Friday, August 31, 2012

Wonderful Wandering Week

I hesitate to extol upon the great virtues of the North Cascades Institute for fear that they will become so popular that every weekend will be booked and I won't be able to stay there again. However, it was such a wonderful and blissful week that I'm willing to take that risk.

We (Nicole, Jennifer, Mark, Lisa, Fran and I) arrived Sunday afternoon and were just in time for dinner. Well, that's not completely accurate, as Jennifer and Mark were late and were given free reign to pig out from the "light" fridge (which I bet was a lot lighter after they got their hands on it).

After breakfast at 8AM (meal times were my only complaint about NCI – I had to have a pre-breakfast snack each morning) and assembling a sandwich, we set out for the Rainy Pass trailhead after dropping a car at the Cutthroat Pass trailhead and stopping for some views at the Washington Pass Overlook.

I'll let the photo do the talking:

Liberty Bell from the WA Pass Overlook

From Rainy Pass on the PCT, we continued north to Granite Pass, then returned to the Cutthroat Trail and down to our cars. We had to hustle on the last couple of miles, as dinner-time was drawing near. Then we sped along Hwy 20 to pick up the other car, then headed back to NCI, dropping our packs outside the dining hall and grabbing plates on the way in.

Golden Horn and Tower Mt

Celebrating 25 Years in WA at Granite Pass

Totals for the hike: 13 miles, 2400' gain


I said goodbye to everyone after breakfast (they went on the Maple Pass hike), as I was taking a rest day after 3 days of hiking. I had a full schedule ahead of me: napping, shopping in the bookstore (bought a great wildflower book), wandering on the trails with my camera, reading by the lakeshore and more napping.

Here are some photos I took along the Diablo Lake Trail:

After dinner, which was the best of the week: salmon, curried carrot mash, roasted beets and blueberry pie for dessert, we joined the NCI trip to Ladder Creek Falls in Newhalem. Our guide and environmental educator, Josh, told us the history of the colored lighting they use at the falls. When trying to convince the city to build a dam for hydropower, JD Ross created a light show and piped in music to show the great powers of electricity. He got his wish of a dam (Ross Dam) and Seattle City Light moved into town permanently.
light on water at Ladder Creek Falls


We awoke to cloudy skies and, not sure what the weather had in store for us, we decided to stay low, hiking the Happy-Panther Trail along Ross Lake's Ruby Arm. The trail was lush with moss, ferns and salal and it was evident that not too many people hiked it, from how much moss there was creeping in from the side of the trail. We were able to hike it from point to point, with a car at either end. Along the way, we vowed to take groups of Mountaineers there so that the trail would be used more which would help to maintain it and keep the encroaching moss at bay, plus it would make people fall in love with the lowlands along the lake.
along the Happy-Panther Trail

a moss forest – where are the fairies?

In the afternoon, we once again joined Josh and other NCI Basecampers for a naturalist stroll up Thunder Creek. We learned about the 4 main varieties of ferns found in the national park and what exactly comprises an old growth forest. While standing on the bridge that spans the creek, a guy from PA was flyfishing and, as if on cue, caught a foot-long Rainbow Trout before our eyes.
he caught a trout!
 Totals for the day: 10 miles, 500' gain


The one trail that had come with extremely high recommendations was the Hidden Lake Lookout, accessed from the Cascade River Road outside of Marblemount. Nicole and I were on our own, as the others chose a hike of many miles at Ross Lake. As we climbed higher and higher, we hoped the clouds would burn off, but they did lend some drama to the photos. When we reached the lookout, however, the clouds pulled in tight leaving us with no view and a significant drop in temperature. On the way down, we hiked through a dark cloud, then emerged into the light of the valley and again sped toward "home" for dinner.

lookout is atop that peak

Hidden Lake
 Total: 9 miles, 3300' gain


Although we had planned a hike near Baker Lake, we were hesitant to leave that morning, as we had to say goodbye to our friends, our chef at NCI, our guide, our beautiful surroundings that had been our home for the past week. It was time to head toward home. But first, a hike at the Mt Baker NRA to the Scott Paul Trail where the Lupine were blooming and giving off a wonderful scent. If only my camera had a smell function!

Lupine smells wonderful!

fields of flowers and a moraine
What a wonderful week we all had! I highly recommend a stay at NCI, whether for one of their classes (I have taken a photography class) or for their Basecamp. But leave a space for me!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Prelude to the North Cascades Extravaganza

Friday morning, I packed up and left town. It sounds so simple when I say that, but it took days of preparation to get everything together. I was planning on car camping for 2 nights in Newhalem in the North Cascades National Park, then spending 5 nights and glorious days at the North Cascades Institute (NCI) with a small group of friends. It was still up in the air as to whether or not I would car camp near Baker Lake at the end of the week, but I needed to be prepared with supplies for that part, too.

