July 24, 2011

Return to Keep Cool

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 5:34 pm

On Saturday Fred and I drove up into the mountains to investigate the old “Keep Cool” trail as a possibility for this Thursday’s hike with the Senior Trailblazers. We are still bedeviled by the extraordinary snowpack in the North Cascades, a residue from heavy snowfalls during the spring months. We are scheduled to go on the new Yellow Aster Butte trail but the Forest Service says that it is only open and snow-free for 1.25 miles, about the point where the trail curves around to the north side of a ridge. I know just the place they are talking about as I have been there and done that – the trail winds around in a meadow and gets lost under the snowpack and then, if you manage to find it, climbs up the side of a steep slope before it comes out into the sun again.

Shuksan from the lower trail

Shuksan from the lower trail

The Keep Cool trail is the old route to Yellow Aster Butte. It starts at about 3000 feet (500′ lower than the new trail) and has something for everyone. It starts gently on an abandoned logging road (with some nice views of Shuksan and Baker) and then goes on a somewhat steeper, even-longer-abandoned road. Then there is a short stretch (2-300′) where it does a credible imitation of the steepness of the Welcome Pass trail before coming to a wooded ledge or plateau at about 4000′. Then it repeats that ditty of steep-and-level a couple more times before it curves around to a lovely, open meadow at 4700′ with great views of the surrounding mountains before the last steep push up to the little lakes at the base of Yellow Aster Butte and Mount Tomyhoi.

The hope was to get to the meadow at 4700 feet. When I was there about three weeks ago (July 5) with DJan, Kathy and Verne we lost the trail in solid snow at that first ledge at 4000′ and had quite a difficult slog from there on. The combination of Verne’s considerable experience on that trail and my good GPS track from last September brought us to the high meadow, but it was very hard work and not very suitable for a group hike. Would three weeks make a difference?

Fred, the trail groomer

The Trail Groomer

One small complication was that I did not have my good high-sensitivity GPS unit, having left it in Dennis’ car after Thursday’s hike. I dug out my old Garmin eTrex low-sensitivity and and its archaic RS-232c serial adapter and managed to put my good track onto it, but the combination of high, steep hills and dense trees in our area were always a bit much for it. With considerable inconvenience I guess I could have put the track onto Fred’s high-sensitivity unit but didn’t bother, hoping that my recent familiarity with the trail, combined with some melting of the snow, would get us by.

Since this trail has been abandoned by the Forest Service for about ten years it can be pretty brushy, especially in the more level areas. Shortly after we got started I was surprised to realize that Fred was not right behind me, since he can walk a lot faster than me. Then I heard some snipping and saw that he was using his pruning shears to cut back the brush. Later on he pulled out his saw and cut off a 4-inch tree that had fallen across the trail.

I was a bit disappointed, but not too surprised, when we got to that first ledge at 4000′ and saw that it was still covered in snow. But it was not quite as deep as before and there were a lot more bare spots, which gave me hope that the trail might emerge on the other side, where it begins to climb up another steep slope where the snow can’t accumulate to such depths.

GPS tracks

As expected, the old eTrex GPS was doing an excellent imitation of a paperweight – no signal at all. And my instincts didn’t do much better, as I led us well off to the left of the trail. But the snow did diminish as the hill got steeper, and we somehow managed to find a little scrap of the trail as it passed under a huge fallen tree. We followed the trail for awhile, then lost it and found it again a few more times before the snow became solid again and we had to just wing it.

On the map you can see our “progress”. It shows the upper part of the trail from the 4000′ ledge to the upper meadow. The brown line (sometimes dashed) labelled “Trail” is the trail shown on my map – it is so approximate as to be almost perfectly useless. The yellow line (bounded by black, with little red arrowheads) is my good track from last fall when the trail was snow-free. The brownish-red line is the upward bound track that Fred recorded yesterday, showing considerable deviation from the trail. If you click on the map to expand it you can see near the bottom (near point #1) where we lost the trail and then found it again. Near point #2 you can see where we missed a sharp right turn and went well uphill from the trail – very hard work, but we did come to an open spot where the eTrex finally managed to snag a good enough signal to tell us that we were quite a bit above the trail.

On a lot of trails you can do alright by just heading uphill when in doubt, but if you look closely at the contour lines you can see we were already almost up to the level of the high meadow, and that going further up would take us into a creek valley that would miss our destination by quite a bit. Not to mention being very steep and wooded.

So we turned and tried to stay on the level and head to the east and get back near the trail. But it is very hard to bushwhack on the level, so we reluctantly gave up some of our hard-won elevation gain to get back on a more sure course. The eTrex would lose and regain the signal so we were still flying blind at times – you can see near point #3 where we overshot the trail on the low side shortly after we got to it.

YAB From the Meadow

YAB From the Meadow

But soon the trees parted and we arrived in the meadow at about noon. In the picture at the left you see Yellow Aster Butte at the left, then Mount Larrabee and the Pleaides and over toward Winchester on the right. (I say “toward” Winchester, since it just “had to be” Winchester from its relation to the other mountains, but we couldn’t see the lookout cabin. Or even the flag pole. With binoculars, even! Today I studied the map carefully and found that the ridge that leads from Gold Run Pass over to Winchester curves in such a way that its highest point just barely blocks the view of Winchester from this angle. So Winchester is just behind that peak showing between the trees on the right.)

That meadow is such a lovely place! It would be a great destination for Thursday’s hike, but the way we had gotten there would not do at all. But we agreed that if we could do a better job of following the trail going back and put up some orange flagging and have all our electronic gadgets in good working order, it just might be doable.

Testing the new gadgets

Testing the new gadgets

Speaking of electronic gadgets, Fred and I had each downloaded the Photosynth App that Dennis had showed us on Thursday. I runs on iPods, iPads, iPhones and other “smart” phones and allow you to make a panoramic photo by, essentially, just waving your phone at the scenery. It follows the scene and takes a picture now and then and “stitches” those pictures together into a panorama. The image quality is not exactly glorious but it is still a clever toy – and an impressive display of the computing power that resides in these little doohickeys. I tested my new gadget by taking this panorama that includes Fred testing his new gadget. (FYI the photo shows “Winchester” and Goat Mountains.)

Waterfall above the Meadow

Waterfall above the Meadow

Falls creek

The creek

On the way back down we had some luck – the eTrex managed to hang onto the signal it had acquired in the meadow (most of the time) and we managed to find a pretty decent route. We probably were not right on top the trail but we stayed pretty close to it, with one exception. And even that exception. If you refer back to the map at the top of the post, and look closely, you will see our return track recorded by Fred’s GPS as a green line – but it is mostly hidden by the yellow line. The main exceptions are directly east of point #2, where we deviated a bit downslope from the trail, and just south of point #2, where the trail is very steep and goes right up a creek bed and we chose to find an easier route. (BTW the magenta (pinkish) line is the eTrex track – it stays pretty close until we got down into the trees, where it goes completely nuts.)

As promised, on the way downFred put up some flagging tape (and did some more brushing). We agreed that this would be a reasonable pick for Thursday’s hike, given the very limited choices available. There is bit more snow travel than some might like but the flagging assures that we will stay on a reasonable course. And there are no scary places (like steep side slopes.) It is steep in spots, but nothing we can’t handle, and a lot less brushy than it was on Saturday morning.

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