Sunday, October 19, 2014

Perfect Hike for Late Summer: Spider Gap to Lyman Lakes

It was the middle of September, and I was looking for a hike I could do where I could feasibly meet a friend who would be hiking in from the north near Lake Chelan. I studied a map of Glacier Peak Wilderness, and saw a halfway point: Spider Gap. I had heard of the hike, and a quick internet search confirmed that it would be beautiful. 

I set out early Saturday morning, heading east over Steven's Pass. Just getting to the trailhead was epic, as it's 10 miles down a small paved road, 10 miles on a rough dirt road, then 2 last miles on really really rough dirt road. Just the parking lot felt like I was way back there.

I hiked the relatively flat 5.5 miles toward Spider Meadows. After miles in a forest river valley, the trail opens up into a huge meadow, with campsites, stock camps, river access, and mountains all around. If you are ever looking for a backpacking trip with some one who is new to backpacking, go here!
After crossing through the meadows, the trail starts to climb again. You can hang a right toward Phelps Basin, or left toward the gap. I continued left up steep switchbacks, with a view back down to Spider Meadows below.
Then you hit Spider Glacier. It's a steady but moderate hike up this last bit to the gap, at 9 or 10 miles in.
From the gap you can look north over to the other side, into the Lyman Lakes basin.
We were planning to camp near Upper Lyman Lake, so I headed down that way another mile or so. There was my friend to meet me!
Glacial melt Upper Lyman
We found a stunning campsite near a tarn, looking back up toward the Gap in one direction...
...and down to Lyman Lake in the other.
We drank an Icicle Creek beer by the lakeside and treated water before it was time to make dinner.
It was the perfect time of year to go, on the cusp of the seasons. Hot sun and mild evenings, but with the colors starting to turn. This was hands-down one of my favorite backpacking trips this year.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Climbing Mount Rainier

I distinctly remember the moment in college, at my friend Alice's house in Bellingham, when she mentioned a friend of hers climbing Mount Rainier. Wait, people my age do that? I thought. It struck me that someday, somehow, I too might be able to summit Washington's highest peak.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and thanks to the Basic Climbing Class I took this spring, I finally had the skills I needed to join a rope team and make a summit bid via the Emmons glacier route. This was Part 2 of my summer vacation in August, after a week-long backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.

There were five of us on the rope team: two other students from my climbing class this spring, one volunteer instructor, and another more experienced instructor, Peter, who would be our team leader. Peter suggested doing the climb with an extra day so that we had a night to sleep at a higher elevation and let our bodies acclimatize before summiting. This schedule increases chances of success, and of his seven times attempting Mount Rainier, he and his team had safely summited every time.

We left Seattle Friday morning to drive to White River Campground on the north side of the mountain, stopping at the ranger station to register our climb and talk to the ranger. A message board confirmed what we already knew: with the warm summer weather the bergschrund was ever-widening and that the route was moving more and more to the right as the crack opened up.
Map from mattsea.com
We hiked along the White River, through the woods, until the trail opened up to exposed scree at the bottom of Interglacier. We put on gaiters and crampons, and traded trekking poles for an ice ax, and made our way up Interglacier.
Looking up to Interglacier
We set up camp at about 8,300 feet on the glacier and made dinner, melted snow, and sipped tea while a beautiful sunset glowed over Western Washington.
Northwest sunset view from Interglacier camp
On Saturday we had a fairly lazy morning out of camp. We slept in a little, ate breakfast, and packed up. We continued up Interglacier, the boys with their skis, hoping to get a few runs in that day.
A break at Camp Curtis while the boys get a few turns in
Crossing from Interglacier onto the Emmons glacier takes you up over the rocky ridge of Camp Curtis. I will never forget the stunning sight of the Emmons glacier as I crested the hill and looked down. Between my limited glacier experience and how open the crevasses were that time of year, it was striking.
Numerous crevasses on lower part of Emmons
We made the short traverse on a little section of Emmons before arriving at Camp Schurman, the climbers base camp at 9,400 feet. I will never forget the surreal experience of arriving there- being roped up on a glacier, yet walking up to a cute hut in the warm sunshine with Reggae music blasting, pink flamingos, and shirtless rangers fixing something on the roof. It felt downright tropical and festive, like we had stumbled upon a secret party in the middle of nowhere.
Camp Schurman ranger station
View of Emmons glacier from the ranger station
We set up camp on the exposed dirt and set to work melting snow and organizing gear. Then we all sat together sipping tea and snacking, and looking up at the imposing glacier glinting in the bright sun. It was time for our team chat about the climbing plan.
Our view from Camp Schurman
Peter squinted into the sun. "The dangers are..." I thought he was going to say 'falling into a crevasse' or 'fatigue', but he finished his sentence with, "numerous." We laughed, but we knew it was an important talk to have. He talked about taking things slow and steady, and what we would do if a teammate couldn't summit. We were feeling hopeful though- it was clear, dry weather and we had talked to other climbers who descended that day who said the route looked good. We planned to wake up at 11pm and leave camp around midnight.