The biggest consideration was, of course, the food. I had to have breakfast, lunch and dinner for the first couple of days and possibly the last day, but also the snacks for the entire week to keep me going on the trail and keep my blood sugar from plunging between meals which would be provided by NCI (which is one of the many reasons I love NCI).

I arrived at Newhalem in time to score a nice camp spot away from screaming children and, after setting up my tent, I had to deal with the oppressive heat. Unlike at home when I could just turn on a fan, I was not able to command the wind to blow. Even as I sat by the banks of the Skagit River, toes glancing the cold water, the breeze was intermittent at best. Then I heard nearby campers mention something about a swimming hole nearby and I set out on a mission to find it. I went on a walk up and down roads that were near creeks, I peered over bridges and bashed through some brush, but I only found marginal areas that either had too much current or too many obstacles to reach water.

There was a sub-group of Mountaineers staying at the group campsite across the highway and I decided to pay them a visit, hoping that they could offer a diversion from the heat or at least a cold beer. On the way to their site, I saw a faint trail leading into the woods and soon I stumbled upon what could only be termed as a "Queen's Bath". I was first introduced to the concept while traveling in Hawaii where, after snorkeling in the Captain Cook area, there was a freshwater pool fed by an underground spring which had been historically used for royalty to refresh themselves in its waters. I left my clothes on the banks and settled into the basin-like area of the creek, rinsing off sweat and cooling down my skin.

the view from Cascade Pass
When I returned to my campsite, it was still too hot out to do any cooking, so I nibbled on some nuts and was prepared to go to bed somewhat hungry and take my chances for the next day's hike. Just then, my neighbors came over with a plate of food that they had as leftovers. It was a chicken dish with gluten-free noodles and lots of vegetables. I thanked them profusely, then devoured the food, licking the paper plate. I felt ready to hike some miles the next day.

Siv arrives, surprised
we called this water, "Lake Louise"
My friend Bobbie joined me later that night and in the morning, we set out for the Cascade Pass trailhead, about an hour away. The plan was to get up to the Pass, then go on to Sahale Arm above it to wait for the Mountaineers group of friends who were coming up for the day. We made good time on the gentle grade to the Pass, then were sucked up by the scenery toward the Arm where we found a delightful and mysterious body of water, sized just right for dipping feet or head.

We spied the group below and I got the camera ready to capture each of them as they made their way to our new-found paradise. One member of the group, Siv, had been the inspiration for the duet of hikes for the weekend; her 2-year contract was coming to an end and she would be returning to her home in Denmark at the end of the month. The weekend hikes were a way for her to experience the very best areas of Washington State and for the rest of us to enjoy her company. Today was Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm and Sunday would be Trappers Peak and Thornton Lakes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

1989: Part One

The Tooth from Snow Lake
Here is the first installment in a novella-sized account of a year from my life. This is another post in celebration of my 25 years of living in Seattle.

Nineteen eighty nine. A big year, full of doing a lot of everything, screwing up at a few things, while trying to have fun, pushing myself to my physical limits.

I was 23, a young bull-headed woman, thinking I was strong and tough and indestructible. I was working as a claims processor at what was then King County Medical Blue Shield (that's a mouthful, no wonder they changed their name to Regence). The work was kind of dull, but it was a decent paycheck and had benefits, most important of those being health insurance. Even then, in my carefree youth, I knew the importance of having insurance. And, by the end of the year, that knowledge would really pay off.

At the end of the previous year, I had enrolled in the Mountaineers climbing class, to fulfill my dream of becoming a climber. Looking back, I'm not really sure what I had pictured for myself in terms of climbing, but I remember admiring the climbers I saw portrayed in the Patagonia catalog so much that I enrolled in the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School for their Desert Mountaineering 2-week course while still in college (Indiana University) in 1986. We climbed boulders and walls, all with top-rope belay. It was the desert in winter so it wasn't warm, but at least there was no snow to contend with.

My first climb with the Mountaineers was while I was still enrolled in the course, the first of three climbs to complete the requirements. The peak I had chosen was called The Tooth, a narrow-ridged summit visible from I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. The climb went well and I stood on the summit with my climbing partners, 3 guys whom I had never met before, feeling pretty good about myself. Then we started to descend and were traversing a steep slope without ropes, just depending on our boots and the snow giving way to them. It was early June and the snow was fairly soft, even runny in some places, like a slushie. I didn't have a care in the world, full of myself at that moment and so I wasn't tensed up when I slipped and started to slide down the angled slope. Part of the training we had received was in self-arrest with an ice axe and I immediately got into position to roll onto my stomach to stop myself by digging my axe in the snow. It's not clear to me whether it was my heavy pack that kept me from rolling over completely or the quality of the snow that wouldn't allow my axe to get a grip, but it was probably a combination of those two. I couldn't stop.

