Damien has attempted to climb Bald Mountain in winter/Early spring conditions several times. I was with him on his most recent attempt about 2.5 years ago when we had to bail due to scary avalanche conditions on the ridge. This weekend called for stable and moderate conditions in the Cascades. Hoping for a better outcome, Damien and I decided to once again try to Bald Mountain & Helena Peak.

We were able to drive about 2 miles up Deer Park Road before encountering impassable snow. We parked only about .4 miles from the first washout so this was a descent amount of headway. From the car Damien and I continued walking up the road, easily crossing the 4 washouts. After about one mile the snow was fluffy enough to warrant us strapping on our snowshoes. Both of us were surprised at how deep the powder was at 2000 feet. Not very long ago our biggest difficultly was lack of solid snow coverage!

At the end of the road near the TH for Kelcema Lake, Damien and I turned left into the forest and began to break trail up the slope to the NE Ridge. Several yards in we removed our overnight gear from our packs and stashed it in some trees so we could go light and fast. Fast was relative in the terrain. We wove around fallen trees and other terrain obstacles picking our way through the snow covered forest. Luckily, the snow depth increased swiftly and soon we didn’t have to worry about forest debris. We did, however, find that the snow was thick, fluffy and deep with a base that was not very close to the surface. As a result Damien sunk far with every step even with snowshoes.

We reached the open slopes where we had turned around on our last attempt. This time the Damien and I found the snow to be well bonded and we pressed on. However, “breaking trail” seems an inaccurate description. Damien was now tunneling through the snow at this point! We continued pushing our way through the sea of white to the ridge crest. Damien and I began to question how much longer we could continue cutting a trench through the powder or if we had enough daylight to make it to the summit. We continued on until about 3:00pm. The summit was still .84 miles and 700 feet away. There was no way we would make it there before dark; if we could make it at all. Moving had become an incredibly tedious and slow process.

After a brief discussion, we decided that we should abandon our original plan to attempt Helena the following day. Helena is a higher summit and involves a ridge climb about twice as long at Bald. The mountain would almost certainly have the same conditions as Bald and it it didn’t seem worth the attempt. It also didn’t make sense to camp at the base of Bald and then walk the 2.5 miles out the next day when we had a great weather window. It made more sense to choose a new, day-trip objective.

Damien and I descended Bald Mountain reaching the road just before sunset. With a full moon, darkness fell slowly even with the heavy cloud cover and snowflakes falling from the sky. Our legs ached from the attempt, but we looked forward to trying to climb in another part of the Cascades the following day. Sometimes you need to be willing to change plans.

After a week of unseasonably wintry weather, the sudden change back to a summer forecast came as quite a shock. Damien and I originally planned on semi- mix climb of the center section of the Tatoosh Range. However, we watched the webcams in surprise as every day the snow retreated significantly. The once completely white mountain range only had snow patches in the upper basins by Friday night! Thus we decided to still bring our crampons, ice axes and snowshoes, but threw in our rock shoes as well.

We pulled into the Reflection Lake Parking area at 9:45 after securing our permit in Longmire. Damien and I examined the mountains trying to decide what gear to ditch. It felt like June! After some contemplation we left behind our snowshoes, avalanche gear and extra layers in the car. The ice axes and crampons would go with us as we could not get a good view of the climbing routes and we didn’t want to take a chance. We knew that we were probably just taking them along for a walk though.

The well-maintained trail to the Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle in mostly melted out with several patches of snow on the upper switchbacks. Snowshoes were definitely not needed! Damien and I weren’t 100% certain where we were going to camp. We planned on going to see what conditions and sites presented themselves along the way.

Mt Adams and Mt St Helens greeted us as we crested the saddle and peered over at the mountains on the South side. There was an obvious climbers trail that traversed left beneath Pinnacle and Castle. To the right an unofficial trail climbed the East Ridge of Plummer. Damien and I followed the trail up Plummer since it was a quick ascent from the saddle. The route scrambled up class 2 rock on the South side of the mountain for about 250 feet before reaching the top of the ridge and a small basin. It didn’t take long for Damien and I to decide that the basin would make the perfect basecamp. With an enormous view of Mountain Rainer and the Tatoosh Range, the basin was just too inviting to pass up. We found a wonderful campsite protected by some trees just on the edge of the basin with Mt Rainier in the backdrop. Swiftly we set up our tent and stashed our overnight gear inside. As we worked we discussed our evolving plan. Damien and I decided that the best course of action was to backtrack and climb the technical route up Pinnacle’s East Ridge first and then have dinner at the summit of Plummer that evening.

