I’d cooked a Turkey the night before, yams and marshmellows the night before that, and strawberry jello nut salad (a family tradition) the night before. I spent the morning prepping and packing. Carve the turkey, cover everything in foil, nest bowls and plates so they won’t rattle or break in the car, find polar fleece leggings I haven’t used since last year, take my larger backpack down from where I’m using it as wall art, will titanium shephards hooks hold my tent up if there’s more than the inch or two of snow we expect? The list goes on. Almost forget to buy and print a Sno Park permit.
Lizi, Ella’s friend texts her as she crosses the border. Rendezvous a little before noon at Ella’s place. I park on a hill several blocks away. In this neighborhood, parking is notoriously difficult. After securing the lid of the borrowed fire pit against the incessant rattling it had made on the drive over, I walk past several open parking spots. I guess people get out of town for Thanksgiving. We sure are.
The faded walls of Ella’s apartment where we wait are decorated with photographs of friendship and adventure. Her coffee table has books on history, philosophy of science, and adventure. Soft christmas music plays and we verbally process our nerves about the cold by talking about gear and reliving misadventures. Lizi arrives and asks all the same questions and charges her phone. I ask if Ella still has my USB-car adapter from the Enchantments Through-Swim. She does and covets it. She also returns the fleece I’d left in her car when she dropped my off for the Issy Alps 100k, just as she’d left a shirt in my car when I’d dropped her party off for their Issy Alps 100k attempt. I’ve forgotten a ball cap and borrow one. We identify a budding tradition. At the end of the trip she almost leaves a pair of knickers in my car and I still have her ball cap.
Lizi and Ella are college friends (“uni” as the Brits call it) and have lots of catching up to do as we drive south. Lizi rides shotgun and passes around a bag of goldfish crackers which winds up being most of lunch. She’s been ski bumming in popular ski town but now works for a non-profit. This trip has just started and they’re already making plans plans for another.
The Forest Road to Marble Mountain Sno Park at the base of Mt St Helens winds up being dry an clear. We’d be worried about ice. This appears but we’re almost at the end. It’s past 4:30pm so night has fallen. We make two laps of the parking area looking for a place to camp. This is a parking area, not a camping area. It’s not looking good until the headlights of the car pick up a cleared, flat, level spot. I park. A small fire ring is visible so no need for the one taking up space in the trunk. I shut off the car and turn on the interior lights. Someone cracks a door open and the scramble to layer up begins.
The campsite has several flat areas. We set up tents in the furthest one back. There’s plenty of room. The snow was little more than a dusting and the titanium shepard’s hooks held just fine. Dinner time.
Ella puts a string of fairy lights around the rock fire pit. We unload plates from the car, unwrap aluminum foil, stuff crumpled newspaper and under logs. Then we light the newspaper, the logs catch, and we are warmed. The food is cold but hadn’t frozen. I load a bowl and eat, seated in a backpacking chair. The ladies wrap food in foil and tuck it into the fire, “hobo style”, and sit on their foam sleeping mats. Lizi cheats on her vegetarian diet. Champagne is consumed from back-country pots and cups.
A car and a truck arrive, revving their engines and doing donuts. Huddled around the campfire, we talk about how people should have something better to do on Thanksgiving. The revving stops and a hood is popped. Some time later they drive off, ice crunching under the wheels.
I’m barely hungry after a first course. The fire throws embers and pine needs into the serving dishes so everything looks like it has cracked pepper and rosemary. I go for seconds anyways. We talk about how ridiculous we are, eating a Thanksgiving dinner in the woods bundled in every layer we have, in temperatures not cold enough to freeze our water bottles but not warm enough to melt the lose granular snow burdening the ferns. I get asked why I cooked so much food and respond that I want to be a father who makes pancakes on Saturday morning and turkey on Thanskgiving.
We let the fire start to die. Ella warms up pie, hobo style, for everyone. We move closer and the logs turn to coals. I’ve been avoiding drinking from my water bottle, intending it for tomorrow’s hike. We start collecting snow to melt, Ella and I in our cups placed beside the fire, Lizi in her stove which is much faster. This is my first time melting snow to drink. Initially, it’s easiest to brush clean snow off plants into my pot’s coozie for transport back to the fire but snow shrinks so much when melted that I end up scooping it off the ground. The water tastess like the pine needles I filter out by poking bandana into the top of my water bottle and slowly pouring the warm liquid through. This chore keeps us busy while the fire dies.
Despite the cold, we kill the fire completely dumping cups of snow on it. I intend to finish the job by peeing on the fire, a favorite benign ritual of masculinity, documented in the movie Boyhood. Ella informs me that this rite is not strictly limited to males and wants to go first, apparently unaided by a feminine urinary device. Neither of us quite quenches the fire so Lizi stirs the ashes around. All is quiet. We turn in before the cold can creep back in to our fingers and toes.
Motor vehicles crunching the thin ice in the parking lot wake me up shortly after 2am. They keep coming, sometimes washing the tent walls with luminescence which makes it hard to sleep. I relax and lay conscious with my eyes closed until I hear rustling from Ella or Lizi’s tent. It’s 4:10am. Start time is 5:30am. I had planned on stirring at 4:30am. Ella points out that the target start time is 5:00am, 5:30am was the cut off for late comers. A dog barks which is probably Jolly, Emily’s tan, long haired dog. She’s bringing Ben who I haven’t met. Garrett was having Thanksgiving at his parents’, 5.5hrs away and not planning on leaving until after a particular guest but also said he’d make it one way or another. I drag myself through through packing up, deciding to keep on all my sleeping layers, and rueing the fact fact that my sleeping bag goes in the bottom the pack must be packed first. Toasty legs meet chilly air.
I’m greeted by a woofing and bounding Jolly half way across the parking lot. I return his woofs, match his bounds with jumping jacks, then finish crossing the slippery parking lot to find that Garrett has already connected with Emily and Ben. Turns out I’m the last one up.
We fill out self-issue climbing permits. Conversation flows and for a few minutes we don’t notice that everyone is ready. The trail starts wide, probably and old forest road, lightly covered in snow but not enough to interfere with walking. This is vaguely familiar from the Bigfoot 100k earlier this year. We’re taking the Worm Flows route which is a name I enjoy seeing on the trail signs which guide us guide us through the first few turns.
Pacing with a group of six was always going to be a bit interesting. Multiple people had expressed concern about being able to keep up and one was injured enough that they were skipping their run training. This started to play out a bit as a group of three pulled ahead, two fell behind. I wanted to listen to both conversations! I love eavesdropping while hiking. This was briefly remedied when I forced everyone to take a de-layering break.
The two groups re-formed and drifted apart again. I chose the rear group to better make the acquaintance of those with whom I was less familiar. The trail narrowed and began to get a little rocky as we passed the treeline and got onto the rocks. The lead group stopped now and again to let us catch up, and sometimes people would switch groups when this happened. Breaks dragged out as we admired the sunrise and layered up or down as the wind came and went. I learned a new term, “puffy envy” which is apparently when you see someone wearing a puffy jacket and it makes you want to put on your own. Ben had spent several years in Guatemala. Emily had completed a climbing project. Garret had hiked the Triple Crown. Everyone had a story to share. Each story inspired another.
The trees became smaller and sparser, then gave way to rock. The route follows ridges which don’t leave much room to get lost and it was clear where many feet had tread. We continued to stop regularly and informally, trade conversation partners, and whoever was least patient at the moment would eventually lead off. The only consistency is that Garrett was always second. Contrast against the last hike with Ella and Garrett which involved just as much elevation gain, but only two brief breaks.
The originally stated goal for this adventure had been to climb Mt St Helens, then circumnavigate it on the Loowit Trail. By the time we reached a sensor array our pace meant this wasn’t likely to happen. No one cared. The day was clear and now windless. We could see for hundreds of miles. Some chose to leave their packs at the sensor array to finish the climb without camping gear. I finished the mashed yams I’d taken from the Thanksgiving leftovers. We ascended the last three ridges.
Several times we leap-frogged with strangers. Jolly would usually bark at them the first time and we’d have to call him back, but would warm up the the stranger on subsequent passes. Jolly was an excellent climber, bounding up rocks which the humans navigated using hands for balance. He would pace back and forth while we practiced the rest step, a mountain climbing technique to walk sustainably without sweating. Once at a distance I saw what appeared to be a hiker with light brown hair and a green shirt. It was Jolly partially obscured by rocks his long hair looking like a shaggy haircut and green side bags appearing as a shirt.
The hiking surface changed on the final ridge where the summer and winter routes overlap. In some places the snow, instead of being an inconsequential covering over grippy rock, was now a mortar between polished, pebble-sized ice balls making for beautiful and treacherous travel. There were fields where every disturbance in the dirt served as the nucleus of a wind loaded snow sculpture.
The top was spectacular. You could see forever. The air was still. The direct sun let us me relax, even if I still had a puffy on. Jolly doesn’t have a particularly refined sense of safety and meandered close to the vertical drop into the crater. I teased Emily about being such a dog mom and she motioned over to the caldera’s edge for a surprise. Ben pointed out all the mountains he’d climbed and ones he still wanted to. We tried to identify obscure mountains in the North and South cascades. Ella and Garrett started planning a ridiculous trip to do an “Infinity Loop” (hike half way around a mountain, then over it, then the other half around, then over again to return to the start) of each and connect all the big mountains into a single hike.
Garrett and Emily put on flexible crampons which we hadn’t worn on the way up (I’d say Microspikes like everyone else but I significantly prefer a competitor) and walked over to the actual summit. Ben discovered he’d left his traction devices at the sensor site. We admired the view endlessly. Everyone but our group seemed dressed for a more intense adventure, many with crampons, snow shoes, ice axes, and ski goggles or glacier glasses.
Ben lead the descent to get a head start since he had to cross the slippery ice pebbles without traction. Garrett tried to blaze a path in deeper snow where the footing would be less slippery but we doubled back to stay on the regular route for simpler route finding. Still, we missed the turn onto the winter route and were held up by a kind couple who asked us where the winter route was. I was adamant and vocal that we still on the portion where the winter and summer routes overlapped until someone spotted a hiker on the winter route above us. Half our group took off up hill and then overshot the turn off and had to come back down when Emily found the proper place to turn.
Back down at the sensor array we ate, not having had a proper lunch and it now being about 2:30pm. I’d brought and alcohol stove and spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for water to melt and then the fire to burn out. During this time I realized I’d brought one worse stoves from the batch of five that I’d made and tested that week.
Garrett and Ella, probably high off their inspirational and outlandish infinity loop scheme, proposed the idea of getting up at 2am to be able to hike almost the entire Loowit tomorrow. I nixed the idea as cleanly as I could. The trip had been too mellow and pleasurable to contemplate a committing and aggressive adventure tomorrow on low sleep. It was about 3:30pm when we left, an hour to sundown.
The plan we ultimately agreed on was to get down to the Loowit and hike counter-clockwise towards June Lake then camp near there. The descent spread us out in pairs, each pair conversing as we picked our way down the rocks. We met up on the lowest ridge but Garrett and Emily were talking about climbing and we weren’t particularly hurried in our departure.
Eventually we did get to the Loowit trail and take a left. It was easy to follow in the trees. Ben was in the lead as we went out onto the boulder fields and managed not to turn an ankle or break a leg despite there being just enough snow to make the rocks slippery and hide the holes between them. We were moving well but not fast enough to get to June Lake by sundown. Eventually, I spotted a flat area below the trail, we all gave Ben, who was in front, different directions on how to get there but he hiked another hundred yards or so and found that the bank of a gully created an easy path down to it.
The first order of business was getting the tents up. We were spread out in the trees wherever we could find flat places. A common cooking area was set up but Emily had been excited to try her new sleeping bag. Apparently it was good enough that she decided to stay in her tent to eat the lasagna dinner she’d brought while describing it loud enough for the rest of us over in the kitchen area to hear. Ben stayed in the tent too and shouted his highs and lows out to us. On any trip with Ella you will be required to say highs and lows. There are rules too: go clockwise, lows first, nothing sappy, nothing about the current moment. I can’t remember what my stated low was but after dinner I had to used an improvised blue bag and that was definitely the low.
I had my alcohol stove back out and was trying to melt water which was taking a very long time. I had brought a normal backpacking stove but finished off a fuel canister and didn’t want to start on open another. The alcohol stove was difficult to light with a lighter and I tried matches. They didn’t light easily against the box so I took to lighting the matches with a lighter. This wasn’t as successful as it should have been and the others enjoyed watching me fail at simple tasks. When I finally got the stove lit and had melted water for dinner, I poured more alcohol directly onto the stove so I wouldn’t have to light it again. A little spilled out but the fire was surrounded by snow and had no place to go. We started warming our hands and wet feet over it. Steam rose from Lizi’s socks. With the fire slightly outside the stove, and us treating it like a campfire, we realized that some twigs over the the top would give us a campfire. Wood was gathered with great purpose and soon we had a much nicer fire to dry socks and feet. No major gear damage occurred in the process. It was sublime. We loudly proclaimed our joy so the tented folks would hear. They never responded, probably because they were catching up on sleep lost the night before.
