The past two weeks of been a whirlwind of excitement, agony, awe, perseverance, bliss and lessons learned. To say our journey was life-altering would be an understatement. This whole summer has been about pushing and exceeding our limits and I feel as though our 2-week journey on section K & L of the PCT was a marvelous finale to this summer’s theme.

The idea to hike sections K & L was proposed by Damien about a year ago on a very wet, cold and rainy trek of the Seven Passes Loop which includes part of section L. We were both intrigued by the idea of spending 2 weeks on the trail doing high mileage and getting a better taste of thru-hiking. Damien and I did section J in 2014, averaging a comfortable 12 miles a day and traveled in the opposite direction of the thru-hikers. On this longer, 200 mile adventure, we thought we would get a more complete PCT venture. In addition, it seemed fitting that this trip would be our Honeymoon. Many couples travel to a different country to experience a new culture. Damien and I are immersed in climbing culture and it seemed fitting that on our Honeymoon we wanted to experience Thru-Hiker culture. Not straying from our identity, we did plan of scrambling several peaks along the way. It seemed like they would be easy add ons to our 15-18 mile per day itinerary. How different could hiking be from climbing approaches? Very different as it turns out, but I’ll get to that.

We didn’t train for the trip specifically assuming our constant alpine climbing projects would suffice. Oops! I believe our total planning involved printing out beta for the climbs, downloading the Guthooks app, packing for the trip and sending our resupply boxes to Stehekin. Our packs weighed out 50lbs to start out, mostly loaded with 9 days of food. We planned to be in Stehekin in 7 days, but wanted a few extra days in case something didn’t go as planned. We packed minimal clothes, food (only 2600 calories a day for me opposed to my normal 3500) and gear. Then we cut that down even more as we realized that we couldn’t quite cram everything into our packs. Some of the extra weight was attributed to having climbing oriented backcountry gear which is, by nature, a bit heavier since it has to be burly to withstand more abuse. Plus, even with all the triple checking our pile of stuff, we ended up bringing some un-needed items by accident… more on that also later!

Melanie dropped us off At Stevens Pass at 7am September 2 on a clear sunny day. I am forever in debt to her for always being willing to shuttle us on these types of trips and for picking us up at 4:30am! PCT 2017, made possible by Melanie!

The first section of trail was mostly flat and uneventful. I decided after about 15 minutes that every day Damien and I should take a “morning selfie” to record changes in our appearance/ expressions as we went along. We managed to remember to take the picture on all but one day. Everything seemed to go pretty much like one of our normal climb/backpack trips until about a mile after Lake Valhalla. My boots had 50 miles on them and had previously given me no trouble at all. But suddenly I felt pain in my right ankle bone area. It was like the boot bruising my bone. It was not a hot spot. No redness. No blister. Just bone pain. As we went on the pain grew harder to ignore and duct taping the area did not help; neither did an ace bandage or lacing the boot only halfway. It was at its worse going downhill. I didn’t know what to do, so I just endured the increasing agony.

About 2 hours after the boot issue I developed blisters on my lower back from my 3 year old pack that never caused issues in the past. So now there was pain on multiple levels of my body. I do like a challenge! Fortunately, at Lake Janus I caught a toad and then discovered a plethora of tiny frogs no bigger than a beetle scurrying about on the mud. This made me feel much better! Also, we had spectacular views of Glacier Peak and the billowing smoke of the Jolly Mountain Wildfire to distract me. The trail never disappoints in vistas! We tagged the summit of Grizzly Peak, the easiest of the peaks we planned on climbing being only several yards off the trail.

It became clear as evening moved in that getting to Pear Lake might be a stretch. We were tired and the pain in my back and foot were growing severely with each step. Damien found a camp 1.5 miles closer to us that had possible seasonal water on Guthooks. Upon arriving we saw the murky looking water felt and felt defeated. However, after moving a few more steps I noticed some willows and Damien heard the faint sound of running water. There was a hidden Creek hiding behind the mucky pond-like water! Relieved we set up camp here at about 17 miles in. At this point Damien discovered he brought two tent footprints… and I found out that I had gopro and climbing headlamp batteries even though I did not have any of the coinciding electronics with me! This concluded our first day.

In the morning duct tape was applied to my lower back and foot and we completed the short walk to Pear Lake. We filtered here and discovered that the folks who had camped at the lake were rather arrogant people to put it politely. This made us even happier about the Hidden Creek Camp. Our plan for that day was to tone things down and ease into the trail a bit by doing only 12.6 miles to Lake Sally Ann. This proved to still be a rough day on us. Section K is the 2nd most difficult part of the PCT with its up and down terrain. The constant up and down is difficult to get used to, especially for climbers spend one day going up and another day going down! Still we were rewarded with excellent scenery, clear skies and expansive patches of ripe blueberries! I couldn’t’ stop eating them! Lake Sally Ann is a small lake tucked under Skykomish Peak. I’m pretty sure we took the final campsite. The area was crowded with Labor Day weekenders. Still our site was private and we enjoyed washing off in the lake. The next day we would be back to high mileage.

On the third day our goal was 18 miles with including ten miles of terrain we had hiked before as part of the Pilot Ridge Loop. However, when I did that hike it had been rainy and misty. This time I would get to see the view! We started before sunrise to beat some of the heat. For some reason it occurred to me that perhaps I could wedge a rock into my boot to stop the cuff from banging into my throbbing bone. To my surprise the tiny rock made the pain much more manageable! We crossed open slopes under Kodak Peak which we climbed last year and after a brief stop at Reflection Pond, continued to White Pass. This area reminds us of the Sound of Music. Glorious alpine meadows that make you want to spin and sing that the “Hills are Alive”! Jungle Jym, a long distance section hiker we had run into the day before, caught up with us at the pass and joined Damien and I for the climb to Red Pass. Red Pass was the base of one of the climbs we had planned on: Portal Peak. However, we skipped it. Damien and I had been discussing things as we went and came to the conclusion that adding summits to an already grueling trip was not a good idea. Summits on Section J worked because we had tons of extra time doing only 12 miles per day and the terrain was not nearly as challenging. This trip would focus on the PCT.

We dropped on endless switchbacks into a wide open valley with sprawling meadows beneath towering peaks. Reentering the forest, we descended further until we reached the banks of Sitkum Creek at 18 miles. This was a very pretty forest camp and the creek offered a marvelous place to take our first real bath! It also put us in position to start most grueling part of Section K first thing in the morning before the heat hit. In fact, we planned on waking up well before sunrise.

We left Sitkum in the cover of darkness, traveling a few flat miles to the “Broken bridge”. This bridge is split down the middle, but still crossable. Right after the bridge the switchbacks begin… and they never cease. We gained about 1500 feet to begin with, but to ascend the final 1000 feet to Fire Creek Pass we walked up and down many Mini- ridges. Endless disheartening switchbacks in thick heat. I say thick because smoke had rolled in and a thick haze shrouded the mountains. The final 200 feet were the worst for me. I began to get heat exhaustion.

From the pass one can gaze down to see the trail spiraling downward into the valley about 2000 feet below. One can also observe the ridge directly across from us which is adorned with switchbacks zigzagging across the slope going back up 2500 feet! Luckily, we planned to camp in the valley do the final ascent the following day.

My boot caused some extreme pain going down the pass, but a long visit to Mica Lake was rejuvenating. The deep blue lake lays beneath cliff faces and the waters were the perfect swimming temperature. We chatted with Catalyst at the shore, a thru-hiker. She was going “only” 25 miles per day. A leisurely pace for a thru-hiker. We had run into folks doing 35s!

Feeling refreshed we continued down to the valley bottom and the bridge across Milk Creek. We planned to stay at the nearby camp and paused here to filter water. This led to a quick discovery that Milk Creek was aptly named. It was full of silt and promptly began to clog our filter! It was 6:30pm and a choice had been made for us. We couldn’t camp here at the 15-mile mark. We had to move to the next water source 2500 feet and 4 more miles further on the trail. We had to go up the next ridge to the basin that night.

We didn’t allow ourselves to feel dread. We had to keep morale high. After eating and filtering just enough water to get by we marched across the bridge and ventured into the forested maze of switchbacks. I am extremely proud of Damien and I. We never allowed our fatigue to get to us. We kept the conversation and laugher going all the way up the switchbacks and into the red-mooned night. Only when we reached the top of the plateau did the talk cease. We had one mile to go to the basin and to water. It was 10pm. Driven by some primal force, by legs flew over the plateau in search of water. I was beyond exhausted, but I pressed on with increasing speed. The sooner we arrived the sooner it would end. The sound of running water spurred me forward and 20 minutes later we stood in front of a creek.

Damien began to filter as I looked for a suitable bivy spot. The only tent camp we could see was about .2 miles away and it was occupied. But I found a tiny, flat sandy platform in the middle of the uneven basin just beside the 2nd creek. The perfect place to lay our sleeping bag. This actually turned out to be our favorite camp of Section K!

Our 19-mile extravaganza into the night led us to a later start the next morning of day 5. This was just as well since we intended take a rest and only go 15 miles. We continued through the basin and to Suiattle Creek. Maybe I was just exhausted, but I recall it being an uneventful day after we left behind the Basin and upper meadows filled with plump blueberries. The trail flows the creek to a large bridge that crossed fast moving water. Then the tread just doubles back in the direction we had just come from on the other side. The bridge was built in it’s out of the way location due to washout potential, but it’s still frustrating. We camped a few miles down at Lower Miner’s Creek.