Damien and I shouldered our now lighter packs and descended back down to the Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle. From there we traversed beneath Pinnacle on a mostly scree climbers trail with a few class 3 rock moves. Damien made note of the turn off for the South Gully, our descent route as we passed beneath it. When the climbers trail crossed beneath the edge of the East Ridge beneath an obvious notch we turned off the trail and climbed directly up a scree gully, keeping right on more solid rock. The notch is the start of Pitch 1 of the East Ridge. Damien and I saw no reason to rope up for this section as it seemed to have no protection and was easy class 4/low 5. We scrambled up along the ridge to a small platform with a belay tree beneath a much steeper section of rock and pillar. This is where the real climbing began.

Damien and I roped up and I began to lead the pitch. It was class 4 up until the base of the pillar where I had to traverse around right of the formation on a ramp. This weas about 5.4 and very exposed. Such conditions normally didn’t give me much pause, but thus far my only protection was a single sling wrapped around a horn. Therefore, I moved much more deliberately than normal. In fact, I didn’t find any other protection until reaching a small bush about 30 feet short of regaining the ridge. I stopped here and built an anchor as the single piece of protection around the corner was giving me lot of rope drag. Damien led the final 30 feet to the ridge which was mostly low class 5 with a few 5.6 moves. He placed 2 mid-sized cams. From the ridge crest we un-roped and hiked (class 1) the broad ridge the final few yards  to the large summit block. The entire climb took about 1 hour, much faster than expected.

After lingering to enjoy 360-degree views of Rainier, Adams, Helens, Hood and countless other summits we began the descent. Damien and I found a trail on the South side of the summit that followed the Ridge East to the South Gully. The south gully is rated class 4, but the rock was so solid and blocky it felt much more like class 3. It is long, vertical and exposed though. We had to climb facing inward for a large portion of it until reaching the lower talus and scree near the climbers trail.

Damien and I made our way back to camp with plenty of time to make it to Plummer for sunset. We dropped off our climbing gear and filtered some water before heading up the snow slopes to the East Ridge of Plummer. We followed heather, grass and snow slopes up just right of the proper ridge near some trees. The ascent was quick, and the summit block appeared rather suddenly when we popped over the ridge proper. Gaining the top of the summit block required some maneuvering through trees, but nothing problematic.

Damien and I settled on the long rock ledge on the summit in the shadow of massive Rainier looming to the North. We finished our meals just as the sun turned radiant yellow on the horizon sinking toward the purple mountains. A soft orange hue illuminated the rocks of the summit and the pink shade radiated off the snowy volcanoes in the distance. The once blue sky turned a soft lavender, slowly transforming to deep tones of violet, orange and red. Then all at once the alpenglow vanished as the golden sphere melted behind the mountains. All that was left was a radiant red, orange and yellow sky. We packed up our gear and began to descend under the swiftly dimming sky. It never got truly dark as the half-moon glowing white in the darkened sky illuminated the mountains so vividly we could even see the glaciers on Mt Rainier. We had difficulty going  to sleep that night. It was warm enough to leave the tent fly and door open and we kept glancing outside to gaze up at the starry sky.

Darkness still enveloped the mountains when our alarm went off at 5:45am. We still haven’t gotten used to the extended night! We prepared our climbing gear while Damien drank his customary morning coffee and I munched on a bobo bar. When we departed for Plummer/Pinnacle Saddle the sky still didn’t show any sign of dawn.

We traversed on the same trail we had followed the previous day beneath Pinnacle Peak. By the time we were beneath the notch the sky was finally beginning to show signs of morning as tones of yellow appeared in the horizon. We continued on the trail beneath the swiftly brightening sky, traversing on scree below The Castle. Upon reaching the far side of Castle the tread begins to descend along a cliff. The trail thins near an obvious flat ledge on the headwall. Here we were easily able to scramble (class 3) up about 25 feet to some dense evergreens where we found a small path leading to the east side of The Castle. Once on the other side of the ridge, we turned left and followed a good trail to the talus base of The Castle. Damien and I half scrambled, half followed a broken trail to bottom the East Ridge route, which is a small white gully/ramp system just right of the summit block.

