Olympic South Coast Trail

July 16-18, 2021.

Photos from the trip

olympic south coast trail

I’m huge on planning, but I’m not a person who chooses to hike in places that require advance permits. Emily is the opposite, and she is the person who inspired this trip. Based on a previous visit to the Olympic South Coast trail, she was itching to do it again. Backpacking in Olympic National Park requires purchasing permits ahead of time, packing in bear canisters and (in our case) setting up car shuttles. While this usually is not my cup of tea, I decided to go along on this adventure. Now that it’s done, I can say I am really glad I did.

Day 1: Third Beach to Strawberry Point

5.2 mi | 600′ ele. gain | 3:50 hr.

Emily, Renee and I arrived at the already crowded Third Beach trailhead on a Friday morning and shouldered our packs. I noticed how different it was here; we’d just come from the hot, dry high desert of Central Oregon the day before. Now, we stood surrounded by towering trees draped with lichen. A cool mist hung in the air. Ferns, shrubs and ground cover created a thick understory on either side of the trail. I took a deep breath of the moist air and fell in line for the walk down to the beach.

It always takes a mile or two for my body to adjust to carrying an overnight pack. I had the bear canister, packed to the brim with food, as well as all my necessary gear and a liter of wine. I guess that was necessary, too.

At least the beginning of the trek was downhill on a well-groomed trail. This was not a good representative of the remainder of the route. We blissfully descended towards the beach, following the sound of the ocean.

A thick blanket of clouds greeted us when we arrived at Third Beach. Nonetheless, we could see interesting sea stacks in the distance and lots of sea creatures at our feet. I grew up on the East Coast and fondly remember spending all summer on the beach, hopping across rocks and playing in tidepools. Those memories came springing back as I looked at colorful sea stars, sea anemones, barnacles and other critters clinging to life on the water’s edge.

Soon, though, I snapped back to the present day: “There’s the first rope,” someone said. And then I began to understand what we were in for on this trip.

olympic south coast trail

The beach came to an end at an impassable stretch of boulders and cliffs. In order to get back on the headland, we needed to go up. Straight up. A steep sand hill led us back to the forest, and to ascend the hill, we used a knotted rope that someone had tied to a tree above us. It didn’t look terribly official, but it would have to do, so up we went. After that rope, there was a ladder. Then another rope. All these trail accoutrements looked to be marginally maintained, but good enough. The ladders had missing rungs. The ropes seemed to be old marine rope that had washed up on the beach. All part of the adventure, to be sure…

We slowly plodded along the steep, muddy, narrow forest trail. This was nothing like the promenade we started on just a couple hours before. I was happy we got an early start so we had all the time in the world to get to camp.

Next, we dropped onto another beach, then quickly came to a section of big boulders buffering the forested cliffs from the crashing ocean. Huh, I thought, there must be a trail here, but Emily insisted that this was one of the rock crossings. We went for it.

Luckily, this section was short. The ocean pounded into the rocks just feet away from where we were scrambling. We moved as quickly as we could while carrying our heavy, awkward loads. Everything was wet, slippery and dramatic. Once I could see the flat, sandy beach on the other side, my heart rate relaxed a bit. There was not much longer to go.

Our reward: a long stretch of sand and tidepools that led right to camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Night 1: Intro to hammock camping

At Strawberry Point, Emily picked out a nice campsite and we dropped our gear there. The ocean air calmed me as I ate my lunch and searched for the best spot to hang my hammock.

I’d never hammock-camped before, but I thought I’d give it a try on this trip. I borrowed a hammock and webbing from a friend, and threw in the footprint from my 3-person backpacking tent to use as a tarp just in case. There was no rain in the forecast, but this was the coast…

All afternoon we lounged around, reading books, napping, exploring tidepools and taking casual walks on the beach. We waited as long as we could to make dinner: dehydrated turkey chili with fresh toppings. Then, we drained the bottle of wine and watched a curious seal head bobbing in the waves for hours. A curious deer wandered into our camp, nibbling on fresh greenery as it went. She was completely unbothered by us; it was her home, after all.

At bedtime, I hopped into the hammock, nestled in and went to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable even though I later learned that I set it up all wrong. The sea breeze kept the bugs at bay. Nailed it, I thought…

At 2 am I woke up to the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Actually, I woke up to a soaking rain that would make my down sleeping bag useless and put me in a hypothermic state if I didn’t figure out a way to make shelter, and fast. I grabbed my headlamp and pulled my emergency tarp out, then began looking around to improvise a rain cover for my hammock. I’ve been here before, I thought, and it was way more serious then. My mind flashed back to the night I unexpectedly had to bivy on Mt Hood in a sleet storm. Memories of past shenanigans help me remain calm and confident. Knowing I’d survived more heinous conditions reminds me how strong and resilient I am.

From all the years I’ve camped and backpacked, I’ve got a pretty solid and foolproof system down. So, abandoning the known and venturing into the unknown put me back in to beginner mode. But, this is how we develop skills, so I spent a moment reflecting on past experiences before focusing on problem-solving.

As disgusting as all the trash washed ashore was, it sure came in handy. I scavenged large pieces of rope from the marine debris to use for my shelter. I tied a length of rope over the hammock and threw the tarp over top like an upside-down taco shell. Then, I had to stake out the corners to make the tarp taut. I used the long ends of webbing that held my hammock in addition to a thin rope I cut from the large piece and some sturdy fronds of grass (yes, grass). At this point I was wet from being out in the rain, but still reasonably warm. I crawled into my damp sleeping bag and looked for flaws in my system.

“Huh, even though the tarp doesn’t cover the hammock completely, I’m not getting wet.” Scanning up and down the hammock with my headlamp, I wiggled my toes, felt the sleeping bag over my head and noticed my body temperature. I was warm, comfortable, and reasonably dry. I turned off my headlamp, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep.

Day 2: Strawberry Point to Mosquito Creek

6.2 mi. | 530′ ele. gain | 4:30 hr.

First off, let me tell you that the statistics for this hike do not in any way tell the story of the character and difficulty of this route. As I look back at the measly elevation gain numbers and short miles, I can hardly believe these data are accurate. That’s how deceptive the Olympic South Coast trail is. You get a big bang for your buck on this one. Now, on to day 2…

In the morning, I hopped out of my dry cocoon and inspected my handiwork. Not too shabby for a rush job. Note the red strap on the bottom right corner, tethered only by a few strands of grass. Bushcraft, I guess.

hammocking on Olympic South Coast

It was my turn to make breakfast in the morning, so I took my sweet time assembling ingredients and creating a delightful egg scramble with veggies and chicken sausage. Hooray for home dehydrators!

We enjoyed a lazy breakfast on the uncluttered shoreline near our camp, opposite the trash pile. Leave No Trace, eh ocean? Today’s hike seemed much less daunting than the previous day, but since we survived that I felt ready for anything. Bring it on, obstacle trail…

olympic south coast trail

The day began with a mile-long beach walk to Toleak Point, where a number of groups were camping (we were essentially alone last night). There, we stopped to filter water. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young buck trotted along the sandy beach, then sprung straight up into the thick forest. Quite majestic! We continued along the beach for a while before going up into the forest. There was only one forested section on the route today, with no crazy low tide crossings to plan.

deer on Olympic South Coast

But the forest trails involved lots of scrambling, climbing over trees, negotiating tree roots and using hand lines to get up and down the steepest bits. I sure was glad the rain cleared out and the ground was mostly dry. Doing this trek in the rain would potentially bring this into the type 3 fun category.

