Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paradise Glacier, Mount Rainier, September 24, 2009

Paradise Glacier Trail (MRNP), September 24, 2009

What a difference a few weeks can make!

A few weeks ago the Skyline Trail was bordered with wildflowers; today the trail was framed with fall color. While the colors are not yet at their peak they are off to a good start at higher elevations; the blueberry shrubs are turning crimson, the meadows range from gold to green and the air is spiced with the fragrance of fall.

At Paradise we took the Skyline Trail to the junction with the Paradise Glacier trail, passing junctions for the Fourth Creek Crossing and the Lakes Trail. Our pace was moderate; this wasn’t a hurry-up get-into-shape hike, but rather a meditative walk and exploration.

As we worked our way up Mazama Ridge I couldn’t help but think back to past overnight snowshoe trips with The Mountaineers and with my late ex-husband and our Boy Scout troop in the 1990s. I then realized it was the first time I’d been on Mazama Ridge without snowshoes! In the early1990s there were still enough of the ice caves left that you could venture inside them; now there are only remnants.

We’d encountered a few hikers on the Skyline Trail but once we were on the Paradise glacier trail we met only five; one, a friendly park ranger and two couples. The park ranger pointed out a small speck above the moraine (mountain goat!) – we would have missed it if not for the young ranger’s sharp eyes. We did not see or hear marmots or pikas.

The Paradise glacier trail is an interesting trek, beginning where meadows and moraines overlap. Early in the morning the view of Mount Rainier was sharp and clear; by afternoon the peak looked diaphanous, as if we were looking at it through sheets of tracing paper. Conditions change quickly – the sky went from clear to hazy in less than an hour.

Amazingly a few flowers were still holding on; a sole monkeyflower, a bit of arnica, even a bit of magenta Indian paintbrush below the moraine. The trail leaves the transitional zone and follows the contours of a moraine; the scene is austere, the beauty stern. When we reached the “end of maintained trail” we continued hiking on the trail following the track of the outflow from the Paradise glacier, the birthplace of the Paradise River.

At first glance the terrain appears devoid of life but there’s quite a bit of life on the moraine; it would take an expert to name the yellow-green cushions of moss and dark mahogany-colored sedges that cling to life here. Suffice it to say the colors are remarkable.

We met a young couple on a high point who pointed the way to a remnant of an ice cave at the edge of the glacier. They’d ventured inside – but only long enough for a photo near the entrance.

En route toward the “ice cave” we met the young ranger who warned of the dangers but said it would be OK to look in. He had crossed the glacier to look for mountain goats but admitted he was nervous about crossing (he could hear rushing water underneath the snow). He told us (but didn’t need to) that we shouldn’t cross on the snow or venture inside.

On our way we ran into the deteriorating remains of a once-bold sign warning of the dangers of entering ice caves. Though the ice caves are just about gone, it still remains as a warning to those unaware of the dangers of cave-ins and/or being swept away under the snow.

We found the remnant of an “ice cave”, I peeked in but the drip-drip-drip of the melting snow made me uneasy and I stayed only long enough for a photo or two. Here, I met a young couple also interested in peering inside (Silverback took a took a break as I explored); they, too, only peeked in long enough for a photo.

After lunch on the moraine we headed back the way we came, amazed anew at the vivid foliage at lower elevations, backlit by a low-slung sun.

It was early enough that we drove back to Seattle via the Stevens Canyon road rather than drive back the way we came. We stopped at Reflection Lakes but the fall color was nil as were the reflections. We also stopped at Sunbeam Creek (one of my favorite “little” photo stops), the bridge over Stevens Creek (site of a huge avalanche/blowout) and Box Canyon. We walked part of the little Box Canyon loop but it was too dark for photos.

By the time we were back on SR 410 heading west the sunset we’d hoped to catch en route had come and gone. Dusk descended so quickly we had to brake for elk standing right on SR 410 near the White River trail. We let them have the road and drove more slowly the rest of the way.

Red Pass via Commonwealth Basin, September 20, 2009

Red Pass via Commonwealth Basin (September 20, 2009)

This was a solo hike to Red Pass via the PCT and Commonwealth Basin. It was another warm September day, ideal for hiking. I got an early start and was pleased the PCT trailhead/parking lot had plenty of room to park. I filled out my Wilderness Permit and set out on the PCT, saving the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail for my return.