Jolly was the first up the next morning. I heard someone calling him and the sounds of a dog running around. Eventually I heard people moving but that died off. Finally it was light and I decided to be a good teammate and not keep people waiting. All the tents were still up when I poked my head out. The tents were still up when I’d packed up and settled on to my foam pad in the kitchen area to eat breakfast. It turns out that Garrett and Ben had been up to see the sunrise but been nice and not woken anyone up. Jolly had been contained after he’d escaped. I was the first one willing to impose my wakefulness on others.
The few short miles back to the Sno Park and our cars were passed much as the rest of the trip had been, in conversation. The morning was clear, the snow brilliant, and our spirits bright. I might have sung if I’d have thought of something appropriate. Again, no one got hurt on the rock fields.
When we reached the parking lot, the traditional cries of mourning were sounded for the end of a wonderful trip (traditional at least on trips with Ella). We stood around talking in a circle for some time with our packs on. I managed to find my car key in the pocket of a jacket I wasn’t wearing (I’d lost it earlier) and at a lull in the conversation opened my mouth to end our gathering. Before I could finish a word, Ella cut in with “not yet”. Our circle shifted back into the sun which had moved enough since we’d finished that we were shaded. Conversation continued. At some point, many hugs and goodbyes were exchanged. It was like leaving your friends after a week of summer camp.
We signed out of the trail register and returned to our cars, only to form a caravan on the slow drive to get under the snow line. In time, the road separated us. Emily and Ben turned south to Oregon. Garrett pulled into the travel lane northbound for the long drive home. Lizi, Ella, and I pulled off onto a side road to lunch at a local diner. Some things could be drawn out just a little longer.
This write-up has been dragging out too long. It started as a chronological outline I was going to turn into a narrative. For the sake of being done, I’m going to press Publish without transforming them or proof reading. Leave a comment if you want something clarified or corrected.
Many thanks to Ella Raff (blog, 1st attempt, 2nd attempt) for using the phrase “Issy Alps” to describe an ultra-running route and then, after I ran a 43mi route from Cougar to Rattlesnake tagging all the summits along the way, clarified that there was an official route by that name.
Unsupported: carried about two 500ml soft bottles, 7500 Calories, a fleece, hat, gloves, poles, and raincoat in a large running vest. Drew water from natural sources without filtering.
I would recommend 2L water or scouting water sources ahead of time.
light rain on the way down, nothing really below treeline
lost the trail where it multi-trails
tried to go up but couldn’t find something which stayed as a trail so decided to go down
trail was nearby on my watch but eventually separated enough from it that it was clear I needed to tack left instead of right
Filled water where there’s a clear 5ft spur trail to the stream near the bottom
cloudburst just as I got to the gate leaving Mailbox – convenient place to put the raincoat back on. ~3hrs
First section with real rain
slight uphill. Chose to take a “if you wouldn’t run it at the end, don’t run it now” approach
worried about downhill from the Granite Creek Connector b/c I’ve slipped a lot on that before
Turn off onto social trail to CCC road is immediately after the bridge. As soon as the bridge’s side turns to guardrail, step over it and look down. You should be just in front of a brown roadsign. Initially descends towards bridge (for 10ft) then turns right.
Small stream you cross shortly is muddy
easier to follow than expected, visibility was moderate
There’s a stream crossing where the bank has collapsed on the far side, you have to look up a bit to see where the trail continues. The water looked good here.
less muddy than expected but I was able to jump over a few spots which I knew weren’t well drained
Very happy to see CCC road, spent a lot trying to figure out what it would take to get back to 3mph average
Jogged up until the turnoff for Teneriffe Falls
Drew water at the falls. It was a little hard to find the correct switchback to drop off to get the water. It’s short (10ft) but steep.
Kamikaze trail is easy to follow because there’s no to get off trail.
Felt very steep but wasn’t hard because it was it was technical enough (hands help to support a big step up in a few places, but not class 2) and visibility was low enough that I wasn’t pushing.
At one point I my watched beeped and I had an 1:08 mile.
Found my way to the top. Easy to see where to get to but stone is a little steep and was wet. Fog prevented any good pictures
No rain or wind for which I was really thankful. In my head I was 2/3 through the first 50k (by elevation) and felt like I was past the dangerous parts. At least the first 50 felt doable for the first time.
Teneriffe Connector through Talus Loop
was a little concerned that I was starting back down the Kamikaze Trail. I’ve seen people think that the new trail was the old trail and was worried about making the opposite mistake
Water in two or three places when the trail turns into an old forest road
It look longer to get down to the Talus Loop turn-off than I expected once the old forest road turned down hill into switchbacks after the signed intersection. This was actually one of the most mentally “itchy” sections because it was easy enough that my mind began to wander past the immediate need to stay place my feet, visibility was good enough to see nearby terrain and I kept guessing at the turn-off.
“All of an ultra runner’s problems come from the inability to run only the ten feet immediately before them” (apologies to Blaise Pascal)
There’s drainage where there’s usually water on the Talus Loop, but I’d only ever taken the lower part of the loop. If it hadn’t been raining, the drainage would have been dry. I drew from a slowly flowing, clear puddle which was too shallow to completely fill my bottles. Cameling up would up when I did stop for water was an important part of being able to carry only one liter.
This was much shorter than I’d been mentally prepared for. That’s kind of a theme of the trip: things not being as bad as the life threatening monstrosities my imagination had built them into. Minimal rain helped.
Quality of travel is quite good. Relatively few rocks and roots. A little steep and tight to fly down but would be a real pleasure to hike if you can control your effort level.
At this point, I was calculating miles to the finish of Little Si. Again, playing this game reduced my mental game when things were a little longer than I’d expected.
I’d been hoping for 12 hrs as an A goal. 13hrs was my B goal because that’s when I guessed Ella had done. Didn’t really want to have 14hrs because that was the time from the week before and she’d described it as “slow”. I didn’t want to be the slow one!
I didn’t let this trick me into pushing. I kept the long game in mind and let the time fall there it might but I felt pressure going into Little Si.
One good water source shortly after turning onto the Little Si trail where a shallow stream runs under a culvert. I’ve seen this running in many seasons but it might dry up in late summer.
Little Si is popular and so has a lot off well beaten paths which aren’t quite the primary trail. This is different from the route up to this point point where were 0 or 1 candidates for the main trail. Several times, I hit dead ends and had to back track 5-10 feet.
Little Si is runnable if you have energy. I didn’t and it rolls enough and has enough roots and rocks that I never really found a rhythm.
The sky was lightening when I reached the peak.
Saw my first person of the trip about half way down, overweight, hiking in Crocs, large day pack and breathing hard. I made so many judgements about and comparisons to them. It’s one thing to give in to lesser motivations when you have nothing else but despite a growing awareness that I was falling behind on my calorie intake, I was still usually running the flats.
The more I read about US history, this kind of comparison and judgement seems to the cement solidifying many social ills. It’s a hard moment to recognize yourself in the face of the enemy.
There was enough light at the bottom of Little Si to take a selfie with the sign but not enough to turn off the street lights.
50k was over and it felt good. I’d had a lot of apprehension going in to the experience never having pulled a true all nighter, even without doing more elevation in a 12hr period than I’d ever had before and with weather. I was mighty pleased with myself in an abstract, intellectual way. My mind was still on the course.
Snoqualmie Valley Trail
From the Little Si trailhead, I started walking the road towards the bridge and then took a left down the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.
The sunrise was really well matched with the easy start to second leg of my journey.
At this point, I was feeling good and hadn’t ruled out going for the 100miler so I couldn’t tell if it was the second of two or three legs.
I could tell that I’d under fed during the night. My raincoat was tight when I’d put it on over the pack and bottles which had made it hard to access the side pockets for food. At this point, my goal was to reset, so I pulled out trailmix, a food which I can’t stomach when pushing hard but is quite filling, and chewed mouthfuls until I could see my belly pushing out again.
I took a quick stop to re-arrange gear since it didn’t look like rain and I wanted to move my bag of Chex Mix up front where I could eat. Chex Mix is my go-to “real food” to balance out sweet tasting high energy gels and bars.
Ran several of the miles to Rattlesnake Lake but when I slowed to walk as the path neared the park, it was clear that my energy reserves were low, so I started eating generous amounts of Chex Mix.
At Rattlesnake Lake, I looked around for water fountains but couldn’t find any so drew water from the lake. The lake water was clear and tasted reasonably clean.
Going up Rattlesnake Ridge is well graded and easy. A nice change from the previous climbs. I saw lots of other trail runners out and about, though usually not as loaded with food and moving faster.
On the way up, I started losing motivation. Mental tiredness started creeping in at the edges of my eyes. I finally broke into the caffeinated gels. Boy did I feel good after that. I wasn’t necessarily moving faster but my mind was wonderfully clear, calm, and alert. What a wonder drug.
I followed the trail the whole way. From reviewing the official GPX, apparently you’re supposed to follow a road near the clear cut at the top for a bit and rejoin the trail. I don’t think it matters and George didn’t comment on this when I submitted my GPS track. It’s actually harder to follow the trail because it rolls more.
As I descended, I kept a pretty close eye on the GPS because my memory is that the turn off the spine of the ridge is easy to miss. It’s actually not since you come out into a clear cut for the power lines.
Things can be a bit confusing from here so I watched the GPS pretty close. In several places there’s multi-trailing. The general idea is to follow the power lines.
There’s a place where you have to turn right onto a bike trail (this was a >90 degree turn for me) and follow it through the woods on the north side of the clearcut. There’re lots of trails in there so I was pretty shameless with the GPS. You can miss the initial turn off because the hillside is overgrown and steep so it’ll force you to turn back and find the bike trail.
Connection Across Raging River and Deep Creek
Continuing down from the power station by whatever path seems clearest will eventually pull left in the clear cut as it descends towards Raging River. Before descending low enough, I looked across the valley to get an overview of where I’d be going. It didn’t look like there was a clear trail but there was definitely an easiest way.
At raging river, the shallowest crossing was on the left side. Multiple crossings are flagged. Since the river was low, I scouted right a little bit hoping for a rock hop but wound up crossing almost directly under the road, then moved towards the green grass and let it carry me out of the river valley and towards Deep Creek.
In this section, the GPS track was just wrong. I just followed open areas which had clearly seen some foot traffic and generally headed in the correct direction.
There was one place where I had to turn right onto a cut which had been mowed, then turned left again when the trail picked up under the other power line.
Just before Deep Creek, there was a split where you could got up a 5-10ft bluff with a clear trail or descend a lesser used path. The lesser used path looked like it hit dense brush by the side of the river so I stayed on the nicer path. This wound a little and I had to duck as I walked through a tunnel of brush.
The trail appears to present multiple options for crossing Deep Creek. The most obvious one has a log in an awkward place which creates a pool which was deep enough to look uncomfortable but probably not deeper than I was tall. This can be avoided by ducking under a branch and crossing on the upstream side of the partially submerged log. I checked another crossing just downstream hoping for a dry foot rock hop and got most of the way across but didn’t see an exit up the cut bank.
I drew water from Deep Creek
From Deep Creek, the route stays left in the clear cut, start moving up steeply (not Mailbox/Teneriffe steep) until it connects to an almost flat road, the edge of which is a clear horizontal disturbance in the hillside above. The road is obvious when you’re on it but there are a few red herrings in the area which made me want to push right a little early.
South Side of Tiger Mountain
The road after the connection was wide, flat, level, etc… and I was able to jog again.
I passed a hunter out with a rifle over his shoulder. I didn’t know there was hunting in the area.
The turn off the road onto the Northwest Timber Trail is almost 180 degrees. There’s a road just above it which was much more obvious. I almost took the road since some cyclists were stopped in just such a position that they occluded the trail.
The trail remains relatively level. I was tired and so mixed some walking in with the jogging but felt bad about it, especially when I crossed paths with some other runners who were stretching. I felt awkward walking past with my overstuffed adventure vest, aggressively attacking the flat, level ground with my poles as though my trip was all show and no substance.
There was water in a stream just after the only switchback. This actually confused me for a moment because the switchback isn’t in the official GPX and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to just bushwack across. It looked like there was a better crossing below and in looking around for the best way down, realized the trail had switchbacked behind me.
The Northwest Timber Trail eventually crosses the Main Tiger Mountain Road (no signage, it’s just well kept forest road. You’re supposed to take the road. From here it’s a gentle up and up to the top of the mountain. I crossed and continued on the trail then had to double back when I noticed on my watch that I was diverging from the route.
I walked hard up the road but never really ran. One mountain biker passed me on the way up. I passed one mountain biker on the way up. Tie game.
Just before the top there’s a mountain bike trail, the East Tiger Summit Trail, which goes left. Don’t take it. I walked past it but my watch was ambiguous and made it look like maybe I was supposed to be on the trail. Since I knew it formed a loop, I took it thinking the course designers would have put in a loop instead of an out-and-back. On post-run inspection of the route, it appears this is not the case. I think my watch down-sampled the GPX file in a way which was confusing. Also, I had to dodge out of the way three times as mountain bikers whizzed past.
Descent to High Point Trailhead
At the top of Tiger Mountain I stashed my poles and prepared for what I thought would be about 3.5 miles down. My watch had logged about 59 miles and with 100km equivalent to about 62 miles, I figured that 63 plus a little was a safe guess for how long it would take me to get down. When I rain the Plain 100k, the same watch computed the course length as 63.3miles so I assumed things would come out the same here. If I could hold 5mph I’d finish under 23 hours. On the nice bike trails which I assumed would carry me back to High Point TH, that seemed like a slam dunk. With I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Mulan, playing in my head, I hobbled off the flat area at the top and let the angle of the hill coax a little speed out of my legs. Despite the mismatch between my performance and the chorus looping in my head, I was feeling good.