We geared up just as the sun’s rays touched the craggy rock of the Castle giving it an amber radiance. Leading up the first 30 feet to the small ledge was simple class 4 rock. However when I traversed right to access the gully/chimney system to the ridgeline, I discovered some delicate class 5 moves (5.6?) and, once again, a single piece of protection (one red cam that I wasn’t too thrilled about). At the ridge crest I built an anchor on a sturdy shrub and belayed Damien up. The few yards along the ridge to reach the summit were class 3and 4 with high exposure on a knife edge. Since the summit block is small we took turns belaying each other out to tag the top. I saw no protection on the ridge.

Back at the belay tree we studied the terrain for a wrap anchor. The shrub was a bit far from the lip of the ridge and not large enough to pass our personal rap requirements. There were two large horns that looked promising. After some inspection, Damien and I chose the horn closest to the summit and set up an anchor with two cordelettes. Note that the other horn has some questionable cracks in it and might not be fully attached to the mountain. A 60-meter rope was more than ample to get us back down to the base.

After removing our technical gear, Damien and I shouldered our packs and began the journey to our subsequent objective, Foss Peak. Foss Peak in the next summit along the ridge in the Tatoosh Range. However, unlike the previous summits we climbed that weekend, it is not as close and requires about a 1 mile walk to the base. We easily followed patchy snow fields along the ridge for about .5 miles (trending on the right side). Terrain and trees funneled us to the left side of the surprisingly windy ridge for the final stretch of the approach where there was a good climbers trail just beside the trees. The wind was forecasted to be 5-10 mph on the summits, but this was easily 20 mph with 35 mph gusts. We hoped our tent would stay put!

The trail peters out just above the unnamed lake at the foot of Foss Peak. I have climbed this summit before. On that trip the entire mountain was snow covered and Eric and I had climbed straight up the West Face. However, now it is only partially covered by fresh, unconsolidated snow revealing a rather gnarly talus and a cliffy surface. In these conditions we opted to walk right around the lake and climb just right of the rock face up the grass slopes near some trees.

The scramble presented little difficulty. Mostly we simply walked up steep grass and heather interspaced with snow patches and some talus. It was best to stay out of the snow when possible as there were some unexpected, deep sinkholes. Upon reaching the North-West ridge crest we were greeted with an exposed snow ramp with a sketchy runout. We tempered the risk by staying on the right side of the ramp as close to the trees as possible and walking in such a way to create a trench in the deep snow. It worked well, and we easily walked the final few yards to the class 2 summit block. Yikes! It was crazy gusty up there!

Damien and I descended easily and retraced our steps along the ridge toward Plummer. Finding the trail through the trees leading back to the South side of Castle was a bit challenging. There is a carin, but it is several yards away from the foliage concealed path. After some trial and error, we found the trail and scrambled down the headwall back to the south side.

The walk from the base of Foss to our camp on the slopes of Plummer took about 1.5 hours. And, yes, the tent managed to remain in place. Some of the stakes were beginning to dislodge though! Since it was only early afternoon, Damien and I took a rare nap and basked in the beauty of the regal volcano looming just north of us. With much difficulty we rallied to pack up our gear about an hour later and began the quick trek back down to the parking lot. Another perfect fall weekend!

We were so enthralled by our trip to climb Courtney & Star Peaks last week in the Sawtooth Wilderness that we returned this weekend for a second helping of summits. This time we had more ambitious intentions. We planned on a circular, 25ish mile route both on trail and cross country tagging Bigelow, Cheops, Martin & Switchback Peaks along the way. Bigelow, Martin and Switchback Peak are often done as a “Slam” in three days as they are part of the 100 Highest in WA List. Cheops, Martin and Switchback were also sometimes combined as a single alpine traverse as they laid on the same ridge. Essentially, our plan was to combine these two popular peak bagging tours in one long endurance venture.

After the long 4 hour ride to the Northeast corner of the WA Cascades, Damien and I were eager to begin our journey. Our boots hit the trail toward Upper Eagle Lakes at 8:30am. The trails in this area are manicured and smooth. They might be even better maintained than the PCT. This is not by some random occurrence. The trails in this section of the Sawtooth are used not only by hikers and stock, but also by dirt bikes. I am sure that during the dog days of summer this area would not only be sweltering, but also abuzz with bikes. However, with 1-3 inches of snow on large sections of the trail this time of year was quiet with brisk and inviting nip to the air. We only encountered 3 mountain bikers on the entire trip.

