Stevens Pass to Deep Lake (August 22-23, 2020)

Paul invited me to join him on a three day trip from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass, probably for much the same reason I invited him to run the Issy Alps 100mi with me, the company would be nice but the car shuttle was necessary. I’ve done that trip several times and didn’t want to burn a vacation day so we settled on me shuttling from Snoqualmie to Stevens and hiking the first day with him to Deep Lake which I’ve been wanting to camp at in the summer after having camped there on snow earlier in the season. On Sunday, I’d hike back to the car.

Saturday, August 22

I pulled into the Snoqualmie Pass PCT trailhead about 5:20am. I got out to use the outhouse and found a thru-hiker sheltering under the short eves from the the misty rain which hadn’t been forecast. I’d camped a dozen yards away on my own thru-hike in 2016 and so we had an instant source of conversation. I mistook a headlamp coming up from the parking lot as Paul’s. It belonged to a trail runner going up to Kendall Katwalk, running the whole way, even uphill. Another woman appeared alongside her and for a moment, it was a fascinating contrast: the thru-hiker with his large pack who would only walk, two women who would be running the hills in minimal running vests, and me who would be trying to do something in between. The others went on their way and Paul showed up. We loaded his gear into my car and as the sky grew lighter, drove back to the greater Seattle area and then up to Stevens Pass.

About 8:15am we set off up the climb to the to ridge at the top of the Stevens Pass Ski Area’s west side. We passed several groups and I wondered if I’d see them on my way back the next day. Our pace was quick and light on the uphill and our legs felt strong as we flowed down the back side past the ski area boundary and several ponds. Our first stop was about two hours and 7 or 8 miles in at Mig Lake lake where I camped on my last night on this section in 2017. Paul connected with some fast packers who knew his land lady (“fast packing” is when you go backpacking but spend some of the time running instead of hiking – I’m unconvinced of the benefits but it feels good while you have energy).

Paul atop the first climb.

Miles fell away, the clouds burned off, we kept a running conversation even when walking the uphills. One big decision was whether to visit Surprise Lake. I talked Paul out of the extra thousand feet of descending only for a to climb back up to the PCT (and a lakeside meander – didn’t mention that). Maybe my thru-hiker mindset of “these miles don’t go to Canada” is too strong. You don’t get a good look at Surprise and Glacier lakes as you traverse their length in the trees above.

Approaching the divide between Trap Lake and Surprise Lake.
On the climb to Pipier Pass, you finally get a view of Glacier and Surprise Lakes which you’ve already passed.

Deception Lakes wound up being farther away than I expected. It’s funny how memory doesn’t map linearly onto reality. I’ve wanted to swim in the Deception Lakes every time I’ve passed them and so this time I did. Deep Lake is in a valley and we didn’t think there’d be enough direct sun to dry us if we swam at our destination. Paul’s approach to swimming is the one I used to have: jump in with your clothes on so they get clean too and then they keep you cool. The sensual freedom of swimming in the buff won me over last year so now I leave my clothes out on a rock to dry to a crisp which makes them feel clean even if they’re still encrusted with salt.

This section of the PCT is notable for a particular water crossing. Early in the season you have to cross multiple turbulent pools of frothing water. The depth and water pressure are hard to discern. The white water occludes secure footing, forcing you to probe with poles and feel with your feet among the uneven, slippery, and unsteady rocks. The cascade leaves little room to step up or downstream to catch your balance. At this point in the season, however, we could walk down the bank where the trail is cut and hop over the first branch of the stream, step over the second, and walk a log bridge over the third, all of which were shadows of their early season selves.

Paul crossing what turned out to be our last water source before Deep Lake.

The low water at such a notable water crossing might have hinted that the water might also be low at the next stream – which I judged to be the last guaranteed water source before Deep Lake. It was near a campsite which had been so boggy in 2017 that I’d only been able to set up at one of the several campsites. When we got to that stream, however, it was dry. Paul was out of water and I had a little under half a liter. We took a break and investigated some trail magic left in a bear can for PCT thru-hikers. Paul’s shoulders were hurting from having stuffed his fastpack to its limit. We split contents of my flaccid 500ml soft bottle, ate bars and potato chips, and headed up towards the shoulder of Cathedral Rock.

Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock is the prominent peak which stands apart from other peaks which appear as little more than slight rises above a connecting ridge. It was beautiful as the light started to loose its harsh brilliance after the heat of the day. I was walking behind Paul on this last upward effort. His foot placement wasn’t as crisp as the morning which I noted mostly because I get hyper-aware when low on water. After cresting the shoulder of Cathedral Rock, we walked the 2.5mi descent to Deep Lake, arriving just after 6:30pm and dranking deeply at it’s calm outlet stream which ran between a perfect line of stepping stones.

The last time I was here there were several feet of snow on the ground. It was nice to be able to relax in the relative warmth, though the high valley walls meant we didn’t have direct sunlight to keep off the chill from the cool air sinking into this high lake basin. We set up our tents, ate dinner, sat in the light hammock (an excellent “trail couch”) Paul had brought. I hadn’t brought enough insulation to stand around and so tucked into my quilt to watched color drain from the sky through my translucent tarp.

I was letting my mind drift when I heard a low, blunt, excited voice talking with Paul. I looked out from under my tarp and was introduced to Mike who Paul had met once before on a local, rugged hike. From the sound of it Mike had been considering pushing through the night and doing the entire Snoqualmie to Stevens section in one push but decided to camp with his very minimal gear so as to be able to see more of this beautiful swath of nature by daylight. Mike went to find a campsite and I put on an audiobook and drifted off to sleep.

Sunday, August 23

The sun was up but hadn’t crested the surrounding ridges when I woke up. It was brisk and I ate my cold soaked oatmeal with the last of the maple syrup I’d been gifted by Ross a few weeks ago. I packed up, optimizing for keeping my warm clothes on as long as possible instead of packing in the best order (important for a frameless pack). Paul was making breakfast as I wished him well on the rest of his trip south and headed back the way we’d come the day before.

Smooooooke on the water. Cathedral Peak is on the right but isn’t as striking from this side.

On the way down from Cathedral Rock, I saw some of the trail runners who Paul had connected with early the day before. They hadn’t made it to Deep Lake but camped at the waterless campsite which I’d though would have been our last water the day before. They’d gotten water from hikers headed in the other direction, who were just over a mile down hill to get more in the morning. It was the start of one of the day’s fun themes: seeing people I’d seen the day before.

Looking down the lush valley to Hyas Lake in bright mid-morning light.

The best connection, by far was when I overtook Mike. I stopped to talk but he said we should do a mile together and talk. In the same vein as in veno veritas I think there’s a in trail veritas. Our conversation ranged from swapping gear tips to the most positive, affirming discussion related to identity and values I’ve had in a long time. The one mile of conversation turned into about twenty and two rest stops (no swimming today) before we fell into the quiet which accompanies late-in-the-day sore legs.

Glacier Lake, Surprise Lake (barely visible). Baker is my best guess for the mountain in the distance.

The view from the top of Stevens Pass Ski Area is a special one since it’s a clear point before the final descent. While you can’t see much of the route you just walked, the view is grand enough to summarize everything you just experienced. We rested there a moment, reaping the reward of our hike, then dropped down the front side, flowing like water back to the car.

Mike (middle left) on the final switch back to the top of Stevens Pass Ski Area.

The trail forks just before it ends and I took the path which lead to the ski area not the parking lot. I’d picked up enough of a lead that Mike was out of sight and since I was giving him a ride home and he didn’t know what my car looked like, I was a bit worried that we’d have trouble reconnecting. Somehow he guessed which parking lot I was in and found me. Then, a man came over and asked if we had jumper cables so we helped jump a Prius. Many firsts for the day. The traffic was slow on the way home and since I hadn’t packed car snacks, we bought overpriced cans of Coke from a roadside vendor while the car ahead advanced less than 50 yards. The Dairy Queen we stopped at for milkshakes was poorly located and it took three tries to figure out how to get through the drive-in. Finally, I dropped Mike off and then made it home a little after sunset, just in time for a shower and an early bedtime. A fitting ending to a long day of walking.

All my pics

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