidehilling with walking sticks slipping on slide alder grasping at plants like Peter clinging to the cliff in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Always the optimist I laughed an commented at least slide alder makes great veggie belays. But it doesn’t count, because we wouldn’t need veggie belays if there were no slide alder. You don’t get credit for solving the issue you constantly cause. Stupid alder.
I was starting to feel my dehydration, and my face was burning and stinging from sweat (thank you, dry skin). On the bright side, the normal route suddenly seemed basically flat after the shit we had just been through. It still required several re-calibrations of expectations (we’re less than 1000 vertical feet away now right? Uhhh more like 1700 feet away.. now we’re like 500ft away right? uhh more like 750… okay now we’re definitely within 100ft uh sorry more like 300… god dammit). But we found intermittent bootpaths again (where were you on the way up!?) and even some blazes, and suddenly we saw cars! The forest road! Water! Sneakers! Dry socks! Ahhhh! Changing footwear felt so good. We drove to the first gas station to stock up on drinks and snacks because we were both starving and had barely drank/snacked on the hike.
This hike FAR surpassed my expectations. The views were better than I thought, it wasn’t nearly as steep/miserable as I expected (though it does gain 5k ft in 3.5 miles), and we had perfect conditions for it. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a winter workout with some of the most stellar views you can get in a day trip, with that sense of adventure that comes from being entirely off trail on a peak that not many have climbed before. At least, if you’re willing to sacrifice a ski day. Or want to carrys kis 5k ft for max 1000ft of skiing and that’s being generous, because 200 will be open and the other 800 will be trees with varying snow conditions. Enjoy!
This was a freaking amazing weekend. Buckskin Ridge is a decent hike by itself, and it was anticlimactic compared to the other three days of this loop. We had been planning it basically since our larch trip last year, and it was finally time. Four days was not enough, there is so much to explore back there. That said… I have some regrets about this trip. Remember when I started this blog? You probably don’t, it’s been a while, it’s okay I barely remember either. Six years, in fact, since I was unemployed and pasting photos into word docs until my roommate told me I was being stupid and should start a blog. Six years since I said no, that’s dumb, I’m not a blogger, bloggers are stupid and besides, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Well. In those six years, I have learned… apparently nothing about the mountains, and WordPress just changed their layout so also nothing about blogging.
Anyway, on to my mistakes:
Food: It’s training weight, right? Backpacking is easier than climbing (uhh..). 1lb cheddar cheese. 1lb summer sausage. 12oz M&Ms. 12oz crackers. 10oz cashews. 3 dehydrated meals. 8oz chocolate covered espresso beans. 8oz cashews. 10oz sour patch. And more. But I forgot mio, so that saved some weight. Shoes: Oh shit, all my shoes are ripped. Better use these old ones! What size are they? Oh they’re from 2015 and were never labeled and you got them for free and never wore them? Yeah those will do. Clothing: It’s definitely going to be cold. Better pack expedition weight long underwear, two hats, down mittens, and a big summit puffy. Camping: Sweet, got my a 0 degree bag, a wool bag liner, and oh yeah bring the 4lb mountaineering tent. Cameras: 3, because I didn’t think I’d be good with the new one, so I also brought my trusty point n shoot. Oh and an extra heavy sock to use as a camera bag, because I didn’t have a camera bag.
Spoilers: No, I can’t eat 10,000 calories a day, yes, I absolutely destroyed my feet within 5 miles, no, it wasn’t cold, it was like 70 and sunny the whole time, yes, I should have committed to one camera, and yes, I did immediately lose a camera lens.
Speaking of the weather, some trip stats for your pleasure:
Elevation: 18k gain
Weather: 70 and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 4.5hrs
Did I Trip: Shockingly only once
We made it to the trailhead and got started around 10am. It was either cloudy or smoky or both. It felt like cheating because we were already at larches. We started to drop into the valley while I groaned that we weren’t “earning our larches” because we started so high. Oh, honey. If only I had realized my map was in 50m increments and gaining 5 contour lines meant 250m, not 50ft. “We can bag like, 5 peaks just between today and tomorrow!” Brad laughed. “I think you’re… underestimating the vastness of the Pasayten.”
And regardless of the vastness, we had another problem immediately. I’m sure the valley was lovely but I don’t remember most of it. I had hotspots in my shoes within 3 miles. The trail was mostly a mild downhill, and the valley was far more humid and green than I expected for the east side, especially this time of year. Two miles later, I decided to suck it up and check out my feet and change socks. I avoid my problems because obviously if you don’t see the blisters then they aren’t really there, but with four days of this… I knew I was being irresponsible. So we took a quick break.
Too late, dummy. Already had four, mostly on the bottoms of toes (the second worst location). I switched toes, re-laced shoes, and we kept moving. My pack. Was. So. Heavy. Who wants cheese? Does anyone want cheese? I have two blocks of cheddar cheese if anyone wants some. What about some delicious summer sausage? No? Well fine, then you can just starve. Can you rezip my pack? I saw the look on Surafel’s face. The zipper had broken. Well, I have side straps, just wrap everything in the tent and someone walk behind me in case I start spilling all my pack contents. Good start. Maybe something heavy and unnecessary will fall out, like half of my food.
The 1200ft gain to Fred’s Lake felt like forever. The smoke (clouds?) were getting thicker, and we were still in the trees. I was so busy looking at my feet that I missed the first larch. But finally we reached the lake, and damn had we re-earned the larches! We snapped some pics and climbed above the lake up to the pass, which was spectacularly beautiful. We debated dropping packs and scrambling Rolo, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was feeling putting shredded feet in a cold lake and watching Surafel fish. Luckily, the lake is only ~15 min past the pass, and soon enough we were standing next to a perfectly circular lake surrounded by larches.
We pitched camp, had some snacks, and Brad proposed the idea of Rolo again. It’s been a while, but I think he said something along the lines of “well, I’m going to do Rolo” and my brain/heart/spirit looked in the mirror and said fuck you, you’re not sitting here while Brad does Rolo, so I found myself on my feet once again with a lighter pack getting ready to leave camp while Surafel trotted towards the lake with his fishing pole singing “here, fishy fishy!!”
We made it back to the pass and headed off towards Rolo. It was only a mile and like 1500ft of gain, so not bad. The first part was a sidehill traverse, which brad hated, and I hated, but I hated it less than going up-and-over because it was the downhills that were brutalizing my already clobbered feet, whereas “flat” i could hobble nicely enough. And talus was the BEST, because it’s like steps if you step right. There is this SUPER cool “lake” at the base of Rolo, completely dried up but the lakebed is still there and it is surreal standing at the base of it. I imagine it’s still full early season, but dries up by the end of the summer, because I didn’t see any obvious groundwater source. We started walking up talus on the other side of the lakebed, and soon enough came to some third class scrambling.
You know what’s great for tender feet? Using hands instead of feet. I have never enjoyed scrambling so much in my life. And despite what we had heard, it was actually pretty solid, enjoyable scrambling. I’d say there was a single fourth class move the entire time, and it was juggy, so not a big deal. There are two cool catwalks where you walk across a huge (slightly tilted) slab with a HUGE drop on one side (>1000ft) and moderate on the other side, and views of some super cool geology, which is nice because the smoke was too thick to see any ridges or peaks around us. It got better as we got higher, but it didn’t get…. good.
We signed the register, Brad took a leak to mark the summit as his and no one else’s, and we headed down. Sunset was spectacular, lighitng up this one patch of clouds bright pink, but I didn’t manage to catch it. We joked that maybe Surafel would have a fire and some fish ready for us back at camp. Long story short, after more tedious sidehilling we arrived back in camp minutes before we’d need headlamps, Brad checked the news at the pass and somehow kept secret the WHOLE TRIP that Trump had covid, and Surafel indeed had freshly cooked fish and a crackling fire ready for us. I did some blister surgery on my feet and went to sleep quite happy.