There are several junctions that branch off the main trail. All the junctions, of course, had signs except the intersection that leads to Upper Eagle Lake. This was marked by a small carin about 5.5 miles down the trail. We followed snowy tread carpeted by the golden needles of larches past a small outlet pond. The clouds that had been hovering high above us throughout the day seemed to sink closer to the peaks and a strong wind nipped at the bare skin of our faces. So much for the sun that was predicted! We zipped our jackets up higher as we walked beneath larches now past their prime. The needles that still clung to the knobby branches were no longer vivid yellow, but more of a faded, deep gold. Still they were stunning and I relish this time of year for its colors.

Damien and I finally broke out of the larch forest and reached the blustery shore of Upper Eagle Lake. Across the choppy waters a massive talus field rose upward into the overcast sky. On the upper slopes of the choss intimidating headwalls reared out of the talus rubble giving us pause. A quick look at the beta confirmed that we did not have to climb the near vertical faces of the headwalls. The true summit was around the back. Still it looked gnarly. However, as luck would have it the talus slopes did not have a great deal of snow on them compared to the other rocky walls surrounding the lake. Our biggest concern for this peak when we planned it was the amount of snow present on the rock as the last several sections on the summit block were described as quite exposed. However, it looked manageable from the base.

We traversed around the right side of the lake and then began to scamper up the lightly snow dusted talus. Damien and I trended to the right aiming for a weakness in the cliff band several hundred feet above. The talus was not what I would describe as stable, however it was manageable to negotiate. The cliff band proved a bit daunting as some sections we had to scale consisted of damp slabs. Luckily, we did not plan to descend the SE Route. As we traversed left to gain access to the upper talus field the clouds sunk lower obscuring the tops of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Mist swirled above us around the menacing headwalls. Winter is indeed coming!

We climbed the upper talus slope without too much trouble, although higher up there was a bit more snow and the talus grew increasingly sloppy. Upon cresting the ridge, we were blasted by fierce wind. The lake had all but vanished in the blanket of churning clouds. I wondered if soon snow would follow, but no precipitation fell. The summit block was on our left. We took a right trended gully up to the ledge. This was described as exposed, but I disagree. It was easy class 3 even with 3-4 inches snow cover. From the edge we descended about 3 feet to the base of a small face. This was the most difficult section of the climb. The feature is snow covered, but clean rock and there are two ways to ascend the face. Damien did a wide stem on the right. I did a narrow stem left and then traversed right with a foot switch. Both options were tedious, but not extremely difficult.  From the top of the face it was a simple walk to the summit where we had marvelous, close up views of mist!

Damien and I were now faced with the most difficult part of our day: descending. Getting off Bigelow would prove to be a rather horrendous and creepy undertaking. To descend the peak and get to Boiling Lake we needed to traverse along the ridge for one mile until we reached Horsehead Pass and the trail leading down to the basin. It seemed simple enough in text. However, this side of the ridge had a lot more snow. In addition, the talus and scree was some of the worst we have ever encountered; possibility worse than Morning Star Peak. The rock kept shifting and when they loosened huge piles just above us moved as well threatening to tumble down the mountain. It was like climbing through a house of cards. Once false move and an entire section of choss could collapse and some of these rocks were huge! We picked our way very slowly and carefully through the rockfall landmines. We could see the basin below us about 800 or so feet away. We toyed with the thought of just descending to the basin instead of traversing the ridge, but every time Damien and I tried to descend the rock grew more sketch. Damien and I decided to keep traversing but keep an eye out for a weakness in the talus to descend directly to the basin. The ridge was creeping us out.

After crossing some sketchy snow covered slabs we found an area that seemed to have more scree than talus heading down. We began to descend at a painfully slow rate navigating around wet slabs and cliff outs though the messy gully system. Damien and I each had a turn taking a fall on the way down, but fortunately neither of us traveled more than a foot or two. I cannot emphasize enough how relieved we felt when our feet finally touched grass and larch needles.