During our short tromp in the forest, we ran into an endangered species, one I had not expected to find here: a park ranger. We had a pleasant exchange in which he inspected our permit, asked us the standard questions, made some boring small talk and went on his way. Shortly after, we ran into his ranger partner. She sounded like an alien trying its best to disguise itself as a young human woman. I don’t know how much training is required to be a park ranger, but it would seem that communication skills are not so much taught to this group. She was nice enough, and harmless, and we got back to putting one foot in front of the other.

An hour and a half after entering the forest, we followed one last handline down a dirt ramp back to the wide, flat beach. While soaking up that sweet, sweet sunshine, I searched the rock crevasses for critters and dipped my toes in the wet sand. Aaron had just gotten me a pair of Bedrock sandals for my birthday, which I wore through the entire trip. They were bomber on the mud, the rocks, pretty much every surface I had to walk across. And they let my feet dry off in between dipping them in mud puddles or ocean surf.

Once we got to Mosquito Creek, we spread out to scout a good camp for the night. I had hoped to string up my hammock from the big driftwood stumps like I’d seen on trip reports posted online, but no such spot existed here. Instead, we followed a steep sandy path up off the beach into a magical, well-loved campsite. It had multiple rooms for us to lay out gear, set up a cooking station and arrange the tent and hammock. But, it was dark and gloomy in there. We spent much of the afternoon laying on the beach letting our legs rest before the big day. I got into my swimsuit and took one very chilly dip in the Pacific before retiring to my beach towel…

Since we had nothing but time, I carefully crafted a stout hammock fly set-up just in case the weather turned overnight. I made use of the extra tent stakes and cord from Renee’s tent, and practiced incorporating my hiking pole into the rigging. As with all skills, it takes practice in a different kinds of situations with a variety of supplies to become proficient, so I took this opportunity to experiment. I remembered a few useful knots and hitches from my climbing days, but made a mental note to review a few more releasable hitch types and practice them before I take a hammock out again.

We enjoyed a hearty dinner of fresh veggies and mac and cheese, and tried really hard to stay up late enough to watch the sunset.

We didn’t make it.

Day 3: Mosquito Creek to Oil City

6.6 mi. |960′ ele. gain | 7:10 hr. (including 2 long rests)

Anticipating our last major hurdle, a rock crossing that can only be made at low tide, we set an alarm for an early get-up. I woke up 5 minutes before the alarm, freaking out that I’d overslept, then checked the time. Turns out the others did the same.

We scarfed down some oatmeal, packed up, and got moving a half an hour before our projected start time. Knowing that most of the trail would be in the forest, and that our hike pace was particularly slow in the forest, we gave ourselves plenty of time to complete the trail leading up to the rocks.

As we walked from our camp, I gazed at the beautiful, wispy cirrus clouds overhead. I remembered reading about these in the book The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley (highly recommend, by the way). But I could not remember what they meant. Since reading that book, I’ve been obsessed with clouds, and paying attention to them much more than I ever have. I suppose I’ll need to read the book a few more times and start taking notes to really make the information stick. But, step one is just being aware. What information is stored in those clouds…

This day’s stretch of woodland trail felt like the most challenging of them all. It is the longest continuous trail in the forest, with many obstacles to overcome. Ladders and stairs and other built trail features were in sad states of disrepair. We didn’t always love the rope choices, but we had to use what was there. I recall lots of throwing my legs over the top of some downed trees, slithering under the ones that were too gnarly to mount, clambering up “steps” chopped out of logs and stepping over rotten boardwalk pieces. We took several breaks, not only to rest our legs but also to rest our overworking brains. It was tough!

When at last, we could see the beach peeking through the trees, we took a somewhat premature sigh of relief. The trail here dropped nearly straight down, with a broken ladder and a rope to help us make that final descent to the sand.

At last, some easy beach walking. We found a spot about halfway between the forest and the rocks to sit and hunker down for a bit. I used my InReach to contact Emily’s husband, aka our shuttle driver, to coordinate a pickup time. Then, we just saw and waited until our safe crossing time: an hour before low tide.

I wondered if we’d planned it right, because we watched several groups walk by us, continue down the beach, and begin hopping across the rocks. But, we stuck to our plan and were the last group to begin the crossing.

Compared to the hairy scramble from day one, this felt like a piece of cake. It was a much longer section of rocks than we’d done before, but the rock was textured and sticky, there was plenty of dry land between us and the ocean, and the whole scene just felt far less ominous. We were moving so quickly that we caught up to the group ahead of us. And before long, our feet hit dry sand.

At this point, all that was left was a short beach walk followed by a half mile trail in the woods to the parking lot. Instead of waiting for our ride in the parking lot, we decided to chill on the beach and watch the birds for an hour. It was peaceful and relaxing, a fitting end to a difficult day. A pair of bald eagles perched like sentries on the mouth of the Hoh river, while hundreds of gulls alternated between milling about on the beach and flapping furiously into the sky. I worked through a few crossword puzzles to pass the time.

The last little trail walk was more work than I was anticipating, and it’s likely because I mentally switched from work mode to “I’m done” mode. It was a good reminder that it’s not over, til it’s over.

Take-aways

Do not underestimate the South Coast Trail. It will challenge even experienced hikers and backpackers, in one way or another. And the things that challenge you might not be the ones you planned for.

Hammock camping ROCKS. It takes no time at all to set up a hammock (minus the, ahem, fly situation). It’s extremely cozy, even when you do it all wrong (as I learned later, whoops). And it’s a nice place to hang out and read, have a snack, etc when you’re just spending time in camp. The gentle back and forth rocking is rather soothing.

Bedrock sandals are well worth the investment. I normally don’t take a pair of shoes right out of the box and into a 3-day backpacking trip, but these were perfect. They fit my feet well, allowed my toes to breathe, provided excellent grip on challenging surfaces and went from wet to dry without a second thought. Please note that I packed my trail shoes as well, thinking I’d mostly wear those, but they ended up being just camp shoes on this trip.

Hip, hip, hooray for sun shirts! This was another new piece of gear I tested on this trip. I normally don’t like wearing long sleeves because they never fit me quite right and they feel hot. But this sun shirt was buttery soft and comfortable, cool on my skin and saved me a bunch of sunscreen applications throughout the weekend. It didn’t even stink after several days of wear.

Did I change my mind on permits? Nah. I get why they’re used in certain places, but with a half bazillion places to explore in this world, I’ll choose the ones with the least red tape. I’m glad that there are plenty of options for all types of users who want different types of experiences out there. But I will not turn down an invite to a permitted area if someone else is willing to navigate the system.

Three Sisters Backcountry Hut Traverse

February 15-17, 2021.

Photo album

It was a COVID miracle. The much-acclaimed hut trip nestled beneath the Three Sisters mountains was limited to single parties; no random people could be added to your booking. And with a Monday start date, we only needed a group of two to book our adventure. We hopped right on it, and LeeAnn, Aaron and I began preparations for a winter ski trip for the ages.

The adventure began during the drive up Three Creeks Road, where we’d meet our shuttle driver. The road surface was a unique combination of ice and slush that sent the Subaru slipping and sliding as it searched for traction. We white-knuckled it all the way to the Sno-Park. Jonas greeted us with a smile.

After a brief orientation to the route and the logistics of the trip, we hopped in the shuttle van. LeeAnn and I fueled up on doughnuts from Sisters Bakery in order to give us the energy we’d need to get through the morning.

Dutchman ski trails

The whole area was under a winter storm warning from the National Weather Service for the next two day. We mentally prepared for a lot of slogging through unbroken trail and pushing through cold, gusty winds. As we pulled into Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, I could barely contain my excitement. I didn’t care how hard this day would be, since I knew there would be a warm, cozy shelter waiting for us at the end of our trek.