In the morning, we had a repeat of Rolo, except with Osceola. Brad has me figured out. “Well… I’m going to go do Osceola” and he starts packing his things. My brain: like HELL YOU ARE ok no wait wait for me let me pack my bag I’m coming braaad noooo waaait. Again, it was only like a mile with 1500ft of gain, maybe not even. I knew I’d regret sitting in camp. And before I knew it, I was hobbling up a second peak. This one was almost entirely a talus walk, with sweet camping spots along the ridge. The smoke was slightly better than the day before, but it still felt like I had exercise induced adult onset asthma. Brad made a comment saying something similar so I know it wasn’t just me. The smoke settles in your Iungs and they get all tight, and even a little burney at the bottoms if it’s really bad. think I left Brad at the top because I knew going downhill would be a painful affair and wanted the head start. He’d catch up. This becomes a theme for the weekend.
I think we got back to camp around 11 and left for Dot Lakes around noon. This seemed reasonable enough, we had another ~5 miles on trail to Shellrock Pass and another 2-3 miles cross country to Dot Lakes and no one needs 8 hours for 7 miles, that would be absurd. The first traverse to Shellrock Pass was underwhelming. Frustrating, even, because we were dropping elevation, getting glimpses through trees of how not close we were to the pass, and still losing elevation. At the valley bottom, the trail got a little squirrely. We found a mylar balloon. Should we carry this back? It is trash….. nah, too heavy. We left it where it lay. Did I mention I hadn’t taken a single pic with my fancy new camera yet?
The base of Shellrock Pass is a place of spectacular beauty in itself. Flat open meadows, peppered with larches and a beautiful shallow flat stream and views of Bulgers all around. It’s worth a night of camping, and I’d love to camp there if I go back for Carru and Lago. We lost the trail a few times until it started switchbacking up to the pass, and we started to marvel at Monument and Blackcap peaks. There’s so much to do in the Pasayten, and the approach to all of them is so long and tedious, it makes sense that everyone knocks these out all at once. I need some time to forget the trails to Shellrock. But it had finally gotten beautiful again, so we plodded along, up the yellow larch needle carpet trail with definitely more switchbacks than the map claimed until we were at the pass. I was toast. Emotionally, physically, mentally toast. But I knew we still had hours ahead of us. You know those situations where your body is only moving because you know you still have so much left? And if camp was only a half mile away, you’d be a whiny mess of a human being? That was me. The only thing holding me together was pride and knowing that I had a solid 4-5 more hours on my feet.
We dropped down from the pass, traversing more talus and re-entering a a world of larches. Rejuvenation. Like quenching thirst again. And suddenly Surafel is running. And then Brad’s whooping. And I look up from my feet and realize we’re on a red carpet, surrounded by larches, with a freaking surprise lake right there!! “You can get a starburst shot!” Surafel shouted, and I fumbled around with my new camera for the first time before he came and solved my problem in about 30 seconds. That’s all it took to get a starburst shot! My first starburst!!! Pure. Joy. I’ve dreamed of this for years. No it’s not perfect but I’ll get better. After a frenzy of photos we remembered it was like 5pm, and we were still so far away from camp, and most of what we had ahead of us was cross country. Well, grab some blueberries for a snack and rally, time to get moving.
Beyond the surprise lake, we entered one of the most unique parts of the trip. A recent burn zone, so recent that there were still layers of ash on the ground, almost like walking through light mud. More elk (or deer?) prints than I’ve ever seen before. It was eerie, but also cool seeing tiny plants budding and traces of wildlife everywhere. We did lose the trail multiple times here (it wasn’t on a map either) but eventually found our way up to the ridge, where we dropped officially off trail (truly) to traverse to Dot Lakes.
The first part of the traverse was tough, we were first traversing through some nasty bushwhacking on steep slopes with fire damage and blowdowns and blah so we decided to lose elevation to where it was more flat. That was slightly better in that it was flat, but the brush was even more dense than it had been up high. We popped out onto a talus traverse (woo!) to the base of a gully (boooooo). Looking at this ridge from the first one we had just surmounted, I thought there was no way we’d get up it. It was astounding thinking there was an “easy” route to Dot Lakes, because it looked like a sheer cliff from where we were. But as we got closer, the weaknesses became more apparent, the gully appeared, and it looked like it would go. I think my brain has blocked most of this from my memory, but the gully was loose, and definitely felt harder than “second class.” It took an eternity to get up it. I assume I bitched profusely. We topped out just as it was time for headlamps, to a nice haiku:
eat a dick gully if downhill were a person i’d punch his dumb face
From here, it was a pitch black traverse to Dot Lakes. I popped some chocolate covered espresso beans that I had brought for use in times of desperation. They’re the final medicine before the hail mary emergency gu, which has like 140mg caffeine and I wasn’t willing to go that far. Good news: beans kicked in, barely any elevation gain, nice flat mostly open slopes, slabby rock for once was nice. Bad news: it’s dark, and it’s dusty, and I’m tired, and you can’t see larches in the dark unless they’re slapping your face. Brad led the way, and the route just kept going and going .We never had to divert around obstacles, it was amazing. We camped at the first flat area we found next to Lower Dot Lake, and it was all business. I prioritized boiling water and then setting up my tent and complaining that we were not, in fact, surrounded by larches. Surafel did tent first then water. Brad decided to start his campsite off with sneaky vomiting hopefully directed at the non-larches, which we didn’t know about until the next morning. I think he only told us because he was finally feeling better, and we were wondering why he had chili mac (or whatever questionable mountain house food) left over from the night before. Mmm, chili mac. I’m hungry.
In the morning, we got to enjoy some of the views, if you ignore the anxiety about having to go 16 miles through who-knows-what sort of terrain. Dot Lakes were AMAZING and I wish we had more time there! There was no one else there, and the lakes have some of the densest larches I’ve seen. We climbed to upper Dot Lake and then followed a talus gully up to the ridge above Dot Lake, bagged Dot Peak (talus walk) and then Ptarmigan Peak (also a talus walk, but a very long talus walk). The views were incredible, and made us realize what we had been missing the first two days. Ptarmigan has a super sheer face on one side, and we traversed to Tatoosh Buttes keeping that cliff on our right. We dropped a little too low and ended up sidehilling around to Tatoosh Buttes while going up and over the rolling hills coming down from Ptarmigan would have been much, much better. For the others, at least. For once I was okay with sidehilling.
Tatoosh Buttes were also gorgeous, and would have warranted a campsite of their own if there had been any water source nearby. More rolling meadows, thick clusters of larches, perfectly blue sky. I kept getting head starts after breaks, knowing they’d both catch up to me momentarily. We traversed over to where the trail was, and even found a social trail to help us out. There was a lot of pack animal traffic, at least going off the tracks that we saw. I was stoked because Tatoosh Buttes meant we were almost halfway to our campsite. It was another 4 miles down from the buttes, 1 mile along the valley floor, and 2 miles to Buckskin Lake.
Yeah.. that was physically. Mentally and emotionally, this was the longest stretch of the trip. The trail down Tatoosh Buttes doesn’t match the map anymore, and it just kept going, and going, and going. “4 more miles.” “Still 4 more miles.” 30min later: “..still 4 more miles? HOW?!” Endless dry burn zone switchbacks, sun (blessing and a curse), dusty, downhill forever, my achilles(es? plural?) were bruised, my toes were bruised, my blisters had their own blisters, and I was still carrying all that god damn cheese and summer sausage. I thought I was going to cry for at least a mile. Brad took a long break. Yes, head start!!! Go go go until he catches up! The valley floor looked so close yet never got closer. The trail didn’t match the map and went in the opposite direction of what I had hoped for (don’t worry, it switched back later). Brad caught up. I took a break on a log. “It’s only a quarter mile to the stream!” “Well, brb dying I’m breaking here.” Brad and Surafel kept going and I realized actually, it’s like… 100ft to the stream, if you trust the map. I caught up and flopped on the gravel bar in the middle of the river. I resisted putting my body in the water because I knew if I did I’d never start moving again. My feet only knew torture, if they learned anything else, they’d rebel.
