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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another winter blast this weekend! Damien and I attempted Stillaguamish last year the same exact weekend (in a day), but ended up turning back because some freezing sleet gave us both hypothermia on the ridge. This time we planned on making a second attempt as an overnight and brought a few extra pairs of gloves!

Saturday morning started out with high, grey clouds as we hiked up the nearly level Perry Creek trail which gains 1,300 feet in 3.3 miles (hardly noticeable). Damien and I did not run into any snow patches on the trail until about .25 miles from Perry Falls. Note that these patches we a bit icy, but we did fine without traction. After crossing the river and beginning the steady climb up to Forgotten Meadows, the trail stayed mostly snow free until about 3,700 feet. At this point the track featured a few patches of snow. Around this time intermittent rain also began to fall. With our full goretex armor we hardly noticed the increased moisture! The patches increased in size until snow covered the trail completely. Folks had come up this way though, and there was a solid, compact boot track all the way to Forgotten saddle where the trees parted. Near the saddle we trekked through a trench with 2-foot snow walls!

A blustery wind tussled the snowflakes through the frigid air with gusto as we crested over the top of the ridge on the saddle at 5000 feet (the precipitation had turned to snow at about 4,000 feet). The solid boot pack ended here. There was evidence of tracks heading right along the ridge toward looming Mount Forgotten partly shrouded in wispy layers of mist. However, on our left in the direction of Stillaguamish, there was barely the faintest whisper of some old tracks vaguely detectable in the fresh powder. From our previous attempt last year, we knew there was a descent climbers trail that followed just below the ridge. Damien and I assumed we would have no issue finding our way even with the snow being much deeper than anticipated. We expected there to be at least an indentation of a trail, but there was none!

After traveling a few yards through the deep powder, we opted to slip into our snowshoes. I am really not a fan of the flat shoes, but sometimes it is the best method of travel before ski season. Our journey started out well and we easily followed the broad ridge through trees and open meadows. However, after about .6 miles or so the terrain grew increasingly rugged. Damien and I attempted to follow just below the ridge crest, but got cliffed out. We tried to follow our beta’s suggestion to travel along the top of the crest in the snow, but again geo cliffed out. We continually made attempts traveling at different elevations along the ridge, and got shut down every time by terrain! After roughly two hours with no luck and daylight hours swiftly decreasing, Damien an I decided that, once again, Stillaguamish would have to wait.

We backtracked along the ridge until we reached an open, broad meadow on the ridge crest perhaps .2 miles from the saddle. Here we were granted wide open views of Mount Forgotten, White Chuck and other surrounding peaks, but not for long! The clouds closed in as we set up camp and blotted out the views as snow fluttered with increasing vigor from the darkening sky. It felt like Christmas in this winter wonderland!

When we woke the following morning, the snow fell with even more intensity. Accumulation was surprising little considering how thick and swift the flake fell. It might have been the texture of the snow. It certainly was less fluffy compared to previous weeks. The snow turned to rain at about 4,500 feet as we descended. Back in Perry Creek Valley the mist hug low, giving the mossy trees an eerie and mystical effect. There is beauty in all weather in the mountains.

After last weekend’s bout of intense sunshine, the snow returned! Thursday night and into Friday the freezing level dipped and the first storm cell released heavy snow in the mountains. Light snow persisted into the weekend with the next large release of snow predicted to occur Saturday evening into Sunday morning. Damien and I had to be flexible with our objectives and plans. Fresh snow in this amount could bring avalanche danger and, with no base layer, walking through talus presents dangerous hidden voids. We took into account that snowshoes do little to help with floatation in the absence of a base. However, there is always an adventure to be found no matter what the conditions! We set our sights on the Monte Cristo Group. After all our years climbing in the Cascades we have never visited this particular set of summits or even seen the Ghost Town of Monte Cristo! We decided that we would journey to Glacier Basin and set up camp. If conditions were safe, Damien and I could also attempt Cadet and Foggy Peaks.

The trail to Glacier Basin must be reached by walking the 4.2-mile old road to Monte Cristo. When we arrived Saturday, there was only a faint dusting on the road with sections of more coverage. Clouds hung low in the sky concealing the lofty peaks we knew surrounded us. The old road is easy to follow until reaching the banks of the river at one mile. Here we were faced with crossing a wide log dusted with slick, fresh powder. We safely crossed the log over the first branch of the river. Damien and I then dropped down to the gravel and crossed the second branch on a partially submerged, but less sketch log just to the left where the water was shallower.

