Royal Basin & Mt. Deception

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Anita coming around a glacier boulder, Deception on the right

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Wildlife by Royal Lake

Hooooly crap, this was a good one. You know sometimes everything just falls into place last minute and your mildly half-assed plans actually work out? That’s what this was. Like 24 hours in advance Anita mentioned she was going to Royal Basin, which I had always wanted to do as a trail run. And some dude had done Mt. Deception earlier that week, so I knew it was in decent shape. And that would be a cool day trip too. Maybe I could run up early in the morning, meet her, and climb Deception? She was stoked when I suggested it, and I decided I’d head up late Sunday night after Marmot Pass/Buckhorn and camp with them so we could get an early start. “What are you wearing?” she asked. “Some yuppie lululemon outfit” I responded. My climbing pants have a 6″ hole in the butt [insert asshole joke]. “No, I mean for boots!” Oh, duh. A real gear question.

  • Distance: 20mi ish
  • Elevation: 5500ft (also ish, highest point 7,788ft)
  • Weather: 50’s and partly cloudy
  • Commute from Seattle: 2:30 without traffic or ferry delays (ha!)
  • Did I Trip: No, I’ve gotten very good at walking
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Flat beautiful trail to Royal Basin

Mt. Deception is the second highest point in the Olympics, which I didn’t know until we were done climbing it. It is one of the largest piles of chossy shit I have ever had the pleasure of touching, and it was mostly covered in snow when we did it. I have strong feelings about this. I would not have enjoyed it if it hadn’t been snow covered. But snow meant some steep snow, some 3rd class scrambling, and a more mountaineery-feeling experience than had we struggled up a one-step-up-slide-half-step-back-god-damn-scree climb.

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I had driven from the Marmot Pass trailhead to the Royal Basin trailhead and was rallying to knock out another 8 miles and meet Anita and Zee at their campsite. I assumed the trail would be flat soft dirt, easy cruising. I had also assumed that the Marmot Pass trail was one mile down the road from the Royal Basin trail.
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Royal Lake with mist in the morning

I was wrong on both counts. There is a Marmot Pass trail close to the Royal Basin trail, but it is not the trail I had taken to get to Marmot Pass. And as for the Royal Basin Trail once I did get there, well… the first two miles were nice soft flat easy cruising, and particularly beautiful in the dappled afternoon sunlight. But after that it’s rocky, uphill, sometimes overgrown, there are mosquitos, devil’s club, spiderwebs to fight through (you know how I feel about that – spiders fine, webs nooooo), and a surprising amount of elevation gain, though usually gradual. And carrying an overnight pack still isn’t pleasant, especially when you did a 13mi hike right before it, and I was not too enthused every time I rounded a corner only to see more uphill, or opened up the map only to see I was somehow only 500ft closer than the last time I checked. Views finally started to open up and I got glimpses of Deception. Shit, I’m going up that? It’s sooooo far.

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This used to be a lake! Heading to the Upper Basin

But I was making good time, and soon enough I heard two hikers. And one voice sounded familiar. Same accent, same tone, a guy dragging behind her… that’s gotta be Anita. I jogged up to Zee and said hi, just as Anita turned around and saw me. And we had a nice running hugging reunion, we hadn’t seen each other in months and holy shit I was so happy to have company for the last mile of the hike so it wasn’t me vs. my mind for another half an hour. And it guaranteed I would find their campsite and not be walking up to random tents in the dark “are YOU Anita?” “are YOUUUU Anita?” “Is ANITA in there?” and blinding everyone with headlamps while I stumbled around exhausted about to give up (which may have happened before).

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Upper Royal Basin

We found a great campsite just northeast of the lake. I crashed in my bivvy almost immediately (after panicking at two things: the recently updated forecast, which showed overnight showers – not great for a non-waterproof bivvy and down sleeping bag and the bear poop like 15ft away and I was between the poop and Anita’s tent, aka I’d be the first bear burrito that evening should the bears decide we smelled delicious). Eventually it didn’t matter because I was unconscious by like 8:30pm and if it did rain, I didn’t even notice.

We got moving around 8am. There is the alpine start (the offensively wee hours of the morn), the Anita start (mid hours of the morn but as late as possible), and the bonfire start (>11am). So 8 wasn’t ideal knowing we’d be slow, but I figured if we moved steadily we’d be fine. And it was partially on me and the fact it took me 20 freaking minutes to find the stupid pit toilets. Zee turned around on the way to the upper basin, and Anita and I continued. The basin is spectacular, almost like Enchantments lite. I can see why the permits are so competitive. That’s another thing, I got SO lucky. Anita had been fighting for permits for years, and here I am mooching off her hard work. And the main attraction over the basin is Deception towering over some small glacier tarns below a dying glacier. At the base of the slopes, we decided to take a rising traverse rather than risk the rockfall on the more direct route, so we started kicking steps uphill. And so it would be for the next few hours.
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Anita on the way up

There were a few scree sections (“ugh, should I remove my crampons?” “Nope, back on snow in 50ft!”) a few loose third class scramble sections (“can i take my crampons off?” “No, back on snow in 20 ft!”) some steep snow (PERFECT conditions for bucket steps and a nicely plunged ice axe) some moats (there’s no way for them to not be awkward, would it help if we took off our crampons?) and a little more kitty litter scrambling (“can I take off my-” “no”) and we finally topped out at the col, marked with a stick to help differentiate from the myriad of other similar cols.