We took our starting selfie, each of us grinning ear to ear. I took the first lead out onto a well-loved ski trail; we’d swap leads many time over the course of the trip.

For the first couple miles, our route followed a gentle grade. Blue diamonds marked the way. But then, we spied the first of many yellow flags dangling from a tree branch. The flags would mark our route from the busy trails to the lonely ski shelter, another 5 miles away.

The scavenger hunt begins

LeeAnn and I love following trail signs through the forest. We took turns in the lead, chasing Easter eggs as we went. It was helpful to have three sets of eyes to scan the forest ahead of us. While some of the route was obvious, there were several spots where we stopped and looked around for these sneaky clues. Yellow does not always stand out among a white and brown background.

The route was not all easy ups and downs. We often had to make wide switchbacks between flags to avoid steep hills. There were just as many steep downhills as there were uphills. There were a few good falls along our path. Aaron, in his first real season of cross country skiing, got to learn the hard way how challenging it is to get up from the ground in seemingly endless powder.

And while the snow was already quite deep, it just kept on falling all day long. The route left by the group just one day ahead of us was hardly visible, and completely gone in many places. Still, we soldiered on.

Fighting cold, fatigue and frustration, we made it to the hut in just under 6 hours. Jonas and Anna, the owners of Three Sisters Backcountry, were just leaving on their snowmobiles as we arrived. They had the wood stove going for us and everything was freshly cleaned. It was a dream to open the door to that hut and get out of the weather. All was good again.

Inside the hut

We happily stripped off our boots and ski gear, changing into the comfy clothes we’d brought for lounging around indoors. It was such a luxury to have an enclosed cabin with light, heat, a full pantry and several seating options. No tent to set up, wind breaks to build, bags to poop into. The only chores we had were melting snow in the large pot on the wood stove and occasionally going out to shovel snow from the path leading to the outhouse. Yes! An outhouse! What a treat.

For the next few hours, we did some coloring, read the previous journal entries and talked about our day. With no cell service and no distractions, we could just savor each other’s company and take advantage of some real downtime.

This hut was well-stocked for a pasta dinner. LeeAnn played chef on this first night and made us a delicious meal with lemon-cream sauce, meatballs and parmesan cheese over fusilli. For dessert, we enjoyed freshly whipped cream (a team effort between LeeAnn and Aaron) on top of a lovely pie.

If you must know, both LeeAnn and I independently packed in pies. Because, of course we did.

Onward to hut 2

The next morning, we ate breakfast and took our time packing up gear. Outside, the snow continued to fall. The overcast skies stole our sunrise; we were in no hurry to enter the maelstrom. Our agenda: ski a couple miles up a snowmobile road to pick our next set of flags to follow. The flags would take us all the way to the second hut.

Once we got outside, everyone was energized and eager to start moving. The snowmobile road gave us an easy warmup, but it also provided a false sense of what the route ahead would be like. Aaron even sneaked in some lead time in the morning.

Once we hit the flags, LeeAnn skied to the front of the pack. We learned of her flag-seeking superpowers yesterday, an uncanny ability to find the trail markers in the most inconspicuous locations.

It was a long, slow day. The sun threatened to come out several times, but just as quickly as it attempted to break through, the snow would begin to fall again. We sought shelter under a large, overhanging tree branch to eat our lunch and psych ourselves up for the second half of the day. The powder was still deep and unforgiving. The relentless wind blew the hardest in the prettiest sections (those wide open meadows) and died down a bit in the gloomy forest.

But, the only way out was forward, so on we went. Eventually, after saying “maybe this is the last hill?” multiple times, it finally came true. We found our second hut, perched on a hillside overlooking Three Creek Meadow. Maybe later, we’d actually get a view!

Extreme resting

The second hut was nearly identical to the first, so we made quick work of getting settled in and unpacking the day’s gear. The wind seemed to help keep our outhouse path clear, unlike last night’s wind that only worked to fill in the path as we shoveled it.

We played National Parks Trivia, worked on another gory coloring page and did the bare minimum of physical work. For dinner, I assembled a taco bar using home-dried turkey taco meat and all the fixins you could want. We warmed our tortillas right on the wood stove and followed it all up with some apple-pecan pie and snow ice cream. How we all didn’t immediately fall into a food coma, I’ll never know.

The payoff

The morning gifted us the most beautiful sunrise and clear skies over our beautiful mountains. We discovered the best views of our idyllic surroundings from the outhouse and the “P” stick (placed for guests to aggregate their number ones, so as not to contaminate the drinking water).

LeeAnn made us a hearty pancake breakfast to fuel up the final leg of our ski. I was really excited for this part because I was familiar with the long, rolling downhills and wide, open burned slopes with big mountain views. Plus, the storm had rolled out overnight and we were bound to have a perfect weather day.

We roughly followed the flagged route back to the Forest Service trail system, but some pretty meadows coaxed us away from the yellow markers for just a bit. Once we reached the blue diamonds, we had to a do just a bit more creative routefinding to avoid a poorly marked sections with lots of exposed shrubbery. But with such an expansive landscape, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. I was happy to go my own way and experience a bit more freedom on my skis.

Instead of taking the shorter, direct route back to the car, we looped out to the west to celebrate the convergence of good weather, good snow conditions and high energy. We squeezed every last bit of fun that we could out of this trip.

To finish, we stopped at Three Creeks Brewery for some outdoor dining. All the burgers and fries, please! As if we hadn’t been eating like royalty for the past three days!

Reflections

I think if we had to do this trip as a group of 8, or with people we didn’t know, I would not have enjoyed it. So, thanks COVID for providing one unique experience that I never could have had any other year.

Having done extensive training in all weather, all snow conditions before our Crater Lake ski last year helped me quite a bit. This is not a trip for beginners. Since you have to plan well in advance, you don’t get to pick the weather. Negotiating all the trail-breaking, route-finding, terrain challenges, constantly varying weather and other obstacles didn’t feel all that bad because I’ve been there, done that, before.

While you *could* make meals from the dry goods in each pantry, we ate so much better by supplementing with fresh foods. Having fruits and/or vegetables with each meal was extremely nourishing.

Skiing in untracked backcountry is still my favorite, despite being more physically difficult than following a trail. As soon as we got back to civilized trails near upper Three Creeks, we encountered tons of people, uncontrolled fighting dogs, yelling, post-holing and so much more nonsense. Skiing around other people is just not for me.

Now that we’re back, it’s time to plot an unsupported ski adventure 🙂

Thompson Peak

August 27, 2020.

Thompson from our camp

Photo album

People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.

For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.

Day 1: to camp, the hard way

5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.

Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.

Into the Wilderness…

We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.

The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.

As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.

“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.

“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.

Our off-trail debacle

Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.

On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.

These things are basically designed to dry socks.

I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.

That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.

Day 2: the climb

4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.

Sunrise

In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.

Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.

The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.

Well, the slab looked steeper in person.

Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.

Chilly up here.

As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.

The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.

I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.

Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.

At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.

We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.

I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.

Alpine wildflowers

While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.

Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.

Wouldn’t you go off route to check out this beauty?

Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.

We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.

The hike out

4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.

“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.

I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?

“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.

Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.

Why does a grouse cross the trail?

All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!

The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…

Imogene Peak

August 26, 2020.

