Granite Mountain Bivvy & Ski

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Kaleetan & Chair Peaks in the background

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The lookout with Rainier

Don’t get excited, I know everyone loves a good ah-shit-I-was-stranded-overnight story but this was an intentional bivvy. I was having a hell of a day. Around 6pm JT texted out of the blue. “Wanna go sleep on granite?” I mean… yes? But I’m anxious. Should I stay here in case Google answers my emails and there is a real issue, I’m still stuck getting access to this freaking API which I wanted to have by Monday, I still haven’t finished my taxes, I need to clean, my tabs are about to expire, oh god the panic set in and then was exacerbated by all of the big picture concerns that get dredged up when I’m in a bad place. My two best friends moved this morning, my other best friend is still dead, I have a mortgage to pay and what if I never save enough money to do anything ever again besides fix my house, what if I take 6 hours to get to the top of Granite and I forgot how to ski? Kacie called me to straighten out my manic state and I left the conversation 30 minutes later confident that Granite was the right choice. I’m in. I’m packed. Are you ready?? I’m ready. Let me know when you’re an hour away. Come on come on come on!

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Not so bad sidehilling (PC: JT)

I ranted for the entire 60 minute drive (in my head, alone in my car, you’re welcome). I was hoping anger and frustration would carry me up the mountain, but by the time I got to the trailhead I was just exhausted. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I was just going to be head down, one foot in front of the other until my ass was on top of that ridge looking up at the stars in my cozy bivvy and then I’d take a deep breath of air and remember that the majority of things that stress me out don’t matter and it’s just a matter of perspective. Perspective that has been difficult to get the past few months, whether it be because of work or weather or conditions.

  • Distance: 9.5mi round trip (incl. West Granite)
  • Elevation: ~4600ft net gain (5,600ft highest point)
  • Weather: 20’s and clear overnight, 50’s and clear during the day
  • Commute from Seattle: 60min
  • Did I Trip: Basic trip on flat ground followed by a ski wipeout also on flat ground an hour later. Don’t get complacent folks
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The ridge in the dark

We started up the trail, which was snow free for probably two entire miles. From there it turned into some uncomfortable sidehilling, fighting with skis and boots caught in trees trying to balance on said uncomfortable side hilling (you’re like 2′ wider than you usually are when the boots are sticking off of your skis too), and oh yeah we were wearing running shoes. It’s a delicate balance, trying to rip skis through branches while not slipping or committing to the point where you stumble.

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Bedtime! (PC: JT)

Once we got above treeline, JT broke trail and took off. Which was a relief, because screw skis snagging on trees, screw my soppy wet feet, screw the cold, the highway is stupid, it looks like it’s the same distance away all the time so we’re making no progress, it better not rain, and why is it always longer to reach this ridge than I think it is. This brought us back to our regularly scheduled evening programming, where JT is mostly a headlight dancing in front of me and I moan in my head until we get there because my bedtime is at 9 and for some reason I’m dragging my ass up a mountain at 11pm instead of sleeping. And I wasn’t sure if I still had feet. They were there somewhere, numb stumps becoming one with the ice in the darkness. At one point I figured JT had disappeared over a knoll, until I heard his voice 30ft in front of me. He had turned off his headlamp to get a better look at where we were going (that sounds like the opposite of what you should do, but your eyes adjust to the darkness and there’s usually enough light above treeline to still see shapes) and probably could have scared the shit out of me if he had waited just a few seconds longer until I was closer.