Here’s where the route was longer than expected. We dropped down some talus (loose, because this mountain is a crumbling POS, we’ve been over this) onto another dying glacier and traversed to the back ridge, where “can I take off my crampons” was finally answered with a resounding “YES!” and we rejoiced in the feeling of boot sole on rock instead of scraping metal. We traversed to a third ridge, which was a perfectly straight talus walk on top of the world followed by a short step of near vertical snow and a final talus walk (i’m so done with talus by this point) to the summit, where we sang and hollered and waved at Zee and marveled at the views. It truly was incredible. Long day of uphill, but high reward with the gorgeous scenery up there.
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Pieces of steep snow

But we had to descend all of the shit we had come up. Getting back off the upper talus section was easy. Crossing the glacier on the north side was easy. Getting back up to the stick-marked col was easy. Then we had the only tricky part to contend with: downclimbing a few sections of pretty steep snow. Maybe 50 degrees. Face in, kick steps downclimbing. I kicked enormous steps for Anita, and luckily some cloud cover meant the snow wasn’t total slush. We actually made surprisingly good time, and these are the parts of climbs that are so singular, so focused, that everything else goes away. I had lingering stress from my old job and nerves around starting a new one, nerves around fitness after working weekends for so long, none of that matters when you’re on terrain like this.

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Some 3rd class scramble

We even skirted most of the 3rd class scramble, with one awkward 4th class step either on a thin downward sloping slab or to hop across a moat back onto snow (pick your poison, I do think Anita’s route across the moat was better but I thought it looked sketchy from up high). From there, we cruised plunge stepping down moderate snow the entire way back to the basin after a short scree field! It was amazing! We found yaktrax prints at the bottom, I said I hope that’s Zee. Despite turning around earlier, it turned out he had rethought (almost went with “rethunk”) his decision, and gave it another shot. And I’m glad he did, the upper basin was phenomenal. We soon found goat hoof prints perfectly inside of the yak trax. They continued for maybe a mile, until we eventually found Zee, hiding in a patch of bushes from the goat that had been stalking him for literal hours. He did get an incredible picture when the goat got too close for comfort.

 

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Mr. Billy Goat (credit Zee!)

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Coming across the north face

We made it back to camp around 4. Zee went to get water (THANK YOU! I was so tired I did not want to do camp chores) while Anita and I changed our shoes and laid around a groaned. When Zee hadn’t returned for 20 minutes, we started wondering what was up. Should we be worried? Is he taking a nap? Maybe we should go look. And then we saw Mr. Billy Goat walk across the trail again, slowly, starting at us. “Zee, the goat is back!” Anita shouted. And then we hear Zee’s deep grumbly voice. “…I know.” We burst out laughing. He couldn’t get away. It’s okay, Mr. Goat will be extradited to the Cascades any day now if he hasn’t been helo-dropped there already.

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Anita coming along the final ridge

I hung out until 5, and then packed up my bags to start the slog back to the car. Anita gave me a brownie for the way out (THANK YOU! For feeding me! Everyone fed me this weekend!) and I started on my way, where I was immediately blocked by Mr. Goat. God. Dammit. I tossed a rock and whined. I just wanna go hooooome mr goat pleeeease let me pass! He eventually ambled over to the side of the trail and I darted past. Anita made a bet that I’d be back at the car by 7:30. I thought 8. But she had given me a goal, and I made it back at exactly 7:30. Even took a selfie to prove it.

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One last push to the top! Mystery in the background

Huuuuuge thanks to Anita and Zee for adding me to their Olympics permit at the last minute, and to Ranger Scott for all of the phone calls trying to get my name on there (and my payment). Seriously amazing trip, and another data point that the Olympics are far more beautiful than I ever give them credit for. And I was the perfect amount of wrecked when I woke up back in Seattle on Tuesday. Just in time for a shit ton of programming homework that I had procrastinated on. Woohoo!

P.S. This would be a sweet trail run (maybe minus the chossy shit, like we discussed above. Wait for snow).
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Olympus way in the distance, the highest point in the Olympics

Tormented on Torment & a Liberty Bell Redemption

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You know you’re in for a long night when this is the view while rappelling

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Looking at the entire traverse from Boston Basin

How did my last post start? Murphy’s law? Well this one is similar, but more along the lines of “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” We had big dreams to do the Torment Forbidden traverse, which I had done last year. Last year I had followed all of it, so it was super easy in my head. I didn’t understand why everyone took three days and not just two. I was also in better shape with more exposed climbing under my belt, whereas this year I haven’t been out as much. But it’s also because seconding puts you on autopilot. This year, for whatever reason, was a different story. On the way up I joked about how 30% of my North Cascades trips are bail trips. Jinx, I owe myself a soda.

