Sunny weather + low avalanche risk = Mount Baker!
My good friend Jack and I got on the road before dawn yesterday, and drove to the Heather Meadows ski area. We stepped out of the car into the blistering cold, strapped snowshoes to our feet, and went exploring. As we hiked, the cloud cover broke up, revealing a cobalt blue sky and the warm sun. A perfect day in a winter wonderland, under the two ice giants Kulshan and Shuksan.
We hiked up steep slopes to Artist Point, powder crunching under our heavy snowshoes, looking up nervously at the slopes above us. There was no question the snow was coming down one day, but we decided it wouldn’t slide today, and continued up the trail. Still, it felt sketchy. At the top we had a brief celebration, then headed back down, arriving at the car just before sunset, and being treated to a brilliant display of alpineglow as we left.
I hiked to Franklin Falls with a friend recently; we left the trail and enjoyed some good, old fashioned creek-scrambling. This is a short and easy hike if you stick to the trail, good to take family on or introduce non-hikers to the trail, and not one I’d normally write about here. People come from the desert east of the Cascades to escape the sun, to see lush old growth cedars and Douglas-firs, and water. Normally, I prefer heading east to escape the trees and enjoy some sun.
We parked at the trailhead, which won’t be possible in a month. Cold rain poured down all around us as we stepped out of the car and put on our packs. As the day wore on the rain turned to snow, and slowly began to gather on the evergreen boughs. We hiked along the knife edge of the change of the seasons from winter to fall.
The trail starts at a dirt parking lot on a spur forest service road, and immediately enters the woods next to the river. We were happy to be able to cut right to the chase; when the winter storms come, the road will only be plowed to the last house, and the last mile and a half of the approach will require snowshoes. It won’t be long now.
My friend and I climbed Saint Helens a month ago. We had bought our permits in February, hoped against hope that the weather would hold out, and began to despair as the government shut down and closed the national parks. Mt St Helens is a “national volcanic monument,” and while there was some disagreement as to its status (Washington Trails Association announced that the mountain was closed), we were able to collect our permits, drive to the trailhead, and head up. In fact, it wound up being a sunny day, and very crowded, in part because permits were not being enforced.
We camped at Climbers’ Bivouac and set out on the trail just as dawn broke.
The trail gains altitude for two miles, and ends abruptly at 4,800 feet, where the trees stop growing.
See the wooden post toward the bottom of the picture, just left of center? These begin at the trail’s end; you follow them up an endless gully until you attain Monitor Ridge. These are the Forest Service’s way of preventing climbers from getting lost.
We met Saint Helens on October 5th, which turned out to be a warm, sunny autumn day. So much so that I got a slight burn. But we saw patches of snow here and there in the woods, and it only got deeper through the ascent.
The views were spectacular, both at the trailhead, and as the climbing route broke away from the timbered slopes. My friend and I live in Seattle, and spend much of our time in the central and northern Cascades, so we were treated to see unfamiliar peaks. My friend commented that he had never seen Rainier from this angle before, and didn’t believe me when I told him I thought it was Adams. We looked out to Mounts Hood and Jefferson in Oregon.
Washington’s southern Cascades feel like a different range; longer but lower ridges, big lakes, and individual mountains piercing the sky. The North Cascades is a sea of peaks, the south Cascades are mountains that fight their own battles without allies.
I regret to say that I didn’t reach the summit. We had made a few mistakes, which caught up with me. I skipped dinner in response to delays from Friday’s awful traffic. I skipped breakfast, too; we woke up to find frost all around us, and got moving partly to stay warm. I carried too much weight (camera, more water than I needed, a lot of extra layers). Eventually I began to run out to steam and slow down. The days are short and we agreed it was vital to get off the upper portion of the mountain before dark. So, at about the 7,000 foot level, I told my friend to go on without me. It was still a great time, and I’ll make sure not to repeat these errors on my next climb.
Now, on to camp. As I said, we spent the night at Climbers’ Bivouac to get an early start; this is a little clearing in the woods at the base of the mountain. The clearing affords a view of the heavens above.
Driving up the lower section of the mountain in the dark, toward camp, we passed another clearing and saw Portland sprawled out below us. It was a brightly lit city in the dark. Its light reflected orange in the low clouds that hung around the mountain, and made for wonderful night photos.
