Monday, September 2, 2013

High Adventure Along the I-90 Corridor

Just when I thought I had hiked nearly all the trails, swam in nearly every lake and summited every easy peak along the I-90 corridor east of Seattle, I found myself in uncharted territory, adjacent to a very popular trailhead. The Ira Spring trailhead is easy access from I-90 that leads to Bandera Mountain and Mason Lake, the most popular and easiest destination among the many there. If you keep going past Mason, you can either go east to a string of lakes, or west to Mt Defiance. But, what most people don't realize, is that the trail from Mason continues west past Mt Defiance for quite a while, to a lake sitting on the edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Thompson Lake. As an alpine lake swimmer, I first set my sights on Thompson years ago and started asking my hiking friends about it. No one had been there and we assumed that the trail was impassible, imagining a pile of trees stacked up like matchsticks that blocked travel.
view of Rainier and Adams from near Defiance

Over the years, I found trip reports from various sources that indicated that the trail was passable, that people, though not many, did go to Thompson and that the lake was unspoiled and beautiful, very worthy of a swim. A couple of years earlier, I snowshoed up the Granite Creek trail to Granite Lakes, which had a sign pointing to Thompson Lake in another direction. It was at that time that I became aware that there were two routes to Thompson, both about 7 miles long and both with a good deal of elevation gain.
meadows on the descent to Thompson

I knew I wanted to see all of the trail and not just hike out and return the same way, so I planned for a one-way trip. In the past, car shuttles were de rigeur for this type of trip, but I decided to amp up the adventure and set it up as a Key Exchange. One group, led by Rich, would start at the Granite Creek trailhead on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Road and the other, my group, would start at Ira Spring, off I-90 at Exit 45. When we met up on the trail, presumably at the mid-point, we would exchange keys and then drive each others cars back to the meeting area in Issaquah.
Glacier Peak in the distance

The two groups of 3 hikers started out at about 8:15AM from our respective trailheads. Keeping a good pace and minimizing breaks was key to a long day on the trail and so our stops were brief, but long enough to grab a snack, drink water or pee. The rewards of hiking an obscure trail were realized just past Mt Defiance, where the blueberries were out in abundance; it seemed that no humans, nor bears had touched this area. Descending down the ridge, the berries became fatter, juicier and sweeter, but still no sign of any mammals, big or small. Never mind the food we had brought along in our packs; we were stuffing ourselves on sweet, sweet berries.

We soon reached a meadow with views of Glacier to the north which seemed such an unusual sight, as it was far to the north and further east. It was then that I realized I was in uncharted territory and it was a wonderful feeling to think that after so many years of exploring, there was still more to do. Even more was the feeling that I wasn't sure of what lay ahead and if we would be able to successfully complete the trip, or have to turn back, retreating with our tails between our legs due to an obstruction or losing the trail.
a great swim was had here!

When we were starting our descent to Thompson Lake, we heard the familiar voices of our friends and reunited, exchanged keys and lunched together, then we headed down to take a celebratory swim. Each group was able to report off to the other about the conditions we would be facing in our respective directions, better than any trip report that a database or web search could have supplied.
Granite Creek