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Calvin coming across the basin, Johannesburg back right

We car camped in Calvin’s awesome rooftop tent by the river flowing beneath Cascade River Road the night before (maybe a half mile from the trailhead) and woke up at 5 to get started. The hike up to Boston Basin was less miserable than the last year, though we still had to contend with bugs and a surprisingly high level of humidity. Calvin was having some struggles. “Shit! Fuckin tree branch-” I heard the buzzing. “Ah, shit, SHIT!” It wasn’t a branch stabbing him. Three bee stings to the right arm. Let the swelling and itching begin. Is that enough of an issue to count towards my three strikes rule? (3 things go wrong, I bail). Meh, he can probably tough it out.

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Wildflowers everywhere

The basin was even more gorgeous this year, with wildflowers and trickling streams and sparkling glaciers. I honestly have no idea why more people don’t just do this as an overnight backpacking destination. I checked out the toilet, hoping I’d utilize it before I was in bluebagging territory, and stashed my walking stick with the rangers’ shovel. I expected more snow than last year, but the dry streak out here has nearly caught up to summer 2016 conditions. We restocked water at a stream running across slabs just below the glacier and trekked our way up to the notch left of Torment, not bothering to rope up as the glacier and snow bridges were still solid. We could see a team on the traverse above us, just by the ledge where I had bivvied last year. We made some nice crampon-on-rock moves to get across the small moat separating the glacier from the gulley, strapped crampons back on our packs, and scrambled up the gully to the notch where the rock climb begins. The gully is fourth class, arguably a fifth class move here and there. Time to remember how to climb, baby!

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Crossing the glacier, Torment on the left (photo credit Calvin)

Oh no, wait, first I dropped my glacier glasses all the way down the gully and into the moat. I cursed and laughed. Hey Calvin… can you go get those? He was below me, and therefore closer to them, and I was definitely not downclimbing the moves I had just made if I didn’t have to. To be fair, not having glasses on something like this is basically a dealbreaker. So he dropped down under the moat, probably cursing my existence, and retrieved my sunglasses. Thanks buddy.

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Cal retrieving my glasses

We were already set on me leading, for whatever reason. I was in my head about the first move, remembering it being the single hardest part of Torment. It was just as awkward as last year, but I muscled through it (who needs technique). We were off. I forgot that the hardest part of leading is freaking routefinding. I’d stare at two options, both of which would probably go, but is one better than the other? If I saw rap slings or belay station slings I’d aim for those, otherwise we’d trend up and left. My new shoes were killing my feet and we weren’t moving fast, Calvin kept catching up and then there’d be too much slack so I’d end up just belaying him up to me before re-starting simulclimbing. Might have been helpful to have him just toss a grigri on his end of the rope to pull his own slack through as he caught up. The only slack management we were really using was a microtrax at the top of legit pitches, a trick I learned last year. I squeezed up a left leaning crack and heard a series of “clink…clink, clink, clink, clink” behind me, and turned around to watch my can of spray sunscreen go tapping off each rock below, landing on the glacier a thousand or so feet below. Great, that’ll be there in 30 years when the glacier dies. SPF 30 banana boat can lying on a slab. I’m an asshole. I’ll send some young whipper snapper after it in a few decades.

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Over the crux right off the notch (photo credit Calvin)

As I started getting tired, route finding became trickier. Analysis paralysis was a problem. Instead of just making decisions I’d stare at two options for 2 minutes, for 5 minutes, wishing someone else was making the calls. I finally scrambled up through a a tunnel which I didn’t remember from last year and into a chimney with an overhung chockstone to contend with at the top. God dammit. Nothing was this hard last year. I set up a near-hanging belay at the bottom of the chimney and brought Calvin up. “I don’t like where I am, can you see if the route wraps left around the bottom of this instead of up it?” Calvin grunted through the tunnel unnecessarily and quickly found that you can drop down on some 4th class ledges to a bivvy platform. Unless this is a sidetrack for a bivvy, it’s gotta be the route. I downclimbed the chimney to a horn and brought up a bunch of slack on the rope so I could toss a loop around the horn and effectively fake-rap down to Calvin, who then belayed me across to the bivvy ledge. Fuck I need snacks and water and I can’t stand on my feet because my toes are crushed, we’re taking a break.

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Calvin coming up with Johannesburg in the backdrop

