What do you do on a weekend where the in town temps are supposed to be over 100 degrees? Well, you can suffer in the city fighting for “beach” parking with 800,000 other people, you can spend a buttload to airbnb a place on the coast, or you can drive a few hours, bust ass for a few more hours, and have an alpine tarn and maybe a scramble all to yourself. The coast was tempting, but my inner scrooge won me over and I decided to keep my money and head to the mountains. Also, did I mention the salted baguettes last time?
- Distance: 14mi round trip
- Elevation gain: ~6200ft (8731 highest point)
- Weather: 90’s and sunny, seriously
- Commute from Seattle: 4.5hrs
- Did I trip: Actually…. no?
I met the group at 5:30am at a park n ride, we split gear into two cars, and headed out to Mazama. Despite me driving at the speed of a grandmother, we actually arrived at the trailhead at about the same time, and soon enough we were headed out into the bone dry sun baked sauna that is the Pasayten wilderness on a record heat weekend.
We were all feeling the heat within a mile. There are two variations of dehydration, we’ll call it. One is the classic that everyone expects where you don’t drink enough water. The other is more sneaky. It’s possible to drink too much water, and lose so much salt through your sweat you get something called hyponatremia. Coming from an extra salty sweaty Bostonian family, I’m quite familiar with hyponatremia. We pop salt pills like candy in the Moab marathons, and I’ve started just pounding Mio (nuun doesn’t actually have that much salt) and cheesy crackers on any strenuous trip, and this was no exception. My main food source for this trip was two identical bbq pork bahn mis, followed by variations of Rob’s food (he is generous), followed by cheesy crackers.
We stuck to a slow pace. The first 3 miles of trail are pretty flat, you only gain ~1k ft in elevation. Right after the bridge across Beauty Creek, there is a spot with air conditioning (a breeze off the waterfall) that was lovely for a break. You then hang a right onto another surprisingly well maintained trail, and you gain >1000ft right off the bat with a set of brutally sunny dry switchbacks. Zhong and Rob had the idea to shadow hop. Everyone cluster in the shadow of two lone pines. Okay, now GO GO GO through the sunny section!! Now make space in the shade for the last person to cram in!! Rest through the shade aaaaand SUN PATCH GOOO rinse and repeat for the next ~2 miles. I liked hearing Smit and Zhong giggling behind me. What’re you two giggling about back there?! I knew the going was getting tough when the chatting started to die off. I started cursing the Pasayten with its long valleys and dry air and constant sunshine. Put me back on the mildewy west side with the worms and the mushrooms.
We finally crossed the braids of a large stream coming down from the tarn that would later be our campsite. We refilled water, submerged hats and shirts and bandanas, and had an extremely refreshing lunch break (bahn mi for the win). Just after that river crossing, you turn left straight uphill through a meadow. This was like mile 15 of the Moab marathon. Up and up and up with the sun beating down on you and no respite from the heat. Wildflowers were nice, and there were some points where you could dip your gear into the waterfall again and try to revive your shriveled raisin of a soul. That’s what finally made me put my sun hat on: not only is it good at blocking sun, you can dunk it in water and have a temporarily frigid head cover that brings your brain’s temperature back to Earth. Unfortunately, my SPF 50 sunscreen had separated into oil and something chunky, and didn’t seem to be working as expected. Zhong noticed how sunburned I was getting. I didn’t even notice until her mouth dropped seeing my face. “You’re sunburned!! So sunburned!” She turned to Rob “she’s a lobster!!!” and back to me “you need sunscreen!” and i took one look in the selfie camera and turned to Irma to beg for her stick of thick zinc sunscreen. Luckily she was happy to donate some to the lobster cause and I covered my whole face in what felt like wax paste. “It’s hard to get off…” she warned after my face was 70% covered. I laughed. Good. That’s apparently what I need. This was good, I already knew I was with a group who would take care of me.
The trail gets a little squirrely as you enter sparse forest (larches!! green june larches, dammit!), but it’ll reappear sporadically until you’re close enough to the tarn you just need to crest a small hill and you’re there. The tarn was gorgeous. And having shade, even dappled sunlight, was amazing. Clear blue water, small icebergs, breeze off the snow, I dropped my pack and immediately dunked my head/feet/shirt in. Basically everything without fully jumping in. It was incredible. We found campsites for all five of us(!) and spent the rest of the day rehydrating, planning for the next day, eating (Rob’s food, thanks Rob), and generally hanging out. Zhong and Irma had a bunch of book recommendations that sounded great. We wanted Zhong to read out loud to us from her book but she somehow distracted us enough to forget about it.