Larches are like the holy grail to northwestern hikers; these trees drop their needles in the fall and grow them back in June. Before they come down, the needles turn a brilliant shade of golden yellow. Sadly, the display only lasts about a week.
I camped at Diablo Lake on Saturday to see the larches, then got up the next morning and set out for Washington Pass. Blue Lake’s trailhead is just before the pass, a small flat spot in the woods beneath Liberty Bell and the Early Winters Spires. The trail goes up, up, and away (but not very steeply) through a dense forest, eventually coming into a meadow-like area where the trees are more sparse, but never really vanish. As the trees thin out, the views become more and more dramatic.
You may have noticed the snow in these pictures; there’s a reason two of the peaks in these photos are called Early Winters Spires. Yellow larch needles and snow tend to come at about the same time.
The trail ends at the lake, but a better view is waiting at the top of a little knoll beside the water.
It’s no wonder I love the North Cascades.
I tried something new (to me). My plan was to rent a kayak and paddle in to Cougar Island with my tent and sleeping bag, but when I applied for my permit I learned I’d have to share the island with a couple who was already camping there. The ranger told me “the most popular site on Ross Lake is available. It has a waterfall, and room for one.” So I found myself at May Creek Boat Camp, and because it’s farther than I planned to go, I took the water taxi.
The boat dropped me off early Thursday morning, and we arranged for it to pick me up on Saturday. As the boat left, the feeling of being alone in an immense wilderness came over me, it was a joy.
Ross Lake is a 20 mile long finger lake surrounded by big mountains, greenish blue with silt from melted glaciers. At one end is the Ross Lake Resort; this is where you can rent kayaks and canoes, and catch the water taxi. The resort it a mile from the road, a short hike that goes steeply down hill.
On the way down I ran into two Border Patrol agents, one of them with a machine gun draped over his chest. This, also, is something I’d never encountered before. They said they had been doing boat patrols, since Ross Lake extends into Canada, about 15 miles away.
At the resort, I loaded my backpack into a small boat, and we left for May Creek Camp.
First order of business: find this waterfall. Turns out it’s best viewed from a boat, it sits at the bottom of a ravine. The ground is steep and wet. I got a glimpse from above and some pictures that didn’t turn out well.
The first night was clear and cold, with a full moon rising from the south east.
The next day I hiked the East Bank Trail to Devil’s Creek and then a bit south of my camp on the way back. As the day wore on, clouds came in over the lake, growing darker. I gathered fuel for the fire that would keep me warm, mostly drift wood. Eventually the rain came and I took shelter in my camp. All night it stormed, but the sun was out the next day, mixing with the clouds, letting me dry my tent’s rain fly.
Eventually the boat came to pick me up, right on schedule. We went back to the edge of the lake, and I hiked out to the trailhead where my car and a clean set of clothes were waiting for me.
Stehekin, WA, is a wilderness-edge town in the North Cascades, on the shore of Lake Chelan. It’s notoriously difficult to get to: foot, boat, and plane are the only ways in and out. I chose to hike in for my first visit, along my favorite trail.
The ancient Cascade Pass trail offers a tour of all different types of scenery available in the Northwest mountains. It begins in a dense wet-side forest, which slowly opens to a meadow, then the trail crosses the Cascade Crest and the scenery changes abruptly. All of a sudden the peaks are more bare, the woods become more spacious and less dense, the meadows seem more full of life. The trail winds down talus slopes into a narrow river valley, coming into an open, airy, park-like forest, passing through burn scars, past rocky outcroppings, and eventually coming to a 50 mile finger lake. As the trail winds on, the Stehekin River grows from a small creek into a powerful and swift glacial river.
I spent my first night out in Pelton Basin, a small camp east of the pass. The camp – currently being upgraded to grizzly standards – sits in the end of a grove of trees that reach down into a wet meadow basin. For water, you hike out to the creek running down the center of the broad valley, and come to Pelton Creek, one of the sources of the Stehekin River. I stayed here a year ago and explored the meadow extensively, boulder hopping to keep my feet dry.
The next morning I packed up and made a side trip to Horseshoe Basin before descending into the Stehekin River Valley. Horseshoe Basin is a gorgeous place, but not an easy one to photograph, and you should see it for yourself.