I dropped my pack and took off my shoes and had some almonds and water. Damn this would be a nice bivvy ledge if we had more water. I told Calvin maybe he should lead, we’d be going so much faster. He refused. Trying to give me the lead, dammit. He poked his head around the corner and it was another set of 4th class ledges to get down to the white gully I remembered from last year. And the gully itself is just a loose piece of shit scramble, so you dance up it trying not to destroy your partner’s helmet. We got to the notch and followed footprints (another mistake – whoever made those prints did not know where they were going) instead of dropping down to the nice grassy ledges that would take us to the summit. We reach the saddle between summits after excessive profanity, scarily loose rock, an abject lack of solid handholds and footholds and nowhere to place trustworthy pro. I found a great flake for a nut. Oh, the whole flake moves? Ahh! A great crack for a cam. Oh, a light tug makes the whole crack expand?! Ahh!! A great horn to sling with a runner. Oh, the whole horn tilts forward when I pull on it?! Fuck this shit!!! I hate everything!! There hasn’t been anywhere to sit besides the bivvy ledge for the past 4 hours and I swear last year we did this in like 3 hours and why are we so slow and how did I not notice how loose this was last year and I know all we have ahead us is rapping into a moat to climb out of followed by gnarly exposed 4th class traversing for literally days and you know what? I’m not having fun anymore. The expletives streaming up the ledges from Calvin below me confirmed he was on the same page. I brought him up to my hilariously shitty anchor (I threw in pieces, yes all of them moved, but at least I could sit sort of). Calvin had been in a nice position where all four points of contact were loose, and I’m sure he was thrilled to find out he was roped up with a grumpy chick sitting on a shitty downsloping ledge with an anchor that probably wouldn’t hold the weight of a duck.

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Calvin topping out at the top of the white gully

We agreed to bail. I think if we had mentally committed three days to the traverse maybe we’d have kept going, but we had only committed two, and we were both just not feeling it. Calvin had been in his head for the past few days, I had a downward spiral over the past two hours and was basically hobbling (it’d be limping if it was one foot being problematic, but it was both), the remainder of the climb was no joke, and I wanted to be down. Calvin had promised Tricia that if anything felt off we’d bail, and here we were both pissed and stressed. Who cares. I’ve already done it, it’ll be there next year, I felt bad not bringing our memorial wildflowers for Sue (who had passed on the TFT a week prior) but they were already crushed. I remembered Torment being the easiest part of the traverse last year, and didn’t want to commit the next two days to a similar or higher stress level.

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Sun starting to set on Boston and Sahale

Calvin scrambled ahead to see if he could find rap slings. No dice. We saw some below us. Apparently most people rappel down to the grassy ledges that lead to the saddle you take to rap down onto the north side for the traverse. Last year we just downclimbed with no rope. Ha. I switched back to mountaineering boots, which I probably should have done at the bivvy site, because my feet were utterly destroyed. I could walk again!! I demolished a bag of peanut M&Ms, not realizing how badly I had needed fuel. Wow. We started rappelling into the unknown, hoping at the end of each rap that we’d find a new nest of slings. Hey, we’ve rapped into the dark before, we’re ready for this. The glacier looked so close, there must be a rap route down.

The first few went smoothly, since we still had daylight. Calvin went first. We got pretty quick about setting up rappels. Find the tat nest, Cal lands, I land, untie knots,Cal starts feeding one end through the rap ring, I pull the other end, each tie off one end and lap coil that half, both toss rope, repeat. As sun began to set, it got darker, and both Calvin and I have shit vision. Finally we took out the headlamps and it was my turn to go first (I guess his night vision is even worse than mine). He had just missed a rap station and had to climb back up the rope. He wished me luck, and off I went. Into the abyss.
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Spooky moat cave (taller than I am)

To the rap station he didn’t see, like 20ft below us. Shortest rappel ever. We set up at that rap station and I got in the next rap, which was a full rope with some nice overhanging stretches. Good, that meant we were losing elevation quickly. But it also meant there was potential to rap off of gear and potentially even a hanging station if we didn’t find a ledge. Luckily, I saw a small nest of new tat off to the right, and traversed over to it. By now it was dark. Calvin joined me. Hoping this would be the last rappel, I swung around the slung horn (awkward entry to this rappel) and started over another overhanging section, followed by a sheer rock face. I focused my headlamp on the ends of the rope, which dangled a few feet above a slanted ledge that ran out 10ft to a ~20ft drop to the ground. There was a decent sized moat, and the snowpack was ~12ft from the wall. There was a nice snow ledge I might be able to make it to that was only ~6ft from the wall, and we could ice climb over it and flop on the glacier and boot our way back to camp. But would the ropes reach? I didn’t like seeing them dangle and twitch as I continued down. I figured with rope stretch on my side, I had a chance. I shouted back up to Calvin. I’m gonna give it a shot, might need to prussik my ass back up if it doesn’t go. I’m sure he cursed in response, I couldn’t hear him over the sound of my awesomeness determination.

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Cal using his nut tool as a spoon for snow cones (attempt to rehydrate)

Well the rope stretch was just enough, and I managed to hit the downsloping ledge with my ass. It was sheer except for one tiny crimpy foothold, and the wall next to me had no handholds. Shit. So I was held in place by my autoblock. I prussiked my pack onto the rope so I wouldn’t drop it into the dark black yonder below me and took it off my back so I could put on crampons and get my ice axe. I needed to get onto the snow ledge. With some wriggling and one-handed-crampon-strapping action, I pulled a bunch of slack through the autoblock and scooted over to get my frontpoints onto the one crimpy hold on the slab and kicked a toe hold on the vertical snow. It should only take two moves, I should be able to basically stem it, god dammit why don’t I do more yoga, if I could do a split this would be so much easier. Deep Warrior II. If I fell I’d only go like 10ft down the moat, it would just suck and I’d have to prussik back up the rope to get onto my slab ledge and try again. I was too exhausted for that.