I dozed to the sound of Smit and Irma chatting. I absolutely love falling asleep to people talking, I have no idea why but it’s how I’ve always been. Getting that treat in the alpine, I was extremely content. Unfortunately I had just brought my bivy, which is almost literally a body bag. I forgot how claustrophobic it is. I had to zip it all the way to keep the barrage of bugs out, and spent the next few hours after the others went to bed listening for signs of wildlife approaching and convincing myself that I wasn’t really in the forest given how few trees there were. I hate camping in the forest.
We woke up at 4:30 to get a 5am start to attempt to beat the heat. The bugs were still there, and they were worse than the night before. We initiated a competition for who could get the picture with the most bugs. We headed up to the south ridge (climber’s left of the lake) which involved a loose talus walk and then an option between a 3rd-4th class scramble or some moderate snow. We divided and conquered, some taking the rock and some taking the snow. Once on the ridge, it was mostly a walk, following the path of least resistance, moving consistently to avoid the bugs. I had the weirdest craving for sake, which we had at camp the night before. “What is that peak?! Or that peak? And that one to the left?” “There’s an app for that you know” Rob said laughing. I got a new phone a few weeks ago and for two weekends in a row now had forgotten to download peakfinder, which shows you all the peaks. And I’m new to the Pasayten, I’m not used to seeing the Cascades from this vantage point.
Robinson is deceptive. You get up on the ridge above the tarn either taking the S ridge or the SE ridge, and follow that around a cirque to a false summit (where S/SE ridges meet), and then traverse another ridge for like actually a mile before you’re on the summit. This is a combo of talus, side hilling, and a surprisingly fun 3rd class ish scramble. 4th class is generous, there were plenty of hand holds and huge ledges for feet. Some of the traversing we did was harder than the alleged crux moves here due to more exposure (in my opinion). But the team was rock solid, and no one had any trouble with the scramble moves. I’ve seen some crazy dramatic pics of the scramble, not sure if they were from a fish lens go pro or what but I’ll provide you with some more vanilla/”I can handle that” pics.
We took a long break at the summit, topped off with summit sake that Rob had carried up!! My cravings weren’t all for naught! I think I wrote “I think I hate the Pasayten” (no no Pasayten I kid I love you) in the summit register because this was two weekends straight of sun and heat and loose talus. I was anxious to get down because of the incoming heat, so I was the party pooper who started to hustle everyone. Going down went more quickly, though. We backtracked to the false summit, and decided to take the southeast ridge down instead of the south ridge, so we basically traversed the whole cirque above the tarn. We ran into two other parties on their way up, all doing it as a day trip. The southeast ridge had more shenanigans (scrambling, navigation) than the south ridge, which had been a pretty straightforward walk. No bugs anymore, which was lovely. But I was dreading the scree field we’d have to take to get back to the tarn.
The top ~100ft of the scree field have been scraped bare of actual scree, leaving behind hardpacked dirt/who-knows what, ball bearings, a sense of impending doom, and thoughts and prayers for those below you. Smit and I immediately kicked down a stream of small rocks, and traversed skiier’s left to wait for the party on their way up (both named James) to pass. Once they were past, we were free to skid as we pleased, and skid we did. As soon as the hard pack and ball bearings end, you can comfortably plunge step/rock-slide-surf your way down the face. We ignored the switchbacks and cruised back to camp in what felt like just a few minutes.
At the lake, Smit poured rocks out of his shoes and gaitors and we packed up camp and waited for the others to get down. I struck up a convo with a woman named Costanza, turned out we had a bunch of mutual friends. She was chilling at the lake while the Jameses went up Robinson. I was super glad to have good company, especially after a year of being starved of socialization. We headed out from camp around noon, resigned to the heat and the pounding of downhill hiking on the way out. We split into two groups on the way down and agreed to meet at the trailhead before heading out.
The meadows went by super quickly, and we took a short break at the stream where we had lunch the prior day. Again, dunk shirts, dunk hats, get as much covered in cold sweet water as possible, and begin the ~2mi trek to the next stream, which was at the base of 1000ft of brutally dry sunny switchbacks. Oh, and upon reaching that river, we realized there was no good way down to it, so we took a 10min break in the air conditioning before continuing on. Luckily there is a small stream just a few minutes past the bridge, and we dunked our heads in that one proclaiming THE STREAM GIVETH LIFE because the relief felt from that cool water was simply incredible.
We were back at the trailhead just before 2:30, and went straight to the river near the parking lot to cool off. We set up a la croix fridge, changed into shorts and sandals, and started to chill waiting for the second group, which we figured were maybe an hour behind us, worst case. We decided if 5pm came around and they weren’t down we’d go back to look. Well, we waited. Around 4:20, one member from the second group came out. Where are the others? At 4:50, another came down the trail, having high-tailed it out from the bridge after an hour long break thinking the third had snuck ahead of them while they read a book slightly off trail during a break. Except their third wasn’t at the trailhead. She was still out there somewhere. And it was almost 5.