Big mistake; the PCT is longer and with additional elevation gain before the turn-off into Commonwealth Basin. It’s also much busier and I needed solitude. From the PCT I dropped down into Commonwealth Basin and picked up the trail toward Red Pass. The Commonwealth Basin trail is not in great shape; it isn’t maintained (except by occasional volunteers) and social trails wind throughout the basin. Of course, the plus side is that there are fewer hikers.

The trail climbs – steeply through the forest and with no breeze the heat was oppressive. It appears the trail has been damaged; it is much rockier than it used to be and many of the rocks are loose.

I broke out of the forest near Red Pond, saving Red Pond for another day. The trail contours below Red Mountain, climbing above Red Pond with growing views. This was a colorful stretch; the mountain ash is changing color and the sky a vivid blue. After contouring below Red Mountain the trail dips into the forest and follows a narrow ridge with views out to Mount Thompson and other peaks (bring the map to ID them).

The official trail “ends” at Red Pass where the old PCT once switchbacked down into the valley of the Middle Fork before the PCT was rerouted. Volunteers have made great progress in re-establishing this old trail (the Cascade Crest Trail); experienced hikers with route-finding abilities can explore beyond Red Pass if so inclined though the terrain looks steep.

Instead I continued on the climbers trail to Lundine Peak; here I met two young women picking huckleberry and blueberries (this is a good spot to pick them). The rough but discernible path leads to airy views of the Snoqualmie Peaks (my eye was continually drawn to Mount Thompson). I was a little too early for fall color; it should be at its best by mid-October.

After a lazy lunch and a peek at Lundine, I retraced my route and was soon back to Commonwealth Basin. I opted to hike the old Commonwealth Basin trail out, rather than the PCT (the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail is a remnant of the Cascade Crest Trail). The trail through the basin had a tough winter too – fortunately the crossings of Commonwealth Creek were manageable but the trail is overgrown in spots and social trails may confuse hikers who haven’t hiked this trail before.

The “old” trail reverts to an alder-lined road that grows narrower year by year. The “road” ends near the beginning of the PCT near the parking lot.

Stats: It’s about 7 miles round trip with 2,600 feet elevation gain via the “old” Commonwealth Basin trail to Red Pass. Add a bit more elevation if you go beyond Red Pass and onto the climbers trail.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vesper Peak, September 12, 2009

Headlee Pass, Vesper Peak (September 12, 2009)

This was the destination for the annual Unbirthday hike. While it didn’t fall on my birthday, we couldn’t have picked a better weather day for this strenuous undertaking. Incidentally, I am not telling how old I am except to say I’m a year older than I was last year and this trip was proof that, well, uh … I’m feeling older too.

Stats differ on this hike – ranging from 8 to 10 miles (trailhead to summit) with elevation gain ranging from 3,900 feet to 4,200 feet. That being said, let’s just say it was a tough trip and the only reason I made it to the summit was desire (it wasn’t stamina).

Each time I’ve been there, I say “never again”; however, the passage of time is deceptive. I forget how rough the trail is but remember the wild, desolate beauty of Wirtz Basin and the rocky bowl below Sperry and Vesper Peaks.

This year was tougher than usual. For starters, there no longer any user-friendly bridges (man-made or otherwise) on the trail – in late summer/early fall the crossings are tricky but manageable. The fat, user-friendly log that spanned the Stillaguamish crossing for years bit the dust a year and the rocks are slippery.

After crossing the Stillaguamish we faced the next challenge; steep, brushy switchbacks in direct sun and the rocks under our feet were slick from morning dew. Thankfully, someone (WTA?) had brushed out this stretch of the trail so we could at least SEE the trail, an improvement over some of my visits in the past.

The trail continues to climb and enters shady old growth forest – here, there are many splendid Alaska cedars. This is a good spot for a break before tackling the next stretch. The trail then drops into Wirtz Basin, a conglomerate of talus, blueberry shrubs, mountain ash and shrubby evergreens.

You won’t see Headlee Pass until you are almost directly below it but you will get great views of Morningstar Peak at the head of the valley and Sperry Peak (right). This year the trail through Wirtz Basin was easier to follow than I anticipated.

