- Distance: 11 miles round trip (4.5 to Twin Lakes, 1-1.5ish up to the lookout)
- Elevation: 4500ft gain
- Weather: 30’s and clear at night, 50’s and sunny in the day
- Commute from Seattle: Solid 3 hours, longer if you get stuck behind a very slow very large truck
- Did I Trip: Yes. Well, slid into a tree well, but let’s count it. And then fell up a slope thanks to a posthole. Within 10 minutes. Nature sucks.
- Map here thanks to Summitpost. Direct winter route is in blue. On the way down, we ignored all routes and went almost straight from the summit to the southwestern lake. We hung slightly west so the skiiers could take advantage of that gully that’s smack between the winter and summer routes on the southeast face.
We met at the trailhead around 10pm. Well I got there at 7, parked by the snow, met Sam at 7:30, and started napping when Sam took forever to pack. Eventually it turned out the others were only 30 minutes away, so we figured we’d wait. I continued my fake nap. The sun set. The others arrived, and decided they’d try to drive farther up the road. They got stuck. Dave arrived, and followed the others, and also got stuck. Quinn towed him out. I kept napping, figuring they’d get the others out too. A true team player, I know. Eventually I got impatient and started skinning, and it turned out yes, they were stuck, and they were just going to deal with it on Sunday when we got down. Which was good, because if they were going to dig and tow everything out that night, I was officially going to bed and would start up in the morning. But cool, let’s get started.
It was 10:30pm. No one believed me when I said we’d get to the lookout just before sunrise. I halfheartedly suggested camping at the lake, knowing that by the time we got to the lakes I’d be in the “pissed off” state of exhaustion where I’d say fuck it and go the rest of the way. It’s only another mile (maybe a little more) to the lookout, it’s just that… well, that mile has 1400ft of gain.
The skin up the road was probably a dramatic mental battle for everyone, but it’s all blended together in my mind. At first, Calvin was leading the charge, followed by me and Sam. Dave felt sick and turned back. Tony and Quinn caught up to us. Sam fell behind. Sam decided to turn around. Sam said “I didn’t come this fucking far for nothing!!!” and chugged a red bull and turned back towards us. I started playing mind games, the first of which was “put your poles in all of Tony’s holes” which I’d probably have laughed at had I had the capacity for humor. Tony, Calvin and I made it to Twin Lakes at 2:30, maybe 3am. I was right, I was pissed and not camping at the lakes. Onward!
About 20 vertical feet above the lakes I realized I had no chance of skinning up this. Too steep, I’m too uncoordinated on skis to be that good at edging and sidestepping up icy slopes. Maybe I could have pulled it off it I was on top of my game, but I wanted to space out and not worry about coordination, which was lacking. This was clearly demonstrated when I fell into a tree well. I strapped skis to my pack and started to hoof it. It was 3:30am. I tripped thanks to a posthole and lay face down on the crust gathering my “eff this shit” wits, and five minutes later I hear a string of derivatives of the F bomb coming from ahead of me. Calvin had dropped his crampons in a tree well, and Shea (his dog) had given up carrying her bag, so he had strapped it to his pack and it slapped him in the face when heb bent over. I’m not the only one suffering. So I carried on. Postholing through crust, which is the worst, because you have to kick hard to break through it unless you want the sudden drop when you put your weight on it and then it digs into your shin or knee and it can be utter misery. Powder is better.
Tony had to boot up the steeper slopes, so I would come across short spurts of footprints here and there. I nearly kissed the ground the first time I met his steps. But I was worried if I squatted I wouldn’t get back up. Once one person has broken trail in conditions like that, it’s a staircase for the rest of us. Of course they ended shortly as he put his skis back on, but it was a nice relief.
We followed the winter route up the gulley southwest of Winchester Peak. It’s an avalanche gulley, yes, but at night it’s quite safe (well, don’t slip) and in the morning it stays shady, so it isn’t nearly as risky as the summer route, which follows the southeast face (don’t slip on that either). The gulley is very prominent on a map, and requires almost no squirrely bushwacking or anything like that. It’s mostly an open snow slope once you’re in it, which is where I began my second mind game. Tony was back on his skis, and that left me to break trail. I assumed the others would appreciate it. I counted steps. Take 50 steps, okay now get to 60 because you aren’t a wimp. Okay, aaaaand break. Oh, Tony waited for me! Shit, no, that’s a star, not a headlamp. Rinse and repeat. Do not check the map until you’ve done that at least four times.