Across the river, we found signs saying the trail and river crossing we wanted was impassable. Or at least impassable for stock, dangerous for hikers. Well, shit. Didn’t think to research if or how the wildfires had changed the trails. We decided to give it a shot before trying the alternative, and I’m glad we did, because the crossing was a total nonissue. And I have no idea where else you cross that river, because it was like a chasm on either side of where we crossed, and the bridge had been washed out. But this is great. Valley floor, THREE MILES TO CAMP.
The valley floor was also cool, more burn zone with pencil sticks and regrowing underbrush. This was okay. I could handle this. We took a 5 minute break at the turnoff for Buckskin Ridge, and rallied. 2 MORE MILES. Breaks every hour or longer if you could stand it. I’d set a break time and then see how far past it I could get, unless either Surafel or Brad protested. I was fueled by summer sausage and pride and stubbornness and cheese and a desire to be lying on the ground and maybe a side of rage. And even better, the Buckskin Ridge trail was rated for livestock!! 7% grade, here we come!
We maintained a 2mph pace to Buckskin Lake. I’m not sure how, because in my head we were going like 4 mph, and in reality I figured we were going like 1mph. It was a surprisingly catwalky trail, and we had great views of how far we had come over the past two days. Upon arriving at the lake (in the dark, again), every campsite was taken, except for a site like 50ft above the lake. Aka we’d have to walk downhill to get water any time we needed water. God. Dammit. Well, I just had to go 10mi the next day, so this would be fine. Everything’s fine. Also there were no larches. Is that fine? That doesn’t seem fine. I didn’t come all the way here for green trees. Stupid trees. I didn’t really sleep that night, my feet hurt too badly so I just grumbled and midnight-snacked and overanalyzed whether i was slowly sliding downhill while I stared at the stupid green trees that weren’t larches.
In the morning, we got moving after the rest of the campers. Buckskin Ridge honestly was an anticlimactic end to the trip. Not many larches, though Buckskin Pass did have some. From there, it was meh. And a stupidly constructed trail. Flat, flat, flat traversing, traversing, sidehilling, traversing, lose 800ft of elevation in 1/4 a mile while hobbling and cursing the bastards who constructed this. Traverse valley bottom, climb up to another pass. Why. Couldn’t. We. Just. Traverse. All the way to the pass! AHH!! Trail for livestock, my ass. Stupid Pasayten, being all vast and beautiful and wild. But there were some surprisingly beautiful patches of red and yellow fall foliage, especially winding through the forest (Buckskin “Ridge”), and a beautiful side trip to a lake that was just off the main trail! We wouldn’t have gone, except we ran into another group, and one member of that group had apparently been talking about the lake for the past 48hrs, so… we had to go. And I have to admit, the trail system back here (besides the aforementioned extra stupid 1/4 mile) is incredibly well constructed.
We were back at the car by 3pm. The final traverse went forever. I ended up jogging some parts because it would get me to the car faster, and weirdly gave my feet a break from the blisters/bruises they had developed walking. Desperation delirium had set in. No breaks no food no shenanigans only completion. Brad laid in a river before the final 150ft gain to the car, I had my eyes on the prize and was fantasizing about laying on the road with my feet up on the rocks in flip flops and never touching these boots ever again. My brain decided I couldn’t have both, so I continued on to that last uphill and did exactly what I had been dreaming about for hours.
No new boots on overnight trips. Except easy ones.
Pasayten is not easy. In fact, it’s quite vast. And rocky.
I know you like cheese a lot, but do you really like it THAT much? actually yes, but I can sacrifice the sausage
Yes, you need band aids and moleskin and advil, always.
The road isn’t that bad, unless you’re on the side of the car with the steep drop. Put your buff over your eyes.
Don’t bring a filter because you’ll be too lazy/impatient to use it anyway
Get a camera bag for your camera, a sock is not an acceptable replacement.
Holy crap, what a trip. Dot lakes and the peaks above were some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve seen, and the larches were astounding. The wildfire last year seemed to stop JUST short of Dot Lakes, and I’m so glad it did. I wonder what that traverse looks like in the light. The Pasayten have SO much to offer, and I will absolutely go back there someday. I always thought to save it for larch season, but I think it would justify some earlier trips, too. Maybe via plane, so I can be dropped off with a surplus of various boots.
Three things are certain: death, taxes, and larch marches the first weekend of October.
Brad and Surafel through meadows with the Monte Cristos and Sloan in the back
This trip went from like 5/10 to -2/10 to 3/10 to 10/10 all in one day. From mild apathy to frustration to resignation to rallying to defeat and then to sheer bliss. Seriously if I could make this post with entirely Brad and Surafel’s photos maybe I’d get some of the beauty across. The wildflowers are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The ridge is one of the dumbest I’ve ever seen. The lake is one of the bluest I have ever seen. What am I talking about? The Pilot Ridge/White Pass Loop. Yes, in that order. Because who needs beta.
Trail up to Pilot Ridge
It started with somewhat apathetic feelings towards our original trip choice, which was in North Cascades National Park. I was unaware of the permitting difficulties, and naively/obliviously/stupidly decided we could get to the Marblemount ranger station at 8am, which I thought was when they opened. There was one highlight, which was stopping at the pilot gas station off exit 208, which has a cinnabon. I swear, you can eat the air. I got the “conservative” option of four mini buns… don’t do it. Just go all in and get the real whole bun. I had so many regrets. Four mini buns isn’t enough and the centers aren’t enough and the frosting isn’t enough and you’ll be left wanting. Like I was. While I waited for NCNP permits. Like a sheep.
The ridge… going up
So, 8am is not when the ranger station opened. They opened at 7. And the entire world beat us. And they were only on group #47 or something and we were group #100 (B00, technically, as in BOO HOO you fucking slackers should have camped here). And it was 8:15. And a lone ranger was working his way slowly through the line with the work ethic and stoic determination of a clydesdale. And I didn’t have enough cinnamon buns. We walked around the parking lot. We explored the helo landing. We found a greenhouse and some plants and some tarps. We found a cool sign with shapes and types of clouds and how they affect wildfires. We read it. We bitched. We moaned. We deliberated. We commiserated. And finally, we bailed. It had been over an hour and they were on…. wait for it…. #72!
Things more organized than the NCNP permitting system:
Charles de Gaulle Airport
The toilet paper supply chain in march
Five kittens in an 800sqft house
Me at Home Depot’s “can you save this plant” “YOU BET YOUR ASS I’M GONNA TRY” sale
FINALLY something is HAPPENING
We got in the car. No cell service, okay, brainstorm trips we vaguely know enough about to pull off regardless. Or areas that might already be loaded on our offline maps. Pasayten? Too far, too late. Robinson? Too far, too late. Lake Byrne? Ehhh I have the peakbagging hunger. Lime Ridge? Needs more beta (sorry, sometimes you want some). White Pass/Pilot Ridge? Oooh, well that has nice wildflowers, and it is that time of year… but fuck those switchbacks up to white pass. Only if we go in the opposite direction so we descend those instead. Also, have I ever really backpacked before? Let’s do it.
And so we found ourselves parking a quarter mile from the north fork sauk trail, because everyone and their mom had beaten us to that too. It was like 11am at this point and I was out of fucks to give and my personal space bubble is like 2 meters wide now and I hate people and there were SO. MANY. CARS. Okay, beta break:
Distance: 29mi (32 incl Johnson & Kodak)
Elevation gain: 9000ft net or something
Weather: 80’s and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 2:30 without traffic, 5 if you stop at the ranger station like dopes
Did I Trip: I stubbed my toes twice?
Sloan & meadows
We started up the trail. My stomach rebelled immediately and I destroyed a half pound of ham and 3oz of cheese within the first mile with bugs swarming around my face because priorities. Luckily this time we had bug spray that wasn’t lemon eucalyptus and actually seemed to keep some bugs away. The log crossing was mildly concerning with my low blood sugar shakey legs but that was pathetically hilarious. And then we started endless uphill through the forest.