I changed back into pants. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. No one else had come down the trail either, and there were a good 7 others up there. 5 hours to go 6 miles is generous. If the rest of the group waited an hour and she was behind them then she’s at least an hour away, she might not even be back on the Robinson Creek trail yet. And where are the others? We know it’s almost 100 degrees out, 103 in the valley and the trailhead wasn’t that much further up in elevation. I paced for a bit and went over to Rob. We should go check. I’m sure she’s 10min up the trail and I’m overparanoid but we should go check. He jumped into action immediately when he realized what time it was. We packed like 6 litres of water and 4 la croix and some electrolytes and started up the trail. Rob did voice checks in case our teammate had fallen or wandered off trail in the heat. We passed James #1 from Costanza’s group jogging to the trailhead. Heat stroke, he said, your teammate has heat stroke and no way is she getting out of here on her own, it’s not good. 911 was already called, SAR is on the way.
Rob and I started jogging too. My brain went into SAR EMT mode. There’s two people with her, she’s 2.5mi up the trail, she’s in the shade, they’ve been with her for about an hour by now, sounds like AOx3, hopefully they’re close to water, shit heat stroke isn’t gonna be solved in the field, there’s nowhere on the trail for an LZ but maybe a hoist, trail isn’t bad for a litter evac if the medics can bring up ice packs and IVs, where even IS the closest hospital?! And then we rounded the corner after the first bridge just after a mile in. And we saw our teammate. Walking! With Costanza and James #2! I was speechless, I threw my hands in the air in silent celebration and she returned the gesture. Holyshit. She came back.
We ran over to her and Costanza and James2 got us caught up on her progression and what had happened. “My angels!” she was calling them. “They are so nice! My guardian angels! They found me!” Costanza & the Jameses had found our teammate at exactly the right time. She was on a log in the shade, slowly shutting down because of the heat. They soaked her with dozens of bottles filled with water from the nearby stream, and in a crazy show of resiliency our teammate actually recovered enough to walk herself out. She was all bubbles and positivity and gratitude by the time we showed up. At one point leading the way down, I asked if my pace was okay. “Yes, it’s fine… actually a little faster would be fine too.” Okay miss who-needs-heat-exhaustion-anyway, we can go a little faster. And how would you feel about eating some watermelon? “That would be oh, dreamy!!”
The first medics with SAR caught up with us and trailed us on the way out to make sure everything went smoothly, and an ambulance was at the trailhead ready to do a check on vitals to make sure everything was stable and okay (everything looked good!). Rob broke out a celebratory watermelon that the others had hung in the river in a bag so it was ice cold and extra refreshing, and we debriefed on what had happened. It is always a difficult situation to talk about, but it’s a great example of how anything can happen in the mountains regardless of experience, and we need to be as prepared as possible.
Primary things we should have considered:
1. Splitting into two groups, especially on such an abnormally hot day, may have been a bad idea. While everyone in the group is strong and competent, heat, like altitude, can take down even the fittest people with no warning.
2. If you are in a committed group, stay together. Don’t get too far apart, wait if others are out of sight behind you, etc.
3. Know the signs of environmental issues like heat exhaustion and heat stroke (hypothermia in winter) in yourself and in others and how to prevent or treat the problem. We knew this weekend would be a scorcher, and it would have been helpful to do a quick group pow-wow on signs/symptoms/treatment before we started the trip.
4. We arguably should not have even waited until 5pm. 5hrs for 6 miles is very slow. Maybe we should have gone to look around 3:30 or 4.
5. Consider bringing two way radios if there is a chance you’re going to split up. I’ve done this on some hikes and never regretted it (plus radio nicknames are hilarious).
We were very lucky that Costanza’s group found our teammate when they did and could identify what was happening and knew what to do. And even more lucky that our teammate had a miraculous rebound and was able to walk out. SAR was amazing, the medics were amazing, it’s always incredible seeing the unity and selflessness and support when something like this happens. The outdoors community really is tight knit. Naturally we all walked away with some level of guilt and anxiety and embarrassment, but also with a sense of wonder and gratitude. The best we can do is learn from it, respect and appreciate it, and try to help others do the same. And our hot (heh) teammate made a point I like too: she’s now an expert at recognizing the signs and symptoms, knows exactly what to do about it, and can even relate to the person going through it.
Overall, I can’t thank the group enough for a great weekend. Unexpected ending, but it was a crew of happy positive people with funny stories and a lot of determination and resolve and I’d be happy to camp with them again, this time with my own food and sunscreen. Maybe after I’ve read some of the books Zhong and Irma recommended. I have some catching up to do, I think it’s time to finally get a library card!