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!