Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

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.

Photo album

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.

Photo album

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.

Rebel Rock/ Rebel Creek Loop

July 11, 2020.

12.3 mi | 3,965′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

Photo album

Sisters view

I first completed the Rebel Rock Loop in October, 2012. At that time, its upper reaches were blanketed with newly fallen snow. It was before the 2017 Rebel Fire that burned down the lookout tower as well as a huge swath of forest. I had little idea what to expect on this adventure.

Just a couple weeks prior, I hiked up the Rebel Creek trail in order to gain access to Pyramid Peak. Despite the Forest Service informing me that no trail work had been done on this route after the fire, its condition wasn’t too bad. I knew that at least part of the loop would be easily navigable.

As the trail gradually gained elevation along the creek, we saw classic west-side wildflowers: coralroot, twinflower, vanilla leaf, wild ginger. It was lush and dense, hardly impacted by the fire. Occasionally, the trail would disappear amid charred tree skeletons and windblown dirt slopes. But looking closely for clues, I kept us on track.

Wild ginger

A few miles in, the trail began to climb fervently in a series of switchbacks, heading for the meadows beneath Rebel Rock. But we had set our sights on the summit, so we angled straight up the steep hillside. The meadow, seemingly a monoculture of thimbleberry, gave up its secrets only once we were crashing through it. Among the soft, broad thimbleberry leaves hid lupine, bluebell, larkspur, cow parsnip and innumerable other perennials. Strangely noticeable and consistently in our way, red columbine boldly marked our path all the way to the summit.

Bushwhacking

The top, a viewless jumble of dead beargrass and fallen fir trees, was not a remarkable place to hang out. So we returned to the adjacent meadow to have some lunch and enjoy views of the neighboring peaks. We could see the remainder of the loop trail, on the burned-up ridge where the lookout once stood. My original plan was to do this high-point mission as an out-and-back; but that ridge looked so enticing. As I finished my sandwich, we discussed our next move: we’d chance the ridge. I was hoping for some nice views through the burn, but I was concerned about how destroyed the trail would be.

Looking across a meadow to the burnt ridge, the second half of our adventure.

Our return route to the trail brought us down very steep-sided meadows filled with wildflowers. We had to skirt some steep cliffs and forest patches along the way. Back on the overgrown but still noticeable trail, we were greeted to a fantastic wildflower show that shifted from west-side blooms to east-side beauties as we entered the burn. All that sunshine fostered a happy environment for Oregon sunshine, cat’s ear, several variety of buckwheat, farewell-to-spring, sedum and owl’s clover. We were dumbstruck by the quantity and diversity of the blooming plants all around us. It was one of my highlights of the year so far.

Buckwheat and Oregon sunshine, loving the sunny ridge

At times, I got distracted by a colorful new flower that led me off trail, but for the most part my fears of losing the route were unfounded. We floated along blissfully as we poked, squeezed and prodded every flower that caught our eye. We found Washington lilies as tall as LeeAnn and big, poufy buckwheat clusters that melted my heart. Butterflies bounced from flower to flower, gliding in the gentle breeze. In the distance, the Three Sisters jutted up behind the Old Cascades peaks, framed by stands of burnt trees. We had found a peaceful Shangri-La tucked away in the side of the Three Sisters Wilderness most people will never visit. All it took was a little sweat, stubbornness and curiosity. I never wanted to leave.

A typical section of meadow trail. Yes, there is a trail here.

Leaving that last big meadow, the trail dropped into Trail Creek basin via a series of switchbacks. Some of these were quite tricky to find, but between the two of us, we stayed on track…until we didn’t.

Less than 2 miles from the car we encountered a huge downed tree on the trail. Not to worry, I thought, we’ve already tackled several of these today. But on the other side of the tree, there was no trace of a trail. We descended a steep slope littered with boulders, loose rock and bare dirt with a few scraggly shrubs to keep things interesting. To our left, there was a steep gully that I knew we had to cross. But where?

We eventually found a safe place to scramble down and then back up the other side, kicking steps into the duff and grabbing onto tree limbs (after testing them for integrity). After some serious sweat and maybe a few tears, we popped right back onto the trail. Out of curiosity, we followed it back upslope to see where we’d made our mistake. Of course, a hidden switchback crossing the gully lay beneath that big wreck of a tree.

At that point, we were home free. The remainder of the trail was a delight; we’d still have more flowers to discover. A ghost orchid? I had no idea that was a thing. And ripe blackberries? YES PLEASE!

Ghost orchid

I wonder how such magical trails like these fall to the wayside and get forgotten. With more and more people heading to the outdoors, we really need places like this to get some maintenance and use. Otherwise, they become historical footnotes. I’ve contacted the Forest Service to see if there are plans to resurrect these trails, and I’m ready to step in and help if need be.

South Rabbit Ear attempt

November 30, 2019.