My watch read 22:57 when it rolled over to mile 62…. A quick glance at the GPS showed that I was nowhere near down the mountain. New goal: 24hrs. I guessed there were 3 to 5 miles left. Shortly thereafter, I turned left off the dirt bike trail at a hikers-only trailsign (Caltopo doesn’t show a trail here). The trail transformed into scuffs and footprints as it fell into a clearcut. It started raining again. Not even kidding.
The GPX in this section is just wrong. It gets you to a road, but I didn’t see anything continuing across the road so turned right downhill. The road is cut with deep perpendicular furrows every 15-30 yards so it feels like a BMX course. Fortunately, Gaia showed it linking up with the official GPX which went straight across the hillside. The last few bumps were grass covered instead of gravel with drops well over my head. This didn’t make for good travel and I was worried that it was going to carry on this way for some time. Shortly after rejoining the official GPX, a paved road appeared and I felt greatly relieved.
The road run doesn’t last for long. I stood for a moment looking at the gate where the Tiger Mountain Trail started. It looked thin and overgrown. The sun was getting low and I was definitely behind pace for a 24hr finish. I really didn’t want to be route finding in the dark but the trail condition seemed to suggest the possibility. Particularly hard to stomach was that based on a thorough examination of the route on Gaia, this would just link up with the road I was already on.
The Tiger Mountain Trail wound up being easy to follow but part way I stopped to take out my headlamp. I hadn’t charged it since I was expecting to be done before dark and was pleasantly surprised how little the battery had been drained by running it on low for 13 hours the night before. Now I left it on full brightness. It couldn’t be too long now and I didn’t want any missed turns. A 24hr finish time was still potentially in the cards when I got to the wider but still leaf covered trail beyond the exit gate of the Tiger Mountain Trail.
From here to the end, there were a number of turns. I would check Gaia on my phone, not trusting my watch to alert me to an upcoming turn, memorize the next few features and what to do at them, then try to get through them as quickly as possible. Initially I was cautious on the wet leaves. As the minutes ticked towards the 24hr mark, urgency manifested as faster and more reckless running. I gave myself permission to burn my legs out and started running the brief uphills.
One feature was the that a trail was going to join the Bootleg trail from the left for a short distance, then exit to the right. At the split, I needed to be sure to stay left. Looking at it now on Caltopo, it’s the Preston Trail which came in from the left. I remember this. I don’t remember seeing the West Tiger Trail exit to the right.
With about 10 minutes until the 24hr mark, I missed a turn by staying on Dwight’s Trail instead of turning right onto Lingering Trail. Given that the destination was High Point TH, my mistake was to assume that the 0.1mi to High Point Trail was the route. I caught the error on my watch after a few tens of yards and after running back to the intersection, realized that I hadn’t even seen the Lingering Trail on the right when I’d originally come to the intersection.
This was where I committed the final directions to memory, “At every intersection, turn downhill. At the road, sprint.” I made it to road and past a homeless encampment but I as ducking under the long arm of the gate, time rolled past 24hrs.
From here, I was on the road I’d driven in on and put in a good effort to get back to my car. I was worried that they might close the lot at sundown. I noticed the trailhead which marks the end of the Issy Alps 100k but didn’t think to stop because in my mind, the end was my car. At my car I stopped, then realized that the end was supposed to end at a trailhead but that I was in a parking lot and so dashed off to find something which looked like a trailhead. I stopped my watch in a clearing just off the parking lot where a kiosk stood, hoping that this would be acceptable end point. The elapsed time was 24hrs 9min 7s and it was around 5:40pm.
I had the track for the Issy Alps 100mi in my watch and Gaia but that ship had long sailed. I’d just gone my first night without sleep (in college, I always managed to get some sleep around 6am after an all nighter) and wasn’t ready for a second. I’d eaten through most of the 7500 Calories I’d stuffed into my pack and while there was a back-up stash of gels in the main compartment, it wasn’t nearly enough for another 35ish miles (my watch logged this “100k” as 66.7mi). This was an unsupported trip and so I’d only cached a soda in the trunk of my car as a finish line treat. This all certainly made a good excuse to call it quits. I was actually feeling pretty good all things considered.
Finishing celebrations were brief. I drank the soda and texted friends and family. The first replies were wonderfully supportive and snarky. I got my car outside the gate before replying to be sure I wouldn’t be locked in.
Within 10 minutes of finishing, I was on the road home. My legs tightened up and soreness which I hadn’t felt during the run set in. The balls of my feet ached enough that would naturally start easing up on the accelerator to relieve the pressure. This was not popular with the vehicles behind me.
Between running and hiking trips involving marathon or greater distances, it’s sometimes nice to have a small trip which doesn’t involve complete exhaustion. I’d reached out on Facebook, at work, and even a friend’s party to promote what I billed as a “beginner friendly” trip to Chetwoot Lake. Never mind the 5am start, 5,000 ft of gross elevation gain, and that the last 1.5 miles of the trip was on a primitive trail. Ultimately, the only folks to join were companions from some of these previous social trips. The start time got moved to 7:30am, we turned back after attaining the ridge where the trail turn primitive, but had some time to enjoy camp and didn’t have to spend as much time hiking in the rain on the way back.
The trail starts out from the West Foss River Trailhead quite level, if twisty, crosses two bridges and climbs slowly to a giant tree (Chris and Anda took turns hugging it) and then Trout Lake.
After Trout Lake the climb becomes steeper and switch backs get involved. The grade eases at the top and after a bridge crossing and a rock hop, you find yourself at Copper Lake. This uphill hike didn’t prevent a running conversation between Chris and Anda. I’d throw in a thought here or there but mostly content to listen.
Chris made a wrong turn at one point following an unsigned trail off to what was either a campsite or Malachite Lake. I debated letting him go but Anda had followed and it felt a little mean. I was amused that they turned off of a straight and well beaten trail for a less used one but I frequently reach the turn in a switch back and attempt to continue forward not realizing the trail has zagged under me so I can’t laugh too hard.
We had lunch at Copper Lake. There isn’t much shade (the picture above is after we continued) and so we didn’t linger. A man in a Forest Service uniform came through carrying a bag of trash which he and a non-uniformed counterpart appeared to be collecting. We chatted them up, thanking them for their efforts. I asked what the most unexpected thing they’d ever found was. The man gave a clever answer which reflected on how times have changed but left some things to the listener’s imagination. Chris made him spell it out which was a little painful.
Looking back during the the climb out of Copper Lake was the beginning of the fulfillment of my visual desires for this trip.
Little Heart Lake is barely a pond (or else we didn’t see it) and so we continued up and over to Big Heart Lake. This was steeper than I remembered but we weren’t moving fast so it was fine. The trail in this section is pushed around a great deal by underlying geological features. I felt much more of a guest of nature’s whim than a member of the race which invented bulldozers, graders, and asphalt.
Since Big Heart Lake wasn’t our destination our break there was brief. The walk-able shoreline extends very little beyond the log jamb at the outlet stream and so after a quick snack and chance to find where the trail properly continues after the Big Hear Lake outlet stream (my trip here last year did not make this connection easily), we continued up towards the ridge which separates Big Heart and Angeline Lakes.
The trail begins to become less well traveled as slightly more rugged though it’s still clear. However the trail splits where it turns south to climb the ridge west of Angeline. I Chris and Anda took the way with less immediate climbing though I was pretty sure we needed to go up. It was shortly thereafter that I remembered taking their way last year, it dead-ending, and having to go up hill instead. The problem is that the drop into Angeline lake, far below happens very quickly and anything which doesn’t get up on the ridge and stay there is cliffed out almost immediately. This is actually a great boon as the trail splits in several places in the area and even if you take a wrong turn, you’re pretty quickly turned back.
Eventually we attained the top of the ridge got the views I’d been hoping for. Big Heart spread out to the right, Angeline to the left. So much water and granite. It was now 4:27pm leaving about 2.5hrs of daylight. There had already been one concern voiced that the route was too rugged, particularly if it was going to rain on the return trip. We’d struck a deal to continue until 4:30pm then decide whether to turn back and the progress since then had been very slow and things were going to generally get rougher ahead. Since this was a pleasure trip, the right call was to turn around to keep everyone feeling comfortable.
We camped just above Big Heart Lake and I got to set up my new tent. I’ve spent an excessive amount of time trying to figure out my next tent purchase and the initial impression was pretty good. The unique thing with this design (it’s supported by trekking poles) is the left pole is near your head and the right pole is near your foot. Most designs have them either in the same position with respect to your body (usually near the waist) or have a pup-tent/A-frame style with one pole centered above the head and the other centered below the feet. There are only two other tents I know of on the market with this design, both designed by experienced through-hikers. This is a more recent design, also by an experienced outdoors traveler, which takes a middle road between one some of the trade-offs I was agonizing over. This being my first night in it, my initial impression is that I got exactly what I wanted. The minor caveats are that it’ll be a little heavier after I switch the stakes for ones with better holding power and that setup was easier, though slightly less flexible than I expected. Either way, it made for a much more comfortable (if ~1.5lb heavier) experience.
The camp next to ours had a hiker who was clearly playing the baseweight game and I hit it off with him over gear.
It rained a little during the night but not enough to be consequential and had backed off when we broke camp.
During the hike back the rain slowly crescendo’d and was coming down pretty well by the time we were at the car. Alex, from the next campsite over, caught us and I wound up hiking ahead with him trading stories of hiking adventures. It was kinda funny since about when that happened Anda and Chris finally exhausted their conversational reserves and showed up at the car in silence. Conservation of conversation.
The ride home included a stop for burgers and milkshakes. A good end to a good trip.
I’ve hiked Jackita Ridge to Devil’s Ridge a several of times. Near their intersection, there’s on the map labeled Anacortes Crossing. I’ve never seen a trail there. Solving that mystery was the purpose of the first leg of this trip (start clockwise from lower right on map below).
Second, having been up and down the East Bank trail of Ross Lake (left side of map below), I’d see the turn turn-off to Castle Pass, known it connected to the PCT, and wondered what lay in between. Now would be my time to find out.
Connecting with the East Bank Trail in the west and coming back to Hart’s Pass via the PCT in the east were to be sections of familiarity and comfort in this journey into the unknown. Also, I wanted to try to do this 75 mile loop in one through-the-night push as training for the Plain Endurance 100k, an unsupported run two weeks hence. In hindsight, the plan was ambitious and insufficiently researched. A more positive take might be that, unless you fail at something, you really have no idea where your true limits lie. Ultimately I chose to to slow down, enjoy the journey, and wound up with a cherished the adventure, which will probably give birth to many future trips.
Day 1 (Saturday)
I woke up in the back of my station wagon at 4:05am. That gave me 10 minutes to unglue my eyelids and and disable my the alarm on my phone before the panic inducing noise set to go off at 4:15am. I’m always slow breaking camp when camp is the back of my car. With more space and better shelter, it should be easier change clothes and compress gear into a pack from the back of a car than from under a tarp or inside a tent. Somehow it never is.
Sleeping in a car may make for slow mornings but other gear can be even more dangerous. In this case, a low volume hiking backpack designed to ride like a high volume running pack. Jogging with a hiking pack for any real distance is too uncomfortable because the pack bounces and sways. The wide, padded shoulder straps which fuse into a yolk behind my neck and the double chest straps sufficiently stabilize that, when full with my minimal camping kit (my preference to an emergency bivvy after spending a night on a rainy mountain top shivering in one) and a carefully counted 4800 Calories to fuel a 24hr sufferfest at 200 Cal/hr, I believed I could run the 75 mile route which I’d laid out starting eastbound from the trailhead kiosk where I stood, procrastinating by reading about the roads in the area. I knew the Anacortes Crossing would probably be off trail with a little bushwacking, but in the grand scheme of things that section was short and so might cost an extra hour or two but not severely throw off my larger plan to try and keep up a 4mph pace by running the flats and downhills.
At 4:45am, having read all there was to read on the kiosk, I started jogging down the Chancellor Road which drops several thousand feet to a stream, and provides access to several private mining claims and public hiking trails. I passed large camps with wall tents and burly trucks, sometimes with large fires and barking dogs. Around full light, I rock hopped across a small stream at a fork in the road and continued past a gate down a less frequented but still quite smooth forest road. This continued to a lower stream and over a bridge where I turned right at a trail sign with three trails to the left and only Sky Pilot Pass to the right.
From this point the trail the trail alternated was carefully built through rock fields and completely washed out where it neared the river. Someone had put great effort into this trail and it had been left to rot. Still, it was pretty easy to follow until about the point which on my GPS app said that the Anacortes Crossing route continued up valley and the Sky Pilot pass route, which was listed on the last trail sign, turned right across the creek and headed uphill. I have no idea where the route to Sky Pilot pass went, though there was a tree down across the stream in about the correct place to serve as a footlog if water were higher. As for my route, it was easy to spot where it went, but only if you knew it was supposed to be a trail there.