The ridge was almost a knife edge, which was wild in the dark. Abyss on both sides, though in the morning it turned out the height was not nearly as significant as it seems in the darkness. We debated camping lower than the lookout on a flat piece of ground, but I figured a) there has to be some flat around the lookout and b) I didn’t come this far to camp 50 feet below the top. ONWARD.
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Sunrise, Mt. Stuart in the back

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Beginning the crusty traverse to W Granite

Just behind the lookout and before the cornice was a flat spot. Home sweet home, baby. I set up my two sleeping pads. One has a sneak leak that I haven’t found, so I brought a second for extra insurance so I didn’t end up chilling my body like a sushi roll on the ice every 45 minutes. I tore off my socks and stuffed my feet into the sleeping bag, suddenly coming to the realization that I had entirely forgotten ski socks and was stuck with my dank (not the cool dank), soon-to-be-moldy athletic ankle socks. Well, shit. Put those suckers against your skin or you’ll be even less happy in the morning. I dozed off in my now soggy ass clothing, happy I had brought the 0 degree bag and smiling to myself at the fact we had pulled off a 9pm ascent of Granite and I was away from people and work and responsibility beyond staying safe where we were. Do you ever have those moments where you feel like you are exactly where you’re supposed to be? That’s how it was.

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Looking back at Granite

We woke up briefly for sunrise pics, went back to sleep and lazed around until 8ish, when we decided we’d do a lap on West Granite before the snow on Granite was soft enough to ski back to the trailhead (or to the trail, with our sad snowpack). We followed the ridge down Granite, through some trees, and up to the summit of West Granite, also known as Tusk O’ Granite, I believe (a way cooler name). It might have been the first time I had worn crampons all season. Holy crap. We soaked in views, dreamed of skiing Kaleetan, and set up for a ski down to the basin between Granite and it’s Tusk.

The ski ranged from crust to mush to 1″ corn on crust. Nothing terrible thuogh, and overall quite fun. Cramponing back up the slope to gain the ridge back to Granite was less than phenomenal, though it was good to get back into the rhythm of crampons on fairly steep snow, especially crust where you can’t kick nice bucket steps. I was so dehydrated. I hoped I was getting a tan.
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Kaleetan & Chair over Tuskohatchie Lake

Back at camp we packed bags quickly and skiied the ridge to the gully. We debated skiing the way we had came up, which is the summer trail, where most hikers/snowshoers were. The gully looked way more fun, I was just scared of it because of all of the horror stories. But the snow up high was bulletproof, and it would be a pretty quick ski, and definitely well within my skill set. We took off and made a few turns, tucking over on a ridge where a party of four was skinning up.

Just before that ridge. we set off three loose wet sloughs. Yeah, they were sloughs, but I got stuck in one of those once and arresting with skis on your feet is a BITCH. And these ran probably 800+ft, basically to the bottom of the snowpack, through a narrow funnel at the bottom of the gulley. So… that was all of the red flags I needed. I took off the skis. I was booting the ridge. I can’t even put into words how disappointing it was. I’m finally good at skiing, we have this beautiful gully, I can even do it with a huge overnight pack… and we waited just a little too long and everything got just a little too warm. Every step set off more sloughs, but on the mini-ridge I was at least confident that nothing big would go (the snow on the ridge was shallow) or stick me in a terrain trap. We were back at the trail way faster than it had taken us on the way up.
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Trudging our way back up to the ridge

We switched back to our soggy shoes (at least my soggy shoes, JT’s were waterproof) with maybe a mile and a half of trail left, and cruised back to the car marveling at how loud the highway was and how it never seemed to actually get closer, not unlike how it never seemed to get further when we were on the way up. But finally I caught a glimpse of yellow through the trees, yes! My car! Which has SOCKS! And dry SHOES! Oh, the simple joys of clean footwear.