The next day was about 18 miles to Cedar Camp. This was a day of beautiful scenery even with the smoke. Damien and I started early passing through some camps in the cover of night with our headlamps. The thru-hikers at those camps passed us later wondering why they had all dreamt of people walking by with headlamps in the wee morning hours. Thus, began our reputation of the Alpine Start. We journeyed through more open basins in the shadow of mammoth Dark and Bonanza Peaks. There was a fair amount of elevation gain involved, but not as significant as previous days. Our camp for part of that night was Cedar Camp on the banks of Spruce Creek. We had ten more miles to go to get to Stehekin. Our plan was to hike it all at night so we could catch the first shuttle to town at 8:15am. We decided to give ourselves 10 hours for the ten miles to account for fatigue. The walked much faster than anticipated. I even managed to stop myself from catching all but one of the 16 toads/frogs I found on the trail! For me this is no small feat! I guess I felt extremely drawn to the bakery! It turned out that our start time of 10:30am was premature to say the least. We were only 2.3 miles away at 2:30am. We set up a bivy and continued to the shuttle stop at 5:30am.

Damien and I the first one’s at the bus stop of course, arriving at 6:30. We also found that the bus arrived even later than we thought: 9:15am. The schedule posted online was difficult to interpret unlike the straight forward sign at the Trailhead.  We got comfortable on the picnic tables, slipping on our crocs and preparing for a long wait. Thru-hikers that had passed us during the past 2 days began to arrive, surprised that we had somehow, once again, snuck ahead of them. The power of the Alpine start! I think us arriving first somehow gained some of their respect. We were no longer “those suffering section hikers”. We might have been slow, but we were relentless. We struck up a conversation with the hikers, including Back Out who was out researching the trail so he could update the guidebook. I wished my line of worked involved that kind of research! A car arrived at the parking lot. The driver was there to pick up Aquarius. Damien asked if they were willing stop drop us off at the bakery. We had discovered that the famed Stehekin Bakery we had been dreaming about was actually 2 miles out of town. The bus made a ten minute stop there which hardly seemed like enough time to gorge ourselves. Luckily, we were granted a ride to the Bakery early! The car was a bit crowded; so crowded that No Show sat in the trunk. But it didn’t matter… we all wanted FOOD!

Damien had mob mentality when we entered the bakery. He walked directly to the day old shelves and fridge, promptly clearing them. The whole memory is a blur. We were so hungry and calorie deprived we kept eating and then getting up to order more! I do vividly recall ordering a cream cheese berry krugel, strawberry pie a la mode, breakfast sandwich and spinach mushroom croissant. Damien swore that his sticky bun was the best he ever tasted. I was in love with the krugel, a marvelously sumptuous confection consisting of a shortbread cookie crust, and layer of silky sweet cream cheese toped with a thick topped of berry crumble. I will dream of that heavenly dessert for years to come! Everything we consumed was exceeded our expectations and we left with bags full of day old pizza and assorted pastries. The plan was to replace a fair amount of our resupply with the baked goods. They ended up only surviving 2 days on the trail though. We couldn’t resist!

After somehow walking out the bakery feeling lighter than when we went in, we took the bus to the smoky town of Stehekin. First, we picked up a camping permit from High Bridge in North Cascades National Park. Next was a visit to the pricey general store where I purchased the entire stock of moleskin for my severely bruised and blistered lower back. In addition, the duct tape was causing a rash. Fortuitously, my boot had finally broken in the day before! We paid a visit to the single public shower in town costing a dollar for five minutes. The coin machine needed to be banged on for several minutes for the quarters to drop in to the box correctly to initiate the shower! But it was well worth the effort.  Feeling squeaky clean we then picked up our 4 resupply boxes at the tiny Post office. Gratefully, changed into the clean clothes we had sent ourselves. I feared our used attire qualified as a biohazard at that point! We sorted through the food, all of which looked particularly unappetizing to us. Luckily, we had baked goods to replace some of it!

We prepared our “send back” boxes which included not only our malodourous clothing, but also the extra tent footprint and excess batteries we had packed in error! We also sent back some layers which we deemed excess in hopes lightening the load for the next week. For example, I sent back my softshell jacket and Damien his rain pants. We also donated a fair amount of food to the community hiker box. I was grateful to give my assorted bars to someone who might be able to choke them down with more ease. On the bus ride out we stopped once again at the bakery and purchased more pizza and miscellaneous sweet creations! We just couldn’t stop!

High Bridge camp is about a quarter mile down the road from the bus stop. Camping here would allow us to pretty much take a 24 hour break and hopefully give our bodies time to recover. We again went through our food supply and tossed some more bars that we just didn’t think we’d be able to swallow. Damien also got rid of a sizeable amount of chocolate covered almonds since they were too heavy. He regretted this later of course! We napped and ate cold pizza. This is especially significant for me since I normally don’t care much for pizza, but this pizza tasted freaking amazing! The rest was well deserved and certainly needed. We still had another 100 miles to walk! I fell asleep dreaming about the Stehekin Bakery.

We woke on Saturday feeling refreshed and healed. Getting off the trail for 24 hours allowed our bodies to adjust the rugged circumstances we had rather abruptly subjected ourselves to over the previous week. Rejuvenated we set out to cross through North Cascades National Park. The NCNP made up 16 miles of the trail ahead and, in an additional mile, there was a camp in the National Forest just short of Rainy Pass on HWY 20. The smoke had cleared from the sky and the mountains appeared without a curtain of haze as we walked through the valley. However, mid-morning clouds and mist rolled in and RAIN fell from the grey sky for 10 minutes! This was a miraculous and celebratory even as I had not seen rainfall in WA since June 21! I was so thrilled I pulled on my Gore-Tex jacket for the few short minutes just to assure myself that I had not carried it all this way in vain! The terrain was not particularly difficult and the cool temps felt incredible. We re-entered the National Forest in early evening and camped beside Copper River.

Damien and I walked the final 1 or 2 miles to Rainy Pass the next morning under clear, bluebird skies.  We were greeted by Trail Magic when we reached the pass! Trail Magic is a special event for thru and long-distance section hikers. The general idea is that random folks will set up something special for hikers near a road intersection. In this case, a group of good Samaritans had set up a table of fresh fruit, croissants, salad, coffee, etc. that was free for all PCT Hikers! This was a joyous occasion as it meant I could eat 2 less cliff bars that day! We didn’t stay long though, we had miles to walk.

We calculated the miles remaining as we crossed HWY 20 and began Section L. We needed to average about 13 miles per day to arrive on Friday afternoon. Thirteen seemed almost too easy at this point, especially taking into account that section L was not nearly as rugged as K. We considered that we may arrive a bit earlier than anticipated, but agreed we did not want to get to Manning Park earlier than Thursday afternoon. We wanted time to spend our time on the trail!

The trail from Rainy Pass was familiar to us like an old friend. The first 12 miles is the scenic approach to climb Golden Horn and Tower Mountain. We had attempted Golden Horn twice already, but did not mind in the least bit revisiting this section of the PCT. The views after reaching Cutthroat Pass are simply astounding and the larches were even beginning to turn yellow! Overwhelmed by beauty that never grows old we flew through the 12 miles and found ourselves at the turn off for Snowy Lakes, the trail to the basecamp for the peaks. After some discussion since it was so early (only 3:30), we decided to leave the PCT and camp at Lower Snowy Lake .8 miles away. The spot was just too gorgeous to pass up. We climbed the steep, side trail to the lake and set up camp in the perfect setting just above the shoreline in the backdrop of craggy peaks shimmering with alpenglow. Coming to this familiar place felt like visiting home for a moment for us and its beauty reminds me of why I am continuously drawn to the wilderness despite the sufferfests!

With 15.8 miles ahead of us, Damien and I climbed back down to the PCT on Monday morning. It was brisk, cloudy and feeling very much like autumn. Gone was the sweltering heat we had woken up to the week before! It did clear up and the sun beat down as we crossed over Methow Pass and descended into the valley below. We would walk through the most difficult part of Section K that day. About 3000ish feet of steep, switchbacks to gain to Glacier Pass. It was also, of course, the day I realized my greatest fear.

We took a brief break in the valley so I could tend to Damien’s little toe which was blistered and becoming rather raw and gross looking. In my effort to extract my first aid kit, I emptied most of my pack. After the wound was properly cared for we packed up and moved up and out of the valley gaining 800 feet up toward the pass. It was getting warmer and warmer so we paused to cool down. It was then while I was digging through my pack for food that I realized the water filter was missing!!!! I had feared this the entire trip and often stopped after breaks to double check that I had remembered to pack the filter. I was paranoid and, apparently, for good reason. I knew we walked 2 miles since the toe incident. Thus, to retrieving the filter would take a minimum of one hour if I ran without the pack. Was it worth getting back? The thing was getting harder and harder to pump for some mysterious reason despite cleanings and we had iodine as a backup. But was it enough? We weren’t certain. I left my pack with Damien and began the trail run back down the valley. Interesting thing to do in leather boots.