From the river we easily followed the road into the abandoned ghost town of Monte Cristo. I was surprised at how much of the town is still standing. There are several small buildings, a train turntable and a few artifacts scattered about. After a brief break we continued past the trailhead sign and crossed the bridge on the left following the old Dumas Street. Along the road snow coverage became increasing consistent as we passed various signs notating where structures of importance once stood in the old town. The road petered into an actual trail beyond the sign for Glacier Basin (2.5 miles away).

We continued up the trail breaking free from the forest into an open valley enveloped in clouds and falling snow. Massive, craggy summits rose around us and we caught glimpses of the higher reaches as the winds intermittently brushed away the clouds. The trail gained elevation gradually at first, but near Glacier Falls the track suddenly reared upward. Damien and I climbed up steep trail and rocky blocks sometimes using the trees to assist the ascent. The blocks turned into slabs which were extremely slippery in the increasing powder. One of the gnarlist sections of slabs was protected by a permanent, rope handline which we very much appreciated.

After the high angle, tedious climbing following the valley around the back of misery hill, the grade finally eased. Instead, we now contended with 2 feet of soft, fluffy snow! Damien and I pushed through the snow with caution. There were sections of talus we needed to pass, and we fell into hidden voids abruptly on several occasions. Progress was exceedingly slow and tedious. The open basin we could vaguely make out through the thick snow and mist seemed to never grow closer as we followed the creek up-valley.

After what felt like ages of plowing through snow, the terrain opened into Glacier Basin. Through the low clouds and swirling snow, we could see Cadet, Monte Cristo and Wilman’s Spire engulfing the borders of the wintery basin. We crossed the running creek in a shallow spot and set up camp in the glorious amphitheater of craggy peaks.  The freezing level dropped and we hurried to put on more layers, breaking out our Feathered Friends Frontpoint jackets for the first time this season. Damien and I live for winter camping and alpine weather extremes! The first time we use the frontpoint jackets is always a splendid occasion for us!

Darkness never truly fell that night. The nearly fully moon reflected off the snow and mist giving the effect of mild dimming rather than true darkness. The clouds even lifted a bit and when we peaked out of the tent door at 9:30pm. We were able to make out some of the summits. But when we looked out again at 1:00 snow was falling fiercely and visibility had decreased to less than we had experienced all of Saturday. We wondered what would remain of our tracks. Some hours later we were awoken by the sound of avalanches on Wilman.

The snow still fell with vigor when we woke on Sunday morning and the temperature had decreased further. Damien and I plowed through over a foot of fresh powder to a large rock where we could get a better view of the route up Cadet. There was talus with hidden voids to negotiate, at least 2-3 feet of deep powder and avalanche potential in the gullies. Climbing seemed like a recipe for injury so we decided that we would return. Besides, getting down the Glacier Basin trail would probably provide plenty of technical travel! Damien and I even discussed the possibility of rappelling the steeper section of slabs.

Damien and I were in no hurry to leave the winter storm. The weather was just too beautiful for us to hurry out of the backcountry. Instead, we settled down outside, sitting on our packs and watching he snow whirl around us. Nothing could be more tranquil and perfect.

We did manage to finally rise to our feet and break down camp mid-morning. Both of us dreaded going down the Glacier Basin Trail, however, it wasn’t as horrific as we had anticipated. After Damien and I both slipped and fell hard on the first concealed slab, we discovered that we could simply glissade down the slick, smooth rock. Our tracks were, indeed, completely obliterated so we ended up plowing a new trail again, but it was easier descending and we made descent time getting back to Monte Cristo. The road was no longer snow free. The freezing level had dropped significantly overnight!

When we reached the river, Damien and I took the bridge over the first branch. We had missed the side trail leading to the dilapidated bridge on the way in. On the second branch we resorted to jumping rocks and crossing a small log (which Damien put in place for me as a courteous husband).  The snow-covered ground continued to the Trailhead (the snow line is at 1500 feet). A weekend of winter wonderland bliss! Ski and ice climbing season is nearing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!