5.8 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

Photo album

I’d been dreaming of visiting the Organ Mountains ever since I saw that first image of them online. I can’t remember how exactly I learned about this little range, but it was love at first sight. The Organ Mountains consist of a series of tightly packed, steep spires and peaks located near New Mexico’s southern border. The craggy highpoints rise dramatically from the flat, desert landscape below. Protected by cactus, yucca and other impossibly thorny and twisted plants, the approaches to these gorgeous peaks are notoriously heinous. While a few peaks, like Organ Needle, had a great deal of information about them online, many were cloaked in mystery. Whether they don’t see many ascents, they are only reachable by rock climbing methods or they’re just too much of a pain to get to, I couldn’t be sure. The only way to know was to go try for myself.

I chose South Rabbit Ear because it wasn’t too far (as the numbers go), looked pretty and had an interesting third class route to the summit, meaning no ropes required. We didn’t have room for technical gear in our luggage, so we were stuck to exploring only the pedestrian routes. Should I want to try for the 4th class route on Organ Needle—the range’s highpoint—later in the trip, I’d have a better idea of what to expect.

As we drove along the edge of the Organs, I craned my neck to look up at all the jagged cliffs, trying to figure out which was which. The topo map showed lots of tightly packed contour lines, with only a few peaks actually labeled. All the summits were so close together it would be impossible to identify them all. Using the scant beta that I had, I made a mental picture of where we were headed.

We stopped at a small dirt pullout near a cattle gate. “I think this is it?” I said with reluctance. My eyes settled in on our destination. Everything looked so close.

The hike began up an old mining road, now apparently the middle of a pasture. We walked among a herd of cows, past a crumbling rock cabin and to the end of the road. Now what? It was clear by then that I had misidentified our mountain, and while we were definitely on route, we were going to a different spot than I thought.

I eyeballed the canyon we needed to enter in order to make it up to the base of South Rabbit Ear and we made a beeline in that direction. Well, kind of. I was soon introduced to the plant lovingly called catclaw acacia. Imagine this: with every step you take, you’re attacked by a gaggle of cats (actually, a clowder of cats, but who knows that?). They try desperately to pull your pants off as you walk forward. Then, imagine the ground is peppered with cactus. And the sharp leaves of yucca and sotol. Did I mention the ocotillo? I didn’t have to imagine because I was there. It was incredibly slow-going and frustrating. But, I almost forgot: the ground was littered with large boulders, which we couldn’t really see until we were right on top of them, because acacia. We thrashed through this mess for a while until I heard Aaron say “hey, I think I found a trail!”

I grumpily headed in his direction, mostly because of the vegetation but also because he found the trail before I did.

Had I known there was a user trail, perhaps we would have taken some time to look for it before plunging into the unknown. In retrospect, however, the start of the trail was not located in an intuitive spot, so I think we did just as good as we could have.

The trail led us right into the canyon, where we could hear the sound of rushing water. This was not awesome, because from that point we’d need to walk up the canyon. So now we were avoiding getting our feet wet too.

We rock-hopped up the picturesque and inviting canyon. Despite the water, it was easier to scramble up the canyon because there weren’t as many pointy things to avoid. But the canyon had another obstacle to throw at us: shade. (Yes, the canyon threw shade at us).

For a moment, let’s try and feel the weather conditions that we experienced that day. The sun was up and the sky was the bluest of blue. However, it was cold. How cold? I can’t be sure. But we were bundled up, even in the sunshine. The wind blew consistently throughout the day and it got more violent the higher we climbed. It was as if the universe was telling us: JUST GO HOME.

Once in the shade, we added more layers to fight against the bitter cold.

That’s not all, folks.

“Oh shit,” I mumbled. Straight ahead of us, coating the rocky ledges, was a sheet of ice. I made a conscious decision at the trailhead to leave my Yaktrax at the car because if the conditions warranted them, I didn’t want to continue. We didn’t have our full winter complement of gear because, again, of lack of luggage space. And I knew that I didn’t want to push my abilities in a brand new area with unfamiliar obstacles. Plus, I was basically the trip leader; I had to look out for Aaron’s safety and happiness too. I did not want to drag him up into some Type 2 adventure that he would not appreciate.

We were kind of in it, though. With no traction devices for our shoes, we carefully skirted around the edge of the icy rocks. It was a good exercise in communication skills as well as routefinding. We worked together as a team to choose the best path through the myriad obstacles, helping each other find our confidence and our footing. As we bypassed one sketchy ledge after another, I could see some sunlight up ahead. There was no way we’d be able to summit this peak today, due to the conditions and the amount of sunlight we had left, so my new goal was to climb up into the sunshine and to get close to the base of the route.

Our pace slowed as we were up against the wind and our (mental and physical) fatigue. It felt like a long walk into the sun. Once we were there, we sat out of the wind and ate some snacks, rallying for the downclimb. As I rested I looked all around me; the sun was so bright and warm. Despite the challenges, I felt like I was in paradise. Icefalls trickled down the vertical cliffs to our left. Cute, little cactui poked out from the smallest rocky crevasses. Frozen water droplets clung to the thick brush at the base of the sheer walls. I was grateful to have made it this far. The summit, naturally, feels like a suitable end point. But summits are not guaranteed, and perhaps that is part of the allure of climbing.

