After spending the weekend on a beach in NYC, it’s going to be a little tough to type this one up and get back into mountain mindset. I’m currently sitting on a plane nursing my multiple sunburns. Sunburns from Mt. Daniel, not from Breezy Point. The casualties on Mt. Daniel were my pride and my face, which is currently an awkward mottled blend of four or five skin tones ranging from pasty white to bright red to crispy brown. Regrets? None. Okay, maybe one: guys, just bring the god damn sunscreen. RIP my face, 5/20/2015.
- Distance: 15 miles round trip (~17 if we had made the true summit)
- Elevation: 5500ft gain (7900 highestpoint
- Commute from Seattle: just over 2:30 without traffic
- Weather: 70’s and sunny
- Did I Trip: Technically no but we had some postholes and some buttplants
We had been planning this one for a few days, and you can imagine the look of sheer joy on my face when Kyle came up to me and said “There’s a small river across the road to the trailhead that we might have to ford. It might be too much for the Subaru. Maybe you should drive.” Oh hell yes. I get to drive across a river and then climb a mountain. Could there be a better day? Oh, and I was testing my new mountaineering boots: La Sportiva Nepal Evos, which I bought literally the night before. I made it through the purchase without puking at how expensive they were, which was about as mentally taxing as actually climbing Daniel.
We got started at 4:30am. As much as I would have preferred to camp at the trailhead and get an alpine start, that just wasn’t in the cards. So bright (no wait, it was still dark) and early it was. We packed all of our gear into the trunk: packs, boots, skiis, helmets, the works. The drive went smoothly, and honestly the road is in fantastic condition besides the ford. Very few potholes, maybe a couple of washboardy sections and some rocky parts, but nothing requiring 4wd/high clearance. Except for the creek, which was maybe 9” deep. Piece of cake for the xterra. When we reached the trailhead, there were a few other cars there already. Some were low clearance, so that river is crossable in a smaller car, though personally I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it in my old Accord.
I was wearing my usual fleece lined leggings, which was a mistake. It was sunny and warm out, and everyone else changed into t shirts and shorts pretty quickly. In my head, Daniel was basically Rainier, and I had packed nearly everything I brought up Rainier last August. DAS parka, insulated boots, crampons, extra pants, waterproof shell and waterproof pants. I was ready for temperatures well below freezing, not temperatures pushing 80 degrees. And all that gear (and 2 avocados and the pound of cheese and 12oz of meatballs I had brought, can’t risk being hangry) made my pack heavy, though not as heavy as the packs Kyle and Suz, the resident skiers, were bringing up.
The trail starts out completely snow free switchbacking through the forest up to Squaw Lake. The lake was completely melted out, and it could have been summer. We stopped for quick snacks and carried on to Peggy’s Pond. There was snow up until you cross the ridge above Deep Lake.
We changed into skiis/mountaineering boots just beyond Squaw Lake, which ended up being far too early. But there was a pair of bright red Adidas shoes sitting on a rock, and we thought hey, maybe we’ll stash our gear with this guy’s stuff. As it turned out, the side of the ridge above Deep Lake where you traverse over to Peggy’s Pond was completely snow free. A half mile or so from the pond, the snow started again, and stuck around for good.
We had maps of the summer route (southeast ridge) and though there were tracks across the opposite side of the basin, we chose to stick with what we knew. Check out our strava map here. Kyle and Suz decided to stay in the basin to get in some ski runs (and a nap, in Kyle’s case) while Brian, Shelby and I headed up to the summit. We agreed to meet back where we split up, or at least that’s’ what the three of us thought. I’m never sure how to feel about splitting up. In this case it felt fine since there were so many of us. I like to think to myself that if I’m ever too tired to go on or something like that, I’ll just chill along the trail and wait for everyone else since I don’t want to be the reason they stopped and I really don’t mind hanging out somewhere gorgeous. But if there were just two or three of us and someone I was with told me they were going to wait, I’d say hell no, I’ll turn back too. Thankfully I’ve never been in that position, unless you count when my friend showed up to a soggy February hike in trail runners with her friend in scrubs and no jackets or insulation or packs or gloves. I turned around with them. She owes me a beer for that one.
Negotiating the ridge was tricky at points. It was gorgeous (my camera died, so half of the photos are lousy phone-camera quality), but there were several sections where we wished we had followed the tracks along the opposite side of the basin, which looked much more mellow. The ridge was steep at points. We stuck to rock when it was available, and traversed a few areas were we were fully planting our axes to self-belay. Despite the dicier areas, the ridge was absolutely worth it. Views were unbelievable. Venus and Spade lakes to the left, Daniel’s East Peak looming up ahead, the Stuart range behind us over Cathedral Rock beyond Peggy’s Pond, which was starting to melt out.
It really did have an alpine feel to it. We may have been below 8,000ft, but it felt like we were climbing a real mountain. Rock, ice, and snow, and that’s it. And you, with whatever you can carry. Roasting your face in the sun. I knew it was happening, too. It was already bad enough that I could feel the sunburn. On one slope, I looked up ahead and saw a small blue bottle lying in the snow. Huh. That looks like sunscreen. Could it be sunscreen? Man, I could use some sunscreen. We got closer and oh my god, IT WAS SUNSCREEN. Shit, this is fate telling me “Eve, you’re effing sunburned.” Thanks, world. I picked it up and slathered it all over everything. Too late to save my face, but hopefully soon enough to keep my arms from a lobstery fate.