After a brief break to absorb the experience Damien and I continued through the basin on welcomingly soft ground just below the ridge. We stumbled across the trail  after about a half mile and easily followed it to the shore of Boiling Lake. Of course, the lake was the opposite of boiling: it was frozen!

The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon as we set up camp under the trees near the shore of the lake. It was odd to see a picnic tables in a backcountry campsite, but I assume this is because the area if frequented by dirt bikes. I refused to sit at it for dinner though because it was the backcountry! I think my ethics annoy Damien sometimes, but he accommodated me.

We broke camp the next morning at 5:30am with three summits to tag and about 15 miles of travel ahead of us. Three peaks in a day would be the most either of us have ever accomplished in 24 hours. The psyche was high! Damien and I followed a trail south from the lake climbing easily to a small pass at 7440 feet. We then followed the trail down about 100 feet into a small basin. According to our maps this trail would just dead end and at some point we needed to start heading up to the saddle between Martin and Cheops just above. We were not sure what part of the saddle to aim for so after following the base of the talus slope in the meadow for a few minutes we started to angle upward through the rock.

Ascending those pile of rubble was comparable in many ways to the quality of rock we navigated through when descending Bigelow. The rockfall risk on this slope was extremely apparent and again we stepped with great care as a single misplaced muscle could cause massive rockfall. We even heard some large slides in some of the gullies after we had traversed through them. It was enough to send chills up our spins. Of course, part of the chill was also attributed to the frigid cold that enveloped us even as the sun rose illuminating the spectacular Sawtooth Range. We were on the shady side of the ridge. The sweeping views did provide some solace in the havoc of the ascent. We could see Bigelow far off and the long ridge leading to Horsehead Pass. Had we not descended directly to the basin the previous day it appeared we might have been on the ridge traversing for another 3 hours.

Finally, after several heart wrenching moments on the treacherous, loose talus we crested over the top of the ridge where, naturally, it was sunny. We were about 200 feet above the low point in the saddle and now were could see that a trail led right to it! This is the problem with alpine starts: you just can’t see very far and if it’s not on the map you have little else to go by.

We admired the snowy peaks bathed in golden alpenglow near a small stand of trees while eating our second breakfast. To our left were the craggy pinnacles that make up Cheops Peak. We toyed with the idea of skipping it since our minds were so mentally destroyed from the climb to the top of the Sawtooth Ridge. After all, it isn’t one of the hundred highest. But it was right there and we knew we’d regret it if we skipped over it. We weren’t chasing the 100 highest away. We were there to play in the hills.

Damien and I scrambled up the South Ridge of Cheops until we reached the clutter of towers. We followed the weakest path on the east side of towers up some narrow gullies. There are two large rock piles that look similar in height. We first climbed the nearest pile thinking it was highest, but of course once were on top it was apparent that the far pile was the true summit. The final summit scramble was easy class 3 on large blocks. Care must be taken because of the black lichen, but we didn’t find it too slippery.

We descended back to the saddle and began to traverse to Martin Peak. From a distance this mountain looks tremendously daunting, but as we neared it the talus angle seemed to soften and appear feasible. Damien and I began to climb up the North Ridge veering off to the west to avoid the rugged cliff directly on the crest of the ridge. The rock was slippery and unstable, but not as petrifying to climb as the scramble to the Sawtooth Ridge Crest. We certainly could not be careless though and steps deliberate. About 300 feet from the summit we ran into a descending party. They claimed the next section was the more difficult part of the route. The angle certainly increased and we had to contend with some slabby features as we ascended more or less straight up to the crest of the North Ridge. However, once we crossed into the ridge and onto the sunny side of the mountain the terrain eased rather significantly. It was an easy scramble up blocks to the summit.

At first, we through that the next bump in the ridge was Switchback Peak. It wasn’t far at all and looked extremely tame so we were elated. However, the more I looked at it the less confident I felt that bump was our objective. It was too close. Switchback was supposed to be a mile away along the ridge. I followed the ridge expanse until my eyes met with a white peak that looked as unnerving as Martin had from a distance. I looked at the map. This was Switchback. The bump was just that: a bump.

We descended easily down the south side of Martin and began the long traverse to Switchback Peak along the ridge. To our relief, this part of the ridge in no way resembled our experience descending Bigelow. The crest was board and the talus stable. There was even a descent climbers trail in sections! Additionally, now on the east side of the ridge we had the pleasure of enjoying the warmth of the sun’s rays and protection from the wind.