Of course, I discovered the filter not on the ground, but set neatly on top of a very light colored rock making it obvious. I grabbed it and walked/ran back up the incline, pausing briefly to drink from Bush Creek. I made to back to where I had left Damien in an hour, but alas Damien was nowhere to be seen and neither was my pack! Confused I looked down and saw a band aid under a rock inscribed with a quick note. Damien had taken both packs further up the trail! Perplexed on how that was possible and a bit peeved that I didn’t have a water bottle, I hurried up the trail wondering how far he intended to go. Damien was waiting about 1.5 miles up the trail. He had strapped the packs together, once again proving his ingenious rigging abilities! After regrouping we gathered our respective packs and continued up the final exposed switchbacks to Glacier Pass blazing sun. It was the final heat we would contend with on the trail.

From the pass we traversed over, scenic slopes toward Tatie Peak. To the east I could see the massive plooms of the Diamond Creek Wildfire. The fire, caused by a careless camper, was the largest in WA. It was ten miles from the PCT and it shut down all trails directly east of it. A bit too close for comfort and I feared that the PCT would shut down blocking our access to Canada and ending our journey prematurely. This was my second greatest fear, but luckily it was never realized.

We descended about 100 feet down from the traverse to a small oasis camp beside a clear, bubbling spring. This was the final reliable water source for the next 21 miles. We heard some talk of possible water .4 miles from Hart’s Pass, but beyond we had no beta on what seasonal streams were flowing. It was all a question mark. Thus, the next day would involve a water carry. As previously mentioned, our filter pumb was getting increasingly difficult to use and cleaning the filter cartilage was gaining no results. After some inspection we decided that the pump rod had probably collected dust. We put some lubricant on it and usage got much easier. Problem solved.

The next morning was even colder as we ventured out to the final road we would pass on the PCT: Hart’s Pass Rd. Again in familiar territory as we had gone on several climbs/treks in this direction, we were happy to find a sign indicating that the PCT was still open despite the fire when we reached the pass. About ¼ mile later we found the running seasonal creek everyone promised existed. We topped off our water here and continued onto to the section we hiked a year earlier on the Seven Passes Loop when the idea for this adventure came to be.

This time the vistas were not shrouded in heavy clouds and rain. The mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see as we traversed along ridges and crossed over passes that looked completely different under clear skies.  Autumn hues of red and gold painted the landscape and distant Mount Baker poked up beyond craggy peaks. I could not stop taking pictures. With every turn a new brilliant landscape unfolded in front of me. We kept stopping to admire the scenery, barely noticing the 5.5 liters of water on our backs. There are no words to describe the Pasayten that does this wilderness justice.

It was also on this day that we began to run into thru-hikers we had met the week prior on their way back from Canada. To enter Manning Park and exit the PCT through Canada a special document is required. Damien and I had acquired these papers months before. Some folks cannot gain permission to enter Canada on the PCT due to their past record (like a DUI) and some simply don’t wish to exit in Canada. This group hikes to Monument at the border and then treks back to Hart’s Pass where they hitch a ride to Mazama. It was this selection of thru-hikers we would meet again on our final few days on the trail making things come full circle with our PCT family.

We reached our ridge top camp overlooking the Diamond Creek Fire in late afternoon. We could have gone further, but agreed to limit ourselves to 15 miles per day to refrain from cutting out trip short. Besides it was an attractive, secluded spot to spend the night, and Damien built his best bear hang yet! It was textbook! At midnight, we were awakened by a hiker’s music as he passed our camp. He said he was doing a 60-mile day and was going ten more miles to Hart’s Pass…. No words. I glanced down at the valley and saw the orange flames of the wildfire. It made me nervous, but I was determined to not allow anxiety to overtake me as I drifted back to sleep.

On day 12 we set out from the ridgetop camp. It was overcast and mist hung over the mountains as we descended into the trees toward Holeman Pass. Again it rained, but only for a few minutes. But the air was moist and cold warranting an extended visit with gore-tex jackets! By the time we re-emerged from the forest to the open meadows below Rock Pass the clouds were lifting and revealing the most breathtaking terrain we had encountered on the PCT. Even more remarkable than the day before if that was even possible!

From the top of Rock Pass we were able to gaze North to Canada. Bundled up in our puffies, we paused here to enjoy the views. We reveled in how on Section K we were constantly running out of clothes to take off in an effort to escape the heat, and now we could barely stay warm enough when we stopped! Each day on section L had grown progressively colder! We tried to eat, but could barely choke down our food. The Stehekin Bakery food was long gone and all that remained was random bars and gu that had about as much appeal to us horse manure. We’d rather be hungry than eat the wretched, supposedly edible bricks.

Damien and I continued on the PCT, switchbacking down about 500 feet and then traversing Northwest to climb up Woody Pass. Views of Redoubt, Spickard, Jack Mountain and the Chilliwacks greeted us as we crested the top. More incredible beauty that one has to witness to fully comprehend. We traversed blow the ridgeline for several miles. In some places the trail is extremely exposed, narrow and angled downward into the abyss. It made me think of a climber’s trail. The tread ascended so gradually we hardly noticed the elevation change as we reached the high point of our journey at 7100 feet. We paused for a moment to absorb the tranquil, rugged grandeur of the jagged peaks, icy glaciers and rambling meadows that is the Cascade Range. It was difficult to tear ourselves away and begin the switchback descent to Hopkins Lake, the royal blue pool right below the high point we stood on.

Damien and I set up camp in a far corner of the lake near the talus where pika were squeaking their loveable songs. This was a bittersweet evening for us. It was our final camp. Canada was only 6.5 mere miles away and the end of the trail laid 9 additional miles beyond. The journey would soon draw to a close. I felt like a could use some real food and a “resupply” break like we had in Stehekin. Then I felt psyched to rush out and trek another 100 miles. But it would end. There would be a road with no trail beyond it. Just a resort, bus and train back to my old life. I didn’t want to go back. I wasn’t ready. I’m still not ready.

After two days of barely eating we scarfed down 2 Mountain House meals EACH that night plus an Alpine Air freeze dried dessert! I never thought I’d ever manage to pull that off! I don’t care what others may believe, freeze dried meals are not all that bad. They are certainly more palatable than energy bars. We didn’t even feel as though our stomachs were full afterward which gives you an idea of how calorie deprived me were!

The sun dropped below the lofty cliffs above Hopkins lake and darkness engulfed the wilderness. We snugged into our sleeping bag one final time bracing against the cold with layers of fluffy down. I didn’t have many thoughts that evening. I didn’t even contemplate our return to society. I just listened to the sound of stillness. When you backpack for so long you run out of things to think about. Then you realize you don’t always have to be thinking. You can just be.

Keeping with our tradition, we woke up one last time before daylight to break camp. I prefer to start my days early in the backcountry regardless of whether or not it is necessary. In the evenings at camp I am always too exhausted to truly enjoy and appreciate the night sky. In fact, I am often asleep before it is truly dark. By rising before dawn I not only have the opportunity to experience the night, I am afforded the chance to watch the magic of sunrise and the golden alpenglow glistening on the mountains. During this final morning, as I tried to swallow my last Bobo bar and Damien sipped coffee, I finally came up with appropriate trail names for us. Alpine Start (Damien) & Alpenglow (me). It made sense. On the PCT our headlamp gave us a reputation. It was our trademark and that is how trail names come to be.

The sun began to rise thawing out the world that had frozen overnight. Our water had shards of ice and the blueberry leaves crystalized. Autumn was fast approaching! We shouldered our packs and walked through the frigid landscape to the final pass: Hopkins Pass, the narrowest slot of a pass I have ever encountered.

We traversed across the slopes headed downward into the valley. The trail grew brushier, but our pace never wavered. Once again, we were drawn to the promise of food by some primal instinct.  My feet moved as though driven by some external force. However, when we reached the few short switchbacks down the Monument my pace faltered.

It was strange. I felt like I was having an out of body experience and watching myself walk the final steps to the finish line. True, the trail to Manning Park was still an additional 9 miles, but the border felt like the true finale to our journey on the PCT. My heart skipped a beat, sputtering for a moment. Then, abruptly a surge of red hot adrenaline coursed through my veins and my heart raced. In that moment, I knew I was afraid. I was afraid to finish. I wanted to run back the other way and hike to Mexico and then back to Canada again. I didn’t want it to be over. But I had to move forward.

We reached the border and Monument 78 at around 9:30am. Just as I had read, the USA government has “mowed the lawn” so to speak and shaved a physical border through the forest separating The States and Canada. There were some inscribed wooden posts and pyramid shaped metal structure, the monument, that held a massive registry of all that had passed through. Standing on the border, reaching the goal, I recognized more than ever that the end result means almost nothing in life. The real adventure is truly in the journey. The goal or destination marks the end. This moment for me was a time of celebration and mourning. Against all odds we had made it! Even with the blisters, shattered nerves, endless switchbacks, sweltering heat, thick smoke and tremendous mileage we pulled through. We never faltered. We learned and grew together in the journey and are stronger as individuals and as a couple because of the PCT. I celebrated this accomplishment, but grieved the conclusion of the quest. There were no more challenges to look forward to on the trail in the days ahead anymore…But we were very much looking forward to food. I collected myself from my moment of conflicting emotions and we crossed the border into British Columbia.