Fast forward to the stream below the top of the ridge. Everyone warned us to top off because there was no water for the next 4 miles. So we did, to be safe. While being inundated with barrages of mosquitoes. And we didn’t really run into water again until Blue Lake itself, besides a questionable tarn a half mile before the lake. This is also where we started to get suspicious that maybe we chose the wrong direction, because everyone else was coming down from the ridge, not going up towards it. Hmmm.
Adorable little asters
And then we got to the ridge. Which was still in the trees. And was still gaining elevation??? What kind of a ridge is this?! Up and down and up and down and TREES EVERYWHERE but don’t stop because the bugs will get you! We got peeks of Sloan and the Monte Cristos, and I defied the bugs to snap a photo worried I’d never see the peaks again. What if this whole stupid ridge is treed until white pass and I was wasting like 18 miles of my life and a pint of blood? I wrote a haiku. I don’t remember it, because Brad immediately one-upped it with a superior haiku.
Permitting’s a bitch
Who needs permits anyway
It is very hot
And I worked on a limerick:
We all know bad things come in threes
Like the route being covered with trees
No glaciers in sight
The heat has such might
Can I borrow your bug spray, oh please?
Maybe the most aster I have ever seen
We slogged for another hour or so, and finally… FINALLY…. we stumbled into some of the best wildflower meadows I had seen. Many flowers were past their prime, but the grasses and the hints of color and the Monte Cristos and Sloan behind were finally in full view and it was hilarious I was ever worried I wouldn’t see them again. Finally the trail was traversing, we were taking photos, we found blueberries!! Ripe blueberries! “BLOOBS!” we started shouting. “BLOOBIES!” We were stuffing our faces, which in reality means we are like 4 berries because they are wildly inconvenient to pick. “Where are they” Surafel asked and we said “To your left!” He took one look at the berries by his ankles and said “too low.” And kept walking.
More beautiful meadows on the way up Johnson
Blue Lake. I mean, it really is quite blue
Eventually we came to the intersection of the Pilot Ridge/Blue Lake trail and the Johnson Mountain trail. Brad and I took the offshoot for Johnson Mountain, because… I brought a bag, for my peaks, my peakbag for peakbagging, and I needed to put a peak in my peakbag. Also, the wildflowers were getting better and better as elevation increased (higher elevation flowers bloom later). Okay, now THESE were the best meadows I had seen. Purple aster everywhere!! I used to think purple aster were dumb and basic because they’re like mini daisies but they’re actually my favorite flower now, so past Eve needs to get over herself. She had no taste.
The trail up Johnson was a cool, almost catwalk like trail in places, with amazing views of Blue Lake (not to be confused with the dozen other Blue Lakes in Washington), and topped out at an old lookout site! We had no idea! The site was at the end of a ridge pointing STRAIGHT at the Monte Cristo range. It was absurd. It is such a bummer the lookout is gone because that would have been a VERY cool place to stay. There’s almost no history about the lookout, just a description of what style it was and what years it was there (30’s-50’s, basically). It was an L-4 style, which is a 3 story staircase and then the lookout on the fourth story. So you would think that L-5 would be one story higher, and L-6 would be another story higher than L-5, but that’s not how it works. L-5 is two stories, because obviously that naming system makes sense.
Old lookout site on Johnson
Brad on the way down
We cruised down (did we? I stopped to take pics and stuff snow in my water bottles and take more pics and pee on a bees nest and wait just a few more pics) to Blue Lake to meet Surafel. It wasn’t really down, it was down and then a soul crushing 50ft of elevation gain to get to the lake. For the record, the PCT-roundabout adds 4 miles of travel compared to the Blue Lake “high route” that we took. Brad jumped in the water, I put my heat-rashy legs in, we rehydrated and looked for fish and admired the views. It’s a beautiful area. But unfortunately, we had to drag ourselves away. We wanted to cover a little more ground Saturday so we wouldn’t die literally or figuratively in Sunday’s 90 degree heat. Surafel took off while Brad and I finished up water and left us with a radio so we could communicate despite being separate. “Bobcat, come in bobcat, testing radio 123.” “Yes Hello Kitty we hear you loud and clear, over.” I could hear Surafel laughing. “Hello Kitty?? Seriously?” “Uhh.. we’ll work on it.”
Leaving the lake
“Aaron Carter? Come in Aaron Carter this is Jonas Brothers we are on the move!” We slogged up the high route from the lake and met Surafel in the shade at the pass (no water). “Boxers, this is Briefs, we are almost at the pass.” “Bobcat, it is pretty nice up here…” “Is there a breeze!?” “Well, not THAT nice” we were ROASTING. Then we dropped down some loose crappy scree and finally started the traverse to Dishpan Gap (no water). Dishpan was an underwhelming peak with like 207′ of prominence so we passed and started looking for campsites. Criteria: A view. Preferably South. We had enough water still from Blue Lake that we prioritized views over running water.
We were like goldilocks. Yeah the ground is nice, buuuut… those trees mean no stars. Yeahhhh that one looks north but… the milky way is gonna be south. Yeah that has a trickle of muddy water sorta buuut… views? Yeah, that’s large but…. there’s probably a better one further along. Oh this one’s perfect!! “These are occupied.” Well shit. Onward!
Looking out over Meander Meadows
We finally found a great site on the shoulder of Kodak (no water). “Looks like some kind of…. ridge… trail” Brad said, like Craig Robinson realizing they were in some kind of…. Hot Tub Time Machine [intent stare]. We dropped packs and I started up the ridge to make sure there wasn’t a better campsite like 15ft away. I took the radio. “Bobcat, Brad just grabbed his camera and is running after you. Literally. Literally running.” I laughed. Brad wasn’t gonna miss out on sunset ridge shots.
Last light on Saul, David, and Jonathon
And that kind of ridge trail took us to the top of Kodak Peak, where two other hikers were enjoying dinner with the company of mosquitoes, flies, and now my sweaty self and Brad. They were pleasant company though, and Brad and I snapped a few frantic pics while pointing out every peak on the horizon. Sunset lit up the paintbrush like CRAZY. And we made it back to camp just before headlamps were necessary. Surafel broke out some cookies, claiming he had “half a ziploc” which I assumed meant “4 +/- 2 cookies” but it meant “2 dozen cookies.” Thank you, cookie monster. It almost made up for my cinnabon letdown.
Looking south towards Rainier
After dinner, I started to doze off. Shortly after, Brad and Surafel woke up for astrophotography, and I reluctantly turned on my headlamp only to discover two massive spiders on my sleeping bag. I hate. The woods. I had a hard time sleeping due to dehydration and cotton mouth and headaches and my 30 degree bag somehow being too warm, but I saw a ton of shooting stars, so I had that going for me, which was nice. I was relieved when the sun rose, and we snapped more photos before starting on what we expected would be a long dry hot sweaty thirsty death march back to the car slowly turning into dehydrated shriveled human raisins (which Brad pointed out is redundant, you pick either dehydrated grape or raisin you can’t have both).
WAKE UP TIME FOR THE DAAAAY
Wrong again (about water, Brad was right about dehydrated raisins). We found water within a half mile of leaving camp, which is great because between the three of us we had like 0.6L, and we had been told there were “only questionable tarns along the ridge.” Besides that, the first 2 ish miles were meh, we grumbled about losing elevation and more trees and spiderwebs and no views and those questionable tarns were more mosquito than tarn and then once again my ungrateful entitled ass was spat into a beautiful meadow of peak wildflowers. Our pace slowed to a crawl as the pictures started again. The rolling slopes of Indian Head and the ridge off of White Peak are unbelievable. The lupine was in full bloom. WHITE. PAINTBRUSH. EVERYWHERE. I thought it was rare, and here it was in droves! The purple aster were healthy! Ahhhhh I didn’t even know where to look.
Morning meadows & rolling hills
With great meadow comes great.. bees?
