February 5, 2013

Winter Potpourri

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , , , , — geezerwriter @ 1:02 pm

I’ve been kind of lazy about posting lately, so I have a backlog of weather-related things to spout about.

The Great Inversion of 2013

A couple of weeks ago western Washington experienced a protracted temperature inversion. Usually the temperature of the air decreases as you go to higher altitudes (during the daytime, at least) due to the fact that the sun’s energy heats the ground faster than it heats the air, whereupon the warmer ground proceeds to heat the air from below. This situation is a bit like a pot of water on the stove: the lower layers are warmer, but warm things (generally) are lighter, so we get an instability where the warm stuff rises and the cooler falls, and everything gets all stirred up and burbly.

At night the opposite situation often occurs, since the ground also cools off faster than the air, giving the common situation where there is a layer of cooler air near the ground, often causing fog and frost or both. Sometimes you’ll even see frost forming on the ground when a thermometer a few feet higher reads several degrees above freezing

But the thing that breaks that cold layer down and makes our daily atmospheric pot roil and boil was that business about the sun heating the ground – which doesn’t happen so much here in the winter. We sometimes forget what the sun looks like for extended periods of time. Anyways, now and then conditions converge that allow that frosty layer to persist for days and grow to hundreds of feet thick. And that layer is quite stable, with the heavier, colder air at the bottom and warmer at the top. Usually we think of stability as a good thing but in the atmosphere it has the downside that the air just sits there, allowing all the dust and nitrogen oxides and other crud that we are so good at spewing to build up and form a low-lying smoggy cloud that further inhibits the sun from warming the ground, and so on, and so on.

[You read further, and more authoritative words about this and other meteorological phenomena on Cliff Mass’ weather blog.]

Another side effect of the inversion was that it gave us an extended period without new precipitation, allowing the snowpack in the mountains to settle and consolidate and bringing the avalanche danger down into a comfortable range. Just a day before the inversion was broken by the arrival of a strong Pacific storm Amy and Jan joined me as we left the gloom of the lowland smog for a snowshoe outing near the Mount Baker Ski Area. We were only a few miles from town and a few hundred feet in elevation when we passed out of the inversion layer and the sun broke through.

Snow or Frost?

Snow or Frost?

As we continued up Mount Baker Highway along the North Fork of the Nooksack River just before the road turns and climbs steeply to the Ski Area, we were admiring the heavy layer of snow on the trees along the road when it occurred to me that there hadn’t been any noticeable precipitation for about ten days. Snow on the trees is a pretty common thing up in the mountains, but we were seeing something that you usually see the morning after a heavy snow – these evergreens are shaped to shed the snow pretty quickly. Furthermore, the trees on the surrounding hillsides, and even the tops of some of the taller trees, were completely bare, so the snow was not fresh – how had it hung around for so long?

I puzzled about this most of the day and it wasn’t until we were on our way back to town that it made some sense. Maybe that snow wasn’t snow at all but a heavy layer of hoarfrost that had built up for days. Or maybe a combination of both. There is a phenomenon in the mountains called “cold air drainage” which results in localized inversions – the cold night air drains down the river valleys and picks up fresh moisture from the unfrozen river. While we were above the level of the coastal inversion, the calm stable weather meant that there were no windstorms to knock the snow off the branches. The sun had melted the tops of the trees but the snow had persisted or even grown with hoarfrost in the shade along the river.

Southern Sky

Southern Sky

I wish now I had spent more time trying to get some better pictures since this was such a combination of things that I might just never see it again.

We had a beautiful day for snowshoeing although the weather system that would ultimately break the inversion down was heading in from the west, making for some interesting skies. On the picture on the right you can see in the clouds a dark V-shaped pattern pointing toward the sun – just one of a number of odd fantastical shapes that we saw.

I will tack a picture gallery at the end of the post.

A Return to Normalcy

The "View" Point

The “View” Point above Cedar Lake

Loons on Cedar Lake?

Loons on Cedar Lake?

That snowshoe outing was on Tuesday, January 22, and by Thursday the inversion was pretty much gone and we had a nice sunny hike to Alger Alp. [As always, you can read about that hike on Jan’s blog, D-Jan-ity.] But another week later we were back to full-blown normal, a bunch of crazy geezers hiking in the chilly rain to Pine and Cedar Lakes. After visiting the lakes we hiked on over to Raptor Ridge, not so much for the view but because of the overhanging rock ledges that form shallow caves and provide some shelter from the wind and rain.