The trail in Manning Park was reported to be poorly maintained. We didn’t think it was any worse than any of the normal trails in WA. It was perhaps not as well manicured as the PCT, but the PCT is an exception to the general condition of PNW trails. After gaining about 800 feet contouring the slopes just above the valley the trail descends slowly to a steep, switchbacking, narrow road. We tried to move swiftly here. The sound of traffic had been echoing in our ears for quite some time and we just knew for certain we were close. But the road kept going until a sign indicated that we needed to turn left onto a trail to reach the PCT TH. This trail ran along a creek’s edge for over a mile. All the while the nearby sounds of the highway tortured us. At this point we had been listening to cars for about 2-3 hours. Finally, we broke out of the trees in a large gravel area beside Hwy 3. We still weren’t there. We needed to walk 1k more down the road in the direction we had just come, but on the other side of the creek to reach Manning Park Resort! Frustrating!

With throbbing toes and tender feet, we walked the final steps to the resort. After securing a reasonably priced room for the night we immediately high tailed it to the restaurant and proceeded to eat the first of many meals at the establishment. Then it was time for showers. Many showers. I don’t think I was truly clean until after shower number 5. We bought clean clothes in the gift shop to replace of filthy trail attire. Damien and I looked like tourist billboards dressed in our matching Canada shirts and bear paw sweat pants! At dinner, we ran into Back Out. He had been on the trail with us since day 2 of Section K and had reached the Resort several hours after we did. Damien and I had wondered where he ended up after Stehekin. We thought we’d never see him again like so many of the people we had talked to on the PCT. But here he was! Turns out that he was only several miles behind us the entire time!

We  booked our bus tickets in advance anticipating arriving in Manning Park on Friday. Since we had arrived on Thursday instead we had a fair amount of time to wait. We spent the day after our arrival at the pool, wandering, sleeping and eating (of course). Damien and I moved to the Hostel across the street. It was in decent shape,  the perfect place to stash our packs during the day and get a few hours of sleep at night before the 2am bus. Note, tons of PCT folks camp out in the game room or lounge of the Resort, but we had more than just a few hours to kill. The bus was one of the more unconformable vehicles I have ever had the misfortune of trying to get some sleep in!

We arrived in the city of Vancouver at 5:30pm. Not in a hurry to return to Washington and get back to real life, we spent the day cycling around Stanley Park, Canada Place and Granville Island. Naturally, we also made a tourist stop at the Arcteryx Store! Luckily the Amtrak train was more comfortable that the bus that night!

Now, back home as the rain falls,I wish I was still out there splashing through the mud and climbing endless switchbacks. I don’t want to sit on this ergonomically correct chair. I want to sit in a blueberry patch or on an uneven, wet rock. I want to feel the brisk wind against my cheek and breathe misty, mountain air. I always feel a similar longing after every trip I take into the mountains; even right after our weekly overnight climbing trips. However, after spending 13 days and 12 nights in the backcountry my hunger for the wilderness has intensified. The mountains are where I belong. The mountains bring clarify to an otherwise complicated world and reveal the small things that are truly meaningful in life. Residing in the wilderness brings to perspective what is truly needed in our lives. When your greatest concern is finding a good place to filter water things are simpler and, much more real. Ulei Steck said that he loved mountains because they are honest. The wilderness does not deceive. It is raw, untamed and beautiful. I am addicted to this honestly and there is just never enough time to get the fix I need! However, as I sit at my desk, back in a world of chaos, I can retreat to the memories of mountains and relive the adventure as I write.

The  rain has stopped and the sun in beginning to poke out of the clouds. I cannot see the mountains from where I sit, but I know the mist is beginning to lift off the craggy peaks.I imagine what it would be like to be in a frosty meadow right now admiring the dusting of snow that has fallen this week in the high country. Another adventure awaits…

SECTION K

SECTION L

 

After spending several days in a noisy, front country campground in Tuolumne Meadows, Damien and I were ready to enjoy the tranquility of the backcountry. From Yosemite, we drove south through the desert to the small hamlet of Lone Pine, CA. The town looks something like an old Western movie and it is the jumping off point for folks looking to climb Mt Whitney. However, several months back we were unsuccessful in securing a reserved permit for the tallest mountain in the lower 48. I was able to quickly devise a Plan B and reserved permits for Cottonwood Lakes to climb Mount Langley (14,026 ft) & Cirque Peak (12,900 ft). Both of these climbs individually are an undertaking due mostly to the high elevation aspect. However, both were class 2 scrambles and required minimal technical ability. They share the same zigzagged ridge-line and are sometimes done a linkup. The Linkup option appealed greatly to us as the distance and endurance required to climb two high elevation peaks in a single day would provide a fun challenge. Plus I love tagging fourteeners!

From Lone Pine we turned onto Whitney Portal Road which is the main route leading into the Whitney Range. After several miles we turned off Whitney Portal and headed for the high country on Horseshoe Meadows Road. Normally I don’t describe the roads leading to the TH, but this one is worth mentioning. First of all, I expected a road that went up to 10,000 feet to eventually turn rugged and unpaved. As it turns out, its paved the entire 22 miles! The next feature worth describing is the design of the road. From the 4,000 ft sandy dessert it switchbacks steeply up the foothills into the high country as previously discussed. These switchbacks are all the edges of cliffs with severe drop-offs of thousands of feet! There is also a sign that warms of falling rocks and that for several hours a day you may find crews clearing the random rockfall! To top this whole extravaganza off there is no guard rail, so definitely drive with care! It is a gorgeous road though, unlike any I have ever experienced, and that fact that it journeyed up to 10k feet blew my mind. In WA our highest road tops out at only 7k!

We arrived at Horseshoe Meadows Camp at around 2:30pm. There are bear lockers here for any food/toiletries you may want to leave behind. Leaving these items in vehicles is an invitation for bears to break in! We shouldered our packs and began the 6 mile trek to basecamp on the Cottonwood Lakes/ Army Pass Trail. The trail winds though dusty, open forest for the first mile or so before crossing a creek and entering lusher woodlands. We knew we had 1000 feet of gain and expected it to be all in one place going up a pass or something of that sort as it normally is in WA. However, the gain was essentially spread out over the course of the 6 miles to our surprise. We also expected to find ourselves at various junctions as the map displayed numerous intersecting trails. Going to the basin the only turn we encountered was the signed turn off for New Army Pass.

Many folks climb Langley and Cirque via New Army Pass because it is a maintained trail. Unfortunately, it features lots of sweeping and unnecessary switchbacks up to the pass and adds 1 mile and 700 feet to the trip. We had opted to take (old) Army Pass instead. It was described in the beta as unmaintained with several washouts. However, it was a more direct route and we hate excess switchbacks. Thus, we passed New Army Pass and continued on the trail to Cottonwood Basin.

Upon exiting the forest and entering the open meadows of the Basin we were greeted with our first clear view of Cirque Peak. Directly to the right of Cirque is a massive rock formation that I thought was Langley at first, but it proved to me a minor cliff face. Langley is ff to the right of the cliff and only appears smaller since it is further in the distance. Damien and I followed the trail through the lush meadows passing the signed side track to Muir Lake.

We walked by Cottonwood Lake #1 which has a small ranger outpost beside it. There are five Cottonwood Lakes total. On maps they are unlabeled. Our permit was for lake #3 because our beta suggested it, but even the ranger at the station where we picked up our permits had no idea which lake was which. He said that as long as we camped at one of the lakes we’d be fine. They didn’t care which one. The map at the TH did have the lakes numbered however. Other than that I have found no record. We studied the TH map and decided that lake #4 would probably be better for us.

Damien and I continued on passing through small sections of trees that reminded us of the ones found in Madagascar. Lake #3 is the last of the lower lakes and it appeared to be the most popular camping area.  Several parties were there enjoying the early evening. We continued on toward Lake #4 which is closest to Army Pass.

We climbed up a steep hill about 100 feet and suddenly found ourselves in a more rugged, and alpine realm. We were surrounded by jagged cliffs and the grassy oasis was replaced by rugged terrain. Damien and I found the perfect camp complete with windbreak about 100 feet from the lakeshore (this is a requirement) and set up our home for the next 2 nights. To our delight, we had the entire lake to ourselves!

Damien and I are big fans of the  Alpine Start. Boots were on the trail at 3:30am the next morning. Our headlamps guided us around the lakeshore on a good trail to the rocky base of Army Pass. Here we were surprised to discover a very maintained trail. Every maintained trail in CA we had encountered on the trip ended up being maintained by Washington standards! The good track made a few switchbacks up the talus trending left to get above a cliff band. The tread then follows above the cliff band to the right to gain the top of the pass. The “washout” was one or two large rocks in the center of the trail that were easy to get around. We did encounter some snow patches but they were easy to go around or short enough to take a few safe steps through. We never used the crampons or axes we carried.

At the top of the pass we crossed the border of Inyo NF and entered Sequoia National Park. We turned right here on an unsigned, but obvious trail and followed the broad ridge of alpine vegetation until we reached more rocky terrain and  a big sign. The sign requested that visitors follow the carins provided and remain on the route to preserve the delicate environment. It also asks that climbers avoid making new carins and forbade the deconstruction of the existing carins. I’m not sure who had the time on their hands to disassemble the cairns provided on the route. They were 5-7 feet tall and resembled pyramids!