Finally I heard someone behind me. “Should we be heading right?” It was Sam. I laughed. I later found out he had been asking that question for like over an hour. And we still had several hundred vertical feet to go before we could go right. I said I wasn’t even going to tell him where we were, but no, it was not time to cut right. But I did tell him to hurry his ass up so he could come talk to me and distract me.
We eventually reached the saddle, with an amazing view of Larrabee. I shouted at Sam to get back from the cornice (to which he replied “I didn’t know Winchester had a glacier or crevasses!!” we were tired, it was like 4:30am) and left him there to take some night sky photos while I cut right (finally!) to get to the lookout.
You don’t see the lookout until you’re like 10 feet away from it. I said hi to Tony, dropped my pack, set up my sleeping bag and pad. We took the two best sleeping spots. I know, we’re assholes. Hike faster next time, guys!
I almost went to bed (at one point I handed Tony my camera and said “take pics of sunrise for me” before deciding I was being lame) but decided I’d wait for the others. Sam and Calvin were next, dropping their packs and claiming ground space. Quinn comes wrapping around the corner, “NOW I see the lookout?!? And I’ve been carrying this fucking NASA moon rock anchor” to which we burst out laughing. He had taken Cheryl’s growler since she was carrying too much weight for a brutal overnight hike, and that thing was like a 12lb brick. Finally Cheryl came plodding up just as the sun broke over the ridge. I shouted “CHERYL COME STAND OVER HE- oh uhhh Tony, go stand over there so I can take a pic!!” I wanted a picture of someone at sunrise, and shortly realized that Cheryl could not be bothered to walk the remaining 20 feet past the lookout. She was going to bed.
We snapped a bunch of pics and finally got to sleep around 6:30. Or I did, and I fell asleep to Tony prancing around outside singing “Here comes the sun, do do do dooo” and dancing to his own words (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened). Sam got up at 7 to get in some runs on the shoulder of Larrabee. I dozed until around 8:30 or 9, woke up, and ate half a bag of wheat things and a quarter pound of cheese. We spent the day lazing around the lookout, Tony and Calvin and Sam took some runs on skiis, everyone dozed on and off. At one point we hadn’t seen Sam in an hour or so (we had been tracking him along the ridge) and with snow softening so quickly, I started getting worried. There were two sets of tracks, both of which led straight into avalanche gullies. I grabbed some snacks and went to hike down and hopefully meet him. We knew he was probably fine, but I’m a paranoid person in the backcountry, and I’d rather be overly cautious than have the one time I don’t go look for someone be the one time they’re in trouble.
Luckily I found him after an hour or so, and I passed along my snacks and took a bunch of pics of the terrain while I was at it. We headed back to the lookout for more food and a powernap, and despite how energetic I felt, I fell asleep for a solid hour or so and woke up to dinner. Guys, you HAVE to try the Good To Go Thai Curry meal. I couldn’t believe it. It is seriously so delicious and it actually tastes like real food. Cheryl had it at Hidden Lake Lookout and I tried some and it blew my mind, so I brought it for this trip. Plus it’s made in Maine and as a New Englander I’m partial to awesome states. Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House are good, but this was like something I had cooked instead of a fast food substitute. Runner up is the AlpineAire Three Cheese Chicken Pasta, which is my other favorite meal. And if you’re into Paleo, shameless plug for one of Cheryl’s PCT sponsors: Paleo Meals To Go is a startup with a few great meals. The Caldera Chicken Curry and Savory Summit Chicken have been my favorites so far.
We snapped a bunch of pictures of sunset, and a group of 4 arrived. We had been surprised no one else was up there, it’s a gorgeous location and despite our misery the previous night it’s not that bad of a hike. We made space in the lookout and hung out with their colorful lights and cooked meals chatting while Calvin flaunted his summit hat. They had brought a tiny dog named Finn with them, who was like not a real thing. He looked like a stuffed animal. Except unlike a stuffed animal, he had bodily functions that had not been attended to in far too long. He was running all over my sleeping bag and suddenly I realized it was wet – he must be covered in snow and ice from outside, poor guy! Wait. The girl carried him up in her jacket. He hasn’t touched the ground. Did he just fucking pee on my sleeping bag?