When Damien and I reached the base of Switchback we paused for a break and to procrastinate. It looked like another snowy talus pile and neither of us were eager to begin the ascent up rubble. We took some time to enjoy the wilderness views and look back at the other peaks we had climbed. Star and Courtney Peaks from of previous weekend trip were even visible in the distance.

Damien and I peered up at the final 450 feet of climbing. It was time to go. Shouldering our packs, we followed the ridge up Switchback. To our shock, although Switchback appeared from the base to be another snowy choss mess, it was composed of a fair amount of scree, firm sand and stable rock. The ascent was uneventful compared to the other climbs and we reached the summit swiftly, topping out at about 1:00pm. Three peaks in a day, all of them over 8000 feet!

Of course the day wasn’t over. We still had a long journey back to the trailhead. Still Damien and I didn’t hurry to much as it was a gorgeous day and we wanted to savor the moment. We descended down the south side of Switchback Peak and walked cross country over talus to the far-right ridge toward an obvious gap where we would meet up with the trail. This section of the Sawtooth Ridge is known as Angel’s Staircase. The talus was a bit finicky, especially the upper rocks which had slick lichen, but travel was comparatively tame. Damien and linked up with the trail with general ease and began to follow the steep switchbacks down toward Cooney Lake. It felt odd to be on ground that didn’t shift with every step and I felt like I was flying down toward the frozen lake.

Cooney Lake is a large lake beneath the expansive Sawtooth Ridge and surrounded by larches. I wished we could have stayed another night, but unfortunately, we had to get back to our weekday lives on Monday. Instead we walked the final 9 miles back to the trailhead and left the slate blue frozen lake behind. The miles flew by on the well-maintained trail. It was like walking on a superhighway as we completed the loop. Damien and I reached the car at 6:30, an hour earlier than expected and just in the nick of time. The sky swiftly dimmed as we replaced our hiking boots with crocs. Another 10 minutes on the trail and we would have broken out the headlamps! Of course, the day still wasn’t totally over as there was still the 4 hour drive home to complete. Wilderness weekends are always worth the drive though!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

For some reason or another I’ve always wanted to climb Clouds Rest. Maybe its the unusual name? The summit is between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows and affords magnificent views into the Valley, Half Dome and the High Sierra. Of course, when we started out at the Sunrise Lakes TH that morning the sky was thick with smoke from the new Wawona Fire, so the views weren’t quite as expansive. However, it was still a worthwhile scramble.

The trail begins near Tenaya Lake. The after the track crosses the Tenaya Lake drainage and it  heads  sharply south. There are a few junctions, but this is always a clear sign indicating Clouds Rest/Sunrise Lakes. After perhaps a half mile or so the relatively level trail begins to switchback up to the crest of Tenaya Canyon. This is the steepest section of trail throughout the entire 14.4 mile trek. Still it is well maintained and tamer than most trails in WA. At the top of the canyon ridge there is another signed junction. We continued right toward Clouds Rest.

The tread descends about 300 feet in the shadow of Sunrise Peak.Shortly after crossing an easy boulder field we entered a forest, traveling once again on level ground. There is small tranquil pond and several creek crossings. The trail in this section is pleasant, yet uneventful in terrain until the next trail junction. Here the forest begins to open up and the trail once widens as tread aims upward. It is not nearly as steep as climbing up Tenaya Canyon though. Just before gaining a long broad ridge the first view of Clouds Rest comes into view.

The summit seems like a much longer walk than it actually is. We gradually gained elevation following the broad, dusty ridge. The smoke was extremely thick and impenetrable on our right, but we still had some decent, albeit hazy, views on the other side of the ridge. Soon the trail reaches some pancake shaped rocks on the ridge. There is a small trail that journeys just below the peak for anyone who does not what the “scramble” to the summit. The description of the scramble is that it is a narrow, knife-edged, exposed ridge. We found none of this to be true. Yes, we were on a ridge with perhaps three or four brief class 2 moves. However, the ridge is nearly completely level and wider than most side-walks. It is in no way exposed or what I would describe as knife-edged. Regardless, the  pancake rocks were fun to climb and we quickly reached the broad summit. The Valley was completely socked in with heavy, grey smoke and Half Dome was all but swallowed by it. We still could see in other directions and during our time on the summit the smoke blew around a bit and gave as a faint glimpse of Half Dome. It was a pleasant day and we must of stayed on the summit for the better part of an hour. We were lucky to have the mountain to ourselves aside from some greedy chipmunks!