The trail wasn’t really a trail at this point, so I continued for a few hundred feet along the river, trying to keep an eye on the back where the trail used to go. The map said it would start climbing and I was hoping that it would become clearer and more consistent as it got well above the river bank. This wound up working out and I hopped on a faint trail leaving a small slide chute. The trail widened into what was clearly once a forest road, and while wide for a trail, not wide enough to avoid a number of small washouts. The washouts were slippery and loose only on the top layer and I was able to kick steps which held without much crumbling. I found it comforting to see scuffs here and there from someone’s previous sojourn.
On the map the route has a few initial switchbacks, then climbs slowly in a traverse to a nose where switchbacks resume until cresting the ridge. From there it drops to join the Jackita Ridge trail just as the Jackita Ridge Trail turns west to climb up to Devil’s Ridge. All things considered, the those first set of switchbacks and the beginning of the traverse were much like other abandoned trails I’ve followed: faint and washed out in places, but easy enough to follow and usually good travel. That changed somewhere in the middle of the traverse.
The middle section of the Anacortes Crossing route traverses across several large rock slides which have filled in with alder. Mixed in with the alder are plants with broad leaves and thick stems covered in thin needles. All sign of the road disappears. I relied heavily on my GPS in this section and strongly considered turning back. The situation eventually resolved when, after cutting uphill, I found myself staring at what looked very much like an overgrown passage. While overgrown, there was a clear path of least resistance. I’m not really sure how I found it but it was clearly the abandoned forest road, re-emerged.
While the passage was overgrown, there was usually a clear path of least resistance. There were places where alder had grown in the middle and I’d have to poke around a bit to figure where to go. I had the most success by realizing that in this section the route was something of a ditch under the plants. Trying to visualize where that ditch went and ignoring the direction that that the plans pushed me made navigation easier.
In one place, I was looking around when I spotted something red embedded in the grass layer. It was an ice axe. Someone had stood exactly where I now was. This made it emotionally easier to follow the tunnel-you-had-to-imagine through the foliage. The ice axe would draw a range of reactions from a park ranger’s concern to a through-hiker’s curiosity. I guess a most trail runners don’t have poorly secured self arrest tools hanging out of their packs.
The overgrown forest road eventually crossed a stream. I’d started with 3L of electrolyte solution formulated to give a calorie drip which the manufacturer claims can replace the need for solid food during athletic endeavors. It seemed to be working as advertised but left my mouth feeling dry. My next water supply was supposed to be a spring near the Jackita Ridge – Devil’s Ridge intersection which I’d seen flowing last year relatively late in the season. Not wanting to carry extra weight, I did the pushup-and-suck-up drinking method so I wouldn’t have to take my pack off. Then I took my pack off so I could stash the ice axe, which I’d been carrying in hand, into my pack’s mesh outer pocket. Conveniently, the ice axe had come with a guard on the point. 10ft later, the protruding ice axe hooked on something I was crawling under and so I decided to just carry it in hand again.
After crossing the stream, the route enters it’s third phase, a set of switch backs up a nose to the top of the ridge. The old forest road quickly disappeared but at this point but route finding was simple: go up. The only subtlety was to stay out of dense brush but even in that regard, things were pretty easy as the ground cover was sparse in most areas.
Eventually the slope began to get even steeper and the vegetation denser. The surface shifted from dirt to a more rocky soil and tall trees gave way to shorter ones intermixed with larger shrubs. Hard decisions were going to have to be made. Then, out of nowhere, I was standing on the trail I’d left several thousand feet below.
The trail led up and to the north side of the nose, quickly breaking into the open. There were views of the top. There was no more ground cover to block passage, just a traverse up. The trail stuck around for a while but disappeared near a rocky stripe of ground which lead pretty close to the top.
At the top, I could see the valley from which the Jackita Ridge starts it’s climb to the Devil’s Ridge trail. I remembered looking up toward this exact spot many times and wondering how any trail went there. The sides looked so steep. It turns out that there isn’t really a trail. It’s what I think is called a scramble. You can, as I discovered, find a way down which doesn’t technically require the use of your hands. The rock at the top is well enough swept that it forms something of an erratic staircase and you can see the scuffs and erosion from the lines others have picked.
What hands will do for you, however, prevent you from sliding on your but in the scree. I’m probably not the first unintentionally do a “rock glissade” after a minor loss of balance. It was just for a few feet but I was surprised how much the small rocks making up the scree acted like snow. I made my way down to where repeated passage had mashed a contour line had been mashed into the scree. Some number of people have clearly come this way but only the places which hold a mark well that show it. Others get covered by erosion or are too strong to get scuffed in the first place. The trail through the ground cover which picks up where it exist the scree field soon disappeared and I went tromping over ankle high plants in a shallow descent to where I knew the Jackita Ridge trail would be rising up from the bowl below.
Around 10:30am I saw my first humans for the day at the Jackita Ridge Trail where the Anacortes Crossing would join it if the Anacortes Crossing were a trail. The trail turns slightly and there’s a sign saying Granite Cr Trail in one direction and Jackita Ridge in the other. No way to get lost if you’re on the main course. However when the two women at the “junction” (which is just a single trail) saw me walking down towards them across the hillside, they stopped and pulled out maps. “We just wanted to be sure we were going the right way” they said. I assured them that they were and that trail I’d been on was long abandoned and they couldn’t stray onto it by accident.
Now that I was on level, well maintained trail, it was now time to continue running so that’s what I did. My legs were still good despite the steep climb on the east side of the crossing and I kept the pace slow and comfortable. Things didn’t start to fall apart until the spring at the Jackita Ridge – Devil’s Ridge intersection turned out to be dry. I was carrying water in bladder inside my pack and so had no idea how much I had left but continued since there wasn’t really any other option. There was no wind and while the sun was out, it felt cooler without a hat since I could feel the sweat in my thinning hair cooling the top of my head from relative wind created by my body passing through the still air.
I have a bad history with Devil’s Dome (a previous out-and-back to it turned into a 17hr ordeal with an upset stomach which I made worse by refusing to turn around) and history now maintained continuity. As I hiked up, I began to feel low on energy and an empty-but-not-hungry unpleasantness in my stomach which is a hallmark of my long distance running experience. I probably hadn’t been getting enough calories and there was a vague exhaustion haunting me. I’d been popping peanut butter M&Ms and my water was caloric but something was just not right. I lay down for a bit at the top with my head in the shade of a shallow wind break someone had built. There was no other shade. It was 7 miles to Ross Lake and the next guaranteed water but I let myself suck on the drinking tube until my water bladder ran dry. I felt a little better and ate some more PB M&Ms. I was now on a popular route and so I wasn’t worried about anything going desperately wrong but I had big plans for the trip and this was not going to help.
Devil’s Ridge descends gently for a mile or so before switchbacking down to Ross Lake. I tried to keep a gentle jog going. It was a downhill after all and if I couldn’t jog here, where could I?
One person I passed asked if I were just out running the Devil’s Ridge Loop as a day hike. At some point, one of my steps missed the trail (an early drop off was hidden by the base of waist high tree) and I fell, bending my right trekking pole in the process. I was pretty well out of sorts now. My legs had already been covered in minor lacerations from bushwhacking in the gym shorts I wear for running. Now I was going to lose a trekking pole for the uphills (loose mental math said there were still 14-15 kft of climbing) and wasn’t managing my energy levels well due to some combo of water, food, and heat which I couldn’t quite figure out. Worse yet, my legs were beginning to get tired and I was only 20 miles in. That last part should have been predictable. Even when I try preserve strength during a long run, my legs start feeling like they’re beginning to break down about 20 miles. One way or another, I was out of sorts enough to hike past someone I recognized from a project at work with just a cursory and awkward greeting instead of a proper stop and chat you’d expect when recognizing someone in such an unexpected place. Fortunately, the vanguard of their group had informed me there was a good water source around 4100ft. I intended to get there quickly.
My last awkward interaction before reaching the water source was with a young woman carrying an ungainly external frame pack who I happened upon while she was struggling to get over a downed tree. I stopped short so she’d have space maneuver on her own. After her attempt failed, I asked if she wanted a hand. There was a long pause during which we made solid eye contact then she let out an awkward laugh and said, “are you waiting on me?”. Maybe she hadn’t heard my offer. I vaulted the log and went on my way trying to figure out what line of thinking causes someone to wear convertible hiking pants at full length paired with a bikini top. Hopefully she didn’t think that was why I’d stopped and was staring at her.
The small stream of water splashing noisily as it crossed the trail was wonderful. I didn’t feel deeply thirsty but drank like it. I could feel my stomach filling like a empty water sack, which isn’t good because too much water on an empty stomach after exertion can cause nausea. Little did I care. I’d noticed that I felt much better when passing through shade and so took a few minutes to sit and cool off. My appetite didn’t return but I ate a little more. I probably should have dug into my food bag for something other than PB M&Ms. Maybe that would have kickstarted things.
I kept up a jog as best I could but by now my legs really were beginning to get tired. I got down to the East Bank trail and turned north. In places my jog turned to a shuffle which is a sign that you might able to go faster by walking. I would try to relax and lengthen my stride. Put a little more effort in. Carry the speed between the bumps. Endure.
The East Bank trail is familiar from many out-and-backs. Some good like my first 30+ mile day after knee surgery. Some not so good like when a friend and I spent a night in emergency bivivies in the rain near the top of Desolation Peak and then bailed out the next day because I was having nascent stomach issues. On the spectrum, things were at the good end of the bad side of the spectrum. I was moving. I was even able to move uphill though I resented it. The trail climbs a little to dodge around the base of Desolation Peak and it was more than I remembered.
I crossed paths with a back country ranger who made conversation as I tried to step by. She was out checking permits on her first patrol in the North Cascades, originally being a climber from Alaska who was now tired of rotten rock and crevasses. She asked where I was going and I said down the Castle Pass Trail. She named a few peaks and asked if I was climbing them. No, I was just going to connect back to the PCT. Good, the ice-axe and trail runners was a combo which worried her. Did I have a permit? No? For next time… I explained I was going to outside the park boundaries. Where had I come in from? Hart’s Pass. Via Anacortes Crossing. It’s also outside the park. She turned off the audiobook which had been playing on her phone (she’d taken her earbuds out when we’d approached each other). Confusion and a bunch of place names I didn’t recognize followed. I pulled out my map and showed the route but probably didn’t lay out enough markers she recognized. Then I showed her on her phone app. Then we traded a few more pleasantries. She was going to get to sleep in the fire watch tower because watchman had the night off. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.
The trail finally descended to Lightning Creek. There’s a boarded up cabin, which I remembered, but no latrine, as sign for which I thought I’d seen on a previous trip. A hurried cat hole was dug. The shadows were beginning to get long and as I opened my food bag for dinner, I was tired in mind and body but still didn’t feel like eating anything. I ate some salty, orange-red, peanut butter sandwich crackers in small bites and looked at the elevation profile. I’d made it 30 miles. In a perfect world, I’d wanted to be 48 miles in at this point, over the two climbs which make up the Castle Pass trail and onto the broad, gentle, PCT for going into the night hike. Barring that, I’d hoped to be on the second, much smaller hill on the Castle Pass elevation profile. Instead, it was three miles to a probable campsite and the base of the longest continuous climb of the trip which covered six miles. There were something like two hours of daylight left.
When things go well, this is about the time of day when I get a second wind. It happens so regularly that I’ve come to expect it. The temperature begins to drop and my stride lengthens. I can rage up a hill knowing that my reward at the top will be rest for the night. That wasn’t happening though. I’d burned through most of the day and barely made it above a walking pace. I didn’t feel depleted but I didn’t have an appetite. Pushing through the night wasn’t an option, I needed to sleep before tomorrow. But two thirds or three quarters of the gross elevation gain on this trip was ahead of me and that wasn’t something I could do tomorrow. Not even on a good tomorrow. That much elevation had take me 18hrs on a 68 mile course and though there were only 45 miles remaining, I wasn’t in shape to push like I had in that race. Then there was the rain which had been forecast but hadn’t shown up today. Weather is unpredictable in the North Cascades. The Castle Pass trail appears to run several exposed ridges. Trying to make it up the big climb tonight to get tomorrow’s elevation gain under 10,000 ft might leave me sleeping on a treeless ridgeline. The first flat place the topo map promised was a thin saddle 3,000 ft up. Last year, I’d camped on a wide saddle with the tarp I now carried. It had mostly held up in the wind but a stake had pulled out and I’d needed to set it again. Now I was only carrying 6 stakes to save weight, not the full complement of 8 stakes. Finally there was the issue that I’d seen a map where the Castle Pass trail was marked as poorly maintained. What if I went up in the night, the rain came, and I lost the trail in the dark but the terrain was too steep to camp. Decisions, decisions. Decisions that could be made three miles from now. I packed up and walked on. The trail was slightly up which was an excuse not to run but in truth it was mostly flat and I chose not to run anyways.
About 1.5 miles later, a stream crossed the trail and I stopped to draw water, eat again and rest again. There was just an hour of daylight and a little over a mile until decisions had to made. My appetite returned a little and I began feel a little better. Maybe salty cracker sandwiches were tastier than PB M&Ms. Maybe I was cooling off.
I came to a fork in the trail. There was a small stick planted in it. The right side was clearly a spur trail to a camp by the river. The left was clearly the an uphill jaunt which lead to a rising traverse, which lead to the base of the switchbacks. Decision time. It came down to the weather. If the weather was nasty, I’d want to deal with that tomorrow, maybe even bail, though that would be long and would require a very difficult hitch. If the weather were good, the reward of walking a ridge into a rising sun would be glorious. The clouds were gathering, but slowly, ambiguously, as they often did in the evening. I killed the route tracking app on my phone which was draining the battery. Things hadn’t gone well today, not well enough that I’d care to share the trip on social media. More importantly, I might need that battery if things didn’t go well tomorrow. Another pause. It was a roll of the dice. I went left.