I used to think that driving home during daylight hours meant you wasted daylight and should have gone farther and done more, especially on a beautiful weekend. But I still had adulting to do, we already spent more time skiing than expected, and it would be good to be home by 2. All things considered, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to sneak in a 15hr trip on demand like that and go from sitting at a desk in Seattle to sleeping on top of a mountain in the Cascades.
Oh, and as soon as I got to Seattle I turned right back around for a SAR mission, so there wasn’t much adulting done on Sunday.
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Kaleetan, Chair, and the Leham/Summit Chief group on the far right

Snow Lake, Gem Lake, Upper Wildcat Lake

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Fall foliage by Snow Lake

Occasionally, I go to bed on Friday night in my apartment. This is weird, because I usually do my best to not be in the city on Friday, but sometimes the weather is lousy and you’re lazy and everyone else is also lazy. So, just like last winter, I woke up at like 6:30ish, was bored by 7, and messaged Surafel. Are you going hiking today? I’m bored. Are you awake? Wake up I wanna go hiking. Let’s do a lazy rainy day hike. Like last year when we’d do short rainy lake hikes. He replied at 8. Yes let’s go hiking! Gem Lake? I laughed. I was going to propose the exact same idea. If Surafel wasn’t free I was going to just do Gem Lake as a lazy trail run.

  • Distance: 16 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4,000ft (~4,920 highest point, Gem Lake)
  • Weather: 40’s and rainy
  • Commute from Seattle: 1 hour!
  • Did I Trip: Probably but I don’t remember
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I’ve been here so many times and the blue color still surprises me

We met at the Eastgate Park n Ride at 9:30, sans the usual teas since I had already had my earl grey. Surafel agreed to drive since I was hoping there’d be a SAR mission I could jump into while we were there, in which case he could drive himself home and I’d just hitch a ride back to my car (spoiler alert: nothing happened. The more available I am, the fewer SAR missions there are). We were at Alpental around 10, where I immediately put on my second layer of pants because it was cold and it was wet and I forgot that summer was over. Leggings weren’t going to cut it anymore.

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Surafel on a trail bridge

We reached Snow Lake quickly, passing a few parties already on their way down. It wasn’t too crowded, probably because of the weather. We never quite got sun breaks, just “brighter clouds.” Neither of us had been past Snow Lake. Reminiscent of Lake Dorothy a few weeks ago, it took forever to wrap around Snow Lake. The fall foliage was gorgeous, though my camera has a hard time with cloudy photos. You basically follow social trails to the right of Snow Lake, which are occasionally well maintained and occasionally a bit brushy.

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More touches of fall foliage

Finally you start gaining a bit of elevation to Gem Lake, which is aptly named. It’s quite the cute gem of a lake. There were two large groups camping there that we passed on our way out, but on the way up it was silent. The trail wraps around the right of the lake, and you have the chance to bag Wright Peak (a walk up) if you so desire. We didn’t, because there’d be no views. But the trail continued on, so we continued as well. I didn’t actually know where it went but we had time and we saw a lake down below us so we figured we’d go ahead and drop down to it. It didn’t look that far.

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Almost a view!

Well that lake is Lower Wildcat Lake, and it turned out it was about a 1,000ft loss in elevation to get there. With a short bushwhack you can hit Upper Wildcat Lake as well. I was pretty pooped though, my legs had felt like lead all day, and as soon as we came upon a clearing on the trail with a nice log and a view of Lower Wildcat Lake I decided great, we’re having snacks here, and then heading back. I was soaked from all of the brush (did not bring rain pants… yes, shut up, I know) and getting cold and once you’re wet and cold… ugh.

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Tarn by Lower Wildcat Lake

I chugged the tea I had brought in a thermos (sometimes I have smart ideas) and devoured some salami and cheese. I felt better within minutes of starting back towards the trailhead, in hindsight I probably just needed snacks. We gained the elevation back to Gem Lake quicker than expected, and admired the fall foliage around the lake for a few minutes before carrying back on to Snow Lake. Gem Lake definitely had the best foliage in the area, I bet it would have been phenomenal with some sunshine.

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Almost a glimpse of blue sky by Snow Lake!

By the time we got back to the trail from Snow Lake to Alpental, most of the hikers were gone. We passed a few lingering parties and a few on their way up, but weather was deteriorating and I was surprised anyone was still out. I was happy to be headed back to the car. The parking lot had emptied, and we jumped in the car and blasted the heat and tried to dry off as best we could. All in all, not too bad for a “lazy” day hike – 16 miles, and home early for a cozy warm dinner!