The rocky trail contoured below Sperry Peak (gorgeous views!) toward the head of the valley. Blocky talus alternated with snippets of forest, a few old growth trees still stand, having survived countless avalanches and winter storms.

Headlee Pass comes into a view, a narrow gully lined by cliffs. It looks just about impossible to climb until you are actually on it; the danger here is rock fall, of course. We were careful on the switchbacks, staying close together just in case one of us kicked a rock loose. Once a rock is kicked loose, there’s no stopping it on such a steep grade. At Headlee Pass (2,600 feet) we took a well-needed rest.

The “trail” between Headlee Pass and Lake Elan (also called Vesper Lake) crosses a talus field below Sperry Peak. As Vesper Peak came into view it was inspiring enough for a second wind.

When we got to the lake we took another break (much needed, at least by most of us). After the break some of my friends decided to hang out at the lake; the rest of us continued to Vesper.

We crossed the outlet stream (an easy rock hop) and followed discernible trail through heather and evergreens, many of the stunted. The trail has been beaten so deep into the ground that it’s more like a ditch than trail.

The combination of heat and age caught up with me below the fabled granite slabs. I had to sit down and rest; the GU packets on which I rely were not quite enough to keep me going. Alan remarked that I looked “terrible” and advised me not to continue but after a rest I felt better and was able to carry on (Alan insisted on carrying my pack part of the way). I didn’t argue with him.

Once we were on the slabs (following cairns and relying upon memory) I felt much better and insisted on carrying my pack. A “third wind” kicked in and it was easy going on the sticky granite. Take the time to enjoy the view on the way – Lake Elan below (often with ice still afloat) and Sperry Peak rising above.

There’s more than one correct way to get to the summit – cairns mark the most obvious route but once you have attained the ridge, the rest of the route is easy. From the summit ridge there are views of Spada Lake and an endless sea of ridges and peaks.

From Vesper you can look down to jade-green Copper Lake, one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the North Cascades. Above Copper Lake Big Four Mountain rises – and beyond, more peaks and ridges.

There was no summit register; instead there were flying insects (not mosquitoes) and whatever they were, they were annoying (but not annoying enough to drive us away). We lingered as long as we dared, not wanting to hike out in the dark.

On our way down we met a couple that were backpacking and spending the night on the summit. Further down we met a group of four who were also heading up to Vesper for the night. We envied them getting to spend a night on Vesper but did not envy the gear they were packing.

Usually a hike down is easier than climbing; not so on this trail. Only about ¼ mile of the trail is a real “trail”; the rest a rugged route of rocks, talus, slippery roots and more rocks. Descending Headlee Pass was trickier than climbing it; we took our time, glad that no one else was coming down above us as we descended.

By the time we left Wirtz Basin (a lot of pika activity here!) we were losing daylight and were glad we had headlamps. When we got to the crossing of the Stillaguamish it was getting dark; here, we met a young man and his son heading back. The father had sprained his ankle and their plans to camp in the basin were scrapped.

It was probably about 7 or shortly thereafter when we emerged from the darkening forest (the father and son were just behind us). Our companions had been waiting for about 45 minutes – we were glad they didn’t wait for us at the lake.

We were tired, ravenous and overjoyed to find the Timberline Café still open in Granite Falls.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lake Lillian, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, 9-10-09

Lake Lillian (Alpine Lakes Wilderness), September 10, 2009

This was Florida Bob’s last week to hike in the Pacific Northwest before heading back to Florida for the winter. After Tuesday’s hike to Iron Peak, we were able to send him off with one more spectacular hike before the end of an idyllic summer. We met up with friends Jim and Maxine for this “Farewell to Bob” hike.

We took the heralded “short cut” from an alder-lined forest service road. We managed to get to the end of the road in a passenger car but just barely – the road is deeply rutted and full of potholes. The trail is not “signed”, rather it is an unofficial but well-used short, steep route to Lake Lillian and provides access to Rampart Ridge.

Once again the weather was ideal – sunny and cool in the morning (ideal for the first stretch of the hike). The trail starts off climbing steeply, VERY steeply. Most hikers would want trekking poles on some of the steeper stretches – I don’t hike with poles and on the way down took a couple of pratfalls (no injuries other than pride). There are also several good vine-maple vegetable belays on some of the steep stretches.

