I ventured into Gothic Basin today, an impressive glacier carved wilderness of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It lies near what was once a mining area.
The way to the basin begins on the old, fenced-off road into the ghost town of Monte Cristo. This bit of trail is littered with signs warning of extreme danger, proceed at your own risk, hazardous materials such as aresenic in the soil, balrogs, and other such frivolities. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: the trail was wide, level, and well-maintained.
About 1.5 miles down the road, there used to be a bridge crossing over the Sauk River, but, some time ago, the river apparently found itself unable to suffer such indignities and washed the bridge away. At this point, my path branched off and began to climb its way to the basin along trail and old mining paths. The total elevation gain along this section is about 3,000 feet spread out over a good 4 miles or so, making it a steady, but leisurely climb – just enough to warm one’s self up on a crisp Autumn day.
There are a number of small waterfalls that deposit their loads on the west side of the trail, allowing to the water to trickle across the path and make its way down to join the river. Earlier in the year I imagine that these crossings could be tricky, but the headwaters had frozen up by now, leaving these mostly dry. I’ve heard that one of these such falls has been wittingly dubbed “King Kong’s Showerbath,” though I saw nothing worthy of the name.
Some of the crossings higher up had not dried completely, but instead froze while crossing the trail, leaving ice covered rocks in my way. These rocks required some scrambling up, over and around, which was made interesting by the slippery ice. (I reminded myself that last Saturday’s body recovery had occurred only 20 miles east of here.)
Near the top, I stopped to munch on some granola, raisins, and dried banana slices. I did not don any further clothing upon stopping, however, and my break was thus cut short by the chill and the desire to warm up again. After resuming my walk, I pushed on over bare rock and soon thereafter found myself at a small tarn that marked the entrance to Gothic Basin.
The basin is one of the more spectacular places that I have yet found myself in. In character it bears a striking resemblance to a Gothic cathedral, but larger and grander in scope, being carved out of the mountains over centuries by the minute movements of glaciers. A temple of rock.
My awe was quickly overtaken by another sensation: cold. The wind was strong up here, cutting through my clothing with ease. With windchill, the temperature hovered around 20 degrees Fahrenheit – a stark contrast even to the trailhead only 3,000 feet below, which had felt more like 45-50F. I took off my pack and put on two more light layers of wool. It was still cold. The lowlands have maintained themselves around 60F thus far which has not yet given me the opportunity to acclimatize to these lower temperatures. I also found that I had neglected to bring any gloves. No matter. The small tarn was partially frozen over and I wanted to make my way another half mile further across the rock to Foggy Lake to see how it was faring.
Foggy Lake proved to be moving, though I can’t imagine that it will resist the ice much longer.
Standing by the cold water made me think of the packet of kukicha that I had in my pack. I had packed it, along with my old Vargo Triad XE stove, Trail Designs windscreen, and Snow Peak 700 mug. The package is not as efficient or versatile a stove as my Trail Designs Ti-Tri stove, but packs down much smaller. I often bring it on day hikes.
It was too cold for the denatured alcohol to light with a spark, so I used one of the matches from my EDC. Even with the screen around it, the wind blew the stove out once. I relit it and used my pack as a windbreak. As the tea brewed, I jumped around in place, trying to keep warm.
Soon I noticed blood on one of my finger tips: the skin had cracked from the dryness and was oozing a little bit. I tried to apply a bandage but it refused to stick. Must have something to do with the cold, I figured, and sliced off a piece of duct tape from the bit I have rolled around my Klean Kanteen. That held the bandage in place just fine.
After the tea had steeped, I was cold enough to decide to pack up the stove and start making my way back down, drinking the tea as I went. With mug in one hand and a trekking pole in the other, I made my way back to the tarn, facing the icy south wind. Having downed the warm tea in a remarkably quick fashion, I decided to stop so that I could put the mug away and thus have one free hand to stick in my pocket to warm. I set down the pack and mug, digging around inside the pack for the small garbage bag that I carry, so that I could pack out the teabag. It was a bit tricky, not being able to feel anything due to numb fingers. In a minute, I found the garbage bag and opened it, then reached for the tea bag that was still sitting inside the mug. It had already begun to freeze to the titanium. I broke it free, tossed it in the garbage bag, and put bag and mug in the pack. I decided that things were starting to get a bit serious when I found that I had a lot of trouble closing the zippers on my pack. After donning the pack, I could stick one hand in my pocket to warm, but the other had to stay exposed to hold the trekking pole (which I needed even more on the descent than the ascent). Using the spare Buff I had in one of my pockets, I fashioned a mitten-like covering for the exposed hand which suited to block the wind. It really wasn’t that cold out: as soon as the fingers on both hands were out of the wind, they began to rewarm.
With that addressed, I continued the descent, making my way over scoured rock and through whispering trees back to the trailhead. (I slipped once on one of those ice covered rocks near the top, coming a little too close to the side of the mountain, but arrested myself and recovered.) The ascent took 3 hours and the descent 2.5.
Gothic Basin certainly warrants further explorations. Visually, it is one of the most stunning areas of the Cascades. I could easily spending a week just within the small area.
I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn't? Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime. A man's a fool to live his life under a shadow like that. Maybe that's how an ulcer begins.
- Richard Proenneke, One Man's Wilderness