10.5 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Imogene Peak

Photo album

I’d been stalking the Sawtooth hiking group on Facebook for the week before my trip to learn all that I could from people hiking there this year. Visitation was sharply on the rise, tourists from all over the country packing the trails and doing the dumb stuff tourists are wont to do. Undeterred, I continued planning my trip, hoping to find some hidden gems that would be beyond the reach of the average “let’s backpack around some lakes” visitor. Note: there’s nothing wrong if that’s your style, it’s just not my style.

After consulting my usual references online I came up with Imogene Peak, one of a zillion highpoints in the Sawtooths. We could reach this one in a day without taking the boat shuttle, which I wanted to avoid because of COVID. It looked like a hard slog, but that’s what we were looking for.

Thunderstorms and wind raced over our dispersed campsites the previous two evenings and more were predicted for this day. At least we didn’t have any driving to do; we scouted a campsite sandwiched between the horrible 4×4 road to the proper trailhead and a footpath leading from the weenie trailhead. Onward!

A remarkably quiet lake

After a mile or so of walking, we encountered Yellow Belly Lake. It was perfectly quiet and still, much unlike the heavily developed lakes we passed on the previous day. It would make the perfect spot for an afternoon swim, I thought. But we had some ground to cover.

Not too far beyond the lake, we left the trail and headed straight into a marshy flat. Narrow rivulets cut across the earth in seemingly every direction; we had to watch every step. The tall grasses and thick shrubs were soaking wet from the evening rains. Before long, my shoes and clothes were saturated with water. I counted on the sun to dry me off later.

Water, water everywhere

Once we navigated out of the flats, the climbing began. The terrain moved upward in a hurry. We scrambled up and over rocks, downed trees, shrubs and scree, trying to avoid the thickest vegetation. I was astonished to find a shiny blue object stuck in the rocks partway up the inhospitable slopes: a party balloon. Of course, this balloon must have blown in there from somewhere far away, but I was still disgusted to have to pick this trash up from the wilderness. Balloons blow.

At last, I began to see fewer trees and more blue skies. We’d reached the boulder field! From there, according to my notes, we’d just pick our way along the open ridge to the summit.

Not so fast, said the formidable Sawtooths, with a devious grin.

We reached the highpoint of the boulders within our view, which allowed us to scout out the next part of the route. The ridge was completely impassable. Our path lay straight ahead: a couple thousand vertical feet of boulder-hopping, all the way to the top.

Undeterred, we sat and dried out our feet while eating snacks. So far, the weather was holding. It was breezy but sunny and clear.

For the next two hours, we picked our way up the extensive boulder field. Some of the rocks were enormous, and their size gave no indication of their stability. Often, the largest boulders were the ones that tipped under bodyweight, while the smaller rocks stayed put. It took all of our mental focus to stay upright as we clambered toward the summit.

You want boulders? I got boulders!

I kept looking back and overhead at the gray clouds that swirled around us. Would we get caught in a storm? How long would it last? Were we in any danger? The two of us discussed our options and decided to choose a route close to the trees so that we could seek refuge quickly if needed. I felt like I’d be ready to retreat at the sound of thunder or a flash of lightning. But, if the previous two storms taught us anything, I expected this one would come down around 6 pm. We had hours to spare.

With slowness and care, we proceeded up the east face of the mountain, joining the ridge just below the summit. A faint user path spiraled up to the top.

Almost there

Ah, nothing beats the joy of reaching a mountain top! The wind blew, the clouds threatened, so we didn’t spend much time there. I opened the summit canister and read the three entries in the log from this year. With so many other peaks to choose from, it’s no wonder this one doesn’t make most people’s short list. There was hardly any room to write in the log so I tore a piece of my printed beta and shoved it into the canister before we left.

The hike down seemed to take just as long as the hike up. Every boulder, it seemed, wanted to kill us. I made it almost all the way down before I slammed my knee and lower leg into a sharp rock. Bleeding but not seriously hurt, I tried to remain focus and move slowly enough to not make any stupid mistakes. I felt like I was stepping from one balance board to another in an endless obstacle course. I do enjoy a bit of boulder-hopping but this was really over the top.

Pretty rocks

As I nursed my wounds, I noticed the incredibly beautiful crystals and patterns and colors in the rocks that I hadn’t paid attention to on the way up. Even when you retrace your route, there’s something new to discover.

The return hike was unremarkable, except for the last couple of miles. The wind picked up and faint rumbles of thunder began to spread through the air. LeeAnn was stressing that the rain fly was hanging on a clothesline to dry and she wanted to hustle back to camp to get it on the tent. I wanted to jump in the lake. So, I handed her the car keys and she bombed down the trail. I spied an opening to the lake and changed into my swimsuit. I didn’t stay long, but just taking that moment to wash off the sweat and dust of the day made me feel renewed. I decided to shove my clothes in my bag and meander back to camp barefoot.

It had been quite some time since I’d done any barefoot hiking, so my feet were pretty tender. I let myself slow down and take all the time in the world to saunter the last mile to camp. While I dearly love having LeeAnn as a hiking buddy, I was starting to yearn for some alone time. Finding the balance between solitude and companionship has always been a challenge for me.

When I reached camp, the tent fly was secure and LeeAnn was rinsing off in the creek. The rain hadn’t come yet, but it was only a matter of time…

We finished off the night with dinner and camp margaritas: tequila + lemon lime drink mix + water, salt on the rim!

White Clouds Loop: Day 4

August 24, 2020.

5.3 mi. | 1880′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Photo album

The stats for this entire loop are misleading. Five and a half miles with less than two thousand feet of elevation gain? We should have been able to knock that out in no time. But I would soon learn of the obstacles in our path to a quick and easy finish.

We awoke to a foreboding gloom. Wildfire smoke filled the air and our lungs. It was hard to breathe while eating breakfast; I was not looking forward to charging uphill with a heavy pack with that air quality. But, we had no choice.

Red, red sun.

I watched as the red sun rose over the craggy ridge to the east. A pika scrambled around the rocks, squeaking arbitrarily as it hurried about its business. We packed up camp and walked along the user trail alongside the lake. At the lake’s inlet, the trail disappeared. I followed the rough path in my notes, hopping over little streamlets and crashing through brush. We ended up in a broad bowl beneath steep ridges. The terrain was a combination of running water, bare rock and vegetation. The skies above sprinkled down rain, threatening to unleash torrents at any moment. In light of that, we stuck to the vegetation instead of wet, slippery rock.

Fortunately, big rains never came. We slowly made progress to the upper lakes basin. I mistakenly took a detour up to a pile of rocks that we ended up having to downclimb. But, there was an unexpected benefit: more goats. We would not have seen them had we stayed on course. At least, that’s how I justified my navigation error!

white clouds
Goat butts. For my upcoming animal butt identification book (half joking).

With the wind picking up, smoke filling the air and mysterious clouds overhead, I felt like we were on a doomed mission. Something was bound to happen. At the lakes basin, we found a quiet spot to have a snack and assess our route up. Where should we go? I looked around and nothing looked good. I checked the GPS points on my phone and those just left me more confused. We have to go up there? I thought. It looked so steep and loose.

It occurred to me that all the people we passed on this loop were traveling in the opposite direction. The reason: this awful pass. It looked far easier and more straightforward from the other direction. It didn’t matter now, since we weren’t going to backtrack the route that took us 3 days of walking.

And then, the real challenges began

I led us up into the first gully that led to the ridge. I asked LeeAnn to stay out of my fall line because of loose rock. It was very difficult to make any progress without sending rocks hurtling down below my feet. My heavy and bulky pack made it difficult to move upward, and breathing heavy smoke didn’t help, either. Instead of focusing on all the things that I hated in that present moment, I kept looking up and searching for markers of progress. Little patches of colorful flowers served as intermediate goals.