The State of the Snow

This morning I dug out my spreadsheets from last year that I had used to compare the snowpacks for the last several years and updated them with this the current Year-to-Date data in an attempt to get an idea of what this year’s hiking season might be like. The last two years have seen abnormally high snowfalls in the mountains which have delayed and disrupted our high country hiking. Here is the new graph:

Snow Depth (Water Equivalent) at 4900' near the town of Glacier

Snow Depth (Water Equivalent) at 4900′ near the town of Glacier

The blue line is this year so far and the red is an average for the last ten years or so, with the most extreme years (2006 was very low and 2011 & 12 were very high) omitted. [That “moderation” of the average seemed reasonable last year when I started doing this, but maybe there is a new “normal” developing?]

This year’s line is a little above “normal” but not enough to make a prediction – it seems to be the late season snows that have the most effect on the hiking season. Notice that in 2011, the year they couldn’t open the road to Artist Point, the snow depth was pretty average until well into March but then it snowed like crazy through most of May and it didn’t clear until mid August. Last year was a bit on the high side at this point before the ceiling fell in and it snowed through April.

Snowshoe Gallery

Swift Creek Valley from Artist Point area

Swift Creek Valley from Artist Point area

And one in the bush

And one in the bush

A bird in the hand

A bird in the hand

taking flight

Trudging uphill

Trudging uphill

December 10, 2012

Little Mountain

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 8:35 pm

This morning after working out at the gym I drove down to Skagit County to check out Little Mountain Park, which is the location of this week’s outing of the Senior Trailblazers. It is at the southern city limit of Mount Vernon and seems to be a city park but there is also some involvement of the Skagit Land Trust, the Mount Vernon Parks Foundation and the Mount Vernon Trail Builders. This last group has packed almost 8 miles of trails into less than a square mile on a hill that rises almost 1000 feet on the edge of town – it is prominently visible east of I-5 as you pass Anderson Road (exit 225).

little-mountain-trail-map1We put it on the schedule at Pat’s suggestion at the August meeting but as of this morning all I knew about the place was this map that I’d found on the Trail Builders web site. Most of the trails are located near the main entrance on the access road that comes in from the north and start about halfway up the mountain. Since we usually go about 8-10 miles with a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain, I was drawn to that lonely little red line that goes off to the south. The point where it meets Hickox Road is at only 80 feet above sea level, which would give us a good bit more elevation gain and some distance. There is even an indication of parking there.

But: The trail, called the Darvil (or maybe Darvill) trail seems to be crossing private land and I couldn’t see any parking lot on Google Earth. I could see a number of houses and businesses along Hickox Road, so I wasn’t at all sure that we would be welcome there. It seemed like a personal visit was the best way to check this out.

(BTW that Darvill trail, from the road up to the park boundary, is 0.57 mile long, to give a sense of scale. And the red trails are hiker-only; the blue are multi-use, i.e. mountain bike)

Boots on the Ground (well, shoes really)

As I drove down Hickox Road there was a bit of traffic, so I couldn’t go as slow as I wanted, but I could see no sign of any sort of parking lot, just a lane or driveway cleaving the woods in the general area. I had to go on for awhile before I could turn around and make another pass, but this time there were no cars behind me and I could really creep along. As I approached the aforementioned lane I saw a little tiny sign at the edge of the woods announcing (very quietly) what I thought was the “Darril” trail, and I could spy a bit of trailishness going off into the woods. Still no sign of a parking lot, but as I passed the lane I could see over my shoulder something other than trees. On my third pass I drove hesitantly into the lane (which is clearly a driveway, since I could now see the mailbox) and found a little hollow in the trees with a couple of signs describing the trail and urging users to respect the private property they would be crossing.

So this is the place. There appears to be room to pack in two or (with a shoehorn) three cars. But it still felt more than a little iffy, so I drove around to the main park entrance and drove up as far as the hairpin turn and walked a few hundred feet along 5 or 6 of the trails that meet the road at that point. I found some very nice trails through a pretty woods; the tracks have a nice amount of leaves and other organic matter; some really steep spots; and the multi-use trails are as nice as the hiker-only.

The Bottom Line

When I got home I sent an email to the contact addresses on the Trail Builders web site and got back a very prompt reply saying that it is indeed OK to park at the Darvil trailhead. I also found a chart on the website giving the lengths of all the trails and added that data to the map, which you can see here: little-mountain-trail-map1. I worked out a route starting at the Darvil TH and covering about 5 miles (with no backtracking) before arriving at the overlooks on top of the mountain. And even though the net elevation gain will only be about 900 feet, from what I saw of the trails there will be a lot ups and downs along the way.