On the journey back to the trailhead we came across quite a few other hikers. I guess a late start is common in Yosemite. We prefer to start before the sun has barely crested the horizon!

 

Traditionally, after driving through the night to our destination, Damien and I always do a short day hike. After spending 17 hours in the car we are not in condition to do anything technical or long when we pulled into the park. Damien and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows in the high Sierra of Yosemite National Park around 9:30am. After registering at the campground and setting up our tent, we headed out for our first summit: Lembert Dome.

Lembert Dome, is a short hike of about 2.5 miles out and back and 870 feet of elevation gain (summit is 9449ft). However, Damien and I decided to do a slightly modified version of this popular out and back trip. We made it into a loop with a detour to Dog Lake. This made the trip probably about 5.5 miles and added roughly 100 feet of gain.

Instead of starting at the overflowing Lembert Dome Parking Area, Damien and I parked on the shoulder about 1/4 mile away from the Ranger Station. We then followed the roadside trail about 1.5 miles (it is on the meadow side of the road at first and then crosses the street to follow the John Muir Trail). The John Muir Trail eventually leads to the Ranger Stables. From here we continued about another 1/4 mile down the road to pullout. We crossed the street and followed the signed trail into the woods toward Lembert Dome.

The trail climbs uphill immediately, but it is not by any means steep. There is a sign pointing to the side-trail to the summit of the dome after about .3 or so miles. We took this junction and followed the trail through forest until reaching open slabs to the summit. There are many route options here. The easy way is to climb straight up the first bump to where the summit is visible. Then head left over easy slabs and come up the back of the summit. We took a more scrambly route (five or six class 3 moves) directly up to the top of the Dome.

After admiring the hazy, but expansive views (wildfire smoke tainted the air) we found a bit of shade under a boulder. we took a comfortable nap for about 30 minutes, before descending back down to the main trail. Here we turned left (following signs for the parking area and Dog Lake). After ~.25 miels we reached another junction and turned right to do a short side trip to Dog Lake .3 miles away. Dog Lake is popular for swimming and there were a few groups  playing in the cold water. We settled with wading in knee deep.

Damien and I journeyed back to the main trail and continued descending steep switchbacks toward the parking lot, Soda springs & The Stables. We could have returned to the parking lot and then walked along Tigoa Road about a mile back to our car.However, we decided to return via the Soda Springs Trail/Stables. We took a turn in this direction about 1.5 miles after the Dog Lake Junction. This trail led to The Stables Parking Lot. We walked through the parking lot to the marked Soda Spring Trail.The Trail leads down to a wide gravel path. We turned right onto the path and then took the next left over a bridge, through the meadows and back to the road to our car. Kind of a crazy loop, but we enjoyed it nonetheless and tagged our first summit of our Sierra Trip!.

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!

Four years ago Eric and I climbed the NE Ridge of Black Peak. We had just started leading a few months prior and had about one year of climbing experience and little to no knowledge on simual-climbing. This taking on this route was probably not our best decision. We pitched out most of it which resulted in an extremely long day (over 20 pitches) and  lack of experience made us most slowly on top of that. We topped out on what I know know was the false summit just as the light was fading from the sky and began to pick our way down  the South Ridge via headlamp… eventually we ended up deciding to spend a very uncomfortable night in a 3x2x4 foot slot/cave formation. I’m sure now I would have had no problem descending the scramble route in the dark, but back then lack of experience resulted in my first unplanned bivy.

Four years have passed since then. I am a much more seasoned climber now and it was time to take on the NE Ridge again; this time doing it right and Damien had yet to climb the peak. With sun promised all weekend we departed the Maple Pass TH Saturday morning reveling at the novelty of walking on patches of melted out trail and wearing our summer mountaineering boots for the first time this year. The trail is mostly melted out until the first basin. Then it is mostly snow with small patches of dirt all the way to Maple Pass, then there is no more dirt. Crossing to the other side of Maple Pass and traversing the steep slope to Lewis Lake is tricky business. The run out id very consequential and an ice axe and possibly crampons (depending on snow softness) is a good idea. About 300 feet of elevation is lost traversing to Lewis Lake. From Lewis Lake we began to climb again following the tracks of Nick and Jonah. As it turned out on of the climbers we shared our wedding cake with, Nick, once again had the same objective! He and his partner were doing the NE Ridge in a day and were ahead of us leaving a nice bootpack through the rolling slopes to Wing Lake at 6900 feet. It’s a decently long trek, but the views were pretty amazing providing a good distraction.