The Emmons glacier has the largest surface area of any glacier in the contiguous United States. It is the second most popular climbing route on Mount Rainier after the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) route. It's also longer, with a lower base camp, and far more crevassed.

It was a little before 7pm and all of Camp Schurman was quiet. I was just about to fall asleep when a party arrived, and set up camp right next to us. Literally about 10 feet away. They had to put up tents, melt water, make dinner, and prep for the climb... which means I laid there able to hear their every word for the next two hours. It was a big bummer as my already short night of sleep got cut down to less than two hours.

Nonetheless, our team was up and moving as planned. I'm very glad I had the experience of climbing Mount Baker earlier in the summer, because it was good preparation for what to expect. I knew what I would feel like waking up before midnight, and leaving in the dark. I knew what it was like to hike with a headlamp and how much to layer up.

It was a day before the August super moon, and the moonlight reflected brightly on the snow. As we began tromping upward, what stands out the most in my memory was the gaping, wild cracks of the crevasses, heart-wrenchingly beautiful and ominous in the moonlight. I have simply never seen anything like that and not sure I will again.
We kept a slow and steady pace as we ascended. Peter made us take regular breaks to sit, eat, and drink. We were about 1,500 feet below the summit when the sun peeked over the horizon.
That last section was a challenge for all of us. The air was noticeably thinner, and we were all breathing hard. I felt slightly nauseous and didn't feel like eating, but Peter urged me to eat something.
Ascending the last bit
Finally we arrived on the glorious summit at 14, 411 feet. We were the only ones there. We stood on the little summit bump, and looked all around Washington state to the surrounding mountains, foothills, waterways, and cities below.
Looking across the crater, and the tracks for the DC route
One of my rope-team mates brought a beer!
I loved hanging out on the summit. We had some time to ourselves before a wave of other parties arrived, both from the Emmons route and from across the crater from the DC route.

By the time we started heading down it was gloriously and worrisomely hot. We again took it slow and steady as we made our way down the steep and melty mountain. We were extra careful crossing snow bridges, especially the ones that had seemed dubious in the middle of the night.
The bergschrund. Photo by Peter H.
Rest break
Last steps before returning to Camp Schurman 
We made it back to Camp Schurman in good shape, if a bit tired. We ate, hydrated, and took short naps in the tent. That was the most glorious half hour I've slept in years. I woke up feeling energized, and ready for the last leg of the journey-- back to the car. We packed up and left camp by around 4pm.
The team leaving Camp Schurman
Last leg of the descent, hiking into the river valley
We made it back to the car just as it was getting dark. We stopped for fish n' chips and made the long drive back to Seattle. I had been up for over 24 hours straight, and in that time climbed the mountain and then descended about 10,000 vertical feet. It was quite the day. 

I felt full with the beauty of the mountain, and overwhelmed with being on sunny snow for so long. It was a full-time job just to stay adequately fed and hydrated. I'm so happy I had the chance to climb this wild mountain that looms over Seattle and punctuates the skyline on most days. We had a really fun and safe climb, with big thanks to Peter and my other three teammates.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Week on the Pacific Crest Trail

I had a feeling that if anything was to go terribly wrong, it would be the smallest, silliest misstep. I was going to backpack by myself for 100 miles, and I was far more worried about twisting an ankle than getting mauled by a bear or coming across guys with guns.

I was also worried about snow covering the trail, as it was still a little early (end of July-early August) for this section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north of Stevens Pass. I knew there was some snow to some extent above 5,000 feet, but it was impossible to know exactly what that would look like until I was there.
A big thanks to my dear friend Max who drove me to Stevens Pass bright and early before his work day. I sat at the trailhead eating breakfast feeling a little apprehensive. I had never backpacked more than a night by myself. I was really excited but didn't quite know what to expect. 