Until suddenly we saw a donkey!! An alpine ass, coined by Brad. Its owner was very friendly and we got to pet it (well they did, I don’t know what to do with livestock/wildlife bc I’m awkward and don’t know what’s appropriate/expected/acceptable/encouraged can you tell I was overanalyzing?) and we peppered him with questions about care. How far can he get in a day? 12 miles, he’s 30 years old so not too far anymore! What about water? They’re desert animals, don’t need much! What about food?? Oats! They usually camped away from people so donkey could roam, and it seemed like the donkey was basically a big dog with a great spoiled life. Tell anyone looking to buy a horse that they should get a donkey instead. I was sold. Horses freak me out. But the donkey was smaller and cuter and his ears looked so incredibly soft and big and I wanted so badly to touch them. It’s so rare nowadays to see horse/donkey packers out on the trail, really neat to run into one. We finally parted ways so we could continue our attempt to beat the heat and have snacks surrounded by rainbow flowers at white pass before heading down. And I wrote a limerick to atone for my prior lack of respect for this circuit. Brad helped with the last line.
Lupine at PEAK
Oh god I was wrong as can be
The meadows just fill me with glee
These flowers for miles
Bring laughter and smiles
[I was stumped, until I heard some cursing behind me]
And Brad just got stung by a bee.
Brad’s ankle started swelling up, but not to a point of concern, so we stopped at White Pass and had a big snack. Surafel put his camera away. We knew what we were in for. Like one mile of traversing, and 3 miles of brutal downhill switchbacks, and 5 miles of monotonous (albeit pretty, I guess) forested trail.
That’s pretty much how it went. The switchbacks are truly mind numbing. Not countable like cascade pass, more of a “buckle down and space out until you trip over the log next to the clearing next to the river.” The Mackinaw shelter had collapsed since the last time I was here, and I think all the debris had even been removed, because we saw no trace of it. We took a break at the big bridge over a stream about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, reveling in the abundance of water and cool breeze. About 2 miles from the trailhead I realized my fantasies all weekend about going to Cascadia Farms couldn’t happen, because we were in Darrington, not the national park. And then Burger Barn was closed. So… we stopped at Arby’s. Questionable. Should have just gotten more cinnamon buns.
Looking towards White Pass
It’s Wednesday and the heat rash hasn’t gone away, but I’ll trade that for the ridiculous flowers we got for like 18 of the 32 miles we did. And the other 14 were worth the suffering. Good company, sweet donkey, seemingly-oversaturated real world views, feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere… yeah, it hit the spot. Also, I think I need a cinnamon bun.
Robert looking at Icy. Spillway Glacier on the left being sad, Icy Glacier looking good.
Gotta go up & over Ruth
We figured we’d do a 1.5d trip, trailhead camping or hiking in a bit on Saturday night and doing the real deal Sunday. Weather was iffy on Saturday, so this ended up being the right choice. We tossed a few ideas around and settled on the Ruth-Icy traverse, given we could hike in to a bunch of options for campsites and have a lot of flexibility to play our timeline/availability by ear. This ended up vastly surpassing my expectations honestly, bringing us across two mellow glaciers, lots of off trail travel and navigation, a fourth class scramble, a sweet rappel, totally remote feeling alpine terrain, and third class dehydration to top it all off.
Distance:16mi round trip
Elevation gain: ~8k ft (7100ft highest point)
Weather: 80’s… and sunny
Commute from Seattle: 3hrs
Did I Trip: No but Robert had two good talus stumbles
Morning mist and shadows (PC Robert)
We got to the trailhead around 7pm on Saturday, and made it to Hannegan Pass right at dusk. There is NO RUNNING WATER past the signed Hannegan camp so be prepared! There were some rowdy folks at that first signed site, so we kept hiking. There was a medium site off the trail to the left (within sight of the trail) that we called Plan B, but I thought there would be more near the meadows at the actual pass, and I was right. There’s a huge site at the pass itself (occupied) but if you continue along the path to Ruth, there are two more off to the right (social trails) and a third beautiful one with phenomenal views at the meadows just before the steep treed section. Not knowing what was ahead, we settled for one of the forested sites off to the right of the start of the trail to Ruth. I am grateful for our quiet and welcoming neighbors, who pointed out the site to us and said totally fine for us to stay there. I hope we weren’t an intrusion. I think every time I’ve been up here I’ve sworn that I’ll camp on top of Ruth, or at least along the ridge. Or bring skis. But there I was, breaking all my promises.
First good look at our first climb: Ruth
Everything was socked in by clouds and the night was chillier than expected given the dampness in the air. I figured we could still at least tag Ruth in the mist and see if we got above clouds, but I wouldn’t want to do the traverse to Icy without good visibility (plus what’s the point? I’m there for views!). I could feel my enthusiasm about climbing starting to pique again. Over the past few years there have been several points where I’d be looking for excuses to bail on climbs, fighting burnout, yet here I was thinking eh, even if it’s misty we can still try for Ruth and see what happens. Part of this might have been that I had been to Ruth before (five years ago!! FIVE YEARS! Have I been here that long?!), so while I knew what insanity I’d be missing in terms of views, I at least had seen them before. But I think the other part is having had so much time off from climbing. I remember a friend mentioning that once climbing felt like a chore, it was time to take a break. I knew what that meant on a superficial level, but this past spring was the first time I truly took a break, and it has actually turned out to be incredibly refreshing.
The rock gets closer faster when half your travel is on rock not snow
We woke up to a soaked-through “rain fly,” and I assumed it was still misty outside. Demoralized but desperate to pee, I showered myself with rain-fly water crawling out of the tent, only to see clear skies! Woohoo! We’re in business!
We skipped tea/coffee (well Robert drank a canned cold brew) because it was chilly and we wanted to start moving. We followed social trails back to the main trail, and started up the 3rd-class-trees section (added bonus: muddy and slick) before skirting east around the peak on the ridge to Ruth, coldbrew in hand.
Ruth Creek valley from Ruth
Last time I did this it was snow covered, I had never been here with flowering meadows! The traverse toward Ruth’s ridge on the backside of that small peak was even better than I remembered, heather meadows looking at a glaciated peak in the early morning sun and feeling like you’re somewhere in the middle of the Swiss Alps when in reality you’re like five miles from your bright yellow gas guzzling SUV. We followed the trail along the ridge, hopping across talus until we could traverse to the lowest snow finger, where we finally got on the glacier. Snow was a nice break from talus. That became a theme of the trip. Sick of talus? Here’s snow. Sick of snow? Have some talus!
Nooksack Cirque! Seahpo Peak, Jagged Ridge, Nooksack Tower, Shuksan, Baker peaks out (heh)
Above the death gully
We brought glacier gear, but did not use it. The glacier on Ruth was still very well covered with no depressions or texture changes on the route we were taking. That said, an old friend from my REI days broke his back falling off route and bouncing off a lip and into a crevasse doing this traverse, so please make an informed decision. No matter how safe your route on a glacier appears, there is absolutely still the risk that something goes wrong.
Okay disclaimer aside, we made pretty good time to the summit of Ruth, where we had an “oh, shit, that’s far away” moment looking at Icy. The route isn’t quite line of sight because of how steep it is, lots of slopes are convex and have those weird rollovers where you don’t know if it goes or not. The glacier looked steeper from far away. We knew we had to wrap around the backside of Icy, not climb what was in front of us. The trip reports I had read took 14hrs from camp between Ruth and Icy (aka further along the route where we were), but they were large groups with newbies, and I thought we could move faster than them.
Robert wasn’t feeling it, but couldn’t think of a logical reason why. We’re big believers in gut feelings, but we couldn’t even think of a worst case scenario for the next leg (dropping down talus fields that were impossible to fall down, too mellow for rock fall, and some mostly flat snow fields where you’d just butt plant if you slipped). Between the conceived lack of risk and my gut being quiet (stoked, even) we decided to continue through the next section and see what happened.