We followed the cairns through the talus and sand now gaining elevation, though not aggressively. There are good switchbacks and an easy trail to follow. Sometimes there are several dusty trail options to get from one cairn to another. It doesn’t really matter which you take as long as you reach the next carin. At one point we did need to use our hands to scale a short, rocky cliff. There was a class 2 and class 3 option here each with no more than 6 -8 easy moves. The route takes you to the edge of  the nearly level summit plateau. Then is is a quick stroll to the flat, summit block.

We arrived at the summit of Langley at about 8:15am. Of course, Damien and I were the only people there so early. The views spanning from the summit are breathtaking and we were surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the country. Mount Whitney was even visible from our vantage point. We signed the register and took countless photos in the glow of early morning light. It was difficult to depart, but we still had another summit to climb!

We backtracked to Army Pass. Other climbers were just making their way up Langley. Most were coming from New Army Pass. From old Army Pass we needed to ascend about 300 feet up a hill to New Army Pass. We opted to not take the long sweeping switchbacks which lost elevation before going back up. Instead, we traveled cross country straight up, careful to avoid stepping on the delicate flora. It was pretty easy to keep our feet on the sand and gravel.

New Army Pass is signed and was more of a cliff outcrop than a pass at all. Peering over the edge I could see people sweating as they toiled up the infamous switchbacks from down in the valley. I was glad we took Army Pass instead. Cirque Peak was directly across from us and only 600 feet higher. However, to reach the summit we had to walk the horseshoe shaped North Ridge for 2 miles. There is no trail here at all, only talus. To our delight, the talus is not big and blocky, but consists of large flat rocks. It was some of the most fun terrain I ever encountered! We walked along the rock admiring the strange knobs and huecos as we went. Damien and I veered just slightly more right of the edge of the cliff to avoid unnecessary elevation gain to the various sub-summits. It was a relatively long walk, but we were having so much fun on the flat rocks we barely noticed. The last .68 miles the rocks grew less flat but there are easy sand tracks to follow made by big horned sheep. At the summit there are two markers and a register.

The view from this peak gave a marvelous perspective of the Cottonwood Lakes. We could also see the full route we had taken up Langley. We stayed on the summit for quite some time. However, in the distance peaks we could see several thunderheads developing. They were far off, but we were aware that it was not impossible for storm to brew over us as well even if it hadn’t been in the forecast. We journeyed back across the North ridge and descended to Army Pass.

We got back to our tent at 3:30pm which was much earlier than anticipated since we were scaling a fourteener. Spending so much time at altitude over the past 2 weeks had made the linkup easier than expected. It didn’t end up being the challenge we expected, but it was still are marvelous day! Plus, we even had time to take an afternoon nap; a rare luxury for us!

After another tranquil night at the 11,100 foot Lake #4, we packed up camp in the cover of the stars and shouldered our packs as the sun rose. We hated to leave the basin, but it was time to move on to another adventure. The early morning light made Cirque and Langley shimmer as we passed through the basin and back into the cover of the forest. The perfect conclusion to the high elevation linkup.

 

Damien and I haven’t spent any time above 10k feet since Mount Shasta back on Memorial Day weekend. With several projects involving climbing at high altitude looming in the suddenly not so distant future (where has this summer gone?!) we decided that a trip to Mount Rainier National Park was in order. We developed a plan based around two obstacles: we did not have an overnight permit and, again, the forecast was HOT! Thus, the strategy was to start from Paradise in the early evening so we would only catch the tail end of the heat, then climb through the night as far as we could go on the DC route. Summiting Rainier in a day was partially on our minds and we brought gear for a summit bid. However, the main focus of this excursion was to spent time at/above 10k.

We did our best to prepare for the impending all nighter. Saturday morning was sent mostly hanging around the house and napping. We headed out to the park early afternoon and, after fighting some strangely heavy traffic, stopped at Longmire to pick up our climbing permit. It was bizarre to actually get a glimpse of the park during midday. We’re usually only in the front country very early in the morning, very late or in winter when it’s empty. At 3:45 the park was a bit of a circus. We were eager to get on the trail and away from the crowds.

We swung on our packs at the overnight lot at Paradise in early evening at about 5:30pm. Our packs were lighter than normal for a Rainier climb, but with climbing gear in tow they still weighed respectable amount. The trail to Panorama Point was crowded with people. This provided some entertainment for me: folks wearing Mary-Jane shoes and jeans. I was annoyed by the fact that there seemed to be an unseemly number of descending visitors that did not make way for us as we traveled uphill with heavy packs. I know that some people do not know that uphill trekkers have the right of way, but if you see someone with a large pack you should step aside out of common curtesy.

Beyond Panorama Point the crowds thin considerably. Sweating in the early evening heat we watched as the sun edged in what seemed like excruciatingly slow motion toward the horizon. At Pebble Creek we paused to filter water and cool down in preparation for the snowfield ahead. From then on it seemed that the tourists ceased to exist.

The snow was sloppy from the radiation of the day as we began to climb up from Pebble Creek at 7100 feet. However, as the sun slipped finally behind the lower slopes of Rainier the temperature abrupted dropped. We found a good up-track which was further improved by a team passing us (their objective was Rainier in a day). I think it’s the first time we ever found a good track going up the mountain. As we climbed we turned back to gaze at the hues of the pink and purple sky behind Adams, Hood, Jefferson and Helens. All the mountains surrounding us glowed in the soft pastel colors of evening light. Rainier is always a magical place, especially this time of day when the crowds are gone and there is nothing but the splendid, tranquil, beauty of the volcano.

The snow stiffened as we continued upward passing familiar slopes and talus ridges. Ahead the glaciated mountain loomed before us fading into the darkness. At 9:45 we switched on our headlamps and donned our crampons. Our feet with unbalanced on the rapidly solidifying snow. As our crampons crunched in the hardened snow we caught a glimpse of what we thought was a rescue flare streaking across the sky. I would find out later that it was a fireball meteor. We were surprised to reach camp Muir at 10:30pm. Our calibrated altimeters somehow got off count during the climb which is pretty typical on Rainier and read 9800 feet instead of 10100. We had climbed to Muir in 5 hours which was a record for us with or without heavy packs.

Camp Muir was abuzz for with activity.  The guided groups were preparing to depart at their standard 11:00pm. Private teams were also milling about cooking and sorting gear. Damien and I dumped our packs on the dusty ground and, after a quick snack, settled down against some rocks for a 15 minute recharge nap. I especially needed it as fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Damien also alerted rangers and guide of the “rescue flare”. They seemed surprisingly unconcerned.

We were roped up at moving across the Colwitz Glacier at 11:20pm. I had never departed this late to climb Rainier and it felt strange to be part of a conga line of teams instead of climbing in silence. We moved well across the glacier. There were a few crevasses to step across, but nothing significant. However, we began to fall apart on the ascent of Cathedral Rock at 10,470~ ft. The “trail” up the rock formation is my second least favorite aspect of climbing DC (my least favorite being the cleaver). The tread was extremely dusty and, as always, the volcano crude unstable. The upper portion where rock meets dirty glacier had some crevasses, but what was more noteworthy was the audible roar of water coming from beneath the ice. Finally, we stepped onto clean glacier ice and received a healthy blast of wind. The gusts could not have been more than 20mph, but it definitely made it feel colder. Under the twinkling stars and frothy milky way we made our way to Ingraham Flats. There is a sketchy crevasse step-over here that got our attention. The others were minor.

Damien belayed me into the camp and we stared up at the procession of headlamps journeying up the clever. We both felt trashed for lack of sleep and the fatigue seemed to be making the elevation of 11,100 feet seem worse than it really was. Ahead laid another 4500~ feet of gain. The route this season features a marvelous 600 foot descent mid-route before climbing back up. We decided that Ingraham Flats was as far as we could safely go. We must have sat there at camp in our giant puffys for a good 30 minutes before willing ourselves to get back to our feet. Exhausted, we descended back down to Camp Muir which had lighter winds.

We did not have overnight gear. However, we did bring our sleeping bag covers for a situation like this. Damien opted to sleep inside the hut. I did not wish to join the snore-fest indoors so I slept on the bench outside. However, I could only insulate half my body with my backpack, so my lower half stayed pretty cold preventing me from getting any meaningful sleep.

Damien wanted to head down right away in the morning to avoid the next impending heatwave. I wasn’t too jazzed about that since I despise descending hard snow in crampons. I felt wreaked for the first 600 feet. After vitamin I and some coffee infused chocolate though things became a lot less painful. At about 8,000 feet the snow was soft enough to begin glissading which I took advantage of (crampons off of course!).

Once again things got busier the lower we went. At Panorama Point the folks in jeans once again dotted the trail. Back to society. Somehow, we managed to drive home without falling asleep at the wheel. Another learning experience as with many of the trips this summer.