The climb was easily graded, the trail well cut, and I leaned into it. The 450 Calories of crackers I’d eaten in the last two hours kicking in enough for full strides. It wasn’t an uphill charge but it was some kind of victory over the afternoon’s ponderous efforts. I was just going to the saddle 3,000 ft up, I constantly reminded myself, not the full climb of 4,500 ft, I’ve already made my compromise, now it’s time to follow through. The low but rising traverse to the switchbacks had taken a bite out of the climb. Just after dark, I was up a thousand feet. Around 8:30pm, I bonked and had to sit and eat but the angle of the slope was beginning to flatten as slopes typically do near the top of hills. Around 9pm I found a small, mostly level spot just wide enough to kinda pitch my tarp and level enough that I probably wouldn’t slide out from under it. I tucked in for the night and set my alarm for half an hour before sunrise. This hadn’t turned out to be the running trip I’d wanted but I could still make a hike worth remembering.
Day 2 (Sunday)
I didn’t rain. I woke up and broke camp efficiently. My legs were seriously sore but not in a deep, exhausted way. It turns out that if I’d held out for another hundred yards or so, I’d have made it to an ideal campsite. It didn’t matter, my gamble had paid off and the morning was everything I wanted.
A ridge walk by morning or evening light is really one of the best experiences hiking has to offer. Pictures don’t capture the experience but I don’t have a lot to say about the next few miles other than that life was good.
The first of the Castle Pass Trail’s ridge walks ends with a descent into a drainage. At first there’s a trail through the grass but turns into a dry rivulet bed. I knew the trail was supposed to cross the creek which was gathering in the moderately steep drainage, then descend with it. Just beyond, however, that was a thicket full of alder which made the question of how far to descend unknowable as it would hide any signs of passage. The grass was knee high and shot through with what I assume were game trails. So many ways to go. I headed downhill, across the drainage in hopes of seeing a weakness in the alder thicket which might indicate a trail. There was some rustling in the bushes that may have indicated a ear on the side of the drainage from which I’d come. It was far enough away chose to just hold my course. I also kept an eye on the GPS to prevent me from dropping significantly below the elevation where the trail begins to work its way out of the drainage. Things looked like were going to get pretty steep when a trail appeared almost in front of me. It continued straight down for a bit before beginning to tack left and then into a small but distinct opening in the alder. The trail was slightly overgrown but nothing to compare with the Anacortes Crossing from the previous morning. That said, pushing through the bushes didn’t help my bare legs, already pretty torn up from yesterday’s bushwhack.
The trail leveled out and after a time came to a section where there had clearly been a trail crew. I was so excited I took a picture.
I ran across a trio of backpackers who had stopped and were looking down the trail in my direction. I think they had heard me pushing past overhanging bushes and thought I might be a bear. Before I saw them I thought I heard a “hey bear” but I’m not sure. We traded tips on what was coming. Their lead hiker was wearing full length pants. I saw them looking at my thrashed legs and one mentioned an upcoming thicket of salmon berries. I said that when the trail disappeared up the drainage they should figure out where their destination was and then just head straight up to it. They said that’s what they were expecting. The salmon berry thicket was maybe 10 yards across and the trail through it was well enough cut that I didn’t really get scratched. I hope they really were expecting what they were about to run into.
I gathered water and ate at a stream running through the valley before staring the next climb. My appetite was back and I had big handfuls of delicious PB M&Ms. It’s oddly good to be hungry. Looking at my food supply, it was clear that there might be problems later since I hadn’t planned for two full days. For now, I wanted to stay full and happy. If I was going to bonk, that could happen later when I’d have the impending end of the trip to help pull me through. Based on yesterday’s unintended rationing, rationing now would cause problems sooner rather than later.
From that stream, the trail switchbacked up for a bit but soon turned into a long up-sloping traverse which turned into a ridge walk. It was near mid day so the colors were a little washed out but it was really nice. I tried to put off thinking about what the rest of the day was going to look like. There were 27 miles once I hit the PCT and that’s a lot for an afternoon.
At noon, almost exactly, I came to the PCT. I’d been playing the dangerous game of using hunger as a motivation to get to a destination where I then satiate it. Eventually, I felt like I’d pushed it a little too far and I should really just stop and eat immediately to maintain energy and metabolism. I checked the GPS so I could make plans while eating. The PCT was less than a tenth of a mile ahead over mostly level ground. I’d forgotten that Castle Pass is a low, flat, completely forgettable spot which shares nothing in common with the high, narrow, steep places which the word, “pass” typically brings to mind.
Lunch was as brief affair as it tends to be when the options are PB M&M or PB cracker sandwiches. By 12:10pm I was heading south on the PCT back to Hart’s Pass. 27 miles to my car along a trail which felt like home. The first few steps reminded me that the PCT is so well maintained and so gently graded. My head was spinning with mental math. At 3mph, I could be back to my car by 9pm, only an hour after full dark. If I could push that, maybe before dark. The PCT was so gentle. Such a soft and blessed trail. 3mph was what I’d averaged while running the flats and downhills the day before. I just needed to not bonk.
The next three hours were a flying hike through a highlight reel of good views and great memories from my 2016 PCT hike.
I ran across a number of PCT hikers about to finish their trips. Mostly I just said a brief congratulations. They wanted to get to Canada. I wanted to get to my car and it’s unlimited food supply (a Coke and mostly full bag of Chex Mix). If only there were more time I would have loved to hear all their stories and reminisce.
Despite keeping most conversations brief (there were some exceptions such as when I gave some weekenders water or listened to an elderly section hiker’s stories about knee issues) I was behind schedule by 4pm and so started running the downhills again. My legs were not feeling good but neither did I feel like dragging this trip out long into a second night. A little before 4:30pm, I had 15 miles to go, and with dusk starting around 7:30pm, I tried to turn it into three 5 mile one-hour runs. Things started out well with a speedy power hike up the first of several small hills. Then energy problems kicked in. I had to sit and eat. My last food came out of my food bag and went into the easily accessible bottom pocket of my pack. I was running on empty and the plan was to eat only when necessary to stave off bonking. Still, I was going to finish, the question was only how pleasant the end would be.
I tracked progress via the elevation profile, checking off each rise as I crested it, then jogged the flat and downhill to the next rise. The jogging was slow. At full energy, I could have run almost the entire section is t was so gentle. At least it was pretty.
I used the hunger-as-motivation game to get myself up Jim Pass, the penultimate rise. Not a hard climb by any means and I moved well but my strides weren’t long like they could have been. At the top, I needed to sit and eat. I’d pushed it just a little too far and had to nibble the breakfast crackers which I’d saved for last. They advertised 4 hours of continuous energy. Despite knowing that this wasn’t going to be my experience, I’d pretended they were going to be my ringer, enough calories to finish the trip, as long as it took me less than 4 hours.
The 10 minute break had stiffened my legs so that I had to hobble until they warmed up. My body had chilled as well and it took over a mile to get the warmth of exertion back into my hands. I didn’t have the desire to try and run any more, I just wanted to walk it out. At 7 miles, that would be 2h 20min to 3h 30min depending on pace. It’s strange how the relatively small proportion of something at the very end can seem so long. I suppose a watched pot never boils either.
Nightfall came softly leaving a peach colored smudge on the horizon and just enough light in the sky that I didn’t have to stop and pull out my headlight. A few times I could see car headlights in the distance, on a road which I thought extended three miles up to Slate peak from where I’d parked my car. Every marker of progress was noted and rallied as an exhortation to continue.
In the dark I passed a trail junction. The broad, beaten trail lead to a parking lot and from there to a road down to where I’d left my car. That would have been the easy way. Still not wanting to stop the forward motion long enough to pull out the headlamp I turned down the less maintained path for those who wanted to hike between here and the lower parking lot a mile or more away. The path got a little rockier but stayed surprisingly even. Despite hiking by moonlight I never stubbed my toes. Even the poorly maintained part of the PCT can be hiked by moonlight.
I almost stopped for my headlamp near the very end. I was now in the trees and really couldn’t see what was under my feet. The trail was defined by a subtle color difference and interpolation between the more visible spots where the moon lit it up. I passed a few tents with their headlamps on. I knew I was being ridiculous but why stop now? I was so close to my car. What really made this minute any different from the minute before.
Xeno’s paradox came to mind. You can’t get somewhere until you get half way there. You can’t get half way until you get to half of that. The recursion continues. Maybe I’d never get to my car. In high school we learned that that limit for that sequence converged. I would get to my car.
I stepped into the clearing made by the Chancellor Road. I turned left. In a few steps I could see the butt of my car, it’s gold color distinct among the others in the small parking lot. In the dark I’d left it and in the dark I’d returned to it. I dropped my pack and fished my keys out of the food bag, popped the back door, and sat down. I didn’t feel relief. My focus on the return to the car had been masking depletion and a stomach unsettled by emptiness. The fight to suppress those had to continue.
The foresight to put a soda in my drop bag was unexpectedly prescient. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to eat, it was that if I put anything down my throat, I couldn’t tell whether or not it would come back up. One sip of sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverage was an acceptable risk. A minute passed. I could chance another. It was a safer bet this time. After a third, the need to relieve what would soon be gas pain took priority. Fortunately, I’d passed through this campground three years ago on the PCT and while I had no memory of the toilet, I remembered where a trail angel had said it was. I shuffled over to the guard house and found the toilet around back. No toilet paper. Poking around I found the toilet paper behind a bag hanging over the toilet. Clever me. I sat down. Then I found the toilet paper which is where all toilet paper is kept, on a roller easily accessible from the throne. Clearly I was not operating at full capacity.
A while later, I was back my car, but could now stuff the Chex Mix into my face. The stuffing wasn’t stopping. Delicious, crunchy, salty comfort. After most of the bag was gone, I finished the soda. Only then did I have the desire to dig through my pack and pull out my air mattress, then my pillow, then my quilt. I closed the rear door and took off my shoes and socks. That smell was sufficient motivation wriggle up front, turn on the car, and crack the windows. When I finally closed my eyes, I could feel the eye balls under the eyelids. They weren’t moving erratically as they do when I shut them after staring too long at the computer screen. They weren’t dry as they feel when I close them to restore moisture. They weren’t exhausted, welcoming the eyelid closure as the fulfilment of their greatest desire. Somehow they were still straining to find the trail, to do their part to get me home. My rancid corpse relaxed happily under the soft quilt on the deep air mattress. It was some time before my eyeballs stopped trying to keep watch.
This trip is the first of two weekends I set aside this summer to do fun, simple, easy trips. The kind of thing that friends who aren’t inclined to describe their ideal weekend as a “sufferfest” might enjoy. One of my goals was to justify the money spent on a flatwater packraft which I hadn’t used for it’s original purpose and so somehow wanted the trip to involve a water crossing. My original idea was to hike up one side of Ross Lake then paddle a short distance to one of the islands in the middle. The next day, we could come back the other side. Unfortunately, Ross Lake is over 40 feet below it’s normal depth and the islands are closed to overnight use. Back to panning around Caltopo looking for large blue splotches….
What I eventually spotted as a pair of lakes just west of the Enchantments. The Enchantments are an incredibly beautiful mainstay of the Washington hiking scene but also incredibly high traffic. The blue blobs on the computer screen in front of me, labeled Upper and Lower Klonaqua Lake, appeared to be accessible via a trail at the very end of the road and so I hoped they might be one of those places the crowds never quite got to. Why drive the extra half hour if you can go to a bigger, better known attraction on the way? A relative dearth of trip reports on wta.org seemed to support the notion.
The plan was to hike up to Lower Klonaqua Lake, inflate the packrafts, paddle across, deflate the packrafts, bushwhack up the outlet stream from Upper Klonaqua Lake, reinflate the packrafts upon reaching it, and then paddle to some place on the other side for camp. One friend signed up for expedition (I’m still learning that inviting people by adding them to a Facebook event has a pretty low conversion rate) and bought an Intex Explorer, a cheap pool toy which is perhaps better matched to the professionalism of this outing than the Supai Adventures MatKat whose price tag I was justifying.
Night 0 (Friday):
Anda picked me up after work and we drove several hours over Steven’s Pass to the trailhead. The was sun beginning to set as we pulled in. There were a surprising number of cars and even a pair of women hanging out in camp chairs, apparently planning on sleeping at the trailhead. Anda had done more research than I and discovered that there were campsites one mile in, near the confluence of French Creek and Icicle Creek which I guess explains the popularity. In hindsight, there are also a number of connecting trails making this a great start for point-to-point adventures.
We walked the relatively flat mile through the dark until a spur trail looked like it might turn off to a campsite. On the way, we had a minor disagreement over when to turn on headlamps. I like to keep mine off to experience hiking by moonlight as long as possible. Anda preferrs to turn her light on before dark so she can see where to put her feet. There was no disagreement that we needed headlamps to find a campsite. The first campsite was occupied but the spur trail appeared to go through and so we skirted it only to find it was for water access. We tip-toed back to the main trail to find another campsite. What we found was a spacious, well established site on the high bank of the creek which made for excellent camping. While I didn’t realize it until the next morning, horses like it too. I guess even with a headlamp, I’m not that observant.