I think we can have a very nice hike there. And if by chance we have too many cars, or there are others parked at the Darvil TH, it is only a five-minute drive to the main entrance.

October 7, 2012

Cougar Divide

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 2:37 pm

Last Thursday one carload of hikers was treated to the sight of a cougar ambling across the highway near Maple Falls. Not to be outdone, five of us headed east on Saturday to explore Cougar Divide.

I had recently added it to our fall schedule – it had always been on of my favorites but I hadn’t been up there in years, partly because of the 12-13 miles of often very rough and occasionally precarious driving on Wells Creek Road and partly because of a perennial dense infestation of mosquitoes at the trailhead. On the one hand I’d heard reports that some folks from Glacier have been working to keep the road open. And there was hope that the extremely dry summer and some recent frosty nights would have knocked the mosquito problem down. So off we went.

As I mentioned, this was one of my favorite hikes. Several years ago, when the road was washed out by Wells Creek, I hiked 7 miles up the road and 3 miles out the trail and spent a magnificent cloudless and moonless night in the shadow of Hadley Peak and Chowder Ridge. But several trips had been marred by rainy weather and those mosquitoes and that kind of stuff can stick in your mind.

From Wells Creek Road

From Wells Creek Road

However, it didn’t take long to remember why I loved this hike. We were still 5 or 6 miles from the trailhead when this sight forced us to stop and take some pictures.

The gang

The whole crew (Steve, Jonelle, Fred & Terry) on the road

The trail is anything but boring. It was dropped from the Forest Service’s official hike list more than ten years ago and has not been maintained in any organized way since. It is only 3 miles long with 1000′ of net elevation gain but there are lots of ups and down, some of them steep and scrambly; it passes through dense forest and open meadows; and there are lots of fallen trees to climb over, under and around. But overall, it is a pretty moderate hike.

It starts with a moderately steep uphill, mostly in open meadows, for about half a mile until it pops up onto a rock outcropping that I’m calling the Beauty Spot.

Panorama from the Beauty Spot

Panorama from the Beauty Spot – from Shuksan past the Portal and Baker to Skyline Divide

This place has yielded several of my all-time favorite pictures ever. Baker looks different from every direction, but I think this shows it at its best. And I could have continued this panorama the full 360 degrees to Church Mountain, High Divide, Tomyhoi and the Border Peaks, and around to Mount Redoubt and Ruth Mountain. But I probably would have gotten dizzy and fallen on my face, so I’ll settle for now on one more picture, taken from about 100 yards on up the trail:

More from the Beauty spot

More from the Beauty spot

BTW you can enlarge any picture (please!) by clicking on it.

The lighting on this perfectly clear day just got better my the hour, Here’s a view on our way back in one of the meadows – the flowers are mostly gone and it is ready for the new snow that will be coming all too soon.

Meadow waiting for new snow

Meadow waiting for the new snow

Here’s one of the steep, but not scrambly, places:

A steep spot on the trail

A steep spot on the trail

And finally, I can’t resist one more picture, taken as we climbed back up onto the Beauty Spot.

Back at the Beauty Spot

Back at the Beauty Spot

Oops! I almost forgot to mention that the road is, in fact, in considerably better condition than the last time I was here. It is still 12 miles long and has a number of very bumpy sections, but there are no serious ground clearance issues and the exposed, scary spots have been much improved. And the views!

And best of all, not a single mosquito and hardly any bugs of any kind.


I made the mistake this morning of looking at the long range weather forecasts. Bearing in mind the very questionable value of any forecast that looks ahead more than 12 hours, here is a picture of the Accuweather forecast for the rest of the month:

So the whole high country hiking season could possibly slam shut at the end of this week. But we can hope.

Ptarmigan Ridge and the Portal

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:23 pm

We had ten hikers for our trip to Ptarmigan Ridge this year. (You can see more about this and all of our hikes on DJan’s blog.) Some people wanted to extend the hike further than usual by going on to the “Portals” and others did not want to stay out so late, so we split up the cars and riders accordingly. Actually we all made it a bit further out than in the past, arriving at this nice little lunch spot under Coleman Pinnacle with a grand view of the rest of our route out onto Mount Baker. You can just see the “Portals” in the distance way over on the right edge of this picture.

Lunch time

Lunch time

OK, it’s time to show you a better picture of the “Portals” and get rid of those quotation marks. A quick dictionary check yields:

Portal: a doorway, gate, or other entrance, esp. a large and elaborate one.

