This past week, Kevin arrived in Seattle for the last leg of his America trip. I couldn’t let him come all the way from Scotland without seeing a few mountains, so we had planned a four day trip into the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Avagdu‘s schedule had recently opened up, allowing him to come up from California to join us. I had planned a loop of about 47 miles around the ridges just southwest of Glacier Peak.
We arrived at the North Fork Sauk River trailhead late in the morning and, after quickly adjusting gear, hit the trail at 11:30 AM.
We quickly reached the junction with the Pilot Ridge trail, which heads south, cuts over the river, and begins to climb the ridge. Originally I had thought we would have to ford the river at this point, but there were a few logs laying across that allowed us to easily avoid getting wet.
On the other side of the river we adjusted packs a bit while Avagdu filtered water.
The trail up to Pilot Ridge gains about 3,000 feet in 2 miles. That qualifies as steep by most definitions. It’s times like that when all the physical training (particularly on Mailbox Peak) really pays off. I find that the easiest way to tackle a steep climb like that is to set a slow pace and keep on climbing with a minimal amount of rest stops – stopping and starting sucks a lot of energy. Kevin was able to keep up a pretty good pace for most of the steep part of the climb. Avagdu lagged behind a bit, but did much better than the last time we went on a hike. I wanted to keep both of them in sight, which meant extra work for me. I would walk with Kevin, then stop and stand around for a few minutes, waiting for Avagdu to catch up. After walking with Avagdu for a bit, I would cruise on ahead, catch up with Kevin, and walk with him for a time before stopping and waiting for Avagdu again.
Luckily the steepest section of switchbacks quickly led to a more gradual climb, so I didn’t have to maintain my inefficient pacing for too long. As the trail leveled off a bit, I would walk ahead and find the path so that the other two didn’t have to worry about navigating.
We hit our first small patches of snow at around 4,200 feet. Near 4,500 feet the patches became larger and began to obscure the trail. The snow slowed the pace of the others a little bit, which provided time for me to go ahead and find where the trail came out on the other side of the snow.
We came out of the trees at 5,100 feet and were greeted by views of Glacier Peak in the east, Sloan Peak in the west, and Mt. Rainer far away to the south. I could just make out the top of Mt. Baker sticking above the clouds in the north.
The snow fields became more constant at this point, so we donned gaiters before continuing further. When we did move on, the trail dropped a couple hundred feet down into the trees again for a short time before regaining the elevation and opening up to a beautiful alpine traverse of the ridge. At this point we were walking the wilderness boundary, with one foot in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness and the other in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
What was supposed to be open meadows filled with wildflowers atop the ridge turned out to still have significant snow fields on it. Many of these were too steep for us to safely walk directly across, so we would have to either go above or below them. Either way it was steep going.
When we would reach a large snow field, Kevin and Avagdu would wait on the trail while I went ahead and cruised above, below, or across it (or all three), searching for where the trail came out and the best route to the other side. It was nerve racking when we were unable to avoid the snow fields, as neither Kevin or Avagdu had much experience in that kind of mountain travel. I would go first and kick steps as they continued behind. I think it’s safe to say that they both now have more snow experience than the average recreational backpacker. They’re both well on their way to becoming certified mountain goats!
Our intended destination for the first day was Blue Lake. We had gotten a later start than I had planned and the steep climb mixed with snow had slowed our pace some. At 8:30 PM we were still about a mile and a half from the lake. There had been no running water since climbing the ridge, so all three of us were thirsty. As I climbed to the top of one snow field to scout out the route I noticed a few dry and flat spots at the top of the ridge. After glissading back down I put it to the others that we could continue to the lake, which at our pace and given the snow we wouldn’t reach till probably a little after dark, or we could spend a night on top the ridge. Water would be the issue on the ridge – it would take us some time and work to gather enough of the sparsely available wood to build a good fire and melt enough snow. They elected to spend the night on the ridge, which I thought was a good choice.
I had climbed back up and was waiting for the others when I heard a yell from behind. Turning around I saw a solitary fellow standing a couple hundred feet away. It was a surprise to see anyone else out here in this remote area – particularly since we were off the trail at this point – so I walked over to say hello. It turns out he was a local hunter who was up there to glass the slopes. He had his tent setup in a bare spot behind a clump of trees. When I told him our predicament he invited us to camp there with him. Kevin and Avagdu had made it up at this point, so we all introduced ourselves and prepared to make camp. When I mentioned that we were hoping to melt snow for water, the hunter said that just over on the other side of the ridge were a few small puddles of snow melt that he had used to fill his bottles. I left to go pump water for the three of us. With Avagdu’s Dromlite and my Platypus we had 8 liters, which was enough for that evening and the following morn.