After visiting the basin, I hiked on to Cottonwood Camp, a lovely and small corner of the wilderness, on the banks of the river, with a view of big peaks. This is where the forest begins to “close in” on the trail. In fact, this is where the Cascade Pass Trail ends, and is replaced by a century old wagon road, so overgrown in places that it’s invisible.
I carried an orange for two days, and ate it on the banks of the Stehekin River outside of camp. It may have been the sweetest thing I’ve ever had to eat.
My plan was to take five or six days to hike, but by this point my sleeping schedule had come pretty well in sync with the sun. The next morning I was on the trail by 8 am, and reached the next camp on my permit by 10 am. I wanted to continue hiking, although I might have built camp and explored the park-like surroundings. Instead, this became a 15 mile day, which is further than it sounds with a heavy pack that includes 10 pounds of camera gear.
For a long while, the hike becomes a river walk; the river isn’t always in sight, but it’s almost always within earshot.
After the long third day, and after reaching Stehekin, my legs were a little stiff. I stayed in the Lodge at Stehekin that night, which let me soak them (my legs) in the cold lake water, and then in a hot bath. It also let me wash up, although the town has showers for campers and thru-hikers.
Stehekin has volatile weather, and clouds make for great sunsets, although they aren’t so good for stargazing. For a while, I thought the sky might be on fire. I fell into a peaceful sleep, hoping for a clear night before I had to leave. I didn’t have to wait long for it.
The town is a small one, run by the national park service. There’s a hotel, a restaurant, and an NPS information center. All along the lake are small boat docks for people who want to avoid the Lady of the Lake, chairs and benches set up for the public, and open views of the water and the mountains beyond. The next night I wandered around these places, watching the night sky as the moon came up.
A bright day followed a cool night. While I was there I spent a day kayaking, another day on a bike exploring the old wagon roads, and managed to enjoy a cold swim.
Ultimately, I took the Lady of the Lake (ferry) to the city of Chelan, and met a friend who brought me back to the Cascade Pass trailhead, so that I could get home.
This follows on the heels of my last post; the Sourdough Gap trail is just as beautiful and looks more rugged during a winter storm.
Last year, my friend Mary wanted to go hiking, and had never been to Mount Rainier, so we chose the Sourdough Gap section of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d done this earlier with mutual friends ours and been impressed, and we both knew the road to Chinook Pass would close any day, so we wanted to get while the getting was good.
There was no swimming to be had this day. But it was still early in the season (*) and there were inches of snow, not feet. More snow fell all around us as we hiked, landing silently in the water and melting as it joined Sheep Lake. Above is a photo of the outflow, where hikers and backpackers collect water to purify.
We headed upward, to the Sourdough Gap – a small notch in the ridge – and enjoyed the winter wonderland view as a cloud blew in and enveloped us. When we reached the pass we wanted photos, but decided not to linger after taking them. The wind was just too cold. But the view!
Beyond the pass the wind calmed down a bit, and we found ourselves in a wide glacier-carved valley. The storm hadn’t quite reached its northern side yet.
Winter is a black-and-white time in the PNW. Colorful things are hidden beneath the snow, and the cloud cover is so thick the meager daylight that makes it to the ground has no hue or direction. Our view from the pass was a slight exception, with a patch of blue struggling for a foothold in the sky. It didn’t last long.
The meadows on the other side were covered in snow, but it was shallow enough for some plants to press through. Trails stood out visibly from their surroundings. We followed the PCT down, into Mount Rainier National Park, to Crystal Lake. We noticed camps along its shores and wondered what they must be like in the summer.
Eventually we decided to turn back. Daylight is in short supply in the winter, and the road was precarious enough to begin with.
* NOTE: I usually think of seasons according to the weather, not the calendar. This hike was October 20th, 2012, Halloween was approaching, and by all rights it was autumn and not winter. Trudging through the snow and not lingering at the pass because of the bitterly cold wind made it winter in my book.
|Forrest on Artist Point Snowshoe|
|swanny32 on Artist Point Snowshoe|
|Forrest on Artist Point Snowshoe|
|Suze on Artist Point Snowshoe|
|silvermoonthephotogr… on Mount Saint Helens|