September 15, 2010

Keeping Cool

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 6:50 pm
This is a trail?

This is a trail?

Today I hiked the old Keep Cool Trail for the first time. I just had to get out and take advantage of what promised to be the last fine day for awhile. Bellingham was submerged in fog as I started out Mount Baker Highway but it cleared before I got to Deming, revealing perfectly clear skies. I got to the trailhead at 3000′ on Twin Lakes Road just after 9:00 and headed out.

The Keep Cool Trail has been disowned by the Forest Service for about 10 years and the lack of maintenance was clear within a few steps of the trailhead, as the brush quickly closed in. The first half mile or so follows a long-abandoned logging road so it isn’t very steep but is heavily overgrown. The rains of the past few days and the morning’s foggy, foggy dew meant that I was quickly drenched from head to toe, despite the clear skies and fresh breeze. In some places the old roadbed is entirely obliterated, so the footing is difficult even on this “easier” part of the trail, especially since it is often hard to see the ground through the brush.

Shuksan peek-a-view

Shuksan peek-a-view

At about 3500 feet elevation, the character of the trail changes abruptly when, after switch-backing up the old road, the trail turns and head straight up the mountain. Reminiscent of Boulder Ridge, it is very steep, rutted and rooted, gaining the next 500′ in less than half the distance of the first 500′. There are also some pretty substantial deadfall situations to get past. The good news is that, for such a wooded hike, there are some nice little peek-a-views of Baker, Shuksan and even Larrabee.

At 4000′ the trail plateaus for a short while, giving a welcome respite from the climb. It is here that I lost track of the trail on my only other visit several years ago. I had come up to go snowshoeing and Twin Lakes Road happened to be passable to this trailhead. I was able to follow the trail this far through the snow and mush along on the level, but when it got steeper I had no idea where I was going and had to turn around. And this time was similar – just as the trail started to steepen again, there was a big fallen tree, too high to go over and too low to go under, right before the trail made a jog to the left. I chose to go to the right to get around the tree and it took a bit of hunting to find the trail again.

Quartz dike in Yellow Aster Gneiss

Quartz dike in Yellow Aster Gneiss

The next section was as steep as the earlier one, often following a lovely stream. In fact “following” is too weak a word – it was hard to tell whether it was more correct to say that there was water on the trail or thatI was hiking in a creek.

After about 2.5 miles, at 4700′, the trail emerges into an open meadows with great views to the south and east. It had taken me almost 2.5 hours to get here, so I stopped for a snack and a rest. The remainder of the trail alternates between level and damp (even boggy at times) and very steep, but it simply gorgeous. The flowers were everywhere and even the rock outcroppings were interesting, especially a large, snow-white quartz dike over a foot wide right across the trail.

The Destination

The Destination

Old Adventures

As I looked up at the mountains ahead I began to remember a couple of adventures I’d had a number of years ago in this area, both centered an unnamed peak which now appeared above me. It is southwest of Yellow Aster Butte, on the opposite side of the chains of little lakes (often called “tarns”, mistakenly, I believe) that feed the stream that I had been “following”. This peak would stand in the way if you wanted to travel from the Yellow Aster area over to Welcome Pass and the rest of High Divide. So Earl and I accompanied his friend Lee in an attempt to find a way. We came up the new Yellow Aster trail, via Gold Run Pass, and had someone take the car to meet us at the Welcome Pass trailhead, so there was no turning back.

Now, when faced with any large obstacle to travel, there are three obvious possibilities: go around it to the left, go over the top, or go around to the right. It turns out, in retrospect, that two of these are reasonable – we chose the third.

Going over the top looks extremely forbidding, and going left is the long way around and looks overgrown. So we went right, directly into a nightmare. We started out going down a slope that was so steep that I was pretty sure I couldn’t get back up. We scrambled on rocks and scree, and sometimes a grip on a bit of heather was all that was between me and … I don’t want to think about it. This was very early in my hiking career, before I lost 35 pounds (leaving the ranks of the “obese” and joining those who are merely “overweight”). It was pretty awful, but we survived, even though it meant hiking down the obscenely steep Welcome Pass late in the waning day, getting to the trailhead in full darkness.

A couple of years later I took my first overnight hike in the North Cascades and chose to camp in the Yellow Aster lakes area. It was my plan to try going around the peak to the left, but in a more controlled way, avoiding any “point of no return” situations. I’ll spare the details, but it turned out that I found a trail, albeit a scratchy and precarious one, right over the top of the peak, and a longer, safer way around the left side.

Back on the Trail

Close-up of Bell Pass Melange

Bell Pass Melange

I hadn’t a clear destination in mind for this hike, but as I looked up at the unnamed peak, I decided to try to make it up there. After one more steep section, at 5200′ the trail comes to the first of the chain of small lakes and becomes a gentle ramble through rocks of the Yellow Aster Complex with lots of the quartz seams that drew so many prospectors here in search of gold and lead. The trail up to the summit was even steeper than I remembered (six years of aging may have had something to do with that) but the reward was a spectacular 360 degree mountain panorama. Just before reaching the top, there is a dramatic outcropping of the Bell Pass Melange, and as I scrambled around it the steep slope to my left, covered with blueberry plants in their brilliant red fall plumage, made a frame for Mount Baker and gave me one of my favorite pictures in a long time.

Baker and blueberries

Baker and blueberries

There was one ominous sight from the summit: I could see what looked a lot like fresh snow on Mount Redoubt in the distance. This could be a very short hiking season, indeed.

New snow on Mount Redoubt

New snow on Mount Redoubt?

It had taken me 4 hours to climb these 4 miles and the return trip was not going to be much easier so I realized that I was going to be home later than expected. Luckily the peak has direct sightline to the cell tower at the Mount Baker Ski Area and I was able call home – it kind of weird to be on top of a mountain making a phone call.

The way down from the peak was considerably more challenging than I remembered. Part way down I even considered tossing my pack down, since it was holding me out further from the rock face than was comfortable; I also could have turned around and backed down, but that technique has it’s own issues. Eventually I found a nice safe place to plant a foot and lowered myself uneventfully. And I remembered later that I had never gone down this trail with a pack before – on my camping trip I just took a small fanny pack on this side trip.

The rest of the trip down was pleasant, although it did take me 3 hours. In summary, this hike would be a good choice on a summer weekend – get a good workout and avoid the crowds. But don’t even think of doing it in the rain.


I got back just in time to stop in and check out the new restaurant east of Glacier called “Chair 9”. Their sign just says “bar and pizza” but they have a fairly broad menu, including salads and buffalo steaks and burgers. The service was friendly and prompt and the pizza was quite tasty, even if the crust was a bit soft for my taste.


1 Comment »

  1. Wow, Al, two hikes in two days? I’m just getting up on Thursday, hoping for decent weather on our Herman Saddle hike. I absolutely LOVE that picture of Baker and blueberries, stunning, to say the least! See you soon…

    Comment by DJan — September 16, 2010 @ 5:56 am

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