This was the easy part.

Eventually, we abandoned the gully for somewhat more solid terrain on the left side. We clambered over large, stable boulders interspersed with patches of loose soil. It was just as fun as it sounds.

At last, I reached the ridge. Bright, yellow blooms welcomed me to the next chapter of the route-finding debacle. Standing atop a jagged ridge, it was impossible to tell how far we could get without reaching an impassable cliff. We paused here again to check in with each other, get some calories down, and make a plan.

For what felt like an eternity, our travels looked like this: walk along the ridge, reach a barrier, downclimb, traverse scree, bail back up to the ridge, repeat. It was an impossible choice: the rocks on the ridge were much more solid but often led to dead-ends, and the terrain below the ridge was extremely loose, cluttered and difficult to walk on. Every choice was the wrong choice. I regretted coming up too soon.

This is fun. We’re having fun.

Nonetheless, we had to make it to Patterson Peak’s summit in order to cross into the Fourth of July Basin and complete the loop. Ultimately we did, but not without an inordinate amount of Type 2 Fun. At this point I wondered if LeeAnn would ever want to go hiking with me again.

The wind blew hard on top of the peak, and we both wanted to get the heck out of there. No time for celebrations, treats and rest, we had to descend. Every way down looked equally heinous. I did a double-take upon looking at the pre-recorded GPS points. “There’s no way we can follow that route!” I thought. Based on what we had just done, I had no intention of trying to follow another impossible ridge. “We’re going down,” I said.

The route down.

The skies threatened to dump rain again. We moved as quickly as we could atop loose talus and scree. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I put on long john bottoms for warmth and gaiters to keep the rocks out of my shoes. Even with the extra protection, I had to dump them out a few times on the way down.

I threw myself down at the un-named lake that indicated we’d reached the trail again. At last! No more thinking, no more wondering, no more agony. We can mindlessly put one foot in front of the other again! With our shoes and packs off, we laid on top of a large boulder to let the stress of the day melt off. The mental energy required to navigate difficult terrain cannot be understated.

My phone battery was nearly dead and would not take a charge from my battery pack, so I stowed it away and didn’t take any more pictures. We chatted the whole way back, enjoying the easy walking. At the trailhead I snapped one last picture and my phone died…for good. Great, I thought, no more pictures for the rest of the trip. No more podcasts or navigation apps or anything. This happened to me on another roadtrip. Such bad luck.

Back at the car, we pulled out cold bubbly water and crunchy snacks to celebrate the completion of the first leg of our journey. Tomorrow, we decided, we’d have to head into town to deal with the phone. Plans always change on trips like these, and between the two of us, I knew we’d figure something out.

Lessons learned

Although I meticulously planned out my food for the 4-day trip, I vastly overestimated how much I would eat. I came back out of the woods with a lot of extra weight that I didn’t need to carry. The bear canister itself took up most of the inside of my pack, too, so I think in the future I’ll only carry one if I absolutely need to.

The solar charger I carried didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but that was mostly because my phone wasn’t charging well. I should have used it only to charge the battery pack, a strategy I’d employ later on this trip.

I was baffled by how warm it stayed at night. I’m a cold sleeper, so I brought a warm bag, but I never really needed to zip it up. It doesn’t take up that much more space than a lighter bag, so I’m not sure I would have packed differently. I also never needed the hat and gloves I brought, but again I don’t think I would have felt better leaving them behind.

Despite our struggles on Day 4, I don’t think I would have planned the trip any other way. Before leaving home, I gathered just enough information to allow me to navigate the route. I wanted to have just enough mystery to allow me to challenge my skills in a new-to-me area. I never felt like we were in a perilous situation; being uncomfortable, working hard, getting frustrated and solving problems are all essential parts to any adventure (in my humble opinion. I do not like having everything sorted out for me.

White Clouds Loop: Day 3

August 23, 2020.

8.4 mi. | 2340′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

Just another day in paradise.

Photo album

Today’s objective: to visit as many lakes as we could to close the gap between our camp and the trailhead, so that the routefinding on day 4 could be minimized as much as possible. I knew we’d be tired from the previous day’s efforts, so I wasn’t too concerned about making crazy miles. I was excited to see the Boulder Chain Lakes and have several opportunities to get in the water and swim.

After a nice breakfast of dehydrated eggs and veggies, we left our glorious camp and hiked a boring 2.5 miles to the start of the Boulder Chain Lakes. Much of the trail was outside the wilderness and open to all kinds of uses. A parade of backpackers, horsepackers and dirt bike riders passed us, all traveling in the opposite direction. All men, too. It was a weird start to the day.

Boulder Chain Lakes

Once in the wilderness, we paused to admire each of the lakes. They were all beautiful, and all different. Many of the lakes had at least one group of campers staying there. We noticed how often the sites were very large and located right off the trail, not our style. Hoping to find a quiet spot away from people to enjoy our lunch break, we continued to Hourglass Lake before taking a real rest.

There we dropped our packs and changed into swimsuits. With overcast, breezy conditions, we didn’t stay in the water for very long. It was enough time to appreciate the clear water, the gnarled pine trees and the craggy peaks. Every step of the walk through the Boulder Chain was postcard-perfect. I could have spent days back there, finding all the best campsites and scrambling up to the highpoints on each ridgeline. All of the peaks in the area are over 10,000 feet tall and nearly all of them are nameless. But the lack of a name doesn’t make them any less impressive or scramble-worthy, as I would soon find out.

White Clouds Loop Boulder Chain Lakes
Hummock Lake and unnamed peaks.

On the next leg of the journey, we walked past several more lakes, each one more impressive than the last. Hummock, Scoop, Headwall. As we climbed up and out of the basin, additional lakes came into view. Hidden, Lonesome. It was an extraordinary place. Among the large talus slopes, we heard the familiar “meep!” of pika. Hardy wildflowers sprouted up from between the boulders, too. I could place some of them into categories: asters, saxifrage, buckwheat, but could not identify them any more accurately than that. They were all delicate and pretty; a stark contrast between the inhospitable terrain we were in.

We climbed up the steep, rocky headwall to Windy Devil Pass. The trail was remarkably well-built. I questioned whether “Windy” was pronounced WIN-DEE or WINE-DEE, since either pronunciation would make sense. We scaled the switchbacks easily and found ourselves on the top of the pass in no time. I’d been eyeing a possible highpoint scramble from the pass. To our left, less than a quarter mile away, was point 10,296. It wasn’t much, but it was something. We carried our water bottles and fanny packs and headed up the jumbled rocks to the top.

Me in the way of the spectacular view.

As I crested the summit of the no-name peak, I was awestruck. Below me, I could see the entire Boulder Chain. The green-blue waters rippled and sparkled in the breeze. All around us, rugged ridgelines hemmed us in. I wanted to sit there for hours. We pulled out some celebratory snacks and sat, quietly, letting the views imprint in our memories. I sat near my favorite flowers, delicate yellow buckwheat specked with red. Its coloration told me that summer was coming to an end, and the flowers were preparing to go dormant for the long, hard winter.

From our perch, we returned to the saddle and loaded up for the remainder of the day’s travels. We descended from the pass along the trail to an unnamed lake in order to begin the off-trail portion of the loop. I thought that, since so many people hiked the loop, we’d be able to follow a use path for most of the way. But, I didn’t want to count on that. Fortunately, the expansive alpine terrain made it pretty easy to see what was ahead. Without any sign of a footpath from the lake, we dropped straight down the hillside towards the next two lakes.