The plan was to follow the PCT north, walk along the western flank of Glacier Peak, around to the north near the Suiattle River, and then meet a friend at Cloudy Pass before hiking out at Lake Chelan.
Glacier Peak from the south
I was signing the trail register when I noticed a man sitting in the shade, with a solar charger in the sun. He had long grey hair under a cap, and dark hiking clothes, and for some reason made me think of a trucker. Yet, upon closer inspection, I noticed his hot pink nail polish, hot pink USB cable, and pink flip flops dangling from his backpack.

We started chatting, and I discovered that he had started the PCT at the Mexico border in April, and had done most of the trail, with a couple gaps here and there. He had a tall, wooden walking stick that he had made in the seventh grade, with grip tape wrapped in- you guessed it- hot pink. He was taking advantage of the access to data at the pass to watch YouTube videos. I started hiking, knowing he would probably pass me soon.

The first day was HOT. And my pack was heavy. I established a routine that day of an afternoon break at either a lake or river, to soak my tired feet in cold water. That night I camped on Grizzly Peak, where there was one campsite at the high point. I made dinner, though the mosquitoes were so bad that I couldn't sit still to eat it. I ate pacing back and forth on the trail as the sun went down.
The second day sent me down low into a river valley. I passed two separate south-bound through-hikers, and a father and son hiking a small section.

I stopped at Pear Lake to filter water, and had the worst mosquito experience of my life. The cloud of mosquitoes at the lake was so thick it looked like a plague. I put on a long sleeve shirt and bug net to pump, and still got eaten alive.

In the afternoon, Big Stick caught up to me. It was great to have company and we climbed back up a couple thousand feet onto an exposed ridge trail and toward Lake Sally Ann. It was another sweltering day, and all I had wanted all day was to swim in the lake. When we arrived it was early evening, and there was still sun on the water. But the lake was about half frozen so there was ice as well!
Campsite on Lake Sally Ann
There was a nice spot at the edge of the lake with good access, and I hung out by on the rocks with Big Stick and two older Canadian couples backpacking together who were hiking the whole length of the Washington PCT in sections over two summers. People were chatting convivially, soaking feet, rinsing socks, pumping water, and debating an icy swim.

I decided to jump in, and the two Canadian guys followed. It would be one of my favorite evenings of the trip, with a friend to eat dinner with, warm evening air, sweeping views, and a stunning lingering sunset.

The third day was when the trail started getting seriously beautiful. I was already up fairly high, around 5,000 feet, and the trail stayed high on a ridge traverse all day. Even though I haven't been to the Alps, that's what I kept thinking of, with the rolling expanses of alpine meadows and big peaks in the background.

I passed a Forest Service/Washington Trails Association trail crew, a Boy Scout troop, a handful of weekend hikers, and a woman who is a photographer and writer for the Mountaineers. I also got a striking view of the Chiwaukum Creek area forest fire smoke.
I had never heard the term Pyrocumulus cloud, but that's what it was- a huge cloud formed from the heat of the fire. It can also happen with volcanic activity. At one point climbing up toward Red Pass, I just stood and stared at the plume along with the writer lady. She said it reminded her of seeing Mount Saint Helens erupt in 1980.

We parted ways and I finished the climb up to Red Pass at 6,300 feet. I crossed from the south-facing ascent to a north-facing descent, hitting patches of snow on the trail and getting a new view of the smoke as I started dropping into the White Chuck Cinder Cone valley.
It was about that point that I realized how sunburned I was, especially the back of my legs. The first couple days had been mostly in the shade, but the beautiful ridge traverse of today meant a full day of blazing sun.

I descended a few thousand feet that evening to the Baekos River. There were a handful of great campsites, but I was the only one there. It was time for some self-care- I soaked my burning legs in the icy river, tended to blisters, and made myself drink a ton of water. I kept expecting more hikers to show up or at least hike by. But it was eerily quiet. Little did I know that I would go two more days without seeing another human.

On Day 4 the trail and the hike completely changed. 