Starting up the Icy Glacier
Robert on the col, Blum in the back
We looked for the trail down the ridge of Ruth, and it actually took us a while to find it. Don’t overthink it. Just drop off the true summit of Ruth (not the one with the benchmark) and start heading off the summit towards Sefrit/Nooksack Ridge and you’ll find the trail. It’s much less annoying than trying to cross slippery sliding talus. Then start traversing talus and snowfields to a saddle around 6,600ft, with a small knoll (and campsite) with stellar views of the Nooksack Cirque. Hopefully you aren’t sick of it already. If you are, I’d like a word.
We took the light left-ish gully
From there, you have two options. The death gully, which supposedly isn’t as bad as it looks but I mean… it looks… like a death gully. And I think you have to regain some elevation once you’re out of it. The other option is the supposedly-cairned heather slopes to the left of the gully. We didn’t find any cairns marking it, but again, don’t overthink it. Basically everything goes, and you can pick your way down game trails, heather steps, and the occasional 2nd to maybe 3rd class scramble move to a field of talus above a small patch of trees. At that patch of trees, again, don’t overthink it. You will find a boot path winding through the trees (more like shrubs) downhill towards the ridge, and with a few feed of 2nd class scrambling (maybe 1 or 2 unexposed/super safe 3rd class moves you’ll find yourself walking talus along the ridge to the Icy glacier. Surprisingly, it was similar to last weekend – we just took every piece of the route on section at a time, and things just kept going smoothly.
Halfway up the scramble (PC Robert)
The ridge is a beautiful mellow walk with astounding views in every direction. We looked behind us at what we had come down and marveled at it. If we hadn’t just come down it, we wouldn’t think it goes. It looks totally steep and shitty.the geology along the ridge was also pretty cool, you could see scrapes in the rocks from glacial activity, huge boulders that had just split into multiple pieces. The talus overall was surprisingly solid, and soon enough we were at the Icy Glacier.
Almost at the notch (PC Robert)
The Icy glacier was also surprisingly mellow and well covered, and we were up at the col to corkscrew around the peak in about an hour. We took a long break here, stuffing water bottles with snow and ditching our gear to do the scramble as light as possible. We hiked up talus to the obvious left hand light colored gully, and the scramble was fairly quick too. I had read everything from “2nd class” to “4th class but feels like 5th.” Robert took the left side, I took the right side. The right side was definitely 4th class in that it had plenty of solid jugs and ledges, but required hands and had some decent exposure that I wouldn’t have been stoked to downclimb. And it felt like climbing! We made it to the rap station and I headed to the east peak, having heard that was the true summit. THAT had some wildly exposed 4th class moves (and a sidewalk style slab that you can just walk across even though your brain is screaming CROUCH!!!!!), but again, mostly super solid rock and giant jugs ( which happens my favorite trivia team name in response to my friend’s team “big crimpin”).
Another false summit! Someone’s happy (PC Robert) so we’ll pretend it’s real
Looking back at Ruth
To my dismay, there was no summit register. But the trip reports and the map said the east side summit was the tallest. I looked back at the westernmost tower. Shit, is that taller?? It looks like it might be taller. We scrambled back to the notch (like 15ft) and up the west tower. Still no register. And now the far eastern tower looked taller. Well, shit. All of the beta and maps led us here, and the western peaks are the ones marked on the map. Maybe someone took it down to be replaced. Or maybe we didn’t look hard enough on the eastern peak. But I do like summit registers, and I had heard that Icy had one, so maybe… it was the FAR eastern peak that was true. I finally found validation an hour ago stumbling upon trailcatjim’s site, which confirmed that the SE peak across the saddle from the Icy Peak labeled on maps is actually 11ft higher than the labeled peak. God dammit. Why is the popular peak the false summit?! Well, we got in two short super exposed cool ridge scrambles, which was refreshing. Reminiscent of Luna Peak where the moves are solid but wildly exposed, except way shorter. And I guess now I have another excuse to come back and fulfill that promise of camping up high.
Pretty sure that cracked one is the true summit. Did a fine fist-crack-alpine-whale to get up that, which is were sour patch watermelon were spilled sacrificed
One really cool feature was the Spillway Glacier, or lack thereof. Back in 2008, this entire face was filled with a very cool partially hanging glacier, heavily crevassed, plunging hundreds of feed to the cirque below. Now, there is a small chunk of still active glacier towards the top, some scattered chunks of ice several feet below it, and a middle chunk of recently-calved glacier, just waiting to be melted in the sun. A stark example of recession, and regardless of what you believe in terms of climate change, it’s still disappointing to see something so beautiful slowly disappearing. Even just compared to 2015 you can see recession – there were way more chunks down low in 2015, and the calving section up high was still partially connected. Which brought us to another topic, that requires a philosopher. If this glacier melts out entirely, and the next ice age begins and a glacier starts to form again, is it still the Spillway Glacier? If a ship is on show in a museum and all of the parts are eventually replaced, is it still the same ship? The Ship of Theseus, the Glacier of Eve.
Okay, back to reality. At this point I had accidentally scattered sour patch watermelons all over the summit notch and had almost dropped the $30 of cord I had brought, so it was time to get my hot mess ass off this peak before more calories and dollars were sacrificed to the mountain gods. We rapped the gully which was much better than downclimbing (60m rope was perfect) and quickly got back to the saddle where we took another long break trying to suck water from snow. We put crampons back on and plunge stepped down the Icy fairly quickly, getting back to the ridge in something crazy like 30 minutes. We dropped a little low on the east side of the ridge this time, less convenient because there was no bootpath but it’s all just talus and snowfields so still fairly easy travel. No snowfields had significant running water sources, unfortunately. Stupid ridges. Draining all the water off the sides.
Robert at the base of the gully
We knew the climb back up Ruth would be brutal. It’s 2,000ft of elevation gain to get back on top of Ruth. We laughed at how vertical the route looked again. But as we got closer, the texture appeared. Okay, here’s the mini third class scramble. Okay, patch of trees with a bootpath. Okay, talus slope. Okay, heather ledges and the occasional super sticky granite scramble (not exposed) and boom, back at the first saddle! Okay, now shittier talus and snowfields. We looked up at a saddle south of Ruth. It sure looked like it would go. But then what I thought was Ruth looked spicy from that side. We stuck with the original route, but are pretty sure you could just drop off the false summit of Ruth across talus straight to the snowfield near the saddle, and save yourself like 400ft of talus traversing.
Looking at the route back up Ruth… does it go?
Still hadn’t found running water. Didn’t want to melt snow. We both had pounding headaches at this point and were eating snowballs of mio, which were like the best snow cones I had ever had. We stuffed a nalgene with slush and shook it up with mio, and I tried to drink some only to have all the ice slam into my face. But it was a good idea at the time.we put crampons back on (arguably not necessary, but we decided boot skiing a glacier seemed irresponsible) and plunge stepped our way back down Ruth. We saw only one person on his way up to camp on Ruth’s summit. There were prints from other summitters, but they were long gone by then (even though it was only like 2:30pm). We made a really shitty loose traverse from the glacier to the ridge crest, and from there we started to realize the ups-and-downs of the route.
Pass Creek drainage from the saddle
Yeah, we knew Ruth to Icy involved a huge amount of gain and loss. But coming back from Ruth, the trail along the ridge went up after the saddle. And a rising traverse across a slope. And then down though 3rd class trees, where I got bitch slapped by a small pine leaving a present in my eye and I didn’t have enough bodily fluids left in my to cry it out. And then up to our campsite and the Hannegan Pass trail. While Robert packed the tent, I melted the snow left in our water bottles, and we drank the best slightly-warm mio I’ve ever had.
Above the tree patch, below the scramble
Heading down from the pass, we basically booked it to the car. I was of the opinion that we had no need to rush besides aching feet and a desire to be sedentary with drinks in front of us, but Robert was antsy, so okay, we’ll cruise it. At the first stream crossing from the pass we filled up a nalgene and took turns chugging. Ah, nectar of the gods, it was so delicious.