Day 1 (Saturday):
Anda isn’t a morning person and this was to be a camping (not hiking) trip, so I had breakfast and enjoyed the creekside vista for a while. Eventually, I decided 9am was late enough and whispered morning salutations and exhortations at her tent door until I heard stirring inside. The white noise of an active creek makes for restful sleep. I might have been up first but I certainly hadn’t been up early.
The trail crossed a bridge then went for some time at a shallow rise, usually in the shade. We collected water at one of the several rivulets which flowed across the trail. Nearby, we saw the largest toad I’ve ever seen. It was well camouflaged and if it hadn’t jumped out of our way, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all. Later, some horseback riders came past. I’m not familiar with horse-hiker etiquette but their bigger than I am so I stepped to the side. The lead rider told me to say something to the horse. I found this curious. Maybe it was to let the horse know I was a friendly human and not a predator. Shortly thereafter, we saw the horseriders coming back. I’m not sure what their destination was since they couldn’t have gotten very far and there was nothing notable a short distance ahead.
Eventually the trail split and we took the less maintained fork steeply up. While easy to follow, I think a less experienced version of me would have found it incredibly exciting to hike a trail which felt so rarely traveled. We conversed to keep our minds off the climb but the elevation gain was well within the range of a typical day hike in Western Washington. First the sky began to appear through the trees. Then you could see where the terrain was going to start leveling off. Then, quite suddenly, we were at Lower Klonaqua Lake, and it was still a reasonable hour for lunch.
The lake was quite pretty. You should see it for yourself. We inflated our boats. I used Anda’s hiking boots to keep mine close to shore. One hiking boot in the boat, the other on land, and the long laces tied to keep them together. My boat is less than two pounds so it wasn’t going to pull her shore-bound hiking boot in.
I’d only taken my packraft out once and this was Anda’s boat’s maiden voyage so we spent some time getting used to paddling around. I ate lunch in mine. It tracks very poorly and will enter a slow spin if not constantly attended. While annoying if you’re trying to make headway, it was a convenient way to enjoy the views.
Over lunch in the packraft, I scouted a little island (not really big enough for camping) and then spotted the outlet stream from Upper Klonaqua Lake. Back on shore preparing to cross, I was a little worried that the outlet stream seemed to be the final stage of a very long, high water course coming off the distant granite ridge. Upper Klonaqua hadn’t seemed that far away or that high when I’d looked at it on a map. Anda pointed out that I was looking at the mountains on the far side of Upper Klonaqua and that our destination was just on the other side of a low rise of trees, so small I hadn’t realized that it could be hiding a lake.
We paddled across Lower Klonaqua Lake. This was my first experience making part of a journey in a boat that I’d packed in. No longer would bodies of water (at least flat ones) be a barrier to my travels! It was a glorious experience, never mind that my sloppy paddling technique keep getting drips in the boat.
There were a few possible take out points but none of them ideal. I picked a rock where I could throw my pack out of the boat to give me some room to get myself out. It was too steep to effectively beach the raft and a little deep, even if I’d wanted to get my feet wet (isn’t the point of a boat to not get wet?). The process lacked grace but I stayed dry and despite its best attempts, my boat didn’t manage to float away. I had to pull my stuff uphill about ten feet to give Anda room to undergo the same clumsy process. It didn’t help that the bank was steep and crowded, but it did make it feel adventurous.
The bushwhack to Upper Klonaqua Lake was short and steep, probably just 100 yards. There’s a trail we could have taken if we hadn’t paddle across the lake and coming across it at the top of the barrier ridge which contains Upper Klonaqua gave that same exhilarating sense of being found as when rediscovering a trail after being lost. During the bushwhack I found some flagging tape on a tree. This almost always happens when I’m off trail; there’s really just no getting away from signs of human passage.
Upper Klonaqua Lake had a feeling of petite grandeur which was a nice reward for the petite expedition we’d undertaken to reach it. It took several minutes to find a campsite. There’s some multi-trailing and we encountered a tent but no people. The banks were thin and rolling. While this limited camping, it offered the illusion of privacy and seclusion.
We took time making dinner, trading off who got to use the stove. I sat in my camp chair and read facing out through a gap in the trees towards lake. With light still in the sky, I turned in to enjoy the comfort of my tent and coziness of my sleeping bag. Most of my trips focus on light, fast, travel. I usually wake to predawn birdsong and string up a tarp in fading light. I wasn’t completely sure what to do with myself without the prime goal of forward motion undergirding every action.
Day 2 (Sunday)
It was another easy morning. There had been enough adventure the previous day so we hiked back instead of rafting. This took us by Bob Lake and connected back to the trail down to French Creek a trail split I hadn’t noticed on the way up. I guess the trail is a little rugged. Maybe that’ll help keep it less impacted. This part isn’t on CalTopo so I didn’t even know it existed.
We made good time but Anda’s feet were hurting so we stopped at the confluence of Icicle and French Creek so she could patch things up for the last mile. There was a friendly couple camped there testing out their gear for the upcoming season and it was fun to regale them with the story of our adventure. Feet having been put back together, we marched back to the trailhead in time to hit up the 59’er Diner on the way home.
What I learned from this trip is how many low traffic gems are hidden away in the Cascades if you’re up to take a less beaten path and aren’t trying to make a high mileage weekend.
Due to a miscommunication, I thought this trip had been canceled. Determined to check the Wonderland Trail (circumnavigation of Mt Rainier) off my bucket list, I made it happen over July 4th weekend. Despite living in Washington for most of the last decade, I’d only been to Mt Rainier once. While it was clear that Mt Rainier, and really the entire area, is quite beautiful, the trip felt like something of a forced march with a lot of anxiety about mileage and elevation, under frequently ambiguous atmospheric conditions, and despite frequent human interaction, lonely. While there were some real highs, my mood was generally pretty low. Bonus: light rain and ambient moisture killed my phone so no pics.
When I got home Sunday night on July 7th and discovered I’d been included in a group chat planning to squeeze a Wonderland trip into 3 days the next weekend, I was initially put off. Hadn’t the trip been canceled? 3 days isn’t that long to hike 93 miles with 22,000 ft of climbing, especially once you account for transport each way. Didn’t I have something better to do than re-hike a trail which had left me feeling so neutral?
On the flip side, the trip was being arranged by my friend Ella (“Red”) whose well grounded sense of the absurd and quick laugh has turned several bad situations into quality type-2 fun. Also on the guest list was Clare (“Star”) who I’d known as something of a power-hiker but hadn’t seen since the PCT and was curious to see how her collegiate idealism had transferred to the real world. Our last member would be Ross (“Big Hunk”) who I hadn’t met but had heard about several times in glowing terms. Was I in? Yeah… probably. If nothing else, misery loves company.
After a great deal of indecision, we decided that Clare would drive down and get day-before permits for an itinerary of White River (night before the trip), Pyramid Creek Camp, and Ipsut Creek Camp. This would make for low 30 mile days with 7,000 ft or more. Due to unavailability of sites at Pyramid creek Clare accepted the suggestion of a “ginger ranger” to shift our first night’s permit an extra several miles and 1,500 ft to Devil’s Dream. Based on her description of the interaction, our “trail mania” affected conversations would cast The Ginger Ranger as everything from an object of ire to romantic desire.
While Clare was down by Mt Rainier getting a our permit, Ross and Ella rendezvoused in Seattle after work then came to pick me up. There was a delay when Ross’s van broke down and they had to wait 20 minutes before starting it, something about air in the priming pump. I was waiting out front when they showed up, Ella jogging in front of a tall, white sprinter van which Ross parked but didn’t turn off. I had a moment of disbelief that they wanted to road trip in a vehicle of questionable reliability when my station wagon, which has never suffered a mechanical failure, was available. Ella pointed out that Ross had just finished a 6,000 mile road trip so the van was road worthy aside from the primer pump. I decided that this was going to be one of those trips where the adventure comes from shared experience of happenstance not of planned participation in prescribed activities. During the stop in Enumclaw to get food for the hike, I stayed in the van since we had to leave it running.
By the time we pulled in to the White River campground, it was dark and we weren’t sure where to meet Clare. We knew our campsite was for thru hikers but weren’t sure where, among the many loops of campsites, that was. We first drove through the parking lot for hikers and climbers and I spotted a small blue LED light on in the back of a truck with a tall cap over the bed. It wasn’t until after driving through several of the loops that we deduced that it might have been her in the truck. We pulled up behind it and Ross called softly, “Clare?”. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have heard and so just yelled, “Clare!” which probably made Ella and Ross cringe. Fortunately, it turned out to be her and Ross parked his van, named Besty, alongside.
Ross offered us dinner (an excellent chili – I couldn’t tell it was vegitarian) and while cleaning up, I saw a set of nicely wrapped ethernet cords. This lead to a reference about working IT. Then we both specified software. Then we discovered that we’d met before. The day after I finished the PCT, Ross was the second of two hikers I talked to while waiting in the lodge at Manning Park. We’d talked about plans for the future and I’d wondered how things had gone for him.
Eventually Clare went back to sleep in the truck and Ross found room to fit the other three of us on the floor of his van.
Day 1 (Friday): White River to Pyramid Creek
We were off around 5am the next day since there were well over 30 miles and 8,000 ft to hike. This was the same jumping off point and direction I’d started from a week before and so was quick to point the way out of the campground. The trail runs an easy, forested downhill before turning up Frying Pan Creek and eventually climbing a set of switch backs to Summerland, a camp near a meadow with a wonderful west-facing view of Mt Rainier. Clare and Ella set a quick pace, chatting a mile a minute until a small bridge over a waterfall. Clare stopped for a bit and we made plans to regroup at Summerland. I chased Ella up the switch backs to tell her and after relaying the new plan, she made me pass since she doesn’t like walking in front and so I felt obliged to keep the pace up.
From Summerland, the trail went up towards a ridge through a boulder field. There’s a stream which can be crossed with an tricky rock hop if you have trekking poles. I’d advertised this as a “dry foot” trail based on my previous week’s adventure but Ella and Clare don’t use poles. They gave me a pretty solid glare after wading through. Ross kept his feet dry, crossing with grace, dexterity, and trekking poles. I followed sans grace but kept my feet dry as well.
I didn’t get a picture of it, but there’s a footlog which is half washed away except that one end has a cable around it attached to a bolt in the rock. The sight of old bridges, now useless due to a change in the course of a steam or because they’d been swept away downstream were common on this trip.
Shortly before the ridge above Summerland we encountered our first snow. Having been through the week before, I lead where the trail wasn’t immediately obvious and took a turn wider than the trail did. Fortunately, the saddle at which we cross was visible so there was no real risk of getting lost. Just before crossing the ridge and gaining a view to the south, there’s a short traverse across a relatively steep snowfield. Traction devices not required but again, I appreciated having poles.
I don’t have pictures of the view that then unfolded before us. It’s one of those special moments in hiking when you attain a ridge and can, after hours of laboring through now familiar terrain, in a moment see unique, new country. Mt Adams was visible, which it hadn’t been on my previous trip. The grass below the snow line was an intense, vibrant green. The clouds were varied above a blue horizon of distant, ragged peaks. Ross grinned broadly. The women made inarticulate exclamations of delight and made a show of falling on their knees and waving their arms. After a time, we continued.
The trail continued to traverse across snow patches. It was convenient to have come through the week before as I could point to where the footprints across had missed the trail and so keep reasonably on course. At a turn where I’d gotten lost the week before I made everyone guess where the trail went and was pleased that at no one found it obvious. We followed the majority of tracks up a steep slope to and discovered that in the intervening week, a patch of ground containing a bit of trail pointing the way had melted through.
During the ensuing snack break we somehow wound up trying to decide what 2D geometric shape each other were. This lead to a lot of discussion as to the difference between a rhombus vs a trapezoid or an isosceles vs scalene triangle. I was just glad not to be labeled a square. From there we walked the ridge down to Indian Bar. The wall of rock across the valley had a myriad little waterfalls as snowmelt found it’s way down through every crack and crevice.
Lunch a Indian Bar was a pretty brief affair. Clare set a timer for 20 minutes and when it went off we were done. The scene was idyllic but we had miles to make. With backgrounds in thru-hiking and distance running, we were all aware that eating lightly but frequently and taking regular, short breaks was the best way to coax our bodies over many miles. I found a quiet pleasure that we all knew this and acted with the same set of priorities. One of my vices is eating too much to enjoy uphill hikes and so being cut off from my second set of PB&J tortillas when the alarm went off was good accountability.
After cresting the first rise out of Indian Bar, we were again ambushed by views Mt Adams. I knew this was coming and set up to catch expressions on camera. The day was glorious.
The ridge walk wore on and eventually descended into the trees. It would be many miles, probably not until Indian Henry’s the next day, before we would again walk through such grand views.
The group spread out with a plan to rendezvous at the next camp or major trail intersection. Ella took the opportunity to practice running downhill and was soon out front. Her arms flop and sway out to the side like a small child at play. Combined with her choice to hike in a dress, she the scene was adorable. Ross’s long, clean, strides; precise pole plants; metronomic timing; lowered head; and tight, smooth, linear motion were as opposite a form of hiking as could be imagined. Also in contrast: I typically enjoy plants while in motion past them but when Clare arrived at the next stop just a minute or two behind, there were sprigs of lupine in her hair. It was so much fun to hike my own hike in the company of others hiking theirs.
