I didn’t make it out of the first valley on the west side of this route 😦
Having largely recovered from ACL surgery back in September 2017 and having recently tested the generously donated tibial ligament which replaced my anterior cruciate ligament on a nearby peak known for it’s steep trail, I decided it was time to practice foul weather backpacking and spring-snow travel. To that end, I mapped out a loop in terrain which I expected to either be snow free, familiar, or have been visible from Mailbox Peak the week before. After work on Friday, I headed out with a bunch of new gear which more reflected the pent up hiking lust I’d experienced during recovery than a sober assessment of the conditions, and headed out in to the rain.
Things actually started quite well. The rain was light and it was a mile or two before I had to unzip my rain shell to vent the heat which was threatening to make me sweat. Instead of using trekking poles, I held the edge of my shell like a shawl, hunched forward and got along OK.
I had been expecting snow to start above the junction to Granite Lakes and so had planned on camping there. However snow patches started covering the trail and eventually buried it well before. It was less than half an hour before dark when I turned down the Granite Lakes trail and within fifteen minutes hit a small stream washing over the trail and couldn’t spot a dry-footed way across. The nearby hillside was shallow and while damp, was not soggy. With no flat spot large enough for my body, I settled into a dip between several trees and was glad that I’d brought a tarp and so the requirements for adequate pitch were lower.
I had been excited to put the catfood can stove I’d recently manufactured to the test but couldn’t find my lighter. Morning light would reveal it a few feet away where it had fallen out of my ditty bag (aka head net) when I’d moved to a slightly less bad spot. Not having cold soaked ramen before, I wasn’t sure how long it would so I ate the next day’s lunch and set my noodles to cold soak overnight. Due to the slope of the “campsite” I slid slightly out from under my tarp several times that night and my sleeping bag got damp but not enough that it needed to be dried before another use. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation but it could have been much worse. Having brought my thickest air mattress (which had a slow leak and so had to be reinflated several times) was key here due to the roots I hadn’t been able to avoid lying on.
The next morning, it was still raining lightly and I made the rare decision to keep my synthetic puffy on while hiking. This turned out to be the right call as I moved slowly and so never really built up much heat.
The trail towards Thompson Lake starts by following a decommissioned Forrest Service road. I’d brought snow shoes and enjoyed the large, slow, crunching motion which so differs from a normal hiking gait. That said, going was much slower as I’d anticipated compact spring snow which I could walk on top of.
Eventually, the trail leaves the old road and continues through the trees. I was initially able to follow a pair of tracks which got me to a sign indicating I was on the trail to Thompson Lake. I’d been hoping to follow tracks, or a trail corridor, blazes, cut logs, etc… but there wasn’t much to see. The tracks were faint and seemed and initially went down-hill even though the map didn’t indicate any downs in the area. Also, I hadn’t counted switchbacks or tracked my heading as I went and so I wasn’t completely sure where I was on the map and the fog meant I couldn’t look across the valley for peaks I’d expected to use as reference in a map and compass situation.
The tracks hinted that I should cross a stream at a sketchy snow bridge, which I did, and shortly thereafter faded out. I continued for several minutes following in a traverse trying to slowly increase elevation as my understanding was that the trail would eventually cross the ridge I was now under. However, I really didn’t have my bearings and so to get them, took a bearing perpendicular to the slope. It was almost exactly south. According to the book on map and compass navigation that I’d read (but never practiced), this meant I was looking for a spot on the map where the hillside ran east-west. All the contour lines on the map along the Thompson Lake trail, however, run south-westish near where I thought I was. I’m still really not sure what all went wrong but at that point I decided to acknowledge that I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to get myself to Thompson Lake and that the proper thing to do was minimize my chances of needing to have search and rescue called.
It’s hard to make a decision to turn around but a bunch of things weren’t quite right. I’d switched to microspikes for the hard snow under the trees and they were a little too large for the shoes I’d taken. I could probably have hiked up to the ridge line and followed it instead of a traverse but in the fog, when would I have known to turn off it? My post-surgical knee was holding up well but with each step it would feel more pressure. In the past, I’ve gotten lost retracing my steps to camp after pooping in the woods and so have a heightened sensitivity to that possibility.
On the way out, I tried to snow shoe up to Thompson point by following the forrest road. I turned back when that crossed a snowfield with cracks in it. That decision was easier because there were tracks and they turned back at that point as well.
Just before crossing under the snowline, I ran across two men with a dog and stopped to chat. It turns out one of them volunteered with a local search and rescue group. Much better, I thought, to meet search and rescue like this – found and self-evacuating – than lost and scared.