I finally managed to swing my weight up and onto the snow platform where I slammed my axe into the snow and kicked crampons in and loosened my autoblock and thanked the sweet baby jesus that the 2ft thick ledge was frozen enough I didn’t just punch through and destroy it. I anchored to a screw ~5ft up the side of the ice we’d need to climb to get out, took myself off rappel, and tied up the ends of the rope so I wouldn’t drop them into the moat (leaving Calvin to do the same shit I had just done, albeit probably more elegantly). Okay Cal, your turn. Put on your crampons and get your ice tool ready!
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Our awesome bivvy site (photo credit Cal)

I heard the scraping of crampons on rock as Calvin dropped onto the rappel. He came over the lip of the rock face and saw the moat and released another stream of curses. I held the ends of the rope so he’d come straight to the snow shelf, and handed him my ice axe (should have brought a tool…) and pointed out the 7 or so ft he’d be leading. There’s my screw, you got a picket, we’re almost out of here. Calvin snapped into focus and was the happiest I had seen him in a few hours. Some people just enjoy being useful. He was up and over the lip in three swift moves and fewer than 12 f bombs (most of which were directed at my axe, because the pick wouldn’t stick to the frozen snow at all). He pounded in a picket, belayed me up, and we rapped as far down as we could off the picket since face-in-downclimbing steep snow is a pain in the ass and it was like midnight. I’m getting really good at leaving gear behind. Oh, we had rapped off a nut earlier too. Jesus.

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Johannesburg over wildflowers

Back on plain mellow snow we retraced our steps to the first slab before the glacier where we had stopped for water. Every patch of rocks Calvin would ask “is this the water?!” We had been out of water for hours. I don’t drink water like at all, so I was in my usual persistent state of dehydration. We finally found the slabs and drank so much water and I went to the bathroom for the first time all day and we set up our bivvies and made dinner (it’s 2am at this point) and I used my medical tape on my dehydrated meal because there was a hole in the bag 😦 The meal never cooked but I was so hungry I didn’t care. Crunchy salt dry risotto anyone?

Going to sleep those nights is amazing. You’re just so content and it’s so gorgeous and you’re so cozy. We slept in until like 9am. That’s the latest I’ve slept in literally years if you ignore when I go back to the east coast. Calvin made coffee, we discovered that we had cell service, he facetimed Tricia, we debated what to do. Head over to Sharkfin and do that Sunday? Calvin wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go home, I had taken a vaca day for this! He suggested WA Pass. Beckey route up Liberty Bell. I needed to get my lead brain fixed so I could stop this shit. Great, let’s do it.
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Going up the chimney on the second pitch (photo credit Cal)

We hiked back to the car, stopped at the first gas station we saw for benadryl (Cal’s arm was now quite swollen and itchy from the bee stings), and stopped at my car so I could grab my other rock shoes and leave the toe crushers behind. We drove to Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop for dinner, where we destroyed guacamole burgers and beer. We car camped in Calvin’s awesome rooftop tent at the Blue Lake trailhead, woke up at 6, and got moving around 6:30. The approach to the Beckey Route is super easy besides an annoyingly loose gully scramble to the notch where it starts, but soon enough we were at the base. We got gear set up waiting for the team ahead of us, and headed up as soon as they were at the top of the first pitch.

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Belaying at the top of the second pitch

The first pitch is a fun low fifth class “chimney” that you follow beneath a chockstone, though it feels more like climbing a gully than a chimney since there are jugs everywhere with a sweet layback move towards the top. Good hands, good feet. We cruised up it and met the group ahead of us at the belay station. Plenty of room for two teams. The second pitch has a real chimney, requiring actual chimney technique, which I inched up while bitching about chimneys. Over a few chockstones it turns into blocky climbing, and you belay at a tree below the slabby pitch. We passed the team in front of us to get to a further tree, and waited there for them to continue up.

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Heading up the third pitch (photo credit Cal)

The third pitch calls itself fourth class until the crack traverse, but I’d call it low fifth class slabs. The first 20ft or so are easy fourth class, but the 20ft leading to the crack felt technical to me. I placed a ‘panic piece’ (a piece that I usually know is shitty but I want to feel like I placed something, it’s a waste of time and energy) on the first traverse. The finger crack traverse itself was honestly not that bad, just a little side leaning and awkward. Good smears and a good hand in the crack were fine. I overshot the belay station here and went all the way up to the base of the infamous slab, and brought Calvin up.

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There are actually two climbers in this photo

We wasted some time trying to get my cam unstuck, since I had yanked it out in a bad direction and gotten it pretty jammed in there. Then we waited for a team to lower over the slab, and then we were up. It looked intimidating, but was actually surprisingly short and really only one or two moves to get ahold of the glory jugs at the top. From there, we scrambled to the summit, where Calvin donned his summit hat as I sipped on whiskey.

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Summit hat and whiskey!

Two rappels get you back to the base of the route (fastest descent ever and so refreshing after the 11-rappels-ending-in-a-moat debacle of the previous climb) where you can get your gear back, climb back down the annoyingly loose scramble, and hike back to the car on beautifully mellow well maintained trail. We were at the car by 3, stopped for dinner along highway 20, and I was in Seattle once again at a reasonable hour. Crazy when that happens.