After some high stress weekends in the mountains, Damien and I decided to take a rest and do a simple backpack with two straight forward scrambles. Our plan was to complete the Cradle Lake Loop and on the second day hop up to Bootjack Mountain, cross the ridge to Highchair, retrace our steps and then complete the backpack. We had attempted this itinerary in late October last year. It ended up being an out and back trip to Cradle Lake because of deeper than predicted snow. We didn’t expect to have this problem in July of course!

The trail begins at the very end of Icicle Road. It follows the Icicle Creek trail 1.5 miles through the forest until reaching a junction with French Creek Trail where we turned left. We continued through the forest though it opened every now and then as we followed French Creek for 4.7 miles until we came across the junction with Snowall Trail. We took a left and immediately arrived on the shore of a very deep French Creek. We both have vivid memories of having to cross this creek in October without pants with water nearly up to our hips and WOW had it been cold! Damien and I were both wearing shorts and with the water level being lower and the temperature being uncomfortably warm we were much more enthusiastic about this crossing in July. In fact, the water skimming the cuffs of our shorts as we crossed was downright refreshing!

We trekked onward following the trail as it switchbacks up through the forest. Not far up the trail we began to realize how poorly maintained the track was. Shrubbery hung over the trail scratching our legs as we gained gentle elevation through the woods. The trailed intermittently flattened out for stretches and the woods gave way to glorious wildflower meadows in the shadow of The Cradle…at least they were glorious at first glance. These meadows painted with ever color of an artist’s palette swallowed up the already thin trail. Several times we lost the track in the waist and sometimes shoulder deep grasses or flowers. Route finding skills came into play as we wandered through the meadows making our way up the valley. The sun also blasted its sweltering rays into the flora, which somehow seemed to have an insulating quality as we bushwhacked our way along the barely there trail. At least we had the relief of the forest every now and then even though the shrubs mangled our legs.

Finally, we reached the head of the valley and headwaters of French Creek. The trail turns left here and switchbacks up open hills of grasses and flowers. Most of the elevation gain had thus far been in the sections of trail under the cover of trees. Gritting our teeth we trudged up the exposed slopes drenched in what felt like gallons of perspiration. Finally, the small saddle in the ridge we where destined for came into view and we made the final grueling, long switchbacks to the high point of the trail (not including summits). The book said that this point was supposed to be 6100 feet, but my altimeter and GPS read 6500ish. Nevertheless, from this point we were rewarded with sprawling views of the Stuart Range and an inviting looking Cradle Lake about 250 feet in the basin just below us.

The trail to the lake wasn’t obvious so we just descended straight down the slope to the shore of the lake. We picked up the trail there and followed it around the right side of the lake passing a single tent, which surprised us. Damien and I continued past their camp in search of solitude and found a secluded place just past the creek at the foot of the talus ridge leading to Highchair Mountain. The mosquitos were hungry, but we were keen on getting into the lake. Quickly we stripped down to our underwear and stepped into the delightfully cold water feeling the sticky sweat drift away from our skin. Refreshed we swiftly set up our tent and dove inside away from the biting insects. There was no need to set up the fly so we watched as the sun drifted behind the mountains and mosquitos and flies buzzed hungrily just on the other side of the mesh. We still had to filter water so we armed ourselves with our puffies and long pants before venturing outside to the creek. After a lovely freeze dried dinner we settled in for the night completely exhausted.

 

We were packed up and walking in the cool morning hours of 6am the following day. Covered from head to toe in deet, we still had to deal with the buzzing of the biting bugs, but at least they didn’t land on us. As our beta instructed we followed the trail along the creek for one mile. At this point we were supposed to meet a junction with a trail on the left. This trail was on our GPS map as well so we were confident it would be there. It never occurred to us that there might be an issue. However, when we came to a junction is was marked off by branches as social trails often are in the National Forests. Confused, we checked our GPS which showed we had passed the junction. We figured we’d missed it and backtracked. Several minutes later our GPS showed we had passed it again! Now very perplexed, we diligently walked back to the blocked off junction. The trail on the map didn’t exist… unless it was this marked off trail and the GPS was off. Not knowing what else to do we stepped over the branches and followed the marked off trail.

Things seemed to go well for the first 15 or so minutes on the thin tread, but then the trail began to veer away from the direction we were meant to be heading and we found ourselves a quarter mile away from the “trail” we were supposed to be on. We had a good view of the sub-summit of Highchair and we studied the terrain. Damien suggested that we ditch the traditional route of summiting Bootjack and then following the ridge to Highchair. It would require a lot of backtracking anyway. It appeared we could climb Highchair via it’s West ridge and follow the next ridge to Bootjack making for a direct traverse. The appeal of a direct route and the fact that there didn’t seem to be a trail to Bootjack anyway made our decision easy.

Highchair was on the other side of the valley from the ridge we were on. However, the ridge is U-shaped so we traversed the ridge staying high and aiming for the saddle on the left of the sub-summit. The terrain was a mix of heather, forest, tall grass and blocky talus fields. The bushwhacking was minimal and terrain pretty decent for cross country travel, though it still slowed us a bit. The heat was debilitating though, especially for me. Just below the saddle we stopped in the shade by a snow patch and filtered water from a small melt stream in the talus. This was our last appealing filtering option for the day. We continued to the ridge and followed it to the blocky sub-summit (the rocks are red from iron content). From here we followed the talus and scree (class 2) to the summit. You’ll know you’re there because of the massive ammo box labeled “Summit Register” at the top.

From here views abound with Mount Rainier taking center stage. Also visible are Dragontail, Stuart, Argonaut, Sherpa, Cashmere, Adams, Eightmile, Daniel, Glacier… basically you can see a heck of a lot of peaks! It was also clear from this vantage point that we could have taken a direct route by climbing up the foot of the ridge from Cradle Lake.

We lingered for a long time, hesitant to begin moving in the sun again, but the ridge to Bootjack beckoned. We descended loose rock down into a larch filled basin just below the ridge and skirted the talus below the gnarly part of the ridge at the edge of the trees. Just before the ridge drops to its low point there is a small pond with tadpoles called The Oasis. We rested here in some shade. The water was kind of dirty here so we did not filter. Soon after this spot we rejoined the ridge and began the 1.5 mile walk to Bootjack. Every now and then a gentle breeze refreshed us, but mostly we cooked in the sun’s blaze. There is a faint climber’s trail that meanders on top of the rocky ridge, or just below it on the right side. About .3 miles away from Bootjack the ridge turns broad and grassy as the route climbs to an unnamed high point with some shady trees. The ridge then descends to a small rocky saddle (we skirted a gendarme on the left side to gain the saddle). From here it is a quick 150-200 foot class 2/3 scramble to the sub-summit and short traverse (class 2) to the true summit on the right.

We were greeted by 2 day-hikers taking in the view. Our entire route from the day before all the way to Cradle Lake and the cross-country route we had taken to Highchair and then Bootjack was visible from this vantage point. Of course, we had the same amazing views of the mountain range as well.

We were again reluctant to leave the summit, but we did coax ourselves up. Damien and I scrambled down the other side of Bootjack and joined a faint trail. There are several turns along the trail that can lead you astray. The general idea is to make sure you end up going down the opposite side of the ridge away from Bootjack and not into the meadows just below it. The Blackjack Ridge trail wasted no time in elevation loss. It plummets straight down for over 1000 feet with no switchbacks. Then when the switchbacks do start they are exceedingly steep. May kind of descent trail!

We reached the road in early evening and walked .25 miles back to the Icicle Creek TH. A little more of an exploration weekend than the easy  backpack with scrambles we anticipated. Not exactly a rest weekend, but still excellent!

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!

Damien and I have been looking for the opportunity to try our our new Katabatic Expedition Tent. Lots of new snow had fallen over the week when the freezing level dropped to 2500 feet and we figured that made this weekend the perfect time to do so. Our destination was a far as we could get on the Plateau near Slippery Slab.

We began at the Surprise lake TH. There was about an inch or two of snow right from the start and it slowly increased as we gained elevation. There was a boot track in for about two miles. It was pretty easy to break trail though as the snow was no more than 5 inches up to the junction with the Trapp Pass Trail. However, as we began the switchbacks up to the pass with shimmering, fat snowflakes falling from the sky things began to get more challenging. By the time we reached the top of Trapp Pass we were cutting our way through 12+inches of fluffy powder.

We were granted in and out views of the ridge we were about to follow and Slippery Slab in the distance. We had been in this very spot just over a year ago when we had section hiked the PCT and turned off to do a side trip up Thunder Mountain. It looked very different now, but very gorgeous indeed. As more snow feel and the mist traded places very few minutes with hints of blue sky we turned off the trail and began to navigate along the ridge. The climbers trail was impossible to distinguish so we basically stayed the the right side of the ridge and cut through the trees and snow. Sometimes the snow was just a few inches and other times it was knee deep. When we exited the ridge and came out below the rock band on the left side the the ridge the fluffy snow was wind loaded and the high angled slope. We fought our way though waist deep snow. There was no base we found ourselves dropping into tree wells and gaps in the talus. It was more like swimming and cutting a deep channel than climbing.

After a long traverse we swam up though shoulder deep snow and up to the basin below Slippery Slab Tower. But then we were pretty beat and we nervous about all the pothole traps in the big boulders and talus hidden by snow that laid ahead. It was also getting on to evening. We found a ncie flat place on the edge of the basin by the ridge and dug our a large platform to set up our giant tent. Wow is it gigantic. The wind picked up a few times at night, but we only heard the wind in the trees. The tent barely flapped or made a sound. Bomber!

