June 25, 2010

Snow, snow, go away!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 12:04 pm
At the "corral"

At the "corral"

We had fourteen hikers turn out for the trek up Church Mountain, and I think I speak for just about everyone when I say we are getting more than a little fed up with all this snow. But at least it didn’t rain this time. It was more or less sunny when we started up the trail, but the clouds descended as we rose.

I turned and grabbed the picture on the right as we reached the old hitching rail at the first switchback. This first stretch was once a continuation of the road and the “corral” marks the spot where the workers would unload the mules and supplies for the resupply trips to the fire lookout that used to perch on the summit. Many of our favorite trails follow these old mule trails.

The whole crew

The whole crew

The trip was uneventful and we made good time. The trail is quite steep and relentlessly uphill, but it was a walk in the park compared to last week’s slog to Welcome Pass. The very, very steepest bits of the Church trail are about like the average for Welcome.

We arrived at the edge of the meadows at about 11:30 and, and after checking that everyone was present and accounted for, set off across the snow. We had never expected to make it to the fire lookout site on this day, but were heading for one of the pretty open areas in the meadows where the views are.

At least I thought we were all crossing the snow – I was busy finding and kicking a track in the solid but slippery-mushy snow (and punching the occasional posthole) before I noticed that about half the group had stopped and settled down for lunch back at the tree line. Ah, well.

The ad hoc forward contingent didn’t go far before we, too, settled down on a snow-free spot on top of a little knoll, still within view of the rear guard, where we could enjoy the skimpy views that the descending cloud cover permitted. Baker was hidden both by trees and clouds, but a small piece of Ptarmigan Ridge managed to slip under the clouds and between the trees.

Ptarmigan Ridge

Ptarmigan Ridge

The trip down was fast and as trouble free as the way up had been, a far cry from last week, when people were sliding and falling every which way. The trail was mostly dry and gentle enough that you could actually take something like a normal step most of the time. The only problem was that some hikers seemed to be suffering from an advanced case of chocolate deprivation – Jan, our steadfast blogger and provider of fresh brownies was forced to choose between us and a day in the dentist chair, and we lost.

By the time we reached the trailhead, the sun was out again. All in all, very nice day in the woods, if I do say so. But we really could do with a little sun (or even rain, but not on Thursdays) to clear away the snow. Unfortunately, the forecast is for the cool weather to continue indefinitely, so it will continue to be a challenge to find good high country hikes in the coming weeks.

June 20, 2010

Welcome, everyone!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 10:51 am

I was amazed on Thursday morning when 17 hikers turned out on a cloudy, drizzly morning for our hike to Welcome Pass. It is by far the steepest trail in the area, and was the source of many moans and groans last year when we did it as a group for the first time. A combination of a low snow line due to a lot of May snow and closures for road work had closed off most trails and we chose Welcome Pass only as a last resort.

Gore-Tex centipede

The Great Gore-Tex Centipede

The trail climbs more than 2700 feet in less than three miles, which doesn’t sound outlandish – trails that climb at 1000 feet per mile are considered pretty steep, but there are several others: Goat Mt, Excelsior Pass and Church Mt all reach that steepness at times. But the trick here is that the trail follows and old logging road track for the first mile and only goes up 400 feet – that leaves less than 2 miles for the remaining 2300 feet, working out to an average of about 1300 feet per mile.

The other striking thing about the trail is its compactness – that steep section covers only 0.7 mile as the crow flies: there are 67 switchbacks. I was setting a pretty slow pace (i.e., as fast as I could go without my heart exploding) so we were grouped closer together than usual – some of the switchbacks are so close together that only 4 or 5 hikers could fit on one segment. In the picture on the left (whose dreadful quality is probably due to some combination of rain, darkness, poor focus and camera movement) I have just passed a switchback and am looking down on the previous segment. In the lower left corner, Fred in his orange hat is on the segment below that one. Once on a snowshoe trip in the Sierras, someone commented that the chain of hikers looked like an enormous Gore-Tex centipede, but I’m not sure that centipedes can bend like that – we were more like a multi-colored sidewinder.

Welcome Pass

Welcome Pass

We encountered packed snow across the trail at about 4800 feet. That was much better than I’d hoped for, since the previous week we only got to 4400 feet on the Excelsior Pass trail just a few miles away. It hasn’t been terribly warm, so I was not expecting a whole lot of melting action, although the streams have been running very high and fast. I said as a joke that maybe this slope was too steep for snow to accumulate, but I’m not sure it’s a joke.