It went from maintained and well-trodden to rugged and solitary. First of all, there were a lot of creek crossings. These were either crossable on logs or rocks, or if that wasn't possible, I would have to change into sandals to walk through the water.
There were also bridges, but some of the bridges were in rough shape, damaged or completely washed out from earlier avalanches and fast, rushing melt out.
Uh, is this safe to cross?
This bridge has clearly seen better days
Also slowing me down was the endless fallen logs and debris on the trail.
It was always a question of whether to go over or under the log.
Sometimes neither were possible.
I think the trail is in there somewhere...
Log and branch obstacle course
Brushy trail through thimbleberries
It got harder to cover my daily mileage because I was constantly crossing creeks, climbing over logs, and bushwhacking. Oh, the fourth day was also the day I came across the snow. At that point, since I had seen little more than patches of snow here and there, I had stopped worrying about it. But as I climbed up toward Fire Creek Pass at 6,400 feet, I was hitting way more snow than I had seen so far, and kept losing the trail.
It was a beautiful view from up there, and the sun shone warmly. But it was nearly 5pm and I still had five miles I wanted to cover. And the descent dropped steeply before flattening out above Mica Lake. I looked at where I needed to go with trepidation. What would have normally been a switchback trail on a steep slope was covered in snow. The snow wasn't soft enough to plunge step, yet the very top layer was melty enough on top of the hard snow that it was really slippery.

Should I even attempt this? I wondered. I stood staring between my map and the landscape I could see. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I would have liked to have an ice ax and crampons. But I certainly hadn't wanted to carry those things if I didn't need them- and why was this section so much worse than other passes of the same elevation? Red Pass had been no big deal at all.

For the record, descents are much scarier for me than ascents. I didn't grow up skiing or snowboarding, so steep snow is still fairly unfamiliar. Plus, the situation was compounded by being alone. I wanted to be very conservative in my decision-making, considering I was so far out with so few people passing by. This is not the place to break a leg, I told myself sternly.

In a patch of bare dirt before the descent, I could see the words "Big Stick :)" etched. On the snow, I could also see the fat indentation of his walking stick, a distinct quarter-size impression that was different from the tiny dot of trekking poles.

I felt comforted knowing that he had gone down this way in tennis shoes and a wooden stick. I also felt comforted knowing I had some mountaineering skills under my belt from the basic mountaineering class I took this spring. Honestly, if I hadn't taken that class, I would have seriously considered not continuing. 

Instead, I took the snow basket off one of my trekking poles and shortened it, getting ready to use it like an ice ax. I put away the other pole, tightened my pack, and began crossing the steep snow toward the exposed trail, kicking steps. It was tiring. I self-belayed with the pole, and hacked into the hillside with the toe of my boot on step at a time. I was just five feet from reaching the bare trail when I slipped. I started sliding but quickly self-arrested with my pole. From there since I was already below the trail, I just continued down the basin on the snow. It was slow-going as I was very cautious. Finally I got to where I could see Mica Lake, but I wasn't positive where the trail went. 
Looking back to what I descended on Fire Creek Pass
I was getting pretty tired, and briefly considered just camping on the snow and continuing in the morning. But I realized the snow would be harder in the morning. Plus, I was meeting a friend on Cloudy Pass in a couple days, and I couldn't just forgo those last five miles of the day, as it would be really hard to cover the extra miles later. 

I pressed on, walking to overlooks to scout out the route, and reconsulting my map. One section I ended up down-climbing the rock because that seemed safer than the snow. One part by the lake I followed a trail that ended up dead-ending at a campsite. 

I finally made it below the lake and the trail was snow-free. By that time it was around 7:30pm and I had covered probably 3/4 of a mile since the pass. I was so relieved to be able to walk on a trail though. I descended on the steep hillside on endless switchbacks down toward the next river. 

There were more gnat-like bugs in the air than I have ever experienced anywhere. I ate about 10 and probably 15 flew into my eyeball before I finally pulled out my mosquito net to protect my face. Now I was cruising! It was just getting dark, so I pulled out my headlamp and walked as fast as I could.

I skidded to a halt as my headlamp illuminated a hole gouged in the middle of the trail. Like, there was no trail, just the remnants of a landslide and rocky scree that dropped off to 40 feet below. The section of missing trail was probably eight feet wide- impossible to step or jump across. I stared at the empty space in disbelief. 

This wasn't fair! A rough trail is one thing... but no trail at all? I backed up, and climbed up into the brush and small trees above the trail. It was incredibly steep, and my heart was pounding as I crossed uphill of the hole, holding tightly to saplings and shrubs in a "veggie belay" method.

I finally set up camp around 10pm and was too tired to even eat dinner. I had a couple piece of beef jerky and crawled into bed.

