This was one of those trips that didn’t exactly pan out as intended, but still ended up being incredibly awesome (that is if you enjoy a good sufferfest). The original intention was to climb as many of the Lemah summits as possible (there are 5 total) and then traverse to the next mountain over and climb Chikamin. There is a small bit of information on the tallest Lemah called “Main Lemah” or “Lemah Three”. The remaining 4 minor summits have beta that amounts to one sentence for each in the Beckey guide and a blurry, un-detailed distance photo with dotted lines in the same book. Chikamin has more beta, but the only info regarding approaching the climb from Chikamin Lake was a drawing and the same blurry photo. Information on traversing from the Lemahs to Chikamin Lake also amounted to the same vague drawing and blurry photo. In conclusion, we had minimal beta on our objectives and route. We knew going in to expect the unexpected.

Day 1:

Our goal for day one was to complete the approach to the Lemahs and camp on the slope directly beneath Lemah 5. We did have pretty good beta on the approach luckily. We began at the Pete Lake TH and walked 4 gentle miles to Pete Lake. while contending with mosquitoes for the first hour. Deet seemed to keep them mostly at bay. From the Lake we continued on until we reached the primitive/bridge river crossing junction to Spectacle Lake. From here we turned left and trekked another mile before crossing the first bridge. The second bridge (Lemah Creek Bridge) has been washed out, but there was no need to cross. At this landmark we departed the trail and followed a faint boot track through the forest up the creek. This track went from faint to non-existent when we reached mossy rock benches. The idea is to just follow the creek more or less until reaching beautiful Lemah Meadows. We were very tempted indeed to just set up camp in this gorgeous, secluded oasis. A blanket of fragrant green grass engulfed a large open area with a deep, refreshing creek winding through it. Just ahead all five of the Lemah’s jagged summits rose into the skyline.

Though we did take a break here to soak our feet in the cool creek and enjoy the view we managed to tear ourselves away and press on. Damien and I headed across the meadow aiming for the obvious snow couloir on the right side of the Lemahs. Of course this was not to be a simple walk through a meadow. We had to contend with about ½ mile of bush whacking through dense willows and then navigated snow covered talus where under-snow creeks carved hollow tunnels just waiting to collapse. By the time we reached the snow finger we felt a bit beat up. Determined, we continued up the snow slopes with towering rock walls rearing above us on either side. It felt like a snow couloir canyon and streaming down the walls were countless waterfalls! There were some massive boulder islands in the couloir guarded by moats up to 30 feet deep. I had never seen anything like it. About halfway up we paused to rest on a small island of vegetated ground and rock that we were able to access since a significant moat was strangely absent. We still had about 1500 feet more to climb to get of the base of the Lemahs and it was getting late. Conveniently, there was a small flat area on the island  and we decided that this would be camp 1.  It was a spectacular place to spend the evening and more importantly the rock island provided protection from the fall line of any canyon debris.

 

Day 2:

We continued up the couloir at sunrise which gradually grew steeper as we ascended. About 200 feet from the top of the couloir we veered off to the left just to where the towering rock wall dissipated so we could cross onto the Lemah Snowfields. However, there was still a short rock wall to scramble with a small, but noteworthy waterfall. Of course the climbable part of this rock wall was currently submerged under the waterfall which made for a rather interesting mix climb. Usually with my crampons and axe I climb frozen waterfalls and not running ones!  We took a short break on a heather bench before continuing into the snowfield beneath the Lemahs. We examined the route up Lemah 5. Basically, the idea with to climb to the notch between Lemah 4 and 5 and then ascend the ridge. The way to the notch was about a 50 degree snow slope with some slabs melted out. These slabs were guarded by significant moats 20-30 feet deep and about 3 feet wide. If you fell on the snow above then and didn’t catch the fall in time you’d be swallowed. We decided we could avoid being directly over all but one of these moats and opted to go for it with caution. Damien and I left our overnight gear in a depression in the snow and began to climb. We did not use a rope since it was only 50 degrees. A second axe might have been nice for security, but we did ok with just one. We kicked in extra deep over the moat run-out. Luckily at notch we were able to access the rock ridge since the moat was small enough to navigate.  However, we found that the ridge led to a false summit. In order to get to the true summit we had to cross another snow field to the next tall summit spire. This was guarded by a formidable 30 foot deep x 3 feet wide moat. No access. At least we had great views from the middle false summit.

We had to descend most of the route facing the slope which was tedious and painstakingly mind-numbing. We returned to our gear and reloaded our packs. After some discussion we decided to make Lemah Main the priority and began to traverse the snowfield. We opted not to rope up on the glacier since crevasses were not is issue until late season. We noted the route up Lemah 4 as we passed beneath it. It was guarded by unpassable moats. It took us some time to get the route of Lemah 3 (main) into view. We traversed slopes under the towers and then beneath steep slabby buttresses and under Lemah 2 until we could climb back up and around to the top of the buttress to view the way up. This was the worst looking route yet. Thin snow on top of slabby rock, huge moats, waterfall traps. Yikes. Feeling a bit defeated we reflected on how to proceed with the trip. Clearly, we had come too early to climb any of the Lemahs. Lemah 1 was in front of us abruptly jutting out of a craggy ridge wall guarding the way to Chikamin Lake. As previously mentioned, we had a drawing of this ridge and blurry photo. It was difficult to tell where we were supposed to go up to access the top of the ridge and there was a big question mark as to what the descent to the lake would be like or if it was possible. If we chose wrong it could easily cost us 2 hours. We studied the poor beta we had and compared it to the landscape, then made our best guess.