Granite Mountain via the ‘Wind Scoured Ridge’

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The lookout!

“Should I hike Granite Mountain?” you ask? I’m going to go with a resounding “no,” unless you like postholing and slogging through massive amounts of powder and have decided you need a good workout. Or if you have an AT setup, you can skip all of the suffering and just have a freaking blast, besides the stream crossings on the snowshoe-trampled trail. But hey, gotta get in shape for spring climbing, right? I nearly bailed since I had heard miserable stories about the ice crust with a few inches of fresh snow the day before, and Aaron didn’t have snowshoes or skis so we’d just be booting. And the only thing worse than struggling through several feet of powder is struggling through several feet of powder with a two inch thick layer of ice on top that you may or may not break through every time you take a step. But spring is quickly approaching, and I can’t sit on my ass on a sunny Sunday, so bring it on, Granite. Hiked 1/12/2017.

  • Distance: ~5 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 3800ft gain (5633ft highest point)
  • Weather: 30-40’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: 55 minutes without traffic
  • Did I Trip: the real question is “how many steps did I take without tripping” because the ratio of tripping to walking was very high

First of all, here is a map. The red line is roughly your route from where the standard trail first meets the gulley. Don’t follow the green line. If you’re a solid skiier and comfortable in avvy territory, it did look like a great ski all the way down the gulley to the tees. This was taken from a discussion on nwhikers.net.

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Red is your route

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How most of the lower hike went (calf to knee ish)

Well I was originally hoping to do Pratt Mountain, a popular winter snowshoe that happens to share a trailhead with Granite Mountain. But we got to the trailhead and there was a group of 12 mountaineers that had just started, followed by a group of 12 folks from the Outdoor Adventurer’s meetup group. Shit. Okay so we’re not doing Pratt. Well I think I know a route up Granite that’ll avoid avvy territory, want to give it a shot? Aaron was down. He looked at it from the highway and laughed. “You chose this?!” thinking it’d be a few hours of quick easy hiking. Psych!

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The first of several avvy gullies on Granite. Be wary.

As usual we had maybe 7 essentials between the two of us. Aaron didn’t bring traction. Okay, take my microspikes, I can use crampons. He didn’t have an axe either. Or poles. Okay take my extra pole. I didn’t have waterproof pants, and would look ridiculous wearing full on crampons on the trail, so I stuck it out in boots. And my avy beacon was broken. Great. 1=0 when it comes to beacons, so we knew we’d have to be conservative.

We started up the trail, which was basically plowed by all of the foot traffic. No ice, just compact snow, totally fine in plain old boots. At the turn off to either Pratt Lake or Granite, we officially decided to give Granite a run rather than follow the 30ish folks ahead of us on the way to Pratt. We figured if we were fast, we could do both! This thought became progressively more hilarious as the day went on. But hey, best case we summit, worst case we get a workout and turn around. Let’s do it!
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The view as we broke out of the trees!

The snowshoe trail continued a little bit further until the gully. Well we sure as shit weren’t going across the avalanche gully, so I have no idea where the tracks went. I don’t think they knew the winter route and we never came across them higher up, so I’m guessing they turned back. We started heading directly up through the trees, paralleling the gully well to our right. Upon stepping off the snowshoe tracks, we were met with knee deep powder with an ice crust exactly as predicted. Ohhhh boy.