It was a difficult slog up through the snow, but we did make it all the way to the pass. The person who had left a set of boot tracks did a good job of following the trail, as it showed through the snow every now and then. Unfortunately, he may have been related to Paul Bunyon – I could hardly ever stretch my legs from one bootprint to the next, so I had to kick in a lot of fresh tracks. (Is there a rule that short people are never allowed to blaze trails?) And since the surface of this packed and melting snow is slippery and irregular and littered with cones and needles, it can be a real advantage to step in a spot which has been flattened and compressed by a boot.

Down thru the snow

Down thru the snow

The pass itself looked for all the world like winter had returned full force. Last year several hikers went on up the ridge to the hill to the east to enjoy the great views, but this time everyone was quite content to remain at the pass for lunch. We were right in the heart of the cloud that had been gently misting us all morning, and the only view was of the trees we had lately been walking through.

The way back down was as difficult in some ways as the way up. Several people took a tumble in the snow, and there was a lot of slipping, sliding and pratfalls even below the snow line. Did I mention that it was steep? And then there were the loose rocks and stones, the saturated ground…

This last picture I believe captures the day in a number of ways – the wet ground, the snow, the fog. Amy and Kathy are, once again, one switchback away and you can see how intently they are picking their way down the snow. And between them in the misted distance you can see Mike, in his shorts, at least one switchback further back.

I can still feel just the slightest twinges in my quads and glutes on Sunday morning, but it is much better than last year, when I didn’t regain full use of lower body until the following Tuesday. I remember going to the gym (i.e., sauna) on that Saturday and just stepping off a curb was painful. I was in a choral concert that evening and was seriously concerned that I would not be able to get down off the risers without assistance.

What was different this year? The slower pace? Better conditioning? (This was our third high country hike.) We’re certainly not getting any younger!

June 15, 2010

June bustin’ out all over? Not so much.

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 4:14 pm

Our approach to summer proceeds at a pace that honors the beloved State Inveterbrate of Washington – the slug.

Thursday a group of 13 set off on the Excelsior Pass Trail in a light mist that grew into a light rain as we hiked. As on Goat Mountain the week before, we reached the snow at about 4300′ of altitude, but since there was zero chance of getting to any views we did not persist far beyond that point. We “enjoyed” one of the soggiest lunch times in recorded human history and toddled back down to the cars.

But it was a good workout! Getting in shape for summer…

Table Mountain

On Sunday a small group headed east with snowshoes to enjoy the last of the snow. Of the many available treks, we decided to go to the Baker Ski Area and head up to Herman Saddle along the Chain Lakes Trail (or as much of it as we could find.) It was sunny and gorgeous. which was a great antidote to the gloom of Thursday. But the snow conditions were not wonderful – it was well packed, without an icy crust, but the top layer was soft and a bit wet. Our crampons would seem to get a good grip, but then the top couple of inches of snow would break loose from the lower layers and you’d slide down a bit, kind of like a micro-miniature slab avalanche under your foot.

We headed up from the parking lot toward Table Mountain, looking for a safe path across Bagley Creek to the trail. We got down to the creek near the little bridge that crosses at the outlet to Upper Bagley Lake, but we couldn’t see a safe path. We would have to walk on snow sloping to the side at nearly 45 degrees – it might have been manageable with fresher snow, but not on this day.

So we changed gears and decided to head up toward Artist Point along the Wild Goose Trail, our most common snowshoe route and always good for views of Mount Baker. But we were now a couple of hundred feet below the visitor center and the trail. After a bit of backtracking we managed to climb back up and then faced the issue of the famous “Cardiac Hill” – a very steep cat-track at the edge of the Ski Area that is used as a return run during the ski season. It goes from one point on the road to another, but it cuts off a long set of switchbacks, and so is about three times as steep as the road. Given the slippery conditions we considered staying on the road, but in the end we just slogged up the hill – it went OK, but no one was too crazy about coming back down that way. (And we didn’t.)

Heading to Pan Dome

At the top of Cardiac Hill, you get the choice of heading for Panorama Dome instead of Artist Point. In ski season Pan Dome can be like Grand Central Station and the approaches full of skiers and boarders flying by at freakishly high speeds – a snowshoer takes his life in his hands to venture among them. But on this day there were only a few hard-core boarders dragging themselves around on the hills, and Mike and I had never been to Pan Dome, so Marjan and Frank led us up.