I was a little nervous about being able to find our route down through the obstacle course, but it ended up being much easier than I thought. Once we neared the point in the canyon that connected with the use trail, we searched desperately for a cairn to get us back on track. With a little thrashing around, we located our path and took it all the way back to the mining road. Sure enough, there was a big, weird switchback right before the road that we never would have found on the way up.

Back at the car, I collapsed into the front seat and reached for more food and more warm layers. It had been a day.

Cross-O Mountain

November 25, 2019.

4.6 mi | 1400′ ele. gain | 3.5 hr.

View from the top of Cross-O Mountain

Photo album

“It’s not that far of a walk…”

After leaving White Sands, we drove into Las Cruces for our first restaurant meal after camping for over a week. Then it was on to Hatch, New Mexico to buy some chiles. Lastly, we needed a place to stay for the night. I spotted some camping opportunities in the Gila National Forest, and we headed that way. We ended up driving all the way up and over Emory Pass, watching the sun drop lower and lower in the sky. At a sign for Wright’s Cabin picnic area, we pulled over immediately. On Google Maps it was listed as a campground, but that was clearly wrong. With a lack of “no camping” signage deterring us, we took it as an invitation to spend the night.

We hastily gathered wood for a fire: the FIRST campfire we’d been allowed to have this whole trip! We wouldn’t be stuck in our tent as soon as night fell! It was really exciting.

The following morning, I scrambled to put a hike itinerary together. Since I wasn’t sure where we’d end up spending the night, I didn’t have a map or a hike planned for the morning. Before leaving home I remember searching on the internet for ideas. I remembered the name “Cross-O” and made a rough estimate of how long the hike would be. With no cell phone data to confirm, we packed up and went for it.

The wind was blowing like crazy. We zipped up, layered up and started moving. Our trail disappeared within a half mile of the trailhead, so we bushwacked a bit and picked it back up again. The area had burned in 2013, which cleared out lots of trees and made it easier for us to see through the forest. The well-graded and maintained trail made it easy for us to get within spitting distance of Cross-O.

We didn’t have to go that far off the trail, but travel was significantly more difficult without a path. Patches of snow, steep hillsides, cactus and yucca provided formidable barriers to progress. We slowly made our way upwards, hoping our summit would come into view at any moment. The wind continued ripping by, and although we were working hard we stayed nestled in all our layers. I was fglad I’d left my long johns on underneath my hiking pants.

When we reached the top of the peak, I dug around for a summit register. It was a glass peanut butter jar, with only one entry in it from this year. Despite being so close to the trail, it apparently sees few visitors. My kind of place.

I asked Aaron if he’d prefer to go back the way we came or to make a beeline straight down the slope to the trail below. Our way up was slightly longer, but more gentle, than my proposed hike down. We decided to take the “shortcut.”

This went really well for a short distance, and then we plunged into a thicket of twisted trees. In between the trees, thorny plants snagged our pants and shoelaces. It was so much type 2 fun.

We stubbornly pushed ahead, dreading the thought of slogging back up slope to go down the other ridge. Miraculously, we made it all the way back to the trail, deftly avoiding some camouflaged barbed wire that could have made for a really bad day.

After hiking off-trail, no matter what distance, it always feels amazing to travel on an actual path designed for walking. The rest of the hike was easy. We managed to follow the trail back to the car, correcting our previous error (the trail turned onto a gravel road with no signage to indicate that).

All I wanted to do at that moment was get out of the wind. But I was happy to have sneaked in a hike, tagged an off-trail highpoint and visited a new wilderness area, all before lunch.

Alkali Flat Loop

November 24, 2019.

5 mi. | 500′ ele. gain | 2 hr.

alkali flat

Photo album

We’d hiked the nature trails. We toured Lake Lucero. We spent a night on the dunes. The only thing left to do in White Sands National Monument was to hike the Alkali Flat Loop.

I’m going to be perfectly honest. This hike was incredibly boring. We followed trail-marking posts for five miles along gently undulating sand-colored sand dunes. No one was ahead of us but a couple of hikers were always right in view, just out of earshot to our rear. The sand was cold and there was nothing to see out there. Well, there was one thing to see: a curious building way off into the distance. We walked towards it but never seemed to get any closer.

Finally, around the midpoint of our hike we came to a sign. It sternly warned us to stick to the trail because there were unexploded munitions beyond the sign. The building was located way beyond the sign, so the only interesting thing we’d sighted was far off the trail. Solemnly, we circled back and finished the loop. At the parking lot we descended into throngs of people posing with props for social media, sledding down the sand hills and just generally taking up space. It was an anticlimactic way to end our stay at White Sands. If I had to do it all again I’d skip this loop altogether.

Onward to new adventures in Las Cruces, New Mexico.