We sent up camp on the shore of frozen Wing Lake. We saw two figured on the summit of Black Peak and thought they were Nick and Jonah. It turned out to be two skiers. Through my camera viewfinder I zoomed in and was surprisingly able to locate Nick and Jonah about 2/3 of the way up the NE Ridge. We watched them trucking a long for a bit before taking a nap.

Clouds began to move in that evening as we ate diner on a melted rock. We watched the summit for Nick and Jonah, but saw nothing. Chances were they were on their way down we figured. We scurried back into the tent as the temps dropped. Probably an our passed before we heard voices and peaked out of the tent to see two figures plunge stepping down the snow slopes from the South Ridge. We were relived they had made it down the mountain, especially since some unpredicted bad weather seemed to be moving and and even a few small snowflakes fell randomly from the sky. The summit of Black Peak was partly obscured by a cloud. We met up with Nick and Jonah swapping beta, stories and gear info. They had quite a long day on the NE Ridge which turned out to be more demanding than they had expected. But like us, they enjoy type 2 fun and a good adventure! Nick’s detailed account of the NE Ridge can be found on his eloquently written blog SPOKALPINE. Damien and I huddled back into the tent as Nick and Jonah began their journey back to the car.

The clouds that we figured were just passing through did not pass through… they lingered. They lingers and dropped rain. About an inch of rain fell overnight and it was still pitter pattering against the tent walls when we woke up at 2:45am to get ready to climb. We thought maybe it would pass as it was supposed to be a partly sunny day. So we waited 30 minutes… then another 30 minutes… we kept hoping it would stop. But it drizzled or rained moderately continuously and to top that off there was heavy mist providing only ten feet of visibility. There was one longish stint of no rain and we began to get ready. We figured if the rock was damp it would be fine as we’d climbed in light rain. Plus, if the weather kept improving and became partly sunny like it was supposed to the hardest parts of the route would be dry when we got to it… but then the rain fell again. We discussed going anyway and climbing through the rain at length, but in the end we decided it was too risky a move on an extremely long route with  no bail out option. At 7:30 we began to climb the steep snow slopes to the South Ridge, the 3rd and 4th class scramble route.

The route climbed the snow slopes left of Black Peak for about 1100 feet. There is varying steepness. We wore helmet and used ice axes for the last 150ish feet. Although the snow was pretty soft from the rain we still wore crampons approaching the ridge for extra security. Once we crested the ridge were blasted by a frigid wind and pelted with tiny droplets of freezing rain. Visibility had improved, but a heavy fog still hung thick in the air as we ascended the climbers trail uo the melted out lower section of the South Ridge. The trail was easy to follow, mostly class 2 and marked by carins. We passed over a few snow patches, but did not hit a major snow slope until about 8,500 feet just below the first gully. We used an ice axe and front pointed up the steep slope (probably 50 degrees) aiming for the Pillar guarding the right side of the gully. At the pillar we climbed into the shallow moat and once again followed dry rock up the gully until things opened up again. Then we took a very short 8 foot gully with 3rd class steps up to the top of the ridge. There are several “blocks” at the top of the ridge. We followed carins around the right side of the towers looking for the summit block. We found the summit block pretty easily, but finding the way up the rock was difficult. We had a few false starts before finally located a carin that guided us up a short snow slope. Then we circled nearly tot he back the summit block and finally located a hidden gully with 3rd and 4th class moves to the summit. There were no views of course, but that didn’t matter. Even in the srummy weather we had manged to make the best of things and still climb the peak even if it wasn’t the way we originally planned. The the rain and mist make the scramble route much more challenging and interesting.

We descended the route somehow taking a slightly different variation on the ridge down, but with no issues. The clouds never lifted and the rain never stopped as we packed up and began the long walk out. We made the right call.