Shuksan from Pan Dome

Shuksan from Pan Dome

The sun was beginning to hide itself but we still had some great views. It was interesting to learn that it is in fact possible to at least see Mount Baker from some points within the Mount Baker Ski Area. (I’ve met people who have been skiing there for years and believed that they were actually skiing on Mount Baker itself.)

I took some bracketed pictures (several pictures of the same scene, but at different exposure levels) so that I could experiment with some High Dynamic Range photography (HDR) software that I am trying out. The idea is that some very contrasty scenes, such a snowy mountain in the sunshine with dark trees in the shade, are not handled well by most cameras. Our eye-brains can average things out and see detail everywhere, but a photo will either show the trees with the mountains all washed out, or a lovely mountain with a black, featureless foreground. To use HDR you take two or three (or more) pictures at different exposures (if you camera permits) and the software somehow finds the area of greatest detail in each picture and attempts to blend them together. Like magic!

By the time we got to Pan Dome and I had time to fiddle around with this, the sun was mostly gone and the lighting was getting flat, so I don’t think that day was the ideal test. But I’ve included a view to the northwest which was improved a bit by the HDR trickery.

North Cascades from Pan Dome

June 7, 2010

Springtime in the Cascades

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 8:51 pm

When we set up the June hiking schedule back in February, the snowfall in the mountains had been pretty light and we chose to schedule some high country hikes earlier than usual. Last Thursday that planning ran into reality on our hike to Goat Mountain. We had been warned of snow at 4000 feet (about 3 miles along the trail) by the Forest Service, but that “intel” was almost three weeks old. It was sunny and pleasant and we were hopeful.

Spring in the Cascades

Karen had brought a clipping from a hiking book that described a short trail that supposedly spurred off the main Goat Mountain trail for a about a half a mile to the site of an old “lookout cabin”. This had come up last summer on our last trip to Goat, and I was convinced that is was complete nonsense. I had hiked this trail many times and many features of this book’s description, including that spur trail, had made no sense at all to me, not the least being that it would be a pretty silly place for a lookout – on the side of a mountain, well below tree line. What were they looking out for? Squirrels?

But we followed the book’s directions and watched carefully after passing the boundary sign for the Mount Baker Wilderness. I had been pretty vocal about my disdain for the whole concept, to say the least, and so was more than a little surprised, and chagrined, to find signs of a trail right where it was supposed to be! We skipped it for the time being, but pencilled it in for exploration on another day.

When the bough breaks...

We continued on and got all the way to the 4000 foot level without even seeing any snow, on or off the trail. But all of a sudden at about 4200 feet the trail disappeared beneath mounds of the white stuff. We kept on for awhile, but it was pretty rough going, and after post-holing into a few voids and a snow bridge I lost most of my enthusiasm for reaching those spectacular views of Mount Shuksan that appear at our usual stopping point. As it was already noon, we found a large bare spot among some trees and settled down for lunch. Cindy managed to find a couple of trunks that were nearly horizontal and formed a sort of sling or hammock, and did some serious basking.

While we didn’t make it to the alpine terrain, we did enjoy some nice views of Mounts Herman, Sefrit and Shuksan peeking through clouds. And the tip of Grant Peak on Mount Baker just peeped over the top of Mount Herman.

Baker peeking over Mt Herman

Since our trip had been cut short, we decided to explore the mysterious lookout trail on the way down. We schussed and hiked back down to the 3700 foot level and set off on the abandoned trail. It was easy going right at the beginning but we soon ran into some bushes that needed whacking, and it turned out to be steeper than I’d expected. Before we’d gone the advertised half mile we started to run into the snow again and the trail started to disappear. We did indeed find a level spot that could have been a cabin site; in fact we found two of them. There was even a bit of a view between the trees, but I still don’t quite believe the “lookout” part of the story. Maybe a prospector’s cabin? The bedrock that Goat Mountain is made of, the Darrington Phyllite, has hosted most of the gold mining activity in the Mount Baker region, although I don’t know that were mines on Goat, itself.

I have to put in one more picture, this of a trillium blossom next to the trail on the way down. It is a graphic illustration of the compression of the seasons in the mountains that this picture was taken less than 15 minutes after the “Spring in the Cascades” photo above.


P.S. For some really nice pictures from this hike, see DJan’s Blog.

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