Day 5 took me back up and out of the that river valley. There were patches of snow, but nothing like the day before.
It was another hot, sunny day, and I got gorgeous view of the glaciers on Glacier Peak.
Late that afternoon, as I descended into the Suiattle River valley, I stopped on a log to have a snack. After two days of expecting to see someone, I was completely started when a man came around the bend.

He was a south-bound through-hiker from Kentucky named Cowgirl. We were both happy to have some company. He joined me on the log, and we chatted and rested and swapped trail info. Because the south-bounders start from Canada and it's still a bit early-season, they expect snow in a way the north-bounders don't. He had an ice ax and I gave him a heads-up about Fire Creek. 

I asked him about the upcoming trail junction- there was an old PCT trail that crossed the Suiattle sooner, but it was questionable how defined the old trail was, and how safe the old crossing. The new trail added five miles, but went across the new and huge Suiattle bridge. He had actually taken the old route, but he said that even with GPS it had been pretty hard to find. 

While we were sitting there, thunder rolled a couple times. I did notice that it seemed darker than usual for that time of day, but I thought nothing of it. I wanted to hang out longer, happy to have a friend, but we both wanted to cover a few more miles that evening. I had about three more miles to the river. So we said farewell and I bounded on.

No more than five minutes after leaving Cowgirl, something hit me on the head. Ouch! I thought, thinking something had fallen out of a tree. Then in an instant of thunder and a whooshing noise, I realized I was getting pelted by large hailstones. I was so shocked at this sudden change from the hot, dry weather that I didn't know what to do. I had barely even seen hail this big in western Washington. The hail turned to sheets of rain as lightning lit the trees. Should I set up my tent now and take shelter from the storm? I wondered. 

But again, I really wanted to cover my miles so that I didn't get behind schedule. I quickly stopped to weather-proof my pack. I stuffed my sleeping bag into a dry bag, put everything on the outside of my pack inside, put my iPod and camera in a ziplock, and threw on my pack cover. Then I pressed on.

I was pretty wet, but it wasn't too cold as long as I was moving. The rain retreated to a drizzle, then a sprinkle. I was now on the new section of PCT that had just been built along with the new bridge. It was completely flat, wide, and free of fallen logs. I could walk blissfully fast and unimpeded. Old growth cedar and hemlock rose up around me like titans, wrapped in the post-storm mist and glowing with the grey-silver of the sky. It was probably my favorite hiking experience of the whole trip. The only other place I had seen this much old-growth in a river valley in Washington was on the Hoh River trail in the Olympics. It was stunningly timeless and beautiful, and I felt supremely happy to be there, even alone and soaking wet.

The next day was my last day alone. I left the Suiattle River and started the steady ascent up toward Suiattle Pass. I passed a large group in an adult Outward Bound mountaineering class, as well as young south-bound French couple who planning to make it all the way to Mount Whitney. 

There were breaks of sun in the cloudy sky, but in the afternoon I heard thunder again. This time, I wouldn't be caught unprepared. I again battened down the hatches on my pack and put away my electronics. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, the downpour and lightning started. By the time I got to my trail junction, it had stopped. Right before Suiattle Pass, I exited the PCT and headed toward Cloudy Pass.
Leaving Suiattle Pass, crossing scree field to get to Cloudy Pass
And there was my friend waiting for me, just as we had planned. It was so surreal to hike for nearly a week, then one day just come across a friend on a pass in Glacier Peak Wilderness. We had planned to camp there, but with the lightning storm decided to get off the pass and head to Lyman Lake about a mile down below.
View of Lyman Lake from Cloudy Pass
We set up camp, then went to hang by the lake. He had brought two beers, which were chilling in the water. It was so nice to be with a familiar face, sip a beer, and just be able to sit and enjoy that beautiful alpine lake. What wasn't so awesome though was the number of mosquitoes. The temperature was mild, not cold but not warm, but I had to completely cover up. Even though it wasn't hot out, I couldn't resist taking a swim in lake.
Enjoying a beer with maximum mosquito protection
The next day we hiked out, covering about a dozen more miles. It was sunny again, as we passed waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and more lakes.
I had had a fabulous week, and was really proud to have done it mostly on my own. I had made it without any catastrophe, and felt good about my decision-making, from packing to route-finding.

I caught a ride back to Seattle from Chelan, and started getting ready for Phase 2 of my summer vacation- climbing Mount Rainier! To be continued...