We tried to avoid traversing the east side of the ridge, which had snow sloughing off of it, but finally hit a section were we were forced to drop down to the traverse. We took a break to discuss. It was around 12:30, and we had already left Kyle and Suz waiting (or skiing, or napping, or eating, or whatever they were doing) for around an hour and a half. We didn’t want to make them wait too long. So we set an arbitrary 2:00pm turn-around time, and figured we’d aim for the East Peak since making it across to the true summit would take too long. It wasn’t as bad as it had looked, but I was eager to get across. Once across, heading up to the East Summit was steep but straightforward if you stuck to the rocks. The snow was very soft and Brian (leading the way) postholed all over the place, which encouraged me and Shelby to choose the rocks.
I was wiped. 20 vertical feet from the summit, kicking steps up steep snow, I turned to Shelby (who had tons of energy behind me) and admitted that this was the hardest I had worked for anything in months. Totally worth it, but damn, I was exhausted. We reached the peak, whooped, and sat down to take a snack break. We could see an obvious path over to the true summit, but we weren’t sure how long it’d take. It seemed like the type of trek that looks so easy and short until you’re crossing the snow fields and realize it feels like it’s never getting closer. So we sat among the piles of ladybugs (who knew they bred that high, but they were everywhere) and ate.
We noticed four skiers on the second peak, and soon enough, a fifth skier joined us at our summit. They were with Snow Troopers, and the fifth guy was there to get some sweet pics of them skiing. He set up his camera and we chatted. He told us they wished they had taken the ridge instead of the side of the basin, and suggested we head back the way we came. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. We took his advice and followed our tracks, but traversed the entire eastern side of the slope back to a small saddle on the ridge, whereas on the way up we had stayed high and dropped down to join the same traverse. Going down went much more quickly than the way up thanks to glissading with some very half-assed self arrest practice and some running. Snack break had really refreshed me. I need to eat more often.
But where the hell were Kyle and Suz? We shouted their names and hiked around the basin and Peggy’s Pond hoping to run into them, but no luck. There were fresh ski tracks heading out the way we came, but we didn’t think they’d leave without us. We were meeting at the pond, right? Where we had split up? We decided to sit and wait for a while to see if they were still in the basin skiing. We ended up sitting there for over an hour when the five Snow Troopers came past us, and told us they didn’t see anyone else left in the basin. Kyle and Suz must have left. So we started back, hoping they were ahead of us on the trail. Damn, with all that time we could have made it to the true summit and back and they’d have waited just as long. I chuckled a bit – I had been exhausted, but after snacks at the top, I had felt so ready to go. I think we could have made it.
Going back up to the ridge between Deep Lake and Squaw Lake was where I started having trouble mentally. I was tired, and breaking mountaineering boots in is no easy process. My feet were not happy, and my ankles and shins were even worse. On snow, they were fine, but crossing rocks and hiking along a dirt trail, they were just not having it. And those boots are damn heavy. I felt clumsy and bulky tromping along a well groomed trail in those things. I was ready to kick them off and hike in my socks. I don’t know if the others noticed my sudden stretch of silence or not, but I had a mental battle with myself for a solid 15 or 20 minutes, which is very rare for me. But it’s like someone told me – getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory. And if we had gone for the real summit, that mental battle might have been longer. But as soon as we hit snow along the ridge again, I was over it.
We missed the area where we had turned from the ridge onto the trail to Peggy’s Pond, so we had a bit of extra navigating to do. Finally we were back where we had stashed our shoes, and boom: friends! Kyle and Suz were waiting. We changed back into boots, and were leaving just as the Snow Troopers caught up to us, ready to put their own shoes back on. “On a scale of one to ten, how sunburned am I?” Everyone laughed at me. “Very sunburned.” Crap. “Around your julbos, too.” Oh. Good. “Don’t worry, the raccoon burn is something to be proud of.” So I had that going for me. Kyle took off his hat, and I learned that I didn’t have the worst sunburn. I may be bright red, but Kyle’s hat had left a clear dividing line on his forehead between white and bright red sunburn.
Back at Squaw Lake, we took a quick dip into the frigid water. Unbelievably refreshing, and made me realize I hadn’t been immersed in water since the last time I was in Breezy in August. Damn, that’s crazy. I swore to myself last summer I’d jump in ever glacial lake I passed, but hiking here in the winter made me realize that was nuts. Sometimes you don’t want to hike out soaking wet, or freezing.
The hike back to the car went smoothly. I swear everything looked more green than on the way there. Must have been the light. Shelby noticed it too, so I wasn’t the only one. Two of the Snow Troopers leapfrogged us again on the way down. Shortly we were all chilling in the parking lot, surrounded by camping chairs, skiis, boots, and beer. Perfect end to a great day. And lesson learned: sometimes you just have to wear the damn sunscreen. I have a job interview in two hours, and I look like Rudolph the Reindeer.