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Cal downclimbing to the first rappel

So the weekend was salvaged, and ended up being interspersed with great burgers, beer, benadryl for all, and luxurious car camping. But it was awesome to finally get past my mental block rock climbing and start to get my confidence back after the past few months, and we still enjoyed some pretty awesome terrain and views. We’ll be back for TFT next year when there are fewer mental games going on. Huge thanks to Calvin for putting up with my anxious ass and making me take the lead all weekend, even after the first trip was so rough. Finally coming to the light at the end of the tunnel after trying to get back into climbing the past few months!

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Goat just chilling (photo credit Calvin)

Three Fingers via Bushwack & Meadow Mountain

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Three Fingers from Tin Can Gap

Well you know Murphy’s law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. We came out of it alive, but this was certainly a casual-hike-with-a-bonus-rock-climb-turned-epic-mountaineering-objective due to our unfamiliarity with the route. We improvised where it might have been faster to be normal, and we tried for normal when it might have been faster to improvise. Whoops! I swear not all trips are like that. And it wasn’t a shitshow, just longer than we expected. Hiked 7/15-7/16, here is the Three Fingers Lookout!

  • Distance: Roughly 18 miles. 7 up, 11 down.
  • Elevation: ~4800ft gain, 6,854ft highest point
  • Weather: 50’s and sunny, 40’s and misty
  • Commute from Seattle: 2 hours without traffic (but there was traffic)
  • Did I trip: Yes, mostly I fell uphill on the damn bushwack in the night
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I’m a spooky ghost (selfie credit: Haley)

We started up around 8:30pm on Friday, which was 11:30pm for the visiting Floridian (Haley). She was tan at least, so she had that going for her. Convinced I’d be last to the party, I went straight to the trailhead, where I met Calvin, Tricia, and Florida after getting myself lost on a gated forest road. Nailed it. The road to Three Fingers is truly blocked now, with enormous boulders buried in dirt so no one can tow them off like last summer. They really don’t want people driving down that road. There’s also an enormous cedar tree down across the road maybe a mile past the boulders, and I have no idea what’s past that besides an enormous washout ~2mi from the true trailhead. Probably more terrible things waiting to destroy your car.

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Bivvy morning (photo credit: Haley)

We took what we thought would be a shortcut up a ridge pretty much straight from the road closure to Goat Flats. Unfortunately, in the dark, that “shortcut” was more like “a five hour long epic” that didn’t quite get us to the flats because around 2am we decided we were just going to camp at the next flat spot we saw. The shortcut was steep, brushy, had some nice 3rd class scramble moves through the forest, a bleached goat skull (“a human skull?! I’m fucking bailing if it’s a human skull that’s just too creepy I hate the forest”) placed a little too perfectly on a rock, sticky green seeds from bushes that clung to my leggings like velcro, a plethora of spiderwebs, probably bears, and the echoing of gunshots from the rednecks on the forest road below (no offense guys, but between the guns and the thumping base at 1am you aren’t exactly making a great first impression). Haley and I apparently don’t like the dark or bumps in the night, Calvin and Tricia were way behind, and I can’t see shit in the dark, so that left Haley to be the brave one and scout out the flagging tape. We started classifying spiderwebs. Class 1 was a strand of cobweb. Class 2 was a legit cluster. Class 3 was a full formed web. Class 4 was a huge fucking fully formed web with the spider inside of it and I don’t want to know what class 5 would be and 5.12a would probably be enough to send me into cardiac arrest and flee this world for a better one. I had my usual “what are we doing here” moment around 12:30am when Haley took a bathroom break and I stood in the dark waiting for Calvin and Tricia. Why do we do this? Haley had hers an hour later when she bitched out a pinecone. You show that pinecone who’s boss, Florida.

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Cal enjoying the views from Goat Flats

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Goat Flats Throne

I was happy to snuggle down into my bivvy when we decided to call it before Goat Flats. I brought twice as much food as Calvin, Haley, and Tricia combined, which ended up being a good thing a day and a half later. They let me stuff it in their bear bags, which they hung off a tree. We slept for 5 hours and then had a lazy wakeup with breakfast, coffee, the works. And we started up to Goat Flats, which we reached after an hour of mellow hiking, barely even bushwacking.

I was told there was a toilet, and given my self admitted obsession with alpine toilets I decided I’d find it. I jogged in circles around the goat paths until I saw a sign. “TOILET” with an arrow. Ooh! It’s like a scavenger hunt. I jogged in that direction, looking for the throne. Another sign. “TOILET” with another arrow. Bust through those trees, jog in that direction, check every cluster of trees for a hidden shitter. Finally found it, surrounded by trees, maximum alpine privacy. That’s bullshit. I want views. I have no idea why they didn’t perch it on the slope 50ft away so you could enjoy looking at the lookout, which was way too far away for us to get excited. I’m not sure this one will make it to the 50 Classic Craps of Washington. Maybe because of the location and not the views.
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Summer trail with patchy snow

We packed up our snacks and started down the summer trail to the lookout. Through the forest it was melted out, but when we popped out on the south side of the ridge it was snow covered. We kicked steps across mellow slopes up to Tin Can Gap, which was partially melted out, enough for wildflowers! At Tin Can Gap we got our first real look at the lookout, perched atop the south summit. Sweet! We weren’t making great time, so we ditched our original plan of traversing the three summits. Oh well. The ropes and cams were relegated to training weight. God dammit.

