June 13, 2011

Good intel, bad news

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 9:08 pm

This morning Fred and I headed up Mount Baker Highway to get a first-hand assessment of the snow conditions on the trails along High Divide, which are usually the first of the high country trails to melt out. The Trailblazers hiking group is scheduled to go to Excelsior Pass and Welcome Pass on the next two Thursdays, so the original plan was to try Excelsior. But when I mentioned that I would be out of town for the Welcome Pass hike Fred suggested that we do that one instead so that I would not be deprived of the feelings of accomplishment and joy that accompany that hike.

[At this point his tongue was so far into his cheek that his face was about to explode, since Welcome Pass is without question the most difficult hike in our area – short and extremely steep, with a nice but modest payoff in the way of scenery at the top. And the low hanging clouds above us promised to deny even that reward on this day. Did I mention steep?]

But I took him up on it. We already had a solid report that Excelsior has been manageable for several weeks, despite a good bit of snow on the trail, and it is pretty reasonable to assume that the snow level on the two hikes is about the same, given their similar situations, so a trip to Welcome Pass should give us the desired information.

Fred at stream

Fred at stream

Our first sign that the day was not going to be a walk in the park was the difficulty of crossing this little stream early in the hike. This is in the first mile of the hike, The Teaser, where the trail is pretty gentle – following a long-abandoned logging road. So insignificant was this stream that neither of us even recalled its existence – but today it was a challenge to pick our way across the slippery rocks. [The picture was taken on the way down, by which time the flow had increased to the point where we climbed about 100 feet upstream to find a safer crossing.] We took this as good news – it hadn’t rained much lately so this meant that there was some serious melting going on higher up.

After that first mile the trail suddenly changes character and climbs toward the pass at a killer rate. I kept telling myself, “Don’t look ahead, don’t think too much – just put one foot in front of the other.” But a bit later I looked down and saw that I wasn’t even doing that – it was all I could do to pull each foot up alongside the other and maybe a few inches further!

At about 4000′ we saw our first patches of snow and by 4200′ the trail was completely covered by solid, congealed old snow. It was not not icy, however, and soft enough to kick steps into. The surface had lots of depressions which made for pretty good footing and we could follow some footprints that must have been left by some of the people who had signed the roster on the day before.

So we kept going. Since I hadn’t planned to do this hike today, I didn’t load my GPS with the hike info and was going by memory. My recollection was that the pass was at about 4700-4800 feet so it didn’t seem completely unreasonable that we might make it to the top.

That hope dissipated at about 4500′. We had lost the trail quite awhile ago, but had been on a section of the trail that climbs more or less straight up along a small ridge (most of the upper section of the trail consists of short, steep switchbacks, about 70 in all) – but when we got to the end of that ridge there was no clear path. We punched on for a bit but I was having a very hard time of it. And then I thought about what it would be like going back down the snow (always harder than going up) and threw in the towel.

After a short break and a snack – it was now 11:30 – we started back down. It was tempting to be only 2-300′ feet from the top but considering how much time and energy I’d expended in the 300′ since we hit solid snow, it seemed the wiser course. [After I got home and checked the map, finding that the pass is actually at 5200′, it seemed even wiser. Lucky is more like it.]

And indeed I had quite a struggle getting back down the first 50 feet or so. Fred seemed to fly down, but my vertigo rebelled at the steepness. I had to sit down and kick my heels in ahead of me, slide down a little, kick in some new footholds, slide a little – I am sure I never in my life worked so hard going downhill. I was very happy to eventually set foot on dirt again.

There had been occasional drizzles on the way up, a bit more on the way down and it finally changed to just plain rain. Given all the steepness and struggles I was already soaked with sweat so I was one soggy puppy by the time we got back to the car. We gave up the idea of also exploring the site of the Great Excelsior Gold Mine and just headed for home.


The rain may hasten the melting of the snow, but we agreed that the snow on Welcome Pass trail is much more likely to endure for the next ten days than the proverbial snowball in hell. Perhaps the trail would be ready if we had ten days of warmth and brilliant sun, or better yet, ten days of heavy rain, but neither of those is very likely. We’ll have to bump this hike for now – maybe we can pull it back in later in the summer if there is another undoable hike.

[What do I mean, “IF?”. Canyon Creek Road is currently closed; so is Hannegan Pass Road; I’ve heard no mention of even trying to clear the road to Artist Point.]

On the other hand, I do still think it is worthwhile to try for Excelsior Pass on Thursday. The trailhead is 600′ lower so it will take longer to reach the snow; the trail is wider and more well-defined than Welcome; it is also a steep trail, but a nice steady 1000′ per mile compared to Welcome’s ridiculous 1500′ per mile. The only reason we had trouble with the snow travel today was the extreme steepness – the footing on the snow was in some ways better than the bare trail had been.

And I know a lot of people are eager to get up into the high country again – this seems to be our best bet for now.



  1. What!??! You mean we can’t do Welcome Pass right away? Too bad!! (tongue firmly planted in cheek) — It does sound quite grueling, Al. But I’m sure glad you got that intel, it really helps to know what it’s like up there. Looking forward to Excelsior…

    Comment by DJan — June 14, 2011 @ 5:58 am

  2. In the news today, they said that they aren’t going to open Artist Point this summer.

    Comment by Justin — July 1, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    • Yes, they are just going as far as the Heather Meadows visitor center. But that will get you to the Chain Lakes trail, and maybe Lake Ann (with a bit more effort). Or we may just be snowshoeing all summer!!

      Comment by geezerwriter — July 1, 2011 @ 8:50 am

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