With names like Scree and Shallow Lakes, I assumed these would not make nice places to camp, so I had my mind set on blowing past them and continuing to the next one. But when we arrived at Shallow Lake, I questioned my decision. It was gorgeous. Thick, green vegetation grew right up to the lakeshore on one side; gray boulders tumbled into the lake on the other. And in the distance, Merriam Peak and the Serrate Ridge shot straight up into the smoky skies. This, too, could be a postcard image. Scree Lake was much the same, surrounded by flowers, trees and a gentle rock slope. It also appeared to see many fewer campers than the other lakes we’d passed. Oh well, we had some more time to kill today and I had a feeling that our last day would be a hard one. We pressed on.

White Clouds Loop Scree Lake
Scree Lake. Not what I expected.

The outlet of Scree Lake dropped sharply down a series of cliffs and waterfalls. Quiet Lake was only a quarter mile away, but 300 feet down. I really didn’t want to guess my way down these cliff faces, so I poked around in search of a trail. Happily, I found a path and we took it through the more complex, densely vegetated and vertical terrain between the two lakes.

Upon arriving at Quiet Lake, we skirted its western shores in search of a campsite. Much of the lakeshore was a jumble of exposed, treeless talus, with hardly a flat spot to be seen. Up ahead we saw a small crew of backpackers who’d already set up camp, We found a pocket of trees on a flattish plateau that we decided to call home. There was enough distance between us that we could hardly tell they were there (until they started a campfire, unbelievably, despite the fire restriction and smoke actively covering the region and good judgment).

We settled in just after 4:30 pm, so we had plenty of daylight to relax and enjoy our home for the evening. LeeAnn jumped in the lake again, I laid my Thermarest pad on a boulder and read my book. We both watched the pika running around on the rocks adjacent to our camp. They were so entertaining and cute!

After dinner, I poked around the rockpile in search of colorful lichen and flowers to photograph, but what I found was quite unexpected: wild raspberries! They were ripe and falling off their stems. I waved LeeAnn over to share in my discovery. This was a great after dinner activity; we slowly crept across the boulder field foraging for dessert. What a treat!

Raspberries.

In the evening, the smoky skies produced another disappointing sunset. We retired to bed and tried not to roll off our mats as we slept on the hillside.

White Clouds Loop, day 2: Castle Peak

August 22, 2020.

9.9 mi | 3600′ ele. gain | 9:45 hr.

Photo album

This was the day we tackled Castle Peak. By the numbers, it was hardly that impressive as far as mountains go: 2700′ of elevation gain, albeit in under 2 miles one way.

We packed up camp and trekked back to the main Chamberlain Lakes basin, where we’d keep a look out for a way up the formidable south face of the peak. Along the way, I heard some rockfall and turned to look up at the cliffs above the creek. I knew what I was looking for, but wasn’t sure if I’d catch them in time. Ahh, there: mountain goats! A small group of very muscular goats walked in a line along the clifftop. We stopped to watch them until the last one disappeared into the trees. What a treat!

Goats!

Castle Peak looked impossible from our hike in the previous day, but there had to be a breach in the wall. We stashed our packs in a cluster of trees between the lakes and the base of the mountain. A rock gully filled with colorful flowers traveled from our hiding spot towards the hillside, so we decided to follow this towards our goal.

The delightful little gully led us right to some steeper climbing; we’d found the start of the route. Boulders gave way to slabby climbing, ledges and more boulders. Eventually the gully became a little too slick and vertical for our liking, so we stepped right on to some gravel-covered slabs. It was probably safer but it didn’t feel much better, so we moved through this section as quickly as we could. Above that, we had thousands of feet of boulder-hopping to get to the ridge.

Avoiding the vertical step in the gully

I fought to breathe in the high-altitude air that was also filled with smoke. At one point, I started counting my steps to give myself periodic breaks. It helped me zone out and move a little more efficiently, as well as provide me some opportunities to stop and enjoy the flowers that seemed to burst out from behind each rockpile.

Progress was slow, but we were moving in the right direction. Until we weren’t.

Prior to the trip, I dropped some pins on my mapping app based on a GPS track I’d found online, hoping to give me some guidance along the route. When the gully started breaking up and going in several different directions, my gut told me to go one way while my mapping app told me to go another. I tried to resolve the differences in my head, then chose to try and follow where the pin point was telling me to go. I just assumed there was a reason to cut way left, otherwise why would the track go that way? Me not seeing the route make sense just means I was missing something. I trusted my research.

I asked LeeAnn to sit tight as I investigated the possibilities. After some scrambling around, I decided it was a no-go and retreated to my lower position. That lost us some time and some energy; I should have trusted my instinct.

Which way now?

From that point, we went where my eyes led me. Up and slightly left, around a blocky feature, then off to the right out of the gully. I found a handful of cairns, none of which you could see from the others (useless) but at least that told me someone had been there before!

“We’re less than a Pilot Butte from the top!” I yelled down to LeeAnn. It was a very sloggy mountain, so I tried to keep team morale up a bit.

Once we reached the ridge, it was easy rock-hopping across to the west summit. On our way there, we came across a team of three women who were also seeking the top of Castle Peak. They stumbled across the summit register right after seeing us, which I thought was quite curious. The actual summit was just a couple bumps over, to the east, but the register was here. When I scouted the traverse to the true summit, I understood why. It would take some real care and routefinding to make it there in one piece. I didn’t have the time or energy for that, so I returned to the mini celebration and dug into my snack bag.

Summit! (well kinda)

Peanut butter cup brownie on a Pringle, oh heck yeah.

The descent was agonizingly slow and methodical as we clambered over all that loose rock again. We wanted to avoid the ball-bearing slab we ascended near the bottom, so I kept my eyes open for alternatives. Before reaching that awful section, I cut right onto the partly treed open slopes. Much to my surprise, I came across a climber’s trail and we took that basically all the way back to our backpacks.

We almost immediately retreated to the lake shore and jumped in the lake. It was the most refreshing dip of my lifetime. It was three in the afternoon.

With 6 more miles to cover, I knew we had to rally. Along the remaining hike, we’d have to climb up and over the shoulder of Castle Peak, another 800′ of vertical or so. I was not looking forward to it, but I felt energized by the chilly lake water. We put our heavy packs back on and started walking.

Again, we crossed paths with a few other groups but everyone was heading in the other direction. Are we just walking at the right speed to miss every traveler heading our way? Or does no one do the loop this way? These are some of the thoughts that bounced in my head as we marched up the hill.

The trail was well-switchbacked until we neared the top of the climb, then it pointed straight uphill. It was a slap in the face.

I counted my steps, gasping for air every so often, until I crested the top. LeeAnn was there waiting for me.

On the other side, indescribable beauty awaited us. Pink rocks tumbled down from the adjacent high point. Another side of Castle Peak showed herself, jagged ridges and streaks of color so different from the south side. I dropped over the ridge with mouth agape, just trying to take it all in. The hazy smoke made it difficult to capture the imagery with my phone, so I put it away and just kept walking. We enjoyed these views through several long switchbacks before being deposited into the trees for the remainder of the hike into camp.

The other side of the pass

I’d planned on making it to Baker Lake to spend the night, since that was the first lake we’d pass. It felt like it was just so far away. The hike was a grind; I had some sore spots on my back that kept rubbing against my pack with each step. My feet were achy enough that I stopped to switch into Crocs. I let LeeAnn go ahead and I walked at my own slow pace. My body hates carrying this much weight.