There is actually only one portal here – a large gap in a dark lava rock ridge that is a waypoint on a once popular climbing route for Mount Baker. The left and right “door jambs” of this portal apparently acquired the names “East Portal” and “West Portal” over time, and the whole melange came to be called the “Portals”. My grammatical pickiness just can’t abide this sort of nonsense so I’m going to call it The Portal. I’ll give in and accept the conventional names for the its two sides (which I have to admit sound better than “East-” and “West Door Jamb”) but I just can’t stand that misbegotten plural.

Baker & the Portal

Baker & the Portal

The route to East Portal goes off the right side of that picture, curves around and re-emerges on the ridge line that passes behind Mike at the cuff of his left sleeve and proceeds along the edge of the snow up to a point directly below the “P” of “East Portal” and then hooks to the right. It looks like there is a lot of snow to cross but not so – 3 or 4 patches that were nearly level and not icy.

Right behind Mike’s left hand you can see a sharp change in the color of the rocks: slightly greenish medium gray rocks of the Chilliwack formation underneath darker reddish-black, and much more recent, lava rock. (The picture below shows where we crossed this dramatic unconformity about an hour later.) It is my understanding that this darker rock is a lava flow from Mount Baker and this is a graphic demonstration of the fact that Baker is just a big, beautiful carbuncle perched on the surface of the much more ancient “basement rocks” that comprise the North Cascades.

Where Baker begins

Where Baker begins

The rest of the pictures were taken after we reached East Portal. This shows Baker with West Portal on the right.

Baker from East Portal

Looking past West Portal to Baker from East Portal

Looking down into the Portal

Looking down into the Portal

Avalanche Gorge & Rainbow Ridge

Looking southeast across Avalanche Gorge to Rainbow Ridge

End of the trail

Admiring the views of Mount Blum and the Pickets

And finally, Steve showing off his mountain climb skills (and a measurable amount of sheer lunacy) on East Portal.

Showing off

Showing off

August 5, 2012

Yellow Aster Butte – the hard way

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 6:16 pm

On Saturday Fred and I set out to do some hiking, with no definite destination in mind. His first choice was Welcome Pass but I talked him into doing the Keep Cool trail because it was going to be a very warm day (by Pacific Northwest standards) and I was afraid that there might not be any water on Welcome.

Why do I keep going back to that Keep Cool trail? The forest service orphaned it about ten years ago and built a new trail to Yellow Aster Butte that takes off from the venerable old Tomyhoi Lake trail just before it reaches Gold Run Pass. I doubt if Keep Cool was ever a very good trail and a decade without any organized maintenance has not been kind. The lower reaches are nearly overgrown with brush, there are numerous fallen trees to cross (some as much as three feet in diameter), some segments are cruelly steep. Or rocky. Or wet. Or all three.

I think it is just this desolation that brings me back – in addition to my deep-seated contrarian streak, you don’t have to worry about running into crowds on the weekends.

The isolation was not perfect this time as we were over taken at one point by a younger, fast-moving hiker who couldn’t see why the FS had closed this trail, as it is just to his liking. He added some sharp remarks about all the sissy trails in the area with “4% grades” before he disappeared into the trees. Later as we were squeezing through a particularly narrow spot on the trail I commented to Fred that he probably likes it because it fits his mind so well.

Snow in the meadow

Snow in the meadow, YAB in background

Enough snarkiness. When we got to the wet meadow at about 4700′, where we were stopped by the snow the last three times we’d tried this trail, I was somewhat surprised to see it still covered in snow. The ground shows through in many places and the snow is soft and easy to walk on, but snow always makes the going a bit tougher – those times where your foot doesn’t stay where you put it eat up a lot of energy.

Ice covered pond

Ice covered tarn and Black Rock Butte

But you can see in the photo that Yellow Aster Butte, in the background, is almost free of snow. And the steep slope on the far side of the meadow where the trail continues on up to the series of small lakes below the Butte looked dry as a bone, so we eagerly hustled across the level area and started climbing again.

We found a lot more snow when the trail levels out and winds through a chain of small lakes that are usually called “tarns”. (It was my understanding that the word “tarn” referred specifically to the lake that commonly forms in a glacial cirque after the glacier has played itself out, and that doesn’t appear to apply to these ponds. That is indeed what you will find in a geology dictionary but the word is commonly applied to any small mountain lake. So I guess I’ll stop being a smart-aleck. About that.)