It was like 90 degrees in the valley. Every patch of sun-exposed plants was radiating heat at me and between the dehydration and the sunburned face I have never been so happy and enamored with shady forested sections. Sefrit was demoralizing, I remembered scouting routes on the way up yet we hadn’t even reached the valley across from its gulleys yet. Crap that means we still have like over an hour. Finally we saw the granite slabs above the trailhead and I knew we were close. Back at the car by 5:30, making it about 6hrs back from the summit of Icy, and just under 12hrs of moving. Not too shabby for two very out of practice climbers!
Almost back on top of Ruth!
This was a surprisingly spectacular traverse. I had seen trip reports but people either took crappy photos or the pictures just didn’t do it justice. It felt far more alpine than I expected, and the scramble (albeit short) was actually quite fun. Honestly, one of the spires of Icy Peak east of the main saddle almost looked higher than where we were, but that’s got to be a trick since the map and gps both had the west towers being taller.. I need to get one of those handheld triangulator things that can measure elevation of nearby peaks.
One more of the calved pieces of the Spillway. The top part is still thick.
If I did this again, I’d camp on that shoulder just west of Ruth. The view of Shuksan is insane and while you do have to hump overnight gear all the way up there, it would be worth it just for the sunrise. The whole cirque lights up pink (we got a glimpse of it leaving camp). My goal is to still be doing these things (but more slowly) in 30, 35 years. Maybe by then the Stillway Glacier will be gone and I’ll be marveling at the recession of the Ruth or Icy or Nooksack glaciers instead.
Additional note: There were dozens of beehive along the road! I couldn’t believe it when we drove past, I don’t think they were here last year. I think I’d have remembered. Not sure who is funding them or why they are there or what they are doing, but I hope they’re loving the wildflowers and helping them spread and bloom!
A body in motion stays in motion, that’s Newton’s first law. I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again, because it applies to mountains and fitness and success and overall life too.You know what stops a metaphorical body in motion? A pandemic. A new job. Shitty weather. Social isolation. Working from home. You have your own list. And the REAL problem is that getting back in motion after a lull seems completely overwhelming. And that’s what the first half of this year was. I know I’m not the only one.How the hell do you get from zero to a marathon?
It was a combo of pandemic, figuring out how to fit a steady relationship into my usually selfish (ok still kinda selfish) life, new job, vegetable garden, fostering four newborn kittens, I’m sure there’s more. But the net result was me sitting on my couch. Or Robert’s couch. Or at my desk. Or on the floor (you know, bc kittens). And I thought for a while that maybe my life was just moving in a less mountainy direction. But I noticed it starting to become a downward spiral, where I was slowly just becoming mildly depressed and out of shape even if my hobbies on paper were fun. Something was missing.
The ridge over another meadow
It developed over several months. At first it was like oh sick there’s a pandemic, I’ll either come out of this 50lbs heavier or prison fit. Knowing myself, I was like it’ll totally be prison fit. Except then I felt weird about driving long distances to ski. I had trouble keeping the lifting routine while working from home. The motivation to do mountain stuff waned because of the pandemic, weirdness about travel, social shaming, shitty weather, and eventually because of my degrading fitness. Then I would feel bad for not getting out and being active which made me sit around even more. And then I’d feel worse thinking I lacked the discipline to get back to where I needed to be physically for cool trips since I wasn’t lifting as much or running as far and thus began the spiral. Lack of fitness -> fewer trips -> more lack of fitness. Oh boy. I don’t want to find rock bottom.
Well about a month ago the weather finally turned and I thought okay, no more excuses, time to start chipping footholds in my self pity party pit so I can rally and get out of this. So I went to Chiwawa for Robert’s birthday. And then I went to Ragged View. And then I went to Ruby. And this weekend, we popped a sweet traverse of Goat Rocks, including tagging Old Snowy, Ives, and Gilbert, which took some mountaineering skills I hadn’t used all year. And these past few weeks are the most I’ve felt like myself in months. And they feel like the ramp up to my normal life, like I’m getting back to my normal glowy outgoing excitable (read: obsessive) self.
Goat Rocks was absolutely stunning. I WILDLY underestimated it. I’m not sure what actual mileage or elevation was, but it was a surprisingly cool ridge traverse with wildflowers that rivaled Spider Meadows and Cloudy Gap last year. Unbelievable. I’m nauseous thinking about the flowers. This EXISTS and I’m sitting at a desk instead of rolling in flowers don’t roll in flowers guys it’s not a good leave-no-trace practice.
Elevation: 6000ft gain, 8150 highest point (Gilbert)
Weather: 60 and cloudy
Commute from Seattle: 3:15 with no traffic
Did I Trip: No just lots of skidding and crying inside
EVERY CORNER IS RIDICULOUS
We hiked in Friday night to camp about 4 miles up the trail where the Snowgrass Flats trail intersects the PCT Bypass. The hike in was uneventful, just darkness and spooky forest. There are two smaller camps just past the intersection on the left through a marsh. The main site was occupied. I didn’t sleep because of sticks cracking which obviously are bears, ghosts that have mass and can crack sticks, serial killers, wendigos, goats, goat men, or the thing from It Follows. I “awoke” at 6am only to find that not only had my food been undisturbed, I had dropped a shot block that not even the bugs had gotten to. That’s how far away the wildlife stayed.
Looking at Goat Lake and Rainier
We got moving around 7:15am Saturday morning, surprised by cloud cover but happy that they were high clouds, and immediately walked into the most glorious carpet of wildflowers I have ever seen in my life. I could have cried. Adams was so close it looked far more majestic than I had ever considered it to be. Helens was its usual toilet-bowl-looking self, though less so from this angle, and even toilets look nice with flowers. And Rainier was hiding behind the main ridge, waiting for us to discover it.
We cruised up the PCT through more meadows, brief snow patches, and talus fields to the top of Old Snowy, which had a trail the whole way. I actually didn’t expect that, I thought hte PCT went right near it but that it would be a talus hop to the top. There were two bivvy sites on Old Snowy that would be fantastic. We tagged the summit (no register) and had some snacks before continuing on. Most of the other hikers stopped here, though I think two sets followed us over to Ives.
Pano of Gilvert, Goat Citadel/Little Horn/Big Horn, Ives, and Adams from Old Snowy
Dropping off Old Snowy
Dropping off Old Snowy towards Ives is easy. Getting to the first saddle is just a talus walk with some short 3rd class ish scrambling on the next knob. You pass a WICKED cool arch that I was worried we’d miss, but it’s right along the ridge and you’ll go right past it. Almost everything steep/sketchy on the ridge can be avoided by dropping slightly left or right. but we generally preferred the left side of the ridge. Everything is loose so don’t expect pleasantries.
Adams through the arch (PC Robert)
Just before the main saddle at Ives, we decided to drop into the moat above the McCall Glacier rather than traversing that finger of the McCall Glacier. The McCall used to span all the way across Old Snowy and Ives, but it looks patchier now, I am not sure the two halves are still connected. Or maybe one half is the Ives Glacier and the map is badly labeled.
Anyway, had I read the beta thoroughly, I would have known that dropping onto the southwest side of the slope would have been an easy talus walk instead of 3rd-4th class scrambling. I prefer to stem between rocks and ice over exposed 4th class, so I squeezed my body into the bottom of the moat (which to be fair was also a 4th class downclimb to get into, so… I didn’t really win here) and stemmed out a few feet later. Robert scrambled above the moat just our of the picture frame and vertical-limit-ed his way onto the snow at the end of the scramble. Trust. Nothing. Assume every foothold and handhold will come loose. Assume all ledges are covered in kitty litter. Assume the mountain will dump rocks on you. Wear your damn helmets. We scrambled up another disgustingly loose col one at a time to gain the ridge again where I read the beta again and saw the line about going south to avoid moat/glacier entirely. Oops.
Dropping off of Ives
From there, it’s a quick walk up more loose scree to the summit. We dropped down to the next col, where we ran into the loveliest couple. We chatted with them for a bit about our route and their plans, and thought they corroborated the horror stories we had heard of the west route up Gilbert, we parted ways feeling wholesome and confident. Which is good, be cause we then lost even more elevation going down to the snowfields and glaciers on the northeast side to traverse below some cliff bands.