When I returned Kevin and Avagdu had their tarps up and the hunter had a small fire going. I threw on a couple warmer layers of clothing and pitched my own shelter. Kevin quickly cooked a bit of dinner on his stove and went straight to bed. Avagdu and I stayed up a bit later eating dinner and chatting with the hunter. He knew the area pretty well and showed me on the map where I could find a few unmarked hunting trails. We also talked a bit about Kifaru packs and tarps, both of which he wanted for himself. He crawled into his tent to sleep and Avagdu and I retreated to our tarps soon thereafter.
I slept in a bit, waking around 7 AM to find Kevin and Avagdu both already awake and starting on breakfast. The hunter had been up early with his binoculars. He hadn’t seen much and was breaking his camp, preparing to head back down to the trailhead.
Temperatures that night probably dropped to a few degrees below freezing. I slept well in my cozy 20°F bag, but the others didn’t have so restful a night. Both had been cold, and the ground that Avagdu had pitched on turned out to have a slight angle so that he was slowly sliding off the mountain all night.
That morning there were clouds filling the valley on either side of the ridge. We were cut off from the world below, isolated in the mountains.
After breakfast we went down the slope to where we had left the trail the previous evening. As we did so the clouds moved in from the valley below, covering us in fog. I went ahead to scout out the route, but couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction. We were in a white out. It wasn’t safe to travel, so we stopped where we were and had a sit, waiting for the clouds to burn off.
The clouds did burn off in about an hour and we once again had blue, sunny skies. We continued on much as the last day, doing our best to avoid dangerous snow fields, which inevitably meant steep going, both up and down.
We were coming to the end of the ridge. As I scouted ahead I was able to see a good deal of our future route. It looked like we would be able to get to the lake without much trouble, but past that the snow got worse. I would have continued on if I was by myself, but I felt responsible for the others and didn’t feel comfortable leading them on into even more difficult terrain. When I returned to where they were resting I told them that the original plan was out. I proposed that we could continue to the lake and spend a night there before turning around, or spend another night at the camp from last night, or head back down to the north fork of the Sauk and spend a night or two down there. They decided to turn around and head back to the river.
Since we knew that the next stretch would be dry, we first stopped by last night’s camp and filled up our water containers with the snow melt.
After snacking a bit, we headed out once more to retrace our route from yesterday. It was now near noon.
Heading back across the ridge was easier going than the previous day. I knew the land now and could lead them across a more efficient route. Plus, we were rested, and, going down hill, there were lots of opportunities for quick and fun glissading. Soon we were back in the trees.
We stopped for lunch at about 4 PM before heading onto the steep switchbacks that lead down to the bottom of the valley.
We reached the river around 7PM. Both Avagdu and Kevin had wet feet from traversing the snow, so I had collected a bunch of firewood on the way down and strapped it to my pack. After crossing the river we pitched our tarps and I went to go pump another 8 liters of water for us. We all processed the wood I had brought down and quickly had a bright fire burning. That night we all went to bed an hour or so after dark.
The next morning I woke around 6 AM and peeked out of my tarp to see if anybody had the fire going. No one was up. I continued to sleep a bit and look out every 30 minutes, until 8 AM rolled around and finally I decided that I better get up. There weren’t enough hot coals left in the fire to blow it back to life, so I started it again with a cotton ball. The others came over soon after I had thrown a few pieces of wood on the blaze.
That day we didn’t have any plans. Late in the morning I jumped in the river to rinse off the previous two days worth of sweat and sunblock. I couldn’t convince Kevin to get in, but Avagdu braved the water for a few seconds before declaring it too cold.
I collected a bunch more wood for the evening’s fire. Avagdu and I spent a while splitting it all down till we had a nice pile.
That afternoon Kevin taught Avagdu how to weave a paracord bracelet while I used some of the nearby cedar to throw together a quick bow drill for the other guys to play with.
Kevin got close to getting a coal a couple times.
Avagdu struggled a bit more.
Another night, another fire. Kevin went to bed a bit after dark. Avagdu and I stayed up another half hour or so, till the fire was burned down to glowing coals.
We left camp the next morning and made it back to the trailhead at 10 AM. I was refreshed and ready to brave the cities for a few more days.
(More photos are on Flickr.)