At the junction with Baker Lake Trail, I lamented that I’d stop at the very first campsite we found so I didn’t have to take another step. On the way in, we passed some cabin remains with a flat spot and a fire ring just behind it. “We could camp here?” LeeAnn said with an obvious question mark inflection. I knew she wasn’t that interested. “Let’s just go to the lake and see what’s there.”

When we got to the lake, we could tell that while people did camp there, it was not heavily trafficked. We climbed over several downed trees, crawled underneath one (not easy with a big pack and tired legs) and stopped many times in despair. She offered to drop her pack and run ahead to try and find something. I stood by and sulked, just wanting to be done with it for the day.

Somehow, magically, LeeAnn had found the most incredible campsite. It had a flat area for a tent, a custom wooden bench, running water to filter, a huckleberry patch and a short trail to the lake. And just like the night before, no one else was around. Huzzah! We made it!

By the time we made it to camp, it was far too late and cool to want to go for a swim, which worked out perfectly. The lake was marshy and encircled by grasses and reeds. But it provided a spectacular view of Castle Peak and the surrounding crags, a picture-perfect place to spend the night.

View from camp, not bad.

For dinner, I poured boiling water over the chili I made and dehydrated at home. We topped it with fresh tomatoes, cheese and crushed Pringles. At our mansion of a site, we dined on chili, sipped on backcountry cocktails and reveled in the big day we just had. I hoped to sleep well that night.

White Clouds Loop: Day 1

August 21, 2020.

10.3 mi. | 2350′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

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I’d read several articles and blogs describing the White Clouds Loop and it’s numerous variations. There is no way to loop around this wild mountain range on established trails; any way you looked at it, the route would be an adventure. The only thing I knew I had to change about the general loop was to add in a summit of Castle Peak. There was no way I’d hike all the way around the damn thing and not climb it. So, I decided on a counter-clockwise loop that put us in position to climb on day two. That would leave the easy trail hiking for the beginning and the potentially more challenging off-trail part for the end. But, I thought, we’d be oriented to this new place and warmed up by then.

At the Fourth of July Trailhead, we signed in to the quaint hiking log and then started up the trail. The skies were gloomy, as wildfire smoke was blowing in from as far away as Southern California. We just couldn’t avoid smoke on this trip.

The short hike in to Fourth of July Lake gave us time to acclimate to the weight on our backs. My partner carried the tent and the camp kitchen; I carried 4 days of food in a bear canister. Since we both like to eat real food on the trail, it was a heavy load. But I’d been preparing all summer for this. My body does not naturally like to carry weight for distance; I much prefer light and long dayhikes over heavy and short overnights. However, this loop would not be enjoyable (or possible!) for me in a day, so I took on the challenge to try something a little different.

From there, the trail descended past Washington Lake to the edge of a long- north-south mountain ridge and then climbed back up the other side. I’d read about a scramble passage up and over the ridge, but decided we’d stick to a longer hike on trail to have a saner day 1. Along the trail, we spotted numerous colorful wildflowers, which made the journey that much more interesting. I recognized some familiar favorites like buckwheat, cats-ear and paintbrush, but several other flowers were new to me. We paused occasionally to ooh and aah over the colors and stunning landscape. We had the whole day to get the camp and we were in no rush.

The toughest stretch of the day lay straight ahead, as we had to climb up and over a pass to get into the Chamberlain Basin. The burned forest offered little protection from the heat of the sun. I let my partner scurry ahead as I slowly plodded one foot in front of the other, lungs starved from oxygen due to the altitude and smoke. I sang some songs in my head and used some mental trickery to help me get up to the top of the pass. Along the way I made friends with a little ground squirrel, who sat and posed for me. I kept reminding myself that it was all downhill from the pass.

When we reached 9800 feet, we stopped to look down into the gorgeous lake basin. Castle Peak stood like a beastly white monument on the other side. I’d seen so many pictures of this mountain during my research, but it was something else to see the real thing in front of my eyes. Truly a majestic peak, Castle Mountain dominates the landscape with its sharp angles, changing textures and contrasting color palette. Breathlessly, I tried to soak it all in. And I knew I’d picked a great place to explore for the next few days.

We ambled down the switchbacks that led to several lakes. The first one we passed had no name, but it looked like a great catcher-of-people. We held out as we walked by one more magnet lake that was sure to attract the weekend backpacker crowd, because we were in search of some solitude. Fortunately there were many other options for camping that would take us away from the small crowds that would sure to gather in this delightful alpine basin.

At camp

The lakes and creeks provided more than adequate camping opportunities; there were many disturbed sites. We chose a large, flat site on a small plateau that met our needs. After a brief dip in the lake, we set up camp and proceeded to unpack all the gear we’d need for the night. Then, there was just one more thing; huckleberries. Those things weren’t going to pick themselves! We wandered back down the trail with small containers and then found the fullest patch we could. We plopped our butts right in the middle of the patch and started pulling the teeniest, tiniest berries off the delicate plants. Huckleberries come in a variety of sizes, and the only ones we found growing out there were the miniscule ones. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. What else did we have to do, anyways?

Before the trip we divided up cooking responsibilities; that night, LeeAnn was tasked with making dinner. I wandered around looking for wildflowers and views while she cooked.

We feasted on yummy taco bowls topped with crunchy corn chips. Come on, why doesn’t everyone eat like this on backpacking trips!? Most people seem to do the freeze-dried meal thing, while others apparently still cook over wood fires in the backcountry. I was dismayed to find a massive fire pit at our campsite…with crumpled up aluminum foil inside. Garbage. Why do people insist on building big fires and then not picking up after themselves? Foil does not burn completely, it is trash left in the wilderness. I fished the foil out of the ashes and packed it out when we left the next morning. I am torn between wondering whether better education or better cultivation of a stewardship mindset is what will solve this problem. It’s hard to believe that the people who left their garbage behind just didn’t know that was not the right thing to do. It seems like they just didn’t care.

As the sun set, we snapped a few more photos and then disappeared into the tent. I prepared for a cold night, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I hardly needed to zip up my sleeping bag to find a comfortable temperature. I tossed and turned all night, anticipating the big climb in the morning.

White Clouds Loop: Day 0

August 20, 2020.

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I usually don’t write about the day before a trip starts, but there is a bit of a story here.

I’d spent months meticulously planning a trip to the Trinity Alps in Northern California, only to find out a week before that massive wildfires were threatening to smoke out my destination and ruin the entire plan. But I’d already arranged the time off and I had a travel partner ready to go with me. After a brief discussion, we decided to head towards Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains, and it was up to me to come up with a quick Plan B.

As much as I love to plan, I was sad to see this one go down the drain. But I snapped into action and ordered some books and maps online. I also reached out to my social media network to see if anyone had any suggestions for the area. My friend Matt reached out and recommended the White Clouds, a range of mountains right across the street from the more easily recognized Sawtooth Range. He sent me some photos and a GPX track of a loop through the range, encircling its highest peak. Intrigued, I did a little more internet sleuthing and used it as the centerpiece of my new Idaho itinerary. After exploring there, we’d check out the Sawtooths before heading back home.

It took the good part of the day to drive to our first destination, so LeeAnn and I hit the road early in order to find a place to camp before dark.

The drive across Oregon was more scenic than I’d remembered, and once we crossed into Idaho it was all new to me. We stopped at a riverside park to eat lunch and dangle our feet in the cool water. Then, I focused on driving straight through to the Fourth of July trailhead. I’d hoped to find camping along the road leading there.

Unfortunately, wildfire smoke from California had made its way into Idaho, obscuring clear views of most of the peaks. They stood mysteriously behind a wall of gray haze. As we drove up the gravel road towards tomorrow’s starting point, we saw many nice campsites, but most were already occupied.