On the way down, we ran across a family from Boston who I’d met the week prior at Mowich Lake. They’d given me some freeze dried meals and a few other goodies left over from the resupply they were packing up. I was carrying some of that bounty on this trip and let them know how much I appreciated it. I’d been hoping to see someone from the previous week still out on the trail and so was delighted to run into them. They also warned us that Devil’s Dream, our permitted site for the night, was a mosquito-ridden hell hole.
After Nickel creek, we finish off the descent and start pounding out the miles westbound towards Reflection Lakes. The trail goes through a river valley which isn’t so different from every other forested river trail you’ve walked. We cross a side stream on a series of logs, each just long enough to reach an uneroded island mid-stream before the next one picks up. Eventually a long, shallow climb offers glimpses of a road in the steep valley wall across the river. We cross the small washout which a sign 5 miles earlier had warned about. I’d only brought 1L water capacity and was beginning to run low. while waiting for Clare to transfer water between bottles, I went ahead to find the next source and start filling water explaining that that way they wouldn’t have to wait for me. Actually, I was pretty sure that the next water source was a waterfall and wanted to have a good look at everyone’s face when they first saw it. I was rewarded with a quality set of smiles and we took our time to collecting water anyways.
You know you’re getting close to Lake Louise, the precursor to the the Reflection Lakes, when you have to cross a paved road several times. It’s strange to be on a long hike having started from a drive-in campground and again be close to a road.
By this time, our conversation had descended into true insanity. The primary topic of discussion was the logistics of an eternal hike around, and sometimes over, Mt Rainier. This slow eviction of reality from regular discussion is what Ella appears to mean by the phrase, “trail mania”.
After Reflection Lakes, the trail descended past a waterfall (Ross made a quick side-trip to see it), to Paradise Campground, which was closed, past some smaller waterfalls (where Ross caught back up), along a small pipeline, and across a wide but mostly dry riverbed. We had a quick powow about where to eat dinner and what we wanted to do about our permitted campsite being infested with mosquitoes. It was an awkward scene with the other three sitting on rocks in a semi-circle while I stood and tried to lay out some alternatives. Mostly I wanted us all on the same page but had thought it would be fun to eat at the Paradise Lodge if there were time. This ended with the decision to just keep walking for now. We ate dinner at a picnic table in Longmire.
With full bellies and rested feet, we took on the last hill of the day. Night was falling as we passed Pyramid Creek. We found a small, empty campsite and squeezed in after agreeing to move if challenged since we were technically off permit. In the spirit of making a best attempt to follow the rules, we tried to hang our food on the bear pole. It was much taller than other bear poles I’d seen and the pole used to reach up and hook a food bag at the top was too short for some and too ungainly for the rest of us so we slept with our food. As usual, there were no problems
Day 2 (Saturday): Pyramid Creek to Mowich Lake
We woke up early on Saturday, something like 4am. I’m pretty sure it was Clare’s idea but I can’t remember why. We were passing Devil’s Dream (as reported, the mosquito cloud was dense) as it got light. This was the first place we saw the oil drum looking containers labeled “human excrement” in the clearing nearest camp. I guess teams the latrine cleaning team, or maybe the local patrol ranger, swaps them out from time to time, then a chopper carries out the full ones. It’s one of those subtle cues as to how much travel this area gets and the amount of effort that goes into maintaining it.
As things flattened out, I saw a small blackbear and pointed it out to Clare who was just ahead of me. Clare saw and so could corroborate my story that it ran off just before Ella came around the bend. I think Ella still hasn’t seen one despite having over 2,000 miles of hiking under her feet.
Indian Henry’s was gorgeous. It’s a little patrol cabin in a meadow ringed by trees with Mt Rainier rising up behind it. A trickle of a stream runs through the meadow. Since I’d seen it on my last trip and I focused on capturing others’ expressions. Only later did I remember that I’d lost all the previous trip’s pictures.
The valley after Indian Henry’s is a deep gorge with no convenient way across. Except, that is, for the flexible, twisting, one-at-a-time suspension bridge provided for your convenience. For some reason everyone had stopped before the bridge and no one immediately started across when I caught up.
The trick is to put walk with your feet in line as though you were on a balance beam. This prevents the side-to-side weight shifts which happen during normal walking from causing the bridge to swing. Of course I let everyone figure that out for themselves.
After ye old set of forested switchbacks, Ross and I broke out into the open below Emerald Ridge. Clare had been leading up the hill but stepped aside for a moment and Ella had stayed back for a moment to check on her. There’s a fine line to walk when inquiring about someone. We’re all experienced hikers and have our own preferences for working through on-trail ailments and sometimes it’s best to make it clear that they’re not holding you back so they can focus on themselves.
Clouds were blowing across Emerald ridge and so while we couldn’t see down into the valley on either side, we usually we had a good view of the mountain clouds forming halos over the peaks.
By the time Ross and I had settled in for a snack, Ella caught up and reported that Clare would probably be OK but need to catch up at her own pace. We spent a few minutes identifying evac routes in case they’d be needed, then ate and hung out. The view even cleared for a bit. Ross noticed how nice it was to recline with the feet above the head. Quality dirt napping ensued.
Clare caught up with us, feeling well and in good spirits. After a few minutes to rest and snack, she and Ella tore off down the tightly switchbacking trail. After regrouping at the bottom, we split up again on the climb up to St Andrews lake. Despite the early start we were now behind pace and while no one was worried, we figured that longer distances between regroups might help us move faster.
My pack on this trip might be described as a running-inspired hiking backpack. We were all carrying a pretty minimal set of gear but the expression of heavily laden, oft-resting, traditional backpackers we passed while still in fine form, particularly when late in a climb, were priceless. Some thought we were day hikers. Others asked if we were doing an out-and-back. The answer that we were going around the mountain in three days was universally unexpected. Since our group didn’t always hike together, it was sometimes interesting to compare differences in reactions. My favorite comment of the trip was, “We’re here to teach you kids how not to backpack like that” which Ella overheard between a parent and several of their kids. The same people had merely exchanged smalltalk about fishing with me. We stopped for lunch at St Andrews lake which had been iced over the week before and was largely shrouded in mist which cleared slowly. Fortunately the skinny dipping was over before that particular family appeared and set themselves up on a little peninsula, backs to us.
The mist continued clearing on the down-up to Golden Lakes and I was able to see the area which had been socked in on my previous trip. I mostly remember an old burn now well into recovery with knee to waist high green shrubs covered in small leaves. The silver-grey snags provided no shade. You could look back and see the previous ridge. There was long thin gap in the trees indicating forest road. One of the great joys of higher mileage trips is looking back in wonder that you body has carried you such a great distance.
I must have been moving pretty quickly because I had to wait a few minutes for people to catch up at the Golden Lakes patrol cabin. It was quite pleasant to have a log to sit on. I found my entry in the trail register from the week before and looked ahead on the elevation profile. The trail is so well marked that I’d just been using the elevation profile to track progress. It’s pretty easy to tell uphill from downhill so you just count the number of big climbs or descents since the last camp you passed.
Given that the women tended to be faster on the downhills and the men faster on the uphills, we decided to regroup at the top of the next down-up: Mowich Lake. Ella took off at a jog but Clare wound up ambling along with Ross and me, discussing a recent hot political topic. Time passed quickly and we were suddenly at the South Mowich river. It’s so nice to have people to talk to when you want to talk. It’s strange that only in a Star Trek episode have I heard conversation explicitly referenced type of pleasure. I almost hadn’t taken a drink since Golden Lakes about 7 miles before and neither had Clare or Ross given how much we suddenly all drank now that a flow of water reminded us to.
The climb to Mowich Lake was the last of the day and I was secretly hoping to catch Ella, so I took it as fast as I could. I justified this as my last training run for the White River 50 miler I would be running in two weeks. When I arrived, drenched in sweat, at the picnic table where she’d set up, already ensconced in a puffy and deep in her bag of snacks, and confessed my ambition, a wicked little smile spread across her face. She claimed to just have been testing the theory that downhill is less important in a race than uphill because you spend less time on it. Ross showed up moments later, out of breath and threw his poles down at the base of the picnic table with mock rage and joined in the griping about the climb. Apparently I’m not the only one whose competitive streak comes out some times.
There were now two problems. First was that I was quite wet and the sun was about to go down and it was cloudy with a little humidity. One option was to go to bed wet and let my body heat dry things out. It was clear though that I’d be pretty cold before I got warm under the quilt and so I stripped off my wet hiking shirt, did what I could to air out for a bit and put on my puffy whose synthetic shell made my skin feel horribly sticky. I stayed warm though and that’s what mattered.
The second problem was where to camp. No one particularly felt like continuing to our permitted camp at Ipsut Creek, about five miles dark miles down a steep and tricky hill. We’d been considering just setting up around our picnic table despite it not being a designated campsite (the surface was a closed forest road so at least we weren’t impacting the area) when another hiker came over and struck up a conversation. It turns out they had a permit but all the spots had been taken so instead of evicting someone off-permit, the ranger had just told them to find a picnic table and set up near it. We felt that this was the justification we were looking for. The women set up their bivvies on the picnic table and Ross and I pitched our tarps between it and a split rail fence. Ella yogi’d a bag of chips, M&Ms, and hot chocolate from the people at the next campsite and after profuse thank yous and tucked in then turned in.
Day 3 (Sunday): Mowich Lake to White River
I’d delegated the duty of setting an alarm and so should have expected a human voice to wake me up but my still sleeping brain processed Ella’s soft wake-up calls with the same panic as a child being woken up by a parent because they’re late for school. The upside was that this didn’t leave time to care that my hiking shirt was still soggy from last night. Everyone left camp on their own schedule and I started at a rapid clip to warm up but ran into Clare at a trail intersection where she was checking which direction to take and we hiked together for a bit.
After Mowich Lake, the trail is almost flat for a short while then takes a steep drop down towards Ipsut Creek. The footing can be loose and a little rocky in places and it was easiest to take at a half jog, throwing my trekking poles forward and catching myself on when jumping down over rocks and roots. Things flattened a little towards the valley bottom then turned into an easy uphill along the outlet of the Carbon Glacier.
I stopped at a sign for the Northern Loop Trail since the week before, I’d encountered some Wonderland hikers here trying to determine which way to go. The correct answer is to detour across the river and follow the trail on the north bank up to Carbon Glacier where you rejoin the Wonderland proper. It’d be an easy turn to miss so I wanted to make sure no one did that. I sat down just past the sign with the intention of quizzing everyone as they came in on which way to go. I was foiled by most of them doing the obvious thing: going back a few paces to look at the sign. As with other river beds, it’s fun to cross here because the after the log bridge, you have to find you way through the rocks and see the remnants of past seasons’ bridges. A ranger told me that in many places, they just let the footlogs wash out and come back each season to put them in again.
Shortly after crossing the river, I was struck with a dire need to poop. I knew there was a toilet a short ways up the trail near a suspension bridge but couldn’t remember exactly how far it was. I tried to hold it but eventually peeled off over mossy rocks away from the trail and relieved myself, having to dig a cat hole afterwards. After returning to the trail, I found the suspension bridge merely 100 yards or so up trail. It turns out I might not have made it after all as Clare, who’d been in similar predicament, but apparently with a stronger sphincter, said she’d had to hike about a quarter mile across the bridge and down the next trail to find the toilet.
I haven’t spent much time around glaciers but the Carbon Glacier struck me as strange in that it was covered in dirt and rock. I would have assumed that the darker colors warmed up more and caused it to melt faster but in this case maybe it’s a deep enough layer to be slightly insulating.
After a long climb, the grade began to reduce. The trail runs along a stream which seems, from the small, gentle cut through which it courses, like it would lead to a saddle. Instead it opens into small meadows with a view of Mt Rainier. This had been fogged over when I passed through the week before and was a delightful surprise.
After cresting the rise and passing the not-Mystic-Lake lake (there’s a sign indicating such), the trail meanders down to Mystic Lake proper through lush green fields. I decided to wash up and let my clothes dry out properly. A clean body and dry clothes (even if stiff with dried sweat) can be a real treat after damp conditions. The quick dunk turned into a swim across the lake. As I swam, Mt Rainier slowly came out from behind a ridge. This was a nice reward for making it for making it the length of the lake. Everyone had arrived and gotten in by the time I made it back. Ella was still outbound on her swim and we tried to play some game where we pushed off each other’s feet but we didn’t get the timing quite right. Unfortunately, there were ants and mosquitoes so the others didn’t hang around for long. I had full coverage clothes and a head net and was far too relaxed from the swim to want to rush, so I promised to catch up after finishing lunch.
The swim’s afterglow carried me down to the base of our last climb of the trip clean, dry, and happy. Sweat broke on the first few switchback and eventually I came back to the reality of hiking. I’d told the others about a turn in the trail where you can look back and see Mt Rainier and had expected them to use it as a place to regroup. Instead, I caught up to them sitting on the side of the trail maybe a half mile before the turn, snacking and telling stories. When Clare’s regular snack break timer had gone off, no one had taken her offer to keep going. The trip is almost over, we’re going to make it with plenty of time, and everyone wanted to enjoy it to the last.