We had dropped down before the “start” of the route in Beckey’s book because we didn’t feel like going up and over or around point whatever number it is, but we continued to traverse high to see if we could hit it only to be stopped by a cliffy shoulder, forcing us lower. We were losing motivation and starting to consider backtracking to the col south of Ives to regroup. There were cliffs below us and we were traversing on the shittiest rock I’ve ever been on. The talus fields were crumbling, every step was a broken or crushed ankle waiting to happen. Off the talus, you got bb pellets on hard rock, where the dirt (rock?) was so tough you couldn’t edge into it, yet there was kitty litter rubble everywhere ready to help you skid down to your eventual death (or a very uncomfortable landing). We stopped to discuss the route, and figured we’d keep pushing for a few more minutes before calling it and regaining the elevation we had lost. A goat crested the ridge in the distance, coming in and out of view as it climbed. But the stoke was waning and we were both kind of bumming. And suddenly. There was a clear path across a small snowfield. So travelled it looked like an old boot path. And there was that goat, leading the way on the distant shoulder. “Follow the goats” the trip report for the west side of Gilbert had said. Maybe that was true here too.
Goat path led to beautiful Tieton basin (PC Robert)
Ready for action
With renewed curiosity, we followed the goat. The next 20ft were the most comfortable walking we had done in hours. The miracle goat path led us around the last shoulder to a small moraine that we could walk up to the glacial basin below Little Horn, Big Horn, and Goat Citadel. I think it’s the remnants of the Tieton Glacier, which is in the Beckey Guide, but it’s receded a scary amount since his pic. We figured we could backtrack or bail up and over the col to the left onto the Conrad Glacier if we couldn’t get past the crevasses (we had no pro), but I was cautiously optimistic.
Above the glacier, under Goat Citadel
We cramponed up and crossed some mellow blue ice before the glacier steepened, and eventually were frenching up past a 20′ deep leg-breaker of a crevasse. The sides were solid, no caverns to deal with, just a 6ft wide gash across the glacier and we were lucky enough to find a snowbridge in the center. There were two smaller crevasses near the edges of the glacier that were easily avoided, but we had to do some zigzagging and hope for the best. Overall, it was very well snow covered with fairly obvious features, no concerns for the next few weeks. As long as you can remember how to walk you’ll be fine. It’ll probably get icy later in the season but we didn’t see any signs of anything more gnarly.
Towards the top we stepped across two very small crevasses (~1-2ft wide but covered) before clambering up (guess what) more loose rock to the saddle around 7800ft. The saddle is very mellow and was on our list of camp options, but it was only like 3pm! I thought it was going to take WAY longer to get to Gilbert. Maybe if we had actually gone up and over point whateverit’scalled, but even then we’d probably have saved time using Beckey’s route instead of winging it.
Summit pano from Gilbert
Shitty crossing with death runout
From there, it was a talus walk rising gently to the right to get to the base of the summit. We passed a cool window in the rock just below us, and pulled some 3rd class ish traversey moves just above that to contour above more nasty scree. Back to less nasty scree walking for a little longer, and finally straight up some weaknesses that were surprisingly solid and a combo boot path/a few more scramble moves to the summit. Far less scrambling than I had expected, honestly. The views over Conrad Lake were phenomenal, it looks like a very cool basin and the ridge next to it looked like a lite version of painted hills in Peru. And finally, a summit register!! Several parties had beaten us up Gilbert from the east route, which I hear is much more pleasant (but still gets the neat scramble at the end). We snapped pictures, had a snack, and headed back to the col, mildly anxious about the way down from Gilbert. We hadn’t heard anything positive about it.
We traversed to the snow patch
The only beta we really had for the west route on Gilbert was to follow a vein of white sediment that traversed diagonally around 7500ft. The vein doesn’t continue all the way to the col, so we had to find the start of it. We dropped from the 7800ft col above the glacier to the 7600ft col roughly south, and started traversing, following goat paths and the occasional cairn. It was bad, but not terrible.
Cool conglomerate pillar
The route was not obvious at all. Every gully was a death funnel, and the scree was back to dirt (clay? rocks?) so solid you could barely edge into it yet mellow enough to be covered in pebbles. We aimed for high cols, trying to backtrack against the west route description we had from summitpost. Crossing one col above a steep snow finger we found the best rock we had been on all day. Super solid, amazingly juggy third class scramble to avoid crossing the snow patch. Finally some giggling and actually enjoyable movement! And renewed hope for the way down! We found the “white conglomerate pillar,” more of a boulder but there was nothing more pillar-like in sight so we figured this was it. That was about the halfway point.
FINALLY THE WAY OUT
And the second half (well, first half on the way up) was arguably even worse. Remember that rejuvenating rock that got us excited? Yeah that didn’t exist anywhere else. Super loose, no cairns, no obvious landmarks, no goat path, just rubble. Every step is calculated because you’re still moving above a tangle of death gullies (including waterfalls tumbling over cliffs at the base of some gullies) and that takes way more of a mental toll than I give it respect for. The white vein was hard to see from above, but we realized it had dropped ~50ft below us. Maybe that’s why everything was so loose. The white conglomerate is like a strip of glue in the crumbling mess of Gilbert. To quote a trip report, “I think we expedited the erosion in this area by 500 years just by walking on it.”
Lounging at camp admiring Old Snowy
Cute aster and paintbrush
Robert scrambled down a waterfall, I scrambled down some red shit next to it before hopping across back onto the white conglomerate. The white conglomerate is by FAR the most solid band of rock in this crumbling massif and I have to believe it’s gotta be better than the alternate high route given how loose everything else is. Almost reminiscent of the chicken heads on Outer Space. We followed the white band slightly further past the waterfall, and suddenly I heard Robert shout IT GOES! Ah, sudden relief. And confidence. I was so sick of having to balance carefully on every step and having half the rocks tumble down below me. We crossed one last steep snow patch and dropped onto a talus field below all of the gullies. Ahhhh, normal talus and scree! I’ve never been so happy for normal talus and scree!
We cruised to a saddle around 6800ft above Cispus Basin and looked at each other. Should we set up camp here?? Instead of dropping down? We should set up camp here. We found a nice patch of dirt that we level out with some digging, and pitched our tent right next to a beautiful patch of heather. We fell asleep by 8:30, the best alpine bedtime. Full day of traversing behind us and an easy meadow & trail back to the car.
Waking up Sunday we started heading down Cispus Basin, dodging wildflowers and streams as we went. The sun hitting the wildflowers was insane. We had clouds all day Saturday, and the wildflowers were beautiful enough then, but lit up by the sun made them even more vibrant. Did I mention I underestimated the beauty of Goat Rocks? We took an extra ~1 mile detour to make sure we had drank in all the wildflowers we could possibly fit. It’s the same feeling when you have a drink and you’re wicked thirsty, except with your eyes. Suddenly the world looks oversaturated and ridiculous and yet it’s real!
The way back to the car was less eventful, since the majority of it was in forest. We had chosen the perfect camp Friday night, right at the transition of forest to meadows (so we didn’t miss any flowers in the dark).
Goat Rocks means two things: Mountain goats on rocks, and greatest of all time…rocks. But one of those is a hilarious joke* because it was more like Worst-Of-All-Time Rocks. Amazing views, shit rock (besides that one patch on the west route on Gilbert), mind blowing wildflowers.. I mean it was worth the trade. And I think it’s like a marathon where around mile 20 you’re like fuck no I’m not doing that again. But towards the end, and the next day, you’re like yeah, I could do that again. That’s how I feel about Gilbert. And I’m wicked curious what the route from Warm Lake or Conrad Basin is like, because I hear they’re much more pleasant than the west side. Scree, but not death gully scree on top of slabs.
Gilbert over Cispus Basin
*The other might be a joke too… we saw one goat. So I guess Goat Rocks is still okay, because it doesn’t imply lots of goats, just… at least one. We saw the one.
p.s. I can’t believe I never took a wildflower pano