Heavy rain with flooding potential. Wicked winds up to 40 mph. Snow accumulating up to 1.5 feet. Sounded like a great weekend to spend some time in the mountains too us. This week a phenomenon that become known  as “The Big Dark” crept over Washington. More less, this referred to a massive storm system of dark clouds that stretched from China to the PNW. Three major storm cells were predicted to move through the region with the largest occurring late Saturday afternoon into Sunday. Damien and I believe that there is no such thing as bad weather in the mountains, only bad gear. Thus, armed with our heavy duty expedition tent and dressed from head to toe in goretex, we set our for our customary adventure on Saturday morning. We had to tame our ambitions with the incoming storm. Our goal was to hike to Trap Pass via the Surprise Lake Trail and PCT. If conditions allowed, we would continue off trail on the route to Thunder Lakes and perhaps get some scrambles in.

Rain fell lightly from the sky as we started up the trail. I had forgotten how many wooden steps there are on the first 1.5 miles. Stairs in the backcountry drive me completely insane and Damien repeatedly has to listen to me rant about how these man-made ascent devices do not belong on trails. At about 3000 feet the rain grew heavier and began to turn to sleet. Another 100 feet and we were walking in snow! The snow was greeted with great enthusiasm as it is always more pleasant to walk in a snowstorm than heavy, freezing rain. To our great, surprise and pleasure, it was accumulating swiftly too. Two hikers passed us on their way to Surprise Lake and before long their tracks were completely concealed under an inch and counting of fresh powder. By the time we reached the Trap Pass Junction we were walking through about 4-5 inches of fresh snow! Damien and I turned toward Trap Pass and, after a bit of searching for the trail under the deep snow, we located the endless switchbacks to the pass.

With the snow accumulating so swiftly, we began to doubt the wisdom of pushing beyond Trap Pass. Damien and I had traversed to the basin last year in similar snow levels and the entire route proved to be extremely sketch. We’d pushed through deep snow up to our noses just above a sheer cliff with no protection just to get into the basin. Once in the basin we stopped short of the lake due to partially covered talus full of dangerous holes. Last year, however, there was no snow falling. This year, with snow increasing in real time, the traverse to basin and Thunder Lakes would probably be even more dangerous. Still, we held off on making a final decision under we reached the pass.

The switchbacks from Surprise Lake joined with the PCT about 800 feet short of Trap Pass. Our progress was slowing significantly. The snow was now up to our knees! Damien and I did pack snowshoes, but we opted to just break trail with our boots. Looking back we should have taken the time to put them on! After what seemed to be an eternity of breaking a trench through the fresh powder, we crested over the horizon to Trap Pass. In the swirling mist and driving snow we could not make out the ridge traverse to Thunder Lakes, but we didn’t need to see it. We concluded based on the high accumulation rate and the thigh deep snow we had just trudged through that attempting the ridge was a unwise idea. Trap Pass would be our camp.

We set up the First Ascent Katabolic Tent in the most exposed section of the pass to see how it did as the weather worsened overnight and make things more interesting. Snow gathered with intensity on the fly as we got organized inside, but after about 30 minutes the fluffy snow turned to a frigid mix of hail and rain. Damien and I made camp just in time and avoided the most unpleasant type of precipitation!

Throughout the night, we were awakened by rain spattering boisterously on the roof and powerful, roaring winds ripping fiercely through the trees.However, not a single drop of water entered the tent, and the wall barely shuttered when the winds tore by. It was like sleeping in a bomb shelter. Damien and I were happy with our choice to bring the heavy tent.

The rain let up and clouds broke teasing us with momentary blue pockets shortly after sunrise the next morning. We took our time breaking down camp thinking that the storm was more short-lived than predicted. Damien and I were concerned about avalanche potential in the more open areas of the switchbacks on the upper sections of trail, but the snow was compacted from the rain, though still knee high. We were able to plunge step down a few switchbacks with ease. The snow dissipated at about 3000 feet. There were huge stretches of trail that had transformed into rushing streams and the creek was surging beyond the previous day’s levels. However, we made it back to the Trail-head without incident and under light showers at most. However, several minutes into the drive home a black cloud cloaked the skies and a monsoon of freezing rain poured relentlessly from above. Talk about good timing!

 

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