Soon we were at the shoreline of Lillian and it was beautiful. The water was still, reflections of the surrounding ridges danced on the water. Most of the vegetation was still green with the exception of hellebore (ragged and yellowing). As for flowers only pearly everlasting was prevalent, a few other flowers still in bloom – asters, fireweed (on its last legs) and an occasional monkey flower.

We continued on the “path” counterclockwise partway around the lake to continue the climb on a steep path to the ridgeline. Views of Mount Rainier and the lake below were mesmerizing though it was hazy enough that getting a decent photo of Mount Rainier wasn’t even worth the attempt.

After a climb of about 1,500 feet we stopped at the ridgeline for a break; though we would have liked to have gone further into the “Ramparts” we ended our hike there – I have a strenuous hike coming up on Saturday and didn’t want to work too hard and Maxine’s foot was just beginning to bother her. We dawdled, left our packs and ventured a little further along the trail to the “first” tarn before calling it a day and retracing our route.

On our way down we met two hikers, two bow and arrow hunters and a couple of berry pickers. Everyone we met was friendly and we enjoyed the variety of folks we encountered. It’s good there are places like these that are inaccessible enough that they don’t get overly crowded and still remote enough that when you do encounter someone you’re happy to see them.

We stopped at Jim and Maxine’s for a cup of tea before driving back to Seattle.

Farewell, Florida Bob – come back soon. Don’t forget the M&Ms.

Iron Peak, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, September 8, 2009

Iron Peak (Teanaway, Alpine Lakes Wilderness) September 8, 2009

Iron Peak is one of my all-time favorite hikes. It’s only about 7 miles round trip to the Iron Peak saddle (8 miles round trip to the summit).

The trail is in excellent condition and with views the entire way. We only encountered two people (mid-week); bow and arrow hunters on horseback. The flowers are just about gone but the views are as outstanding as ever.

The trail is partially in the forest – alas, so much of the forest has been devastated by infestations of pine bark beetles. Trees that were once green are now mahogany-colored – the beetles mostly seem to be attacking white pines and lodge pole pine in this region. Fire resistant Douglas firs seem able to resist the onslaught, at least along the lower to middle elevations of this trail.

It was a perfect day for hiking – sunny, warm and clear. We stopped at the “pass”, marveling at the array of colors in the rocks. From the pass we continued another half mile or so to the summit where the views of Mount Stuart and Mount Rainier are startlingly clear.

Here Florida Bob and Silverback signed their first summit registers. The summit register was pretty full; this is a popular and accessible summit. I was glad the register was there for them to sign – I remember what a thrill it was to sign a summit register the first time.

We lingered as long as we could, snacking, lazing and admiring the beauty surrounding us. Between the pass and the summit we saw bluebirds, ladybugs, lichen-splattered rocks, remnants of summer flowers, endemic ferns still blooming in the golden rocks along the summit ridge.

It had been a perfect, golden day.

Approach: Teanaway River Road (Road No. 9737), Iron Peak trailhead (just short of the Esmerelda/Ingalls Lake parking lot at the end of the road).

Stats: About 8 miles round trip, 2,700 feet gain – map (Green Trails No. 209, Mount Stuart).

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Guye Peak, September 4, 2009

This is one of my favorite "hikes" in the Snoqualmie Pass region. I'll post a more detailed report later but suffice it to say that Mtn Dog and I missed the impending bad weather by about 10 minutes.

The "hiking" approach to Guye Peak starts at Alpental (if you get to the Snow Lake trailhead you've gone too far). The unheralded trail starts off heading in a beeline toward Guye across from the parking lot and doesn't waste a lot of time getting there.

About 1/3 of the way the trail "splits" - continue straight ahead for Snoqualmie Peak, turn "right" for Guye, follow a few cairns and obvious tread. The terrain is a mix of trail, scramble route (Class 2) and vegetation. Lots of blueberries and huckleberries gave us an excuse to stop and catch our breath.

We started out in feeble sunlight and by the time we reached the peak we could see the weather coming in. The skies were sullen but the view down to I-90 and Snoqualmie Pass is dizzying. You can also see the PCT, Red Mountain, Rampart Ridge and other Snoqualmie peaks from the summit. Fall color is just starting to pick up.

We made good time - 2 hours up, a little over 1-1/2 hours down including time for snacks and photography. The trail is steep and a few stretches are slippery - rain will make this trail worse than it already is.