Before the last traverse, which would bring us to Sunrise, I was subjected Ella and Clare’s interest in taking “Hikertrash Vogue” pictures (explanation). They’d made Ross pose on the shore of St Andrew’s Lake, and Ella had hers taken coming out of the water at Mystic Lake. I was seated on a rock and told to look over my shoulder and make a “come hither” look… I guess a career in modelling isn’t for me. I do like that they worked in the trekking poles and took the picture in my standard hiking uniform, though that seems to be the point.
Our final traverse was short and the views were nice but not sweeping. We passed a pair of junior rangers about knee high being herded along by a volunteer ranger who was passing out advice and answering questions for day hikers. Ella and Clare seemed about to explode from the cuteness.
What’s incredible is that despite spending three days together, the conversation never really stopped. There were some lulls but Clare and Ella are such chatterboxes that Ross and I always had the option of joining in or keeping to ourselves whenever we wanted. It’s actually quite convenient.
The last set of switchbacks after Sunrise took us down to White River. I was in the lead and set a brisk pace. The last miles of any hike are the longest and it’s best to just power through. You have to walk every step, even if you know the parking lot is just down there. Things seem much closer than they really are so time drags out. Best to just get it done.
When we finally finished, we were quite proud of ourselves. Our closing refrain, based on a picture of us taken in front of the trashcans at Longmire was, “Trash Can”, referring to hikertrash (us) being able to do the thing we set out to do. Ross had camp chairs and set them out. Then he came out with a six-pack of Rainiers in honor of the mountain we’d just walked around. Highs and lows were shared, then bonus highs and lows, then just a lot of highs. The laughter was resplendent. We’d walked around Mt Rainier in under three days and had daylight to spare. No one wanted to go home. As Phillipe Patek adverts have noted, time is the greatest luxury. When spent hiking through beautiful places with wonderful people, I’m inclined to agree.
The flight on Wright Air from Bettles back to Fairbanks was the only time on the trip when I saw rain.
Some group members had a room where we’d stayed before heading out so we regrouped there, then went to lunch. Everyone had an entire pizza to themselves and there weren’t many leftovers.
Back at the hotel, we got back in touch with the world. E-mail, text messages, and social media were checked. The inbound group recognized me as the PB&J guy from Andrew’s Instagram. One by one, people would say goodbye and head for the airport.
I was on the same flight as Lance so we went to the airport together at the terminal and said farewell as we walked onto the plane.
It’s incredible to reflect on the trip. In most groups, there’s a slowest person. Ours didn’t have one. Some were faster up or down talus. Others were faster in tussocks. Everyone hiked all day and had a good attitude. Everyone had something interesting to talk about. The group were all high performers athletically (ex: a former army ranger, a triathalon coach, several ultra-marathoners) and in professional life (ex: doctor, retired-early wall street guy, financial advisor, business exec), but no one’s personality got in the way.
On top of that, no one got seriously injured. There weren’t any good evac plans short of walking out. Despite this, Andrew had taken us on a trip with relatively little intel and the need to adapt had been real. There weren’t many snow reports and no beta from anyone else this year. We’d skipped the highest pass of the trip, a mountain called Ariel, because it was was too risky. The Awlinyak had been running high when we crossed it. There were many unknowns which could have seriously risked the trip. Everyone had pushed themselves pretty hard and yet no one had broken. Despite all the risks, the trip had been offered and the participants trusted to make it work.
Andrew, our primary guide, could probably write a book on leadership or management. The trip was logistically complex (ex: he’d had to set up an LLC in Alaska to operate there). The team’s physical and emotional needs had to be balanced against with the demands of the route and schedule. People needed to be pushed to take risks so they would learn, frequently by failure, but correction couldn’t come across as diminishing. His concise style was sufficiently informative and trusted us to do the right thing. All of this from a guy who clearly does better after having his morning coffee. Andrew’s site & blog.
Justin, our second guide, was a fantastic balance to Andrew’s firm, clean, business like manner. Justin was goofy and sociable but didn’t make a scene. He was competent and self deprecating. His experience in the mountains came across in casual, independent opinions which you couldn’t help but trust. He felt like just another group member, but one who Andrew depended on to keep us out of trouble.
I wish them and all of our group the best on their future adventures.
I was proud of dead man anchor (I haven’t had to make them very often) I used last night to hold up my tent. The ground had been shallow and there hadn’t been many rocks around but I found one large one and put it on a fallen branch to which I tied off the only guy-line for which I couldn’t place a tent stake.
I had only taken two liters of water for dry camp and was low when we started hiking so I was glad to hit a small ditch with running water soon after starting.
It was only two miles to Arrigetch Creek but the going was hard. We used GPS, which was a rarity, and were counting tenths of a mile to stay motivated.
Arrigetch Creek was running strong and it took several minutes to find a suitable crossing. Fortunately there was one nearby since the creek didn’t appear to widen downstream and it would have been miles upstream before we would have passed above the feeder streams to cross at a point with reduced flow.
After crossing we ate breakfast in the woods. It was perhaps the most low key stop we’d had for the entire trip. While we always rested when necessary, most of our meals and rest stops had an underlying tension from the knowledge that we needed to get somewhere before camping. We weren’t at circle lake yet but we were almost there and there was no need to get there early.
A little over two more miles brought us to Circle Lake where a float plane would pick us up. The group was elated. I lost and under-over bet with John on when it would show up.
There were only 5 seats so I elected to be in the second group. The bugs were worse in Bettles and now that we’d made the rendezvous with the float plane, there was no rush.
Video of the float plane taking off. The float plane (a “Beaver”) didn’t fly very high and the view made a great way to tie off a hard week of hiking.
On the flight to Bettles, we spotted a forest fire starting. The pilot circled and called it in.
In Bettles, we got a shower and bought up most of the snack, healthy and otherwise, before dinner. Alan and Brian, the guides from the other trip were there and we spent the evening talking about our trips, hiking, adventures and the like.
Perhaps because the we were no longer in our Permethrin impregnated clothes, the mosquitoes were by far the worst of the entire trip. We camped by the river so the breeze would help clear the out but there was no shade during the night and it was difficult to fall asleep until the temperature dropped.
Woke up in camp by Awlinyak. There had been some discussion of getting over to Arrigetch Creek by ascending an unnamed drainage and working our way up to the north ridge overlooking the creek. The route was involved and required a great deal of elevation gain and I was glad when it was eventually decided against as it would have introduced a lot of unknowns on our last full day of the trip when bodies are beginning to break down.
We hiked down Awlinyak was mostly on game trails. There were a few places where side creeks came in that we dropped into a creek and had trouble finding a trail on the climb out. Some tussocks at the end near the Alatna River when we were forced up over a cut bank. The group was chatty, with 2-3 conversations going at a time.
Lunch on a small rocky beach by a channel. Talked about types of trips and reasons for different clients being on the trips. Gave Justin a PB&J. Previously he’d coined the term “no calorie left behind” which was now a group motto.
After lunch the travel seemed like it was mostly tussocks, or sponga and willows. There were some grunts as people pushed through hurting feet and stubbed toes. There were some tears. I worried about a small but sharp pain in my right knee which would happen from time to time. There was also a lot of conversation and comraderie. It took two tries to find a place to camp. Andrew’s expectation management and handling of group and individual morale was superb.
It was a dry camp on a hill top but the view was gorgeous and honestly all I remember now is the joy. There was a grand view down the Alatna and a side drainage made soft by puffy clouds. I had been so focused on trying to stay upright in all the tussocks that I hadn’t thought to take any pictures until then.
After dinner Andrew went around and checked on everyone. I was in my tent but through the wall he said he’d taken a risk on a newbie but it had worked. I laughed and thanked him for the complement.
From here out, I was too tired at the end of the day to write a full post so I’ve reconstructed the following from quick notes and memory typed before passing out.
We woke up and continued climbing talus towards Skinny ‘Bou Pass. The going was slow but we were close to a low ridge which we thought was the pass. It turned out not to be which was kind of a downer since we’d headed out before breakfast, as was our custom, and had been hoping to eat at the pass.
The actual pass required some ticky side-hilling on talus, and snow travel where we all lined up and followed Andrew’s tracks. At one point, he post-holed deeply when passing one side of a boulder, reversed to the other side but dropped through there as well, and so we helped each other in rapid succession up on to the boulder (video). It was kinda like some sort of game you’d expect to play at camp. The issue with post-holing in this area is that the rocks under the snow can be large and sharp so falling through the snow onto them potentially dangerous.
Skinny ‘Bou pass itself was a small notch in the south side of a bowl ringed with steep, ragged granite ridges. Very pretty but very steep on the descent and Justin to, “keep them out of trouble”. At the bottom of the talus immediately under the notch we had several hundred yards of picking our way over mixed rock and snow with the snow hiding more sharp rocks.
Finally, we breakfasted at a lake near on the right side of the valley below the snow line. The meal was an southwestern egg burrito which was finicky to cool but delicious. A fitting reward, however delayed, for the morning’s work.
On the lake was a small bird with black and white feathers. It hopped around on the very thin ice, pecking at the surface. We recounted the surprisingly few number of birds we’d seen so far on our journey, just four.
The next pass, appropriately named Talus Top, was less than a mile away on the other side of the head of the valley. A thin, long ridge of pure talus to the left of a pointed peak. There was a small stream to cross and everyone got their feet wet. It was strange to realize that this was the latest in the day we’d gotten wet feet. Normally, wet feet are a constant out here and letting them dry at every sufficiently long break is imperative.
Talus Top pass was a steep 900ft climb but wonderfully straight forward. There were no turns or navigational issues. No false passes. No snow. I had been feeling a little down for some reason and remembered something John had said about cycling psychology: when you think you’re suffering, go to the front. I shot up Talus Top as fast as I could, pretending I was a kid climbing a gravel pile. It was exhilirating and exactly what I needed.
The way down was very steep scramble. I hadn’t been able to see a way down but Andrew found one. The transition to snow at the bottom was tricky because snow near rock is the most likely to give way suddenly and dangerously. We handled this by sliding down the snow which spread out our weight. It was short and not steep but was a delightful break from the concentration of the down climb.
The snow was melting into a stream which came rushing out from under it and down the left side of the valley. Crossing to the dry bench to eat lunch was quick but cold. I have a little extra bread and so got to eat three PB&J sandwiches instead of my planned two. It was good to feel full and not just not hungry.
From lunch we descended a drainage, with incoming branches, to Awlinyak Creek. The going was dry, firm, and largely devoid of brush. In a word: pleasant. At one point we got to walk the nose of a medial moraine with a game trail on the top. It was so nice, and the peaks across the valley so dramatic that we stopped and took a group photo.
One group member’s achilles started bothering them. They only slowed slightly and moved well on the downhill. By InReach, we’ve had word that someone in the other group is having significant knee trouble and can’t keep pace. We’re all happy that our group is strong, healthy, and experienced enough for the terrain.
On the last side hill before reaching the Awlinyak, our easy going ended. We’d initially found a game trail which Andrew had noted on a previous trip to these parts. Eventually it disappeared and we were pushing through slide alder on a slope for some time. We decided that you knew you were bushwhacking when the bushes started whacking you. No one let it get to them and the comraderie was good but we were all relieved when the final nose down to the Awlinyak had only small brush. Justin captured the group’s feeling when we came out of the bushwhack with leaves under his hat, holding his trekking poles like a weapon, and acting like a crazed jungle soldier.
There was something about our first tough bushwack which made me understand why Andrew had always been so quick to move us to better terrain. Earlier in the trip, if going was so-so, I’d usually stay the course because it could easily be worse elsewhere. After dealing with the alder, my mind changed: why put up with anything difficult longer than strictly necessary?
Crossing the Awlinyak turned into quite an affair. It was clearly deep in places and moving fast. Andrew scouted two potential crossings but turned back (video). He’s done a great job pushing the group while staying well within it’s capabilities. This was just another example. River crossings are a leading cause of death in national parks and this was not place to mess around. We could wait for morning when the flow would be lower and, do to good trip planning, had the time to spare. Ultimately, he found a place where we could all cross. The guides went first with the lighter group members. There was an underwater gravel bar part way across which we regrouped in shin deep water. Then there was a deep channel where a lighter members of the group had trouble fighting the current to stay on the safe line which had been scouted. This differed from our normal stream crossing technique which we’d been taught: head across the current until it starts pushing you, then walk with it, angling only slightly for the far bank. For whatever reason, I was pretty comfortable in the water and walked along side a teammate in the channel for morale support.
We had a snack break to let the intensity of the crossing subside and I ate a bag of jerky. So much food today! I’d really enjoyed crossing the Awlinyak since it was a long crossing and you had a chance to see the river from it’s middle which is an unusual view given that we usually walk on the banks. The Awlinkyak Creek valley had trees, a first for the trip. It was nice to rest and travel in the shade.
For the rest of the day we walked mostly on game trails through the forest. The game trails would disappear near slides or open areas but we’d pick them up again. In one place we found a bear tracks mixed in with the footprints from the group about a day head of us.
We also found a tree with claw marks running up it’s trunk. Apparently bears do this to mark their territory. The highest mark indicates the size of the bear, warning that you’d better not come in unless you’re ready to tangle with something at least that tall.
When we stopped, the camping on was good, flat ground with water nearby. This was probably the most intense day of the trip and it was nice to decompress over dinner. I traded tents with Lance since I’d wanted to try some of the other styles.