With every step, you go through frantic questioning. “Will it hold? Will it break? How deep will I posthole if it breaks? Will I slam my shin into it and get a bruise?” Nine out of ten times the answers are “no,” “yes,” “about 18-24 inches,” and “probably.” We tried switchbacking up but quickly realized it wasn’t that much faster than going straight up since you were wallowing in powder either way. Straight up it was. How else are we going to get in our daily cardio?
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McClellan Butte is the pointy one

We were losing hope after maybe 90 minutes of this shit. I knew what I was getting into, I had specifically chosen a snow slog knowing I had to get in shape and needed hours of breaking trail. I don’t think Aaron realized what he had signed up for. Either way, repetitive stomping in powder with no views and no excitement gets old very quickly. We decided to head to the edge of the gully to see how far away the ridge looked.

“Well…. according to the GPS, it’s wicked far, but according to my eyes, it’s like right freaking there!!” I announced. The GPS app had us like halfway up the slope with so far to go, but looking at the ridge I was like that can’t be more than an hour. Is there a false summit?? I had done Granite before and I didn’t remember a false summit and the topo map didn’t show a false summit but something wasn’t adding up. We kept going up through the trees, planning on getting some views, having a snack, and re-evaluating.
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It wouldn’t be bad if you had crampons

As usual, we broke out of the trees, team morale spiked with the sun and excitement and views, and we took a quick break and kept moving. From the trees it’s a short jaunt to the exposed rocks, which you follow to the true “wind scoured ridge.” Stay on the rocks and you are free from peril (probably, no guarantees). We hopped up on icy rock after icy rock, occasionally requiring hands and at times just booting it through snow or slippery heather. The snow was a fresh inch or two on top of ice which made it tricky, especially for Aaron who was down to one microspike. Where was the other one?! We had no idea. He had noticed he was down to one when we were still in the forest, but it wasn’t an issue until now. It must have popped off in one of the eight million postholes we endured on the way up. Oh well, we’ll find it on the way down.

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Neat sky behind a tree

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Obligatory Rainier shot

Crampons and an ice axe were very helpful. One microspike was not. So Aaron stuck to the rocks and softer snow while I booted up whatever I felt like booting up. I finally looked up and saw the lookout. Holy shit, it’s right there!!! We’re going to make it! I had still been having doubts thanks to the topo map. But now it was within sight, and it really WAS close. Eventually we crested the ridge below the lookout, and reveled in our views of Kaleetan, Chair, and Bryant.

The cornice up there is a good size, a little taller than I am. We walked over to the end of it which was risky, especially given its size.  Cornices can break off and take a section of snow on what looks like the non-corniced side of the ridge with them, so you really need to give them a wide berth. The lookout was locked as it is in the “offseason” so we just snapped a few pics and started to head down. Plus, it was almost 3. It had taken us 5 hours to get to the lookout. Holy crap. So much for being back by 5.
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Kaleetan, Chair ,Glacier (snowy peak in back), and Bryant. Who knew!?

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Chickamin, Lemah, Summit Chief

The views were awesome. I had no idea, the only other time I had been on Granite we were socked in by fog. Everything looks better with a dusting of snow, but the views to the north and east were epic regardless. It was tough to head back down knowing it was one of my few weekends in the mountains, but I wanted to be back at a reasonable hour. Luckily, going down went faster than going up, though we had to play it safe with Aaron’s single microspike. I gave him an extra pole so I could walk down with a pole and an ice axe and he’d have two poles, which helped a bit. Self arresting with poles is spicy. But the slopes were mellow for the most part, until we made a decision that is a great example of “what not to do.”

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Nice cornice

We descended too far on the wind scoured ridge instead of following the rocks east to the trees we had come up through. We could have kept going straight down, but then we’d have had to navigate a bit instead of following the (surprisingly efficient) route we had taken up. And I’m lazy. So instead, we chose to cross the definition of an avalanche slope, facing the south, on a sunny day, on a notoriously avalachey mountain. While the snow seemed fairly consolidated besides the few inches on top of the ice crust, and we hadn’t seen any serious red flags for an avalanche, it was still unnerving. Did I mention that the previous day in SAR we had been looking at pictures of bodies buried in avalanches on Granite? Yeah, it was on my mind. Welp, one at a time, move quickly, and don’t trip. Let’s get this over with.

