Damien and I were really torn between two separate trips this weekend. We originally had our sights on doing the Spider Meadows Loop (38 miles) with a side trip up Cloudy Peak in 2 days for added spice. However, the more we studied forecast models the more unattainable it seemed. Weather called for about a foot of new snow and high winds on Saturday. Getting through the entire loop or even just getting to Lyman Lakes seemed as though it would be a bit of a stretch in 2 days. Instead we opted to journey to fairer skies Northeast in the Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness. Snow was expected Saturday, but only about an inch or two, and winds would top out at 35mph. Sunday promised to be clear with 10mph winds. As it turned out, our decision was the right one. Not only did the forecast pan out exactly as predicted (for once), but climbers in the region of Spider Meadows experienced blizzard conditions with 70 mph winds that tore their tents apart!

Damien and I hadn’t been to the Sawtooth Range before, so we were very excited to experience a new area. We followed the W Fork Buttermilk Trail (TH 4000 ft) through the forest. The elevation gain is gradual and barely noticeable until about 6000 feet where there are steeper sections and some switchbacks. Still, we considered it relatively tame. The snow line begins at 6500 feet with the forest floor fully carpeted in a layer of white. However, the snow depth was rather thin (1-2 inches) making the trail easy to identify. At 7000 feet the evergreens give way to a forest of golden larches in their prime. The snow depth also increased here to roughly 3 inches as the forest was much less dense. I don’t think I have ever seen so many larches at their peak autumn color in one massive forest before. The contrast of white snow against the golden yellow hues of the needles took my breathe away. The autumn/winter wonderland didn’t even look like something that could exist in nature. It seemed more like a fairytale as the snow crunched under my boots and I gazed up at the shimmering branches.

We broke free of the forest and crested sandy Fish Creek Pass in early afternoon. Immediately, now exposed to the elements, we were greeted by a blast of icy wind ranging from about 35-40 mph. However, the surrounding landscape spread out in front of me was so overwhelmingly spectacular that I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to stare with my mouth agape or put on more layers first! However, a massive burst of arctic air against my face brought be swiftly out of my trance and I hurried to slip on more clothes. Feeling warmer, I could focus on the landscape. Clouds were moving in again and soft snowflakes drifted around us in the powerful gusts. To my left, the sheer face of Star Peak angled impressively upward. To my right, the NE Ridge of Courtney Peak angled to the summit. I could see the Methow Valley far in the distance bathed in sunlight and woodlands below with the golden larches leading up to the pass. On the other side another forest of larches stood against the untainted white snow. Snowcapped mountains encompassed the horizon as far as I could see. Purely magical.

Damien and I braced against the wind and turned onto the SE Ridge of Courtney. We brought our full packs with us as they weren’t all that heavy and there is nothing wrong with a bit of training weight! The ridge is composed of talus and scree. There is a faint trail in places, but mostly we moved cross country following the ridge crest tending right. The light layer of snow didn’t cause too much difficulty, but we did have to step carefully as some of the talus sections were on the slippery side and the rocks were unstable. The most tedious section was the larger talus blocks about 250 feet from the summit. They seemed especially slick and prone to shifting.

When we arrived at the top, the clouds were blowing around us blocking the views. However, since the wind was moving the condensed air so quickly we did get intermittent moments of unobscured visibility. Below us were the Oval Lakes and Gray Peak. Buttermilk Ridge ran downward from the summit reaching a bouldery high point and then dropped again before leading to the summit of Oval Peak in the distance. However, we admired that view from only moments before it vanished again into the mist.

Fierce winds drove us off the summit after several minutes. Descending the ridge required care due, once again, to the slippery and instable talus. Fortunately, the going grew easier as we lost elevation. Back at Fish Creek Pass, the clouds moved away and the sun illuminated the yellow needles of the larches once more. Damien and I crossed over the pass and, after several steep switchbacks, walked cross country to the shores of Star Lake about 1/4 mile away (9 miles from the TH). Star Lake, beneath the flanks of majestic Star Peak, is one of the most regal alpine pools I have ever encountered. We walked to the far side and set up camp on the shore just across the outlet in the shadow of a stand of larches. Snow again fell from the sky as we set up the tent, but in the basin, there was no wind whatsoever! It was, however, extremely cold! I was very excited about the brisk temperature. Autumn and winter are my favorite seasons for a reason! Unfortunately, along with the cold also comes less daylight. It seemed like just yesterday that the stars didn’t arrive until 10pm!

Damien and I woke the following day before sunrise, per usual. Alpine starts are a trademark for us it seems. I think I’m mostly responsible for that. There’s just something about starting the day under the stars and watching the full performance of sunrise that appeals to me. Damien and I only needed to use our headlamps briefly as we made our way through the forest of larches to the upper basin less than a half mile away. Once the terrain opened up we found that the moon was shining so brilliantly that we could see better without the help of our lamps. From the base of the massive SW Ridge we found a decent climber’s trail (easy to spot since snow had drifted it) and followed it to the crest of the ridge. At this point the sky was beginning to brighten revealing perfect views of the Cascade Range. We followed a climber’s trail on the right side of the ridge, staying below a hump. The trail began to dwindle after the hump on the ridge, but it was easy to find our way staying on the talus and scree right of the crest. The sun began to stream through the sky making the larch wonderland below glisten like golden flames. The snowcapped peaks of the distance Glacier Peak Wilderness glowed a soft pink against the deep blue sky. Fluffy clouds picked up hues of lavender and orange as the sun rose above the horizon just out of view behind Star Peak. In all my years playing on the mountains this might have been the most spectator display of alpenglow I have ever witnessed.

The strange and awesome thing about Star Peak is that it is deceiving in all the best ways. The ridge from afar look gnarly, steep and almost impossible. However, the further we traveled along it the easier the ascent seemed to appear. And not only did it appear easier, but I would rate this scramble as more enjoyable than Courtney. Though longer, the rock on this route was exceedingly more stable, even with the thin layer of snow. The final scramble up some large blocks did not cause us any trouble either to our pleasant surprise.

By the time we reached the summit, the mountains were bathed in full morning light. Views stretched out before us. Courtney, Oval, Hoodoo, Buttermilk, Bonzana… I could go on forever naming peaks. Unlike the day before, Sunday was clear and windless. Thus, we lingered on the summit for quite some time. Note that care should be taken as the North side is a sheer cliff. Don’t lean over too far! Eventually we did manage to tear ourselves away and begin the journey back to the lake. The descent was relatively quick taking only 1.5 hours (half the time it took to gain the summit from camp). Back at the lake we packed up our gear and began the journey home. Fish Creek Pass was calm. What a difference a day can make in the hills. Conditions are always changing and it brings with it adventure. I get bored when the weather is too pristine sometimes. It’s better to add a bit of spice to make it interesting.

The walk out seemed endless once we left the larches behind. Such is often the case during long stints in the forest back to the car. In this case it about roughly 7.7 miles of green forest beyond the larches. However, on these woodland treks I always love to observe the changes in vegetation as the elevation decreases. The diversity of the forest never ceases to amaze me. Furthermore, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the weekend and, in this case, how glorious our adventure into the autumn wonderland had been!

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