We traversed what remained of the the snowfield and then down to some turquoise glacial tarns where the wind suddenly picked up. It was a gorgeously rugged landscape and we couldn’t help but pause for a moment to enjoy it all. Jagged rock towers, untouched snow, crystal blue pools and majestic Cascade Views. It’s a good thing we stopped to admire everything, because our brains were about to be subjected to mental overload.

We ascended the 40 degree snow toward the ridge crest until it petered out to talus and rock. The anticipation was disconcerting. We had no idea what we would find. Was this what it felt like to do a first ascent? We topped out on the ridge crest. About 700 feet below us was a small pond and to the right we knew was Chikamin Lake. Luckily, we had topped out on a broad bench on the ridge. But several meters below us was a cliff blocking access to a snow finger… a snow finger that led down to a maze of snow fingers and benches which randomly may or may not cliff out. Still we thought getting to this snow finger might be the first step to getting down. We traversed along the lake side of the ridge on a heather bench. This bench hit an unpassable wall and cliffed out below us. We turned back and backtracked to where we had first popped up on the ridge top.  No beta. Just a topo map now and what we saw in front of us. It looked like the slopes down to the lake grew gentler on the far right side of the ridge (we could not see it from our vantage point). The only way to gain what might be gentler slopes down would be to climb along the rocky top of the ridge. With no other option we began to scramble the ridge which grew more exposed and technical as we traveled. At its worse it was exposed class 4. We bypassed the class 5 high point by moving just below it on some very loose, blocky rock with no room for error hoping that when we got around the corner we would finally be able to see an escape route. Our brains were fried at that point. Would it go? Would we have to find another way? Were we trapped on the ridge? Down climbing to where we had started would be extremely sketch. I have a new respect for first ascensionists. Having the mental aptitude to withstand constantly not knowing if a route will go takes massive fortitude.

We were exceedingly relieved to discover gentle talus, scree and snow slopes down the Chikamin Lake once we rounded the corner. We picked our way down to the lake feeling a massive weight lifted from our shoulders. At least a figurative weight; our packs were still pretty heavy. Mentally drained we set up camp 2 on the breezy shore of Chikamin Lake in the shadow of Chikamin Peak. Aside from cliff faces on the snow slopes, Chikamin Peak appeared to be climbable. Of course the question remained as to if the summit block was guarded by a moat. We would go for it in the morning.

Day 3:

Breezes turned to severe wind overnight and we woke in the morning for find ourselves engulfed in heavy mist with minimal visibility. We were on the crest and thick clouds were being blown in heavy shrouds over us. However, we could see clear skies on all the surrounding mountains and valleys in the tiny pockets of visibility granted us. We waited three hours hoping the mist would burn off or lift. A few times it seemed like it would, but the cloak always returned. We were nervous about climbing Chikamin in low visibility with the cliff faces we had seen the previous evening. It seemed unwise especially when our brains were still shot from yesterday’s epic. We made the agonizing decision to abandon Chikamin and press on through more question mark terrain after concluding the low clouds would probably hang around for several more hours if not the rest of the day. We knew we already had at least 6 hours of travel ahead to reach Spectacle Lake.

There is a faint trail from Chikamin Lake back to the PCT. But is is a vague trail in the summer through a maze of benches, ledges and cliffs topped off with a steep ascent to another ridge crest to gain the PCT. Add early season steep snow slopes and, you guessed it, more sketch moats to this and you’re basically back to route finding and hoping the way you choose will go. However, this experience wasn’t nearly as taxing as the previous day. We managed to navigate down to Glacier Lake after climbing into and out of a moat, traversing 30 degree slopes and navigating through a partially snow covered boulder field full of traps. From there we crossed a high plateau and faced the wall guarding access to the PCT. Again, we got lucky and chose the correct route up to the top of the ridge on steep snow finally gaining the PCT or patches of it anyway. At that elevation it was mostly snow covered.

It didn’t matter that the PCT was partially concealed though. After what we had experienced this route- finding was peanuts to us. We easily made our way to Park Lakes and then began the long descent down to Spectacle Lake. Of course as we lost elevation the bare parts of the trail increased until we were walking on mostly dry switchbacks.

It was strange to camp on Spectacle Lake and hear voices of nearby backpackers. We didn’t like it even though the lake wasn’t crowded. I think it was the first time since last fall that we camped in the near vicinity of other parties! We’re used to solitude. We had to shelter from the mosquitoes in the evening. A stark reminder that summer climbing season has officially begun and we were more likely to run into people and insects on our trips moving forward.

 

Day 4:

This was by far the least eventful day as it was completely spent on a maintained trail. We departed the lake at 5:30 hoping to beat the heat and the mosquitoes on the 11 mile trek to the Pete Lake TH. We managed to beat the insects and sun until the final 5 miles. Suddenly the buzzing, biting, vermin were waging war on us and battling them with chemical warfare (aka: deet) was doing nothing. All we could do to escape was walk as fast as possible without stopping which thus caused us to get overheated. It was pretty torturous and we dove into the car when we finally reached the TH to escape. This concluded our epic alpine adventure which we realized had been a gigantic loop around Spectacle Lake! Maybe it wasn’t the trip we intended. However, although not full of summits, it certainly wasn’t void of knowledge gained, epic adventure and raw beauty. I could have done without the mosquitoes though!

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