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Tricia pulling some nifty moves in the moat

Rather than drop onto the glacier, we stuck with the summer trail. That was our mistake. We expected it to be more melted out, or more snow covered, not the awkward in between we ran into. Decent moats to negotiate, one of which involved a rock that slashed my thumb. It probably needed stitches, it still hasn’t healed, and I’m not sure my thumb will ever be the same shape again. Some steep snow to traverse. Some downclimbing third class scrambles, occasionally with crampons (the worst). Some goats, completely uninterested in us but making us look like slow bumbling fools while they dashed down the fields. And finally, a somewhat melted out trail, surrounded by wildflowers, switchbacking on top of the world. Yes. This is why I was here. I hadn’t been expecting wildflowers! We finally hit a snowfield that took us to the final scramble to the lookout. We had no idea where the ladders were, so we each scrambled a separate path to the top.

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Calvin, Tricia, and Haley on moderate snow

I heard Calvin drop one of his classic F bombs. Shit, this wasn’t the top. There was a huge gulley. The good news was he could see the ladders, and we’re idiots, they were right around the corner. I was stuck on a downclimb, I went a little too far with an overnight pack and realized I was not going to be able to scramble down that I just did. Cal tossed me a rope (“what do you need?” “a #1 cam please!” “no, but here’s a few feet of rope”) which I looped around a small horn to fake-rap myself back to safety. Damn downclimbs.

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Florida downclimbing in crampons…yay!

We scurried around the corner and bam, there were the ladders. Woo! But don’t be deceived, they’re crooked and squeaky with one or two rungs that feel like they’re toast any day now. And the airy step to the third ladder makes you pause for a split second. But once you’re up the third ladder, you’re at the lookout, and it’s time to relax.

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Summer trail!!

The clouds moved in quickly, and we were soon socked in by fog. Total bummer, but hey it makes the lookout more cozy. We hoped it’d clear up in the morning, but until then it was dinner, hot chocolate, alpine cider, mountain trivia (there’s a mountain trivia book up there!) and Haley (still on east coast time) was snoring soundly within 30 minutes.

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“do any of these go” (photo credit: Haley)

The recommended waste disposal at the lookout is literally chuck-a-dook. I explained this in a blog post years ago. It’s the most hilarious method, and more convenient for everyone (besides the environment) than blue bagging. Elegantly explained by a piece of paper pinned to the wall of the lookout, you find a nice flat rock, shit on it, and toss it off into the distance, out yonder over the cliffs where the Glacier Waste Treatment Plant takes care of it (aka the Queest Alb Glacier will hide it until it melts out in 100 years, and then there will be slabby boulders scattered with turds).

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Ladders! Yay!

The lookout had some old fire-spotting tools, emergency water in the “attic,” a bottle of bottom shelf tequila, some old first aid supplies, and summit registers/log books going back to the 70’s. The approach to this peak used to be via the Boulder River Trail, which I think is so freaking cool. It took you to Tupso Pass, then followed the “current” trail to the lookout. Then FR 41 to Tupso Pass was built, and suddenly the hike was only 16 miles round trip, and it became swamped with traffic. Even last year when someone towed the boulders off the road (hence the newly piled dirt on top of the boulders this year) the lookout saw a huge spike in hikers, which was painfully obvious on the WHC Facebook group and quite evident in the summit register when we flipped through it. The huge washout is only 2 miles from the trailhead, but the boulders and dirt block the road 8 or 9 miles back, effectively doubling the distance of the hike A few guys tried the old Boulder River approach, which I’d love to attempt someday when I have a week to dedicate to brutal North Cascades bushwacking. Yuck. There used to be cabins where Gerkman Creek joins Boulder River, so you could hike a ways in and stay in a shelter before continuing on to Tupso Pass and the eventual lookout. The trail was ravaged by logging and now has several decades of Devil’s Club and brush growth, and it sounds like there isn’t much left. I have to wonder if it would be a more interesting hike than walking/biking FR41 if someone were to blaze it and get some foot traffic started up again. Here is a map that shows the old trail to Tupso Pass (where FR41 currently ends).

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Coming up the last stretch to the lookout (photo credit: Haley)

We enjoyed out night of sleep in the lookout, and didn’t even get to meet Alpine Andy, the resident rat. He might be dead, cause I think his legacy started in the 70’s (he was there first!) and I doubt rats live for 40+ years. But we left some crumbs as a sacrifice to Alpine Andy and the mountain gods to forgive us for chucking our dookies onto the glacier.