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Heading back to the lookout

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Glissading down

Spoiler alert, we were fine. But you never know. .01% chance something goes wrong, 99.99% chance of a horrible outcome if something does go wrong. That’s how a lot of mountaineering is. Sorry mom. Next time I’ll go back up and over instead of across. But it was quick. From there on out we were back on the rock, and soon enough we were in the trees were we glissaded down our tracks (destroying every beautiful staircase we had made on the way up so you all have to break your own trail, suckers) which flew by if you ignore my immediately numb ass. We were almost back to the snowshoe tracks when I saw something curled up in the bottom of a posthole. Could it be?!

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A close call with a double posthole

I started laughing. “I found the microspike!!!” We couldn’t believe it. Just saved ourselves $70! We stashed them and continued down to the snowshoe tracks, which were a relief after all of the postholing and frigid glissading. Somehow the snowshoe trail was way longer than we remembered. My legs were still fresh, though that suddenly deteriorated when we hit the parking lot.

The rest of the cars had left. I’m sure the trail to Pratt was a highway of trampled snowshoe shaped steps, but we chose the route less traveled. Why snowshoe on a highway when you can flounder in powder for a few hours and enjoy a winter summit of a crazy popular summer peak? I had been up Granite a few years ago, but socked in by fog. Here’s a rare link to one of my early blog posts before I became so wordy. I’d say it was a hell of a lot better this time around! And did I mention it’s barely an hour from Seattle? Check out those views!
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Crossing the last saddle before rising to the lookout

Kachess Ridge

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Savoring that last bit of snow

Another blog post?! So soon? I told you guys, I’m getting back on track. And I was bored. This one’s a shorty, but it counts. With trips planned this weekend and next weekend, I’m on a quest for blog content. And hopefully this means we’ve turned a corner, and the hikes will start to flow. I’m seasonal, you know? Seasonally in shape (summer), seasonally introspective (winter), seasonally good looking (summer), seasonally good at cooking (winter), seasonally into country music (summer), seasonally whiny (winter ok always).
  • Distance: ~9 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 2200ft gain
  • Weather: Snow, hail, rain, and sun, maybe high 40’s?
  • Commute from Seattle: 1:20
  • Did I Trip: No!
Well, I had a few hours free on Sunday, and after getting a late start (getting up at 7 is late), I met Sam at the Kachess Ridge trailhead. He beat me there by about a half hour, maybe more, I don’t want to know because I can’t believe he waited. He sent me a picture of sunny blue skies while I was driving through torrential downpour at Snoqualmie Pass, so I knew there was hope out on the east side.

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On second thought, maybe the road is not driveable

I found the Kachess Ridge trailhead (well, the road that leads to the trailhead), and we made it maybe 500 yards past the “road closed” sign before I chickened out. I was just keeping the road in good shape for snowmobiles by not driving it, duh. We packed up our stuff and started walking. Sam brought his cheap snowboard, I left my skiis in the car because I’m a noob and didn’t think I’d be good enough at avoiding rocks.

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Blue skies, baby!

We savored the sunshine as we hiked along the road. After ~.8 miles, you turn right onto an unmarked road, which will take you another .6 or so miles. Soon enough we were at the trailhead, right where there’s a sharp hairpin switchbck turn in the road. We took off into the woods, and as the trail gained elevation, the south-facing slope meant most of the snow had melted. We did hit snow quite abruptly around 3800ft, and the trail disappeared. We headed straight for the ridge, kicking steps in the snow.

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Gaining the ridge

We stopped on the shoulder of the ridge to snap a few pictures. I swear we had the only patch of blue sky in the area. And even then, we were randomly spit on by rain, hail, and snow, alternating with sun. And no rainbows, which is bullshit. If it’s gonna rain and be sunny, I want a rainbow. Add it to my list of grievances, mother nature. At least here I don’t have to shrink wrap all my windows in winter like I did in Chicago, I guess.