Yes. Yes he did. We cleaned it up, and moments later, he returned to my sleeping bag. Was it to get cozy, because my bag is so unbelievably cozy? No, it was so he could take a shit. Let’s just get something straight. After my car, that sleeping bag is the nicest thing I own, period. It is worth more than my laptop and any piece of IKEA furniture in my apartment (but my furniture works well so stop judging me) and if The Big One ever happens, that bag is gonna be a top priority. Luckily, the Feathered Friends bags are as close to indestructible as a sleeping bag gets, so no damage done. In fact, let’s just look at it as a waterproofing test. Which my bag passed with flying colors.
I went to sleep in my dog poo piss bag, smelling pleasantly like lavender, thanks to Finn’s owner who immediately jumped to help me clean and apologized profusely. I commented on how toasty it would be in the lookout. “Toasty and odiferous,” Tony added. Nope, just lavender. It was a great sleep. I woke up at 6:20 or so to Tony taking sunrise pics, debated getting up, and decided no way, I like sleep. I rolled over and went back to dreamland. No one else was up anyway, I wasn’t missing anything.
Around 7:30 I was barely conscious, and was rudely brought back to the realm of the living by falling off the bench. My sleeping pad had scooted a few inches too far, and I realized immediately after rolling over that the sleeping pad was no longer supported by the bench, and I was a human burrito trapped in a sleeping bag with no way of catching myself. Brace for impact! Thump. I lay there in defeat before clambering out of my bag. The guy sleeping under the table didn’t even notice. Tony did, and burst out laughing.
I got set up back on my bench, and heard Calvin whine “noooo go back to BED TONYYYY” followed by the “whoompf” of the MSR reactor being lit. Tony was making breakfast. Dammit, Tony. Whatever, I’ve developed the ability to doze through most things, so I carried on.
The other reason I usually keep sleeping is because once I’m up, I’m up and moving and impatient and will pace around nagging everyone until everyone else moves. Which is exactly what happened. I got up, was packed within 30 minutes (which is slow), and stood outside whining. Guuuuuys. Whiiiiiiine. Finally everyone was ready, and we decided to head down the southeast face since I mean, the lakes just looked so close, right?
Quinn wiped out immediately (snowshoes are not great on steep terrain) and failed to arrest but was stopped by a patch of trees, where he discovered Tony’s feces from the previous night. Yuck. Chuck-a-dook only avoids the Leave No Trace principle, it doesn’t solve the problem. Calvin and Tony skiied down, Quinn… I don’t know what to call it. Awkwardly slid down on snowshoes? And Cheryl and I were on boots. I started plunge stepping, and at one steep section suggest that we turn to face the slope rather than going forward. It’s easier than looking down if you’re uncomfortable on steep snow, and easier to stay balanced.
As I watched her descend, Cheryl slipped, and started going the slope headfirst. I was about 50ft below her and a few feet off to the side, watching her tumble. She hit a small patch of trees that flipped her onto her stomach going feet first. “Can you arrest?! CAN YOU ARREST! ARREST! GET THE AXE AND ARREST” I could see the ice axe attached by a leash, but she wasn’t gripping it. She finally pulled it to her and managed to get it in the ground as the slope mellowed out. The scary part? The slope mellowed out for another 10 feet, and then there was a cliff band, which dropped straight down another 40ft.
I immediately went over to her to assess everything. She was shaken, but physically fine. Yeah, she’s tough. Carrying a 60lb pack down a steep slope is not an easy feat, and stopping yourself after you’ve fallen 50ft with that much on your back is even tougher. I climbed back up to grab the things she had lost (hat, trekking pole) and we sat and chatted about getting down. I had brought all of my climbing gear hoping to bag American Border Peak with Calvin, but we bailed when we realized just how far it was. But that meant I had a rope, harness, belay device, biners, anchors, the works. Worst case scenario, I could literally belay her down the slope.
We did have a brief moment of comic relief, or at least I did. I glanced over to see how Calvin and Tony were doing, and Calvin was making a huge snow plow with his skis, except facing uphill. Sliding downhill. With Shea, his trusty mountain dog, running back and forth above him. I couldn’t help but laugh. Even the talented skiiers have issues. Like when their on-leash dog makes them fall.