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View of the North peak in the clouds

In the morning we had another lazy start. I had coffee and felt absolutely amazing 30 minutes later. Is this what I’ve been missing my whole life?! Maybe I should start drinking it. We lit the sparklers Tricia brought that we had forgotten to use the previous night, and started down the ladders in the fog. They’re worse when they’re soaking wet, and the scrambley moves are that much more awkward. Haley wore all gray, which sucked for photos. Come on Haley. Florida is no excuse for all gray.

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Ladders aren’t always easy

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Ask her why she wore gray

We dropped down the snowfield quickly, and found the huge boulder we had scouted out the day before. We figured we could rap down to the glacier and walk across that instead of following the summer trail, which had been a pain in the ass. Cal and I set up a nice double rope rappel, Haley and I went down first to counter balance each other (one on each strand), and Cal and Tricia came next. We pulled the ropes, set up two teams of two, and started across the glacier. Honestly we probably could have downclimbed the talus field, but it was loose and crappy and we had 7 ACLs for 4 people so rapping was easier.

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Wildflowers in the mist

That’s what we should have done on the way up. Take the glacier, not the freaking summer trail. It was an easy walk with some stretches of steep snow, but we kicked a sidewalk for everyone and even found a rogue water bottle from a previous party (which, in hindsight, I think we forgot to pick up. Shit). We were back at Tin Can Gap within a few hours, and carried on to Goat Flats. From there, instead of taking our shortcut back down, we took the Meadow Mountain trail. Tricia is just a few months off ACL surgery, and going down that steep ass shortcut probably would have sent her back to the table. The Meadow Mountain trail wasn’t bad to Saddle Lake, where it got a bit brushy for about an hour. The trail appears to bypass the true summit of Meadow Mountain, but it’s honestly not in terrible shape. I started fighting foot fatigue, and finally Haley and I ditched Calvin and Tricia and said we’d meet them back at the car. 20 minutes after we split up I realized I had just told Tricia to eat her last Gu because I had a bunch she could have (I knew Cal was out), and then I took off leaving them with nothing. So I found a nice log that had fallen across the trail, and left several Gus, some shot blocks, and a packet of advil for whatever pains I imagined they were enduring. “It’ll be like a mile to the road” Calvin had said, which had made me laugh. “A mile and 2500ft of elevation loss, right.”

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Florida remembering how to walk on snow (taking the glacier back to Tin Can Gap)

It was several hours, with a gnarly blowdown that threw all of us off the trail. Haley and I found the shortcut relatively quickly since there’s a strip through the brush leading down to the next switchback (“nothing leaves traces that obvious except for people… it must be to the trail”) but Calvin and Tricia weren’t so lucky. It had occurred to me to maybe leave a rock arrow on the trail or some sign to turn off there to avoid the blowdown, but I’m a lazy asshole.

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Calvin jogging across Goat Flats to get water

“I see the road!!” Haley sounded excited. Meadow Mountain would drop us off on the old road about two miles from our cars, so we wanted to reach the road by dark. But the “road” she saw was a log. Come on, Florida, you’re the one with the good eyesight. Finally she saw the road for real (“shut up I’m not listening until OH MY GOD IT IS THE ROAD!!!”) and we hustled down to it, only to begin the real slog. My feet were killing me in my damn mountaineering boots, and we had a forest road to walk. The cedar tree was the real relief, because it was so freaking cool. I started counting the rings but lost interest at ring #150, which was like 1/3-1/4 of the way across the log, so we lowballed the age at 550 years.  EDIT: Another guy counted the rings and got 745!! A tree that was 745 years old! Hoooooolyyyy Shiiiit. Insane seeing something that massive. I want to cut a slice and make a table out of it.

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Holy shit!! It IS the road!

We got back to the car just before dark, where I pulled out my car camping stuff and we sat down and destroyed a box of cheez its. We placed bets on when Tricia and Calvin would be back. I nailed it with a guess of 10:45. They got back to us and it turned out they had tried to radio and text and everything telling us to just go home, but we hadn’t gotten any of the communication. Oh well, it’s 11pm on a Sunday and I’m lying on a forest road looking at the stars, it could be worse.

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745 years old!! Me for scale (photo credit: Haley)

I bailed pretty quickly. The drive out felt like it took forever. I passed a guy in a flannel on the side of the road just staring off into the dark. People are fucking terrifying. But hey, the trip was awesome, despite the surprisingly long days and abject lack of views at the lookout. There’s a fair bit of history up there, and now that I know the route (aka drop to the glacier if it’s early season or very snowy, it’ll save you SO much time) it’ll be faster next time. I’d love to see how much Goat Flats has been restored since the road closure. I am under the impression it used to be insanely popular, and the goat herds had actually migrated and are just recently returning to the area. It’s amazing that the lookout is kept in such good shape by volunteers, and I love that that’s the case. It’s too bad more lookouts like that one weren’t preserved.

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Tough to be unhappy in such a spectacular place!

So if you have a two day weekend, it’s definitely worth checking out, especially as the trail melts out. The glacier would be a great ski too if it’s early season, and snow might make the approach through the woods easier (if it’s consolidated – powder would be a bitch). There is a limited supply of flat rocks up there for chuckadook though, so get up there while supplies last!