We stayed in the trees along the ridge until the very top, negotiating a few baby cornices. Snow was pretty consolidated and kicking steps was easy. For me. Sam had overdone leg day the day before, so he was having a harder time. He was also carrying a $20 snowboard, which, being $20, I can only imagine weighed twice the weight of a desirable snowboard. But the good part about having a crappy board is you have no fear of scraping it over rocks.

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The tower! I think there’s a small shack beneath it. Buried in snow.

I wanted to get to the radio tower because I like destination hikes, so I dragged Sam up the last few hundred yards and climbed up the tower to see what I could see, which was i90 and a bunch of clouds. Bummer man. OH shit, my tea is still in my pack. That’s disgusting. I’m disgusting. I’ll go clean that right now. Hold please.

Okay, nothing freaky grew in my thermos. Cool. Anyway, climbed up the radio tower, not much to see, so we headed back down (I did not stop to drink my tea). Sam strapped on his board, I did the slow-powder jog so I wouldn’t get too far behind. I was hoping to get some sweet pictures of him but with all the trees it was tough. We’ll save it for a better trip.

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“Oops”

Sam did trigger a few sluffs, which are… like baby avalanches. The top few inches of snow creating a mini slide. It’s pretty nuts watching sluffs happen and imagining the exact same thing but several feet deep. Scary stuff. Sluffs can be good news if it’s just a layer of fresh snow that goes without triggering a deeper slab, but we weren’t about to wait around and find out, and it’s not like there was that much to snowboard anyway.

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Looking back on the sluff

Going down was way faster, and before we knew it we were back at the road. We ran into a man with his two sons, one of whom was a geology major and was looking for blue schist. I wonder if he found any. I’m not quite sure what it is, but according to his dad he was pretty excited about it. We got back to the cars just in time before the skies opened up, and I devoured some jerky and cheese and headed back to Seattle in time for a lazy afternoon.

I was going to say that Sam might have been the last one to ski/snowboard Kachess Ridge for the season, but we got slammed with a solid storm last night and have another one on the way this weekend, so the snow isn’t done just yet. I don’t know, skiing is chill but I’m ready for climbing season and some trail runs in the high country. Don’t skip leg day, folks. Even if it means a sufferfest the next day. It’ll pay off in the summer. And who doesn’t want sweet buns and thighs?

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Sam coming up along the ridge

Mount Daniel

Brian looking over Venus and Spade Lakes

Brian looking over Venus and Spade Lakes

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
Photo credit Kyle Kohlwes

Photo credit Kyle Kohlwes

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.

Who needs poles to cross a creek

Who needs poles to cross a creek

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.

Squaw Lake

Squaw Lake

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.

Mostly snow-free traverse

Mostly snow-free traverse

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.

Wildflowers above Deep Lake

Wildflowers 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.

Trekking up slopes with Cathedral Rock in the background

Trekking up slopes with Cathedral Rock in the background

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.

Looking along the ridge to the East Peak

Looking along the ridge to the East Peak

Venus and Spade Lakes

Venus and Spade Lakes

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.

Shelby just below a cornice on the ridge

Shelby avoiding a cornice on the ridge

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.

The traverse we hoped to avoid

The traverse we hoped to avoid

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.

Summit picture

Summit picture

Avocado boots

Avocado boots

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.

Looking at Glacier Peak

Looking at Glacier Peak

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.

Looking back across the basin at Cathedral Rock and the Stuart range

Looking back across the basin at Cathedral Rock and the Stuart range

Cathedral Rock above Peggy's Pond

Cathedral Rock above Peggy’s Pond

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.

Ready to traverse!

Ready to traverse!

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.

Brian along the SE Ridge in front of Cathedral Rock (in the shade) and the Stuart Range

Brian along the SE Ridge in front of Cathedral Rock (in the shade) and the Stuart Range

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.