Cheryl and I settled on lowering her heavy ass pack down the slope, and we’d see if she could “step-glissade” (that’s what she named it two hours later as we inched our way down the face) her way down. She leaves for the PCT in a few days, and had a bunch of her PCT gear in that pack, so we didn’t want to risk anything getting damaged by tossing the pack. After a few lowers, we decided to take the pack off the rope. It had only gone 5 meters or less with each throw, leaving me with 25+ meters of rope to deal with. So we coiled up the rope, and tossed the pack.
“Isn’t it a little ironic that as soon as I take the rope off, the bag falls 400ft?” I turned to Cheryl as we stared at her pack tumbling down past Calvin, Tony, and Quinn below us, shedding its contents as it went. Shovel here, pole there, beer on that side, stuff sack to the right. Tony came up to check on us after seeing the pack come crashing through a patch of trees above them. Shirtless, working on his base burn. Now that Cheryl was feeling a little more secure with the step-glissade technique (following my steps, step, step, butt scoot, repeat) I picked up the pace to go collect her stuff, and Quinn came along to help. Her stuff was spread out like a rainbow. Everything I came up to, I clipped to my pack. Growler. Half of a pole. The shovel. A jacket. A stuff sack. The other half of the pole. Another stuff sack. Another shirt. A third stuff sack. The pack took a brief break, and then kept falling as we watched helplessly. I looked ridiculous with a garage sale of random gear hanging from my pack and body.
We finally caught up to it in a patch of trees, and tried to repack as best we could. We told Cheryl we’d lower the pack to the lake and meet on flat ground to go through it and assess the damage. Sure, sounds silly to put the pack back on a leash for the last 100ft or so but shit I wasn’t risking that again. If any of that gear had broken I’d have felt terrible. PCT, guys!
We got to the lake and there was one thing missing. Cheryl’s $400 waterproof OR down jacket. Crap. She kept telling us not to go back up and look for it, but I mean if I had left anything over like $100 up there I’d absolutely have gone back for it. Plus, it was right next to the last item to fall out of the pack, so we knew it had to be close. We didn’t know if we’d find it, but I still had plenty of energy. I turned to Quinn. “How’re you feeling?” I didn’t need to ask, I knew the answer. We were going back up.
We left our packs there and started climbing. I forget how easy it is without an overloaded pack. We were back where the pack had finally stopped, and I saw something in the shadow of a tree that didn’t quite look like bark. Holy shit. It had been the last thing to fall out, and there it was, sitting in a black mesh stuff sack in the shade. I lit up and grabbed it and shouted to Quinn (who was literally next to me) WE FOUND IT IT’S RIGHT HERE OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE IT THIS IS AMAZING we immediately took a celebration selfie and I let out a “whoop WHOOOOP” which has kind of become a routine call to these guys, so I knew they’d understand it was good news. We saw Cheryl waving below. She got it! Then we glissade raced back to the lake, light and free and clutching Cheryl’s puffy jacket. Those five minutes were the purest joy I have felt in weeks. Operation Jacket Rescue was a success.
We skinned over to where Tony and Calvin had been waiting (so long that they decided to climb to a knoll on the east side of the lake and ski down) and had some water and snacks before starting the road slog back to the car. Road slog was uneventful, besides the fact I sunburned around my sternum strap, which is a great look. Especially when paired with a raccoon tan.
Back at the cars, we thought Tony and Calvin could just back out of their respective stuck-in-snow spots (much had melted over the previous two days). Tony succeeded, but Calvin ended up sideways. What you can’t tell from these pictures is that like three feet from Calvin’s front bumper is more or less a cliff. I’m too high strung for these things, but I was beyond thrilled to use tow straps and a manual winch, which I had never seen. Quinn and Tony totally killed it with the manual winch (taking turns having beer and working the winch), though we ended up using a very conveniently located tree as a pivot point to tow Calvin’s truck onto the road with Tony’s tastefully-colored FJ cruiser. I left my car in the safety of a snow free patch. Several road hikers passed us, one truck came up expecting to get further but after seeing our situation, turned around and bailed. Good choice, sir.
We high tailed it (slow tailed it in my case, my car was making odd noises that I could not quite place) to Aslan Brewery in Bellingham for dinner. I had mac n cheese, a burger, and poutine. And a side of garlic aioli for the poutine fries in case the gravy was inadequate. But you’ll be relieved to know that the gravy to fries coverage was quite good.