I was completely out of control, unable to even slow down and fearful as to what would happen next. The worst feeling was the anticipation of what was to come. My world started to spin and, though I didn't realize what was happening at the moment, it would become clear later that I was bouncing down a boulder field that had been exposed by the melting snow. I remember seeing gray, just gray, the gray color of the rocks and boulders. I realized what was going on and I was relieved to think about the helmet I was wearing, until I realized I had tied it to my pack and I was listening to the clanging sound it made, bouncing off the rocks. I seem to remember hitting the rocks twice, becoming airborne in between before I came to a stop, several hundred yards later.

I came to a stop, landing on my butt in a creek below the level of the snow. It was surreal and I was confused; perhaps I had also hit my head a few times and had a concussion. Three faces appeared above me and began to ask questions like, "can you feel your legs?", "can you move?". I looked up at them and replied, "I'm alive? I thought I was dead". There was silence. Later, one of them confessed that they all figured they would be finding my dead body, changing the trip from a climb to a rescue mission. After a few minutes, I was fully aware of what was going on around me and, once I realized I could move without pain, I worked to get up out of the creek and up to snow level. Walking out was slow, as I had become terrified of snow, since it had let me down. When we got to dry ground, I was too tired to bend down and kiss the earth as I had imagined. At the trailhead, I stopped to use the toilet and nearly got stuck on the seat as my muscles seized up once I sat down. Good thing for all that climbing training, as I used my chimney-climbing skills to get up and out the door.

To my climbing partners (to this day, I can't remember who they are), I looked fine, except for a cut on my right shoulder and left leg, the latter from my own ice axe that went flying as I was bouncing. They figured I didn't need to go to the emergency room and instead drove me home. Luckily, I had housemates and the moment one of them saw me, he knew something was wrong and we set off right away for the hospital. They took x-rays of every part of me and found nothing broken, but I still felt broken inside, as though I wasn't really alive, like I was in some type of limbo, my fate yet to be decided. Apparently, they had seen their share of climbers at the hospital and one of the nurses commented to me, "It just wasn't your time".

stay tuned for Part Two...

Monday, August 13, 2012

The New Trail that WTA Built

There are so many trail improvements here since I last hiked the West Fork of the Foss River, back in 2006. A big thanks goes out to WTA (and you, if you're a member)!

The most notable improvement is the lead-up to the bridge and the bridge itself. Solid, up high so it won't get washed away and beautiful. We enjoyed looking down at the water crashing beneath us.

Once past pretty Trout Lake, we got to work and ascended the hillside. It's been brushed out and drainage improved, though there's nothing to do about those pesky rocks.

After the heavy breathing and serious sweating, we crossed a creek to Copper Lake where the rock hopping was straight out of a fairy tale. The rocks were so large and flat and perfectly spaced, we could have waltzed on them (I did while no one was looking).

We continued on to Little Heart and made the trek to Big Heart, arguing about what peaks we were seeing in the distance. We all came to agree that it was Whitehorse on the left and Glacier on the right (leave a comment if you know differently). We had a ceremonious baptism in Big Heart, first time there for all of us and headed back down the trail.

At the trailhead, the USFS has placed a new sign saying Big Heart Lk is 7.5 miles one way. Our maps indicate 6.5. But I'm sure the government doesn't lie so that was one good 15-mile dayhike with 3,700 feet of gain.

arriving at Big Heart Lake
Trout Lake in the evening
If you would like to support the efforts of the WTA, consider sponsoring me in this month's Hike-a-Thon. I will be hiking the whole month and raising money for WTA to do their great work. The link for sponsorship is here. If you give $40 or more, you automatically become a member. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Six Lakes and a Creek

reflection in Tuscohatchie
On the hottest weekend of the year (so far), we dove into the Alpine Lake Wilderness for some solitude and refreshing adventure. At least we had an adventure!

My small group of 5 Mountaineers started at the Talapus/Olallie TH after placing a car at Denny Creek. We hiked past a tranquil Talapus, ostentatious Olallie and dropped down to pristine Pratt. After filling water, we continued to temperate (in more ways than one) Tuscohatchie which would be our camp for the night. I had visited there 2 years ago on a swimming expedition and at that time, it seemed to be an unknown lake, somehow kept secret by a slightly rough and sometimes overgrown trail from Pratt. But as the day grew longer, hikers started appearing and by evening, every flat spot was occupied with a tent.

In the morning, we climbed up toward melodramatic Melakwa Lake and went on to Upper Melakwa which is via a fairly easy trail and it surprised me that I hadn't been there before. There were a significant number of people at Melakwa, but no campers since they have now made it a day-use only lake (being loved to death, no doubt). I ventured uphill to the toilet which was new and provided a peek-a-boo view of the valley and peaks.
Upper Melakwa Lake

Then it was time to descend over rock fields, baking in the hot sun and down to water. We knew we were close to Denny Creek because we could hear... not the sound of rushing water... the cries of delighted children. It was a quick re-entry into civilization to see everyone playing at the waterslide creek but soon we joined in the fun, too. The previous high water that had made the creek difficult to cross has been replaced by children who scattered themselves all over and on the stepping stones so that making the crossing was more an issue of not trampling children.
children, a guy in a chair, everybody was there