A warming trend over the week caused heavy rain and low freezing levels, thereby melting a fair amount of snow. It did however, build a solid base. Damien and I floundered trying to decide on the weekend’s destination. We just could not predict conditions or the snow line after the warm and rainy week. To complicate things, Saturday was going to start out cloudy, but in late afternoon a huge system was going to move in bringing heavy precipitation and strong winds. This left us with a tiny window of opportunity to climb. In the end, Damien and I settled on climbing “something near Blanca Lake”. In general, we planned to either climb Kyes Peak or Toil peak depending on our timing, weather and general conditions. If both summits were out, then we would just camp near Blanca Lake. It seemed like the best strategy for the weekend was to have options.

On Saturday morning we arrived at the closed dirt road leading to the Blanca Lake TH.  Several washouts occurred a few years back on this final 2 mile stretch of road. No repairs have been made and now getting to Blanca Lake permanently requires a road walk. Of course, the 3 washouts are all in the final .25 miles! The first washout is an easy creek crossing over rocks. The sound washout in just a gravel blow out with no water. The final wash is a large and deep creek. I opted to take my shoes off and ford the rushing water. Damien made some treacherous leaps higher up to cross. As I put my shoes back on I heard splashing upstream and looked over to see Damien tossing large rocks into the current. He was building a bridge for us to cross on our way back!

After building half of the bridge (Damien said he’d finish on the way back) we continued up the final short section of road to the trailhead. The sky was slate grey as we entered the forest. However, the clouds were high, and it seemed like we’d have good visibility if we went for a summit. Of course, we also knew that the weather window would be brief.

Damien and I followed endless switchbacks up toward the Ridgecrest. The trail was reminiscent of Mt Si. At about 3500 feet with reached the snow line. Nevertheless, the trail was well traveled and a solid boot track was stamped into the snow. At about 4200 feet the switchbacks ceased as we crested the ridge. The tread traverses along the crest through gradually opening forests revealing far off vistas of craggy snow-covered peaks I could not identify. Closer to us we could see Glacier Peak, Kyes, Toil and Double Toil. About .25 miles short of Virgin Lake the boot-pack transformed rather abruptly into a snowshoe track. We took a moment to don our floatation and then continued to “The Saddle.”

The Saddle above Virgin Lake marked the point in our journey when we needed to make some decisions. If we turned right we could follow the 3-mile-long ridge to the summit of Kyes Peak, an involved scramble route.  Turning left would lead us to a simple scramble up Toil Peak. Descending would lead us to Virgin and Blanca Lakes. The clouds were still high, but the wind was certainly picking up considerably and the grey looked a shade or two darker. Damien and I estimated that to summit Kyes Peak would take 3 hours minimum and that is only if nothing went wrong. This put us on the summit at 4:00pm leaving us to descend in the dark and, possibility, in a storm with 40 mph winds. Going for it seemed unwise. On the other hand, Toil Peak was only .6 miles away and it seemed we could easily make it before a major weather event struck.

Damien and I split away from the solid snowshoe track and began to break trail along the ridge leading to Toil Peak. We discovered a random set of snowshoe tracks that seemed to appear out nowhere. Following them ended up leading us in a circle! We deserted the old tracks and once again made our own way through the powder. Breaking trail was not terribility difficult as the snow had a good base. However, the final 300-400 feet final climb to the summit did get steep. Also, Toil is one of those summits where you just never get there. Every time you think you are about to crest the summit you find that you have only topped out of a little mound and the summit is still in front of you! However, on these mounds the trees often parted, and we were granted spectacular views of the Monte Crisco Group and, unfrozen, Blanca Lake.

Finally, we stood on the tree lined summit of Toil Peak. The lower mounds afforded more unobscured views. Still we had finally tagged a summit this month! Damien and I didn’t linger though. Frigid winds bashed the trees and the clouds were sinking lower as the impending storm neared. We could see snow falling already about ten miles away.

We descended Toil the way we had come with ease, except we had to face inward during some steep sections. Damien and I rejoined the Blanca Lake Trail and followed the descending track from the Saddle. First, we passed tiny, frozen Virgin Lake. Just beyond the lake were signs indicating that there was no camping within 200 feet of Blanca Lake. This didn’t seem like it would pose a problem in the snow as we wanted to stay a bit back from the open lake anyway for protection. We continued, descending steep switchbacks as snowflakes began to fall.

A few switchbacks down I paused and questioned if Blanca was the smartest place to camp. The lake was a long descent. Damien considered this for a moment. With the freezing level at 6900 feet that night we had been surprised that snow was forecasted for 4900 feet. Blanca lake was at 4000ft and would thus, almost certainly, acquire heavy rain. Damien and I highly prefer snow and, thus, we decided the backtrack to Virgin Lake at 4600 feet.

We found a sheltered, flat area under some trees  across the lake from the trail and set up camp just as darkness enveloped the wilderness. Thick snow fell around us as we enjoyed dinner and discussed winter ambitions. Damien and I mused at how deciding  to camp at the higher lake was the smarter choice. We felt certain rain was falling at Blanca.

A strange thing happened that night. Usually, temperatures decrease after sunset. However, I was jolted awake around midnight by the sound of rain thrashing against the tent walls in a violent rage. Damien and I lamented having to pack up in the dashing, wet precipitation, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. At least we were dry in the tent… or we were dry at midnight.

At 5am I rolled over and Damien shook me awake. “Don’t roll toward the middle of the bag. It’s wet. My side is all drenched already,” he informed me.

I rolled back over in our double sleeping bag. A moment later Damien spoke again, “Get into the vestibule. We need to get rid of the water. We’re flooded!”

Fully awake now, I scurried out of the sleeping back and huddled into the vestibule. Damien did the same and peaked under the sleeping bag and pads. We might as well have been sleeping on a floating raft on a lake. There was major body of water growing on our tent floor! First, we tried to channel it out the door, but we couldn’t angle the tent correctly to achieve maximum drainage. Next Damien attempted to bail out the water with his coffee cup. This also did not prove to be effective. Finally, we made the decision to cut a tiny slit in the floor. This method worked perfectly, and we watched mesmerized as a tiny whirlpool appeared over the hole and the water drained out onto the snow.

Satisfied that we had removed most of the lake, Damien and I crawled back into a damp sleeping bag. We were going to start the day in just 1.5 hours, so we wouldn’t have to remain in the damp tent very long. Damien and I have discussed what might have caused water to enter the tent. The only conclusion we have come up with is that some gear inside the tent was pushed far off to the side and thus made contact with the fly causing leaks.

The rain still fell when we finally emerged. Our gear was thoroughly saturated though and I’m sure we packed out about 5lbs of water each. Luckily, rain was not falling nearly as aggressively when we began to follow the trail back to the Saddle.  In fact, the rain fully stopped, and glimpses of blue sky appeared about halfway down the trail!

Back at the washout, Damien completed his bridge building project and, therefore, I did not need to subject me feet to arctic temperature water again. The walk down the road to the car went quickly to our delight. Roads normally feel endless when you’re heading back. To top it off the next wave of the storm held off until about 30 minutes into driving home!

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