Fred was coming down with a pretty serious case of summit fever as we looked across at Yellow Aster Butte. My goal had been more modest – taking a left turn over toward High Divide and climbing an prominent unnamed peak that I am calling Black Rock Butte today. As we got a better look over that way we could see a big streak of snow heading right up where the “trail” goes; on the other hand Yellow Aster, while further away across the ice-covered tarns, looked almost free of snow. And we could see a few hikers traversing the new trail and even caught sight of one person almost at the summit.

Ptarmigan family

Ptarmigan family

The trek through the snow among the tarns really wore me out. The area looks fairly level when you are looking down on it from almost 1000 feet above on the summit, but it is really quite bumpy. By the time I had dragged myself up the steep (I use that word a lot) set of a dozen switchbacks that leads to the new Yellow Aster trail, I was pooped. Fred headed on up the last quarter mile that climbs 400′ to the summit (Ha! I didn’t say “steep”. Oh, wait. Darn.) and I sat down and ate everything in my pack that was even remotely digestible. I also drank the last of the liter of water that I had brought from home.

Flowers framing Goat and Sefrit

Flowers framing Goat and Sefrit

Feeling restored, I parked my pack under a nearby tree and began to shuffle up the trail. I was quickly rewarded with a cheeping sound as a little Ptarmigan chick popped onto a rock about 10 feet away. Then another and another. And then Mama caught up. The chicks were scampering around, climbing onto and falling off of rocks, and paying no attention to me at all. Mama, however, kept a close eye on me as she tried to manage the exuberance she had hatched.

These birds are paragons of the concept of “protective coloration”. They almost completely disappeared when they were on the rocks and, more surprisingly, blended into the foliage, too. In winter they up their act by turning snow white.

I got to within 50 feet or so of  summit when I ran into Fred on his way down. He wouldn’t allow me to quit at that point so we popped on up to the top for the grand 360 degree views – my first true summit of 2012. (We had gotten to the “end” of the trails on Excelsior and Goat, but the was the first honest-to-Pete summit.)

We had a direct view of the Mount Baker Ski Area and its cell phone tower, so we each made a call to let our wives know that we would be late. It was already after 2:00 – it had taken us (i.e., me) almost five hours to get here and, given the snow and the steepness, it would not be a cakewalk getting back down.

Fred on Yellow Aster Butte

Fred on Yellow Aster Butte

When I checked the track log on my GPS we were both shocked and amazed to learn that we had gone not quite 4 miles! It is normal for me to pooped and sweating like cold beer in Georgia after 4 miles, but even Fred was feeling this one. How could it have taken us 5 hours to go 4 miles?

Later I worked on the numbers. Our net elevation gain was about 3100′, but with all the ups and downs, my altimeter gave 3700′ of total gain by the time we got back to the car. By comparison, the Excelsior Pass trail (on of the hardest in the area) rises 3500′ in 4.5 miles. And Excelsior, like Church and Goat, is a pretty steady climb – the actual rate of climb stays pretty close to the average of about 800′ per mile. This hike had an average of more than 900′ per mile, and the actual grade swung wildly from flat or slightly downhill to as much as 1600′ feet per mile (or maybe more – it’s hard to measure that). When the grade gets to the point, as it does often on Keep Cool, where your motion can no longer be called “walking” and gets to bemore like climbing stairs – lifting your entire weight with every step – then it’s a different story. (Would anyone even think of taking the stairs to the top of a 300 story building. Are there any 300 story buildings?) Add in the fact that most of the “level” areas were largely covered in snow and you get a tough 4 miles. And 4 more to go…

I had brought my water filter/pump so as soon as we got back down to the tarns I pumped a liter of fresh cold water into my hydration tank, and pumped a liter for Fred as well. The trip back went a little quicker but it still took 3.5 hours to go those measly miles. And we stopped and pumped two more liters when we got to the big stream in the woods. Total for the day: for me, 3 liters; for Fred 5 liters. And I didn’t have to “relieve myself” until I got back to Bellingham and had drunk all the water in the car and a 20-ounce Dr. Pepper.

I stitched up this panorama taken just below the summit to show the perfect weather. Mount Rainier was barely visible in the distance between Shuksan and Baker, but this picture doesn’t show it. To the right of Baker is Black Rock Butte and High Divide.

North Cascades Panorama

North Cascades Panorama

July 23, 2012


Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 9:19 pm
Fred & Jonelle surveying the Pass

Fred & Jonelle surveying the Pass

On Sunday, Fred, Jonelle and I set out with the intent of checking out the Hannegan Pass trail in advance of Thursday’s scheduled hike. On the way up I expressed skepticism that Hannegan would be sufficiently snow-free for anything more than a trip to