About two inches of snow feel overnight, but luckily we had cut a huge trench the day before on our way up from the basin and it was very easy to follow it back down to Trapp Pass. The same was true to the rest of the track back. A few more weeks of snow like this and there will be a good enough base to start climbing and skiing!

Damien and I headed out for a backpack/scouting trip this weekend. The Enchantment permits were finally over and although weather and snow conditions were not promising for climbing Cashmere Mountain we decided to head in that direction anyway and scout out the route. We were happy to discover that Eightmile Road was still open. The trail was snow free to about 6000ish feet just before the pass above Lake Caroline. At the shore of Caroline there were a few sets of boot tracks and we got  abit turned around trying to identify the set of tracks that were actually following the trail to Little Lake Caroline .5 miles away. Although heavy rain was predicted we only experienced light to no rain right until we set up our tent on Little Lake Caroline. Then a cold, steady rain settled in.

It was still early in the day though and less than stellar weather never really deters us, so we set out to take a look at the trail to Windy Pass. We wanted to start in the dark the next day so we figured we’d see what we were in for… plus we had a feeling that just a bit higher up the rain would turn to snow and we love snow! As we suspected the rain did turn to snow at about 6600 feet and it was beautiful! We turned back once we got to the basin 400ft from the pass so we could turn in early. There had been a boot track the whole way so we weren’t too concerned about finding our way to Windy Pass.

The next day we woke before the sun and headed out. The rain had turned to snow overnight and there was fresh dusting at our camp and thicker fresh powder the more elevation we gained. Boot prints were blown out starting just we we had turned back the afternoon before in the basin. We put on our snowshoes and pretty easily navigated up the the ridge line just right of Windy Pass enjoying a fiery sunrise the sunrise! The clear skies didn’t last though as as we followed the ridge snow began to fall. No trouble there though. It gave things a more alpine feel! The ridge to Cashmere was pretty mellow and broad until about 7600 feet where we reached a talus hump covered in the thin layer of fresh slippery snow. We were able to traverse this sketchy section, but at 7800 feet, just before the false summit we decided to call the scouting complete for the day. The rock there was much more vertical and climbing technical rock in thin, slippery snow was not on our agenda.

The snow cleared by the time we got back to camp and the sun appeared for the hike out. With all the fresh snow there a wonderful bounty of animal tracks on the trail! Winter is coming and I’m so so happy!

It can be hard to find good adventures on the shoulder season, but as long as you are not adverse to rain and snowy conditions you can usually find something! Damien and I were going to do a Loop backpack called The Cradle this weekend which is located at the end of Icicle Road in Leavenworth. No many folks go to the very end of the road. We also wanted to add an ascent of Bootjack and Highchair mountain tot he second day since the route to those peaks was right off the loop. We were also prepared to revise out plans as the mountain conditions lately have been a question mark.

We started off of the Icicle Creek Trail. The drive across the creek just before the TH is still very doable in any vehicle. After about 1.5 miles at a huge camping area we turned onto the French Creek Trail. leads though the forest for a long time gradually ascending. It was raining throughout the day, but not pouring and the cool temp made the forest jaunt pleasant. At the next Junction we stayed left on the French Creek Trail and a few yards later came to the edge of a very deep French Creek… with the trail on the other side. Damien tried to find an alternate place to cross, but there were no better options. The water was deep enough to make removal of the pants necessary. It was actually deep enough so that the water was actually just below my hips. The key was to go inott he water and aim slightly up-stream to avoid a waist deep drop and then circle back to the trial on the shore. And, yes, it was FREEZING! Strangely once out of the water a dripping wet we didn’t feel very cold.

We continued on. The trail grained elevation more aggressively for about 600 feet before changing once again to a more gentle uphill grade. Mist hung low in the sky, but we could still see the bottom of Cradle Peak to our right. We passed though an Avalanche debris field and several meadows before once again going aggressively up after a horsecamp. Here snow covered the ground pretty solidly and we lost the trail at times. We managed to get back on it though without too much trouble. After about 1000 feet of climbing the trail begins to switchback up the ridge until reaching the top overlooking the snow engorged Cradle Basin. It was dark back then so we took out our headlamps before descending. The lake was frozen and it was hard to see exactly where it was. We set up camp in some trees near a thawed out pool.

In the morning we reviewed our options. There was a lot of deep snow and potholing ahead of us in the next two basins until we began to climb to the ridge by Bootjack. The forecast called for a big storm in the evening and moderate rain in the afternoon. Naviahgating through the deep snow in the basin could take hours and if we did end up having to turn back and go out the way we had come we could be looking at returning to the TH the next morning (we were 12.5 miles in). Highchair Mountain would be be a good choice of a climb since the snow covering nearby ridges looked slippery and questionable. With these being the circumstances we opted to change the loop to an out and back.

Of course this also meant we needed to cross French Creek without pants again! We made the right choice. The rain picked up as soon as we got back to the car.

With some significant rainfall in the outlook for Saturday and a chance on Sunday we had to revise our climbing plans. Instead we opted for a long backpack through the Pasayten wildness called Seven Pass Loop (27 miles), aptly named since it goes through 7 passes. The trip begins on the PCT North from the trailhead just a bit further than Harts Pass (pass #1). There was heavy mist and a bit of a typical WA drizzle when we started out with a nice crisp autumn feel ton the air. I love this type of weather (seriously, I do and that’s why I live in WA). The trail is pretty level and follows open slopes below Slate Peak where we had intermittent views of the wildness whenever the mist parted. As to be expected we ran into a good amount of through-hikers due to reach Canada and finish up the PCT next day. We crossed over Buffalo Pass and then went up a few switchbacks to the top of Windy Pass. From there the trail descends a bit through larches (still green but they will turn soon). Then we followed along more open slopes and onto a ridge. We crossed Foggy and Jim Pass and didn’t even notice! The trail eventually switchbacks down for a long time until reaching Holeman Pass at 5000 feet. But then it was raining pretty steadily. In fact there had been a mini flood running down the trail!

At Holeman Pass there is a signed 4 way junction. We left the PCT and turned right onto connector trail #472A. This trail is not nearly as well kept as the PCT. There are fallen logs to cross over and places where the grass is encroaching on the trail. The fallen trees are easy to go over, under or around though and it is pretty impossible to loose the trail. It is still what i would consider maintained. It’s just not immaculate. There was a fair amount of mud. I’m not sure how much was a result of the rain, but it seemed live the area was just damp in general.

The connector trail was flat so the two miles to the next signed junction went quickly. We turned right again onto the West Fork Pasayten River (Slate Peak 8 miles). The trail follows the Paysaten River though it cannot be seen at first. It was in the same condition as the connector trail. There is a campsite in about a mile on the shore of Shaw Creek which the trail crosses. The next set of camps is about 2 miles further at the next creek crossing. But then it was about 5:30pm and we were pretty cold and damp. We decided to call it a day and set up camp at a small site in the trees above the creek. It’s always an adventure setting up camp in the rain, but we managed to keep things mostly dry. We were happy to remove of sticky goretex and cuddle into our puffys! It rained pretty hard all night.

The next morning it was still raining, but not nearly as hard. We packed up camp in the dark and began moving at first light. Two miles more down the river there is a bigger camping area. The trail crosses the river shortly thereafter and turns away from the West Fork. Finally there is some climbing as the trail ascended up the slope and then turns right to traverse the ridge moving very slowly upward. Not a steep grad by any means. The tree broke away about three miles from slate Peak which could be seen easily in the distance since the clouds had broken up and blue sky was appearing. We followed the open slopes to a talus and scree field below Haystack mountain. Here the trail switchbacks up the final few hundred feet the the road. We took a small side trip and followed the road right to the summit of Slate Peak and the Lookout (which is closed). At least we climbed one summit! We had great views from the top all the way to Canada!

From Slate Peak we followed the road back down to the car passing Slate Pass, the final pass. Rain never stops us!

 

After a few weeks of long climbs through rough terrain Damien and I decided to use the long 4th of July weekend ti complete a backpack that as been on my list a very long time: The Icicle Divide. The route goes from Stevens Pass to Leavenworth mostly along the top of Icicle Ridge and covers 45 miles. With light packs and on a trail that my book reported is sometimes get lost for a few yards, but is easily picked up again, we thought this would be a great rest weekend option for us. Oh little did we know….

 

Day 1: Stevens Pass to 1 mile Short of Mary’s Pass, 15 miles

We started out fresh, clean and with no abrasions on the PCT heading south at Stevens Pass. The trail wanders up and down through the ski area for several miles. This was reminiscent of when we hiked the PCT from Stevens to Snoqualmie. It was even the same misty weather! The trail finally turns away from the Mill Valley skiing area, passing lake Susan Jane and cresting over a small rise and reaching the first trail junction at 4900ft.  Here we turned off the PCT and onto the Icicle Creek Trail. This tread passes Lake Josephine and continues to descend and follow the Icicle Creek until 3800ft. Of course after loosing elevation one must go back up. Here we took The Chain Lakes steeply up for 1000ft, before it mellowed out a bit for the rest of the climb to Chain Lakes at 5600ft.