Soon, the road entered a burnt out wasteland of charred trees and dust. We’d just about given up hope for a nice site when we discovered a little oasis of trees and greenery between the road and the creek. It ended up being the most glorious little campsite, with burbling water, pretty wildflowers, mountain views and perfect solitude. What’s the saying, when driving through hell, just keep going? Well, we did just that and landed a great place to spend the night.

With some time to kill before dinner, I crossed the creek, laid out on a beach towel and napped between reading portions of my book. I needed a little rest after all that driving. For dinner, we feasted on pork and soba noodle stir fry and ice cold beers. I was really excited to begin this grand adventure.

Three Stooges Traverse

July 31-August 2, 2020.

23.4 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 3 days

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Every year, social media explodes with tales of epic traverses across the Three Sisters. Miles upon miles of scree, snow, rocks, and glory. The Sisters aren’t the only mountains that come in threes, however. Let me regale you with a different kind of mountain endeavor. This is a story of the OKT (only known time) of what I dub the Three Stooges Traverse.

The approach to the approach

In my never-ending quest to hike up to the tops of things no one else wants to, I put together this three peak linkup. Based on what I could see on the map, this looked like a perfect little ridge walk with a long but casual approach. It was a perfect excuse to set off into the woods alone with some backpacking gear to test, a book to read and some shoes to break in.

On Friday night, I stopped for a burrito after work and then started driving towards Santiam Pass. I arrived at the trailhead at 7 pm and started walking just a few minutes later. My goal was Santiam Lake, 5 or so miles ahead.

Although the sun was low in the sky, it was still quite hot. I warmed up quickly as I hurriedly hiked towards a place to camp. The trail was dusty, but I’d read about that online. I was prepared with heavy, tall gaiters to keep the sand out of my shoes. But my getup was no match for how bad the sand actually was. I must have dumped a pound of sand out of each shoe at my campsite.

backpacking delight

It’s not easy to find a place to throw your tent down when the day’s light is fading into darkness. Of course, the two campsites located right off the trail were already taken, and two campfires blazed away as I thrashed off trail through the brush to find a less-than-obvious place to pitch my single-person tent. I’d be out of there the next morning anyways.

The approach

In the morning, I rolled out of my tent and ate breakfast at the lake’s edge. Sipping on my coffee, relaxing near the glassy water, I anticipated a fun day ahead. Across the lake drifted the smoke from yet another campfire. And I once thought backpackers were stewards of the land.

I hit the trail around 7:45 and enjoyed a cool and quiet walk on gentle trails. The trail passed from forest to meadow to burn. Most of the terrain along my hike was part of the massive B&B Fire of 2003. Scarred trees stood like ghosts overlooking the brushy landscape. But what stood out to me most were the dense, colorful patches of wildflowers. They were unexpected; marvelously lush and vibrant.

I saw no one between Santiam Lake and the Eight Lakes basin. As soon as I approached the first lake, however, I began to see tents, campers and fires.

I searched high and low for an out-of-the-way spot to throw down my tent. With most of the trees burned, there was hardly a place to hide. The trail-side campsites were taken, which was fine with me, since I wouldn’t enjoy camping right next to a walking path. Instead, I chose to hoof it around Blue Lake, stepping over hundreds of downed logs and angling uphill to find a nice little flat spot behind a clump of live trees. Just above me loomed the Three Stooges, er…Green Peak, Saddle Mountain and Marion Peak.

They looked so close. I had to decide how to approach the traverse. I could go north-south, south-north or start in the middle and fan out from there. After pondering my options and looking at the terrain challenges that were visible from camp, I decided to start with Green Peak and walk the ridge north to Marion.

The actual traverse

With just a day pack, I started up the cluttered hillside, aiming for lower-angle terrain on the east side of Green Peak. In no time at all, I found myself on the summit. Cool, one down, two more to go. From the top, I had a good view of everything: the volcanoes, the lakes, the ridge walk ahead. I could see there were dense, green patches of forest the fire seemingly hadn’t touched and wondered how that happened.

I dropped down the north side of Green and headed towards the sexy-looking Saddle. The closer I got, the more interesting it looked. The sunlight shone brightly off the silvery rock faces. The ridge dropped off steeply to my left and right. At one point, I found myself at the top of a short (but tall enough) vertical cliff that I was not prepared to down climb. I found a workaround on the west side of the ridge that I used to continue towards the summit.

For a few brief moments, I felt like I was climbing an actual mountain. I located a series of rock steps that led up the summit pinnacle. At the top, flying insects of all shapes and colors whizzed by my head. It was noon, so I ate my lunch.

The north side of the peak appeared pretty intimidating from my perch, so I proceeded slowly and assessed all my options. I again ended up atop a cliff, so I took a steep goat path down the west side of the ridge to skip ahead toward Marion Peak. After that, it was easy breezy all the way to the wooded summit. It had only taken me two hours from my tent to get to that point. And now, it was just a quick ramble back to the lake!

On the way down, I angled down and around the east side cliff bands that I saw from my camp. As I descended I noticed a striking color difference between the talus tumbling down from Saddle and Marion: gray and red. Among the boulders, buckwheat, sedum, and the usual cast of alpine wildflowers grew profusely. It was such a joy to be wandering around in this magnificent place!

A day at the lake

A little after 1, I arrived back at camp and re-packed my bag for a leisurely afternoon at the lake. I had a swimsuit, a book to read, and lots of jellybeans to eat. I found a decent hiding spot with quick lake access and plopped down on my pad for a restful reading session and some swimming

When the shade chased me back to camp later that afternoon, I changed into dry clothes and killed time until dinner. I pondered doing some more exploration from camp, but I didn’t feel like hurdling over another hundred downed trees.

Hiking out

It was a beautiful morning. I arose to the quiet stillness of the eerie forest. No other tents in sight. No crackling fires. No barking dogs. No humans talking. I felt totally at peace.

Ready for a lazy morning, I pulled out my foam sleeping pad and propped it up against a boulder. I grabbed my water, food sack and cooking supplies. I started to boil water and then hopped on my pad in my sleeping bag. I’d enjoy my coffee and breakfast in the cool morning air, sun rising quickly over the nearby mountains.

I had over ten miles to hike in order to get back to the car, but it was mostly easy, rolling terrain. Still, I wanted to be comfortable. I put on my hiking dress and trail shoes and began to walk.

Once I made it from my tent site to the trail, I settled into a comfortable pace. I tried to take photos of the flowers I missed in my rush to get to camp the previous two days. Looking through the heavily burned forest in front of me, I eyeballed the silhouettes of mountains and rockpiles in every direction. There’s so much to do out here, I thought.

With a couple of lakeside rest stops, it took me 4.5 hours to finish this adventure. At Santiam Lake, I made one crucial footwear adjustment. Since that trail was so sandy, I decided to finish the hike in Crocs. It was the right choice. The holes in my Crocs let much of the sand drain out as soon as it poured in. They also allowed tons of air flow, keeping my feet cool and comfortable as the day got hotter. And when I did get a rock in my shoe, it took all of two seconds to shake it back out again. I even got two compliments on my Crocs on the way out. Don’t hate on em just because they look funny!

backpacking in crocs

I’m still not ready to call myself a backpacker yet. I struggle with carrying overnight gear, no matter what kind of pack I use or how much weight is in there. I always get blisters or rashes on my hips from pack straps rubbing. Nothing seems to provide relief. I’ll keep trying, though, because there are many mountains and buttes to climb that are more than a day’s walk from a trailhead.