These chains of aptly names lakes sit beneath the Bull’s Tooth Ridgeline and offer spectacular camping. Of course it was way to early for us to set up camp! We still had many miles to travel. So under now blue skies and admiring lofty mountains views surrounding us we pressed on. We climbed switchbacks before the Upper Chain Lake to reach a small Pass Overlook Upper Doelle Lake on the other side and some gorgeous mountain views. There was snow ont he descent to the lake and due to the steepness we opted to use ice axes… Damien glissaded in shorts. I plunge stepped. The trail follows around the left side of the lake, crosses the outlet and then follows the waterfall down to the lower lake. When the terrain evens out you need to cross back over the outlet. Of course when i did this I fell and my foot went into a huge deep in the stream what had been concealed by overhanging grasses. Quick first-aid patched up the gash on my knee. We continued on around the left side of the lower lake the trail vanished into the thick grasses on the hill overlooking the meadow we were supposed to descend into. After some searching we decided to just go down off trail. Besides, the mosquitoes were getting to bad for us to do too much looking for the actual trail.

Once in the meadow at 5600 ft we stayed left as my book described until we found the trail heading back into the forest. The trail climbs up Icicle Ridge gradually and reaches the high point of the ridge at 5800ft. Note that close to the top of the ridge there is an flattish area that appears to be a junction of some kind. Stay to the right here. It was evening now and we still have two passes to cross over. The trail along the ridge was thin, but we were able to follow it just fine for some time admiring the emerald green slopes that surrounded us. Then suddenly the trail stopped short on top of what seemed to be a small mudslide area. We could not locate the trail or think of any alternate but to drop down into the basin below and hopefully find the trail somewhere.

We dropped down to the shadowed green basin filled with zig zagging streams and buzzing mosquitoes. We played with the idea of setting up camp since it was already about 7pm, but opted against it as the insects seemed lick the deet right off us. Instead used the GPS to point ourselves in the direction of Frosty Pass and followed the course… a course through thick brush, tall grass, nearly vertical slopes and fallen timber. Oh, and we were still wearing shorts. However, we did stumble back onto the trail… feeling a bit more torn up than we had at the beginning of the day. We followed the trail to the forested Frosty Pass, staying the Icicle Ridge Trail at the junction. Now getting close to 9:00pm we were able to see Mary’s Pass still far in the distance… I think the one mile calculation from Frosty Pass was wrong in the guide. We decided that 15ish miles was good enough for the day and if we could find a place to camp by water before Upper Lake Florence, our original destination beyond Mary’s Pass, we would call it a day. As it turned out we did find a flat place near a creek 800ft below the pass. We quickly set up the camp…we were so tired and hastily trying to escape the mosquitoes that we could not find the cross bar for the tent when we dumped everything onto the ground, so we used our poles instead. Then we dove into the flyless tent and watched the buzzing mosquitoes swarm outside… they didn’t go away until almost 11pm. Thats when we finally went back out to filter water and have dinner.

 

Day 2: To Lake Augusta, 10 Miles

We rose to a windy, cold more that felt much more like fall then summer weather. Better than being hot though and no bugs! There was heavy misty swirling around us in the winds as were packed up and left camp to climb the final 800 ft to Mary’s Pass. We did come across some snow going up the pass and led us to taking out our axes again. But the switchbacks were easy to find between snow patches. On top of the Pass we did see much aside from the swirling light. We did get a glipse of Florence lake about 400 feet below before it too vanished in the mist. We continued to traverse along the ridge and soon found ourselves on Ladies Pass with a similar view. From here it was like we entered late autumn. Thick mist swirled around us as we traversed gullies, small basins, scree and jagged and rocky ridges. We crossed some snow, but did not take out of the axes. This continued until we finally dropped down into a deep snow filled and wind blasted basin. Here through waves of mist we could see still mostly frozen Lake Edna. There was single tent on the shore getting completely battered by the strong gusts.

We followed the trail away from the lake. The ski began to clear up a bit and the winds died enough for us to stop for a small break, but they never truly settled down. The trail drops about 2000 feet all the way down into the forest to Index Creek at 4800 feet. And then, you guessed it, we had to go all the way back up again. We climbed about 1000ft through the forest until things began to open up near a cascading creek. We lost the trail and picked our way up the steep and, in places, snowy slope, until we found ourselves back on the trail. We climbed to about 6600feet to a wide flat area and followed carins to our left to the saddle overlook the next valley at Big Jim Mountain at 6700 ft. Of course we once again went down into the valley and followed a small stream on think tread before crossing it after .25 miles. The crossing is barely visible. We could only found it because it was on the gps tracker. The next landmark is Carter Lake. The trail goes around it to the right and then to a junction. Following the Icile Ridge trail we now followed more eastern WA landscape up steep switchbacks across grass and ponderosa pine to the high point of the backpack at 7200 ft atop of the saddle of Big Jim Mountain. Here is was extremely windy, but the views were spectacular. On one side to the west we could see the distance passes we can crossed to get there. It was stormy looking. To the east it was sunny and we could see Lake Augusta below and distant Cabin Creek Valley and the section of Icicle Ridge we would walk along the next day. We knew already it would be a long day, but for now were were almost to camp!

We descended about 400 feet to lake August and made a nice camp in the trees on the far shore near the outlet steam. We had to be careful not to loose anything in the strong wind, but we were mostly protected by the trees and shrubs around us. At night we could see the town lights of Leavenworth, Cashmere and beyond. It was beautiful and I was glad we were in the alpine and not in the town. I rather watch from a far distance in the solitude of the mountains.

 

Day 3: to Leavenworth… a relentless 18 miles

Even though we had turned in hours before dark the night before it still seemed like the alarm rang all too soon at 3:20am. We antisipated a long day though. My book indicated the the section through Cabin Creek presented the thinnest trail. Furthermore, two hikers we’d run into coming from the opposite direction as us the day before mentioned that the resent burn and overtaking forest had made that section of the trek horrendous. We wanted to start moving quick and we shouldered out packs a little before 4:30am.

It was still windy and mist hung over the mountains. The rising sun reflected off the fog turning it shades of pink and orange. We descended at first following the outlet stream before we began to switchback up the ridge to our left to the Junction of the Hatchery Trail. Here a sign marked that the Icicle Ridge Trail was not maintained. We would come to believe that the last time the trail was maintained was when it was built.

At first it wasn’t so bad. We followed along a dry ridge top that looked a bit moon-like. Sometimes we lost the trail, but with a bit of searching we always regained it easily. It was when the trail turned off the ridge to descend into the creek that we ran into trouble. The trail vanished. Did not exist. Our GPS told us more than once we were standing right on it as we plunged straight down through the grasses it and it was not there. after passing the grassed we found our way through think pine forest riddled with fallen logs and then when that was over we thrashed our water through barely penetrable side alter. I swear these type of plant gets angry at you for stepping on it. The branches grab were ankles and hit you in the face on purpose! Then it was through another layer of pine and another layer of alder… and we were only the valley floor. We crossed soggy marshes and walked through some less dense forest until finally reaching Cabin Creek. Panting we crossed the log jam and rested here until the mosquitoes got to be too much. Then we walked to the edge of the marsh and followed in left until an organge ribbon marked the trail going into the forest. A TRAIL!!!!!!

We followed this trail marked by ribbon for about ten minutes until it entered a burn left over from the Cabin Creek Fire. If i recall this area burned last year and because the soil was now so fertile it was overgrown by fireweed, shrubs, grasses and alder. No trail at all. We continued to fight upward through the thicket that was at times insanely steep. We tired to go to the left to where the trail was supposed to be at one point, but fighting the alder proved to be just too much. We decided to go higher to where the alder was thinner before traversing. It was painstakingly slow, painful and frustrating work. We battled the grasses, alder and then the thick and steep pine forest ascending to 5800ft and then back down  in search of the trail and by some brilliant stroke of luck we found it at 5500ft. Words cannot come close to describing how elated we were!

Finally back on overgrown, but defined trail we traversed to a low saddle and then switchback up the the ridge-top at 6700ft (carins helped at times). It was once again extremely windy and with hoods up and traversed the top toward the distance black rock outcrop marking the high point off the ridge. There were a few ups and downs on the way and sometimes we lost as much as 500ft. Luckily the heavy misty was swirling enough to sometimes provide views of The Enchantments (Colhuck, Argonaut, Drangontail) and Stuart Range (Sherpa and Stuart). Plus of pain of the morning was beginning to wear off. The ridge was just like The Sound of Music and we loved it!

We finally crested the high Point near the junction of the 4th of July Creek trail. Ten miles to go! We continued a long the ups and downs the the ridges admiring the Enchantments and eventually getting views the desert-like eastern slopes. The trail lost elevation extremely slowly. In fact were were sure it would never descend all the way down. But abruptly the slow traverse a long the ridge-top turned into short and steep switchbacks down toward the canyon bottom. The short and steep switchbacks lasted above 1000ft until reverting to longer switchbacks but it all went faster than expected. Our feet hurt, but we seemed the fly down the ridge and we arrived back at the car at the Icicle Ridge Th at 8:30. Two hours before our expected ETA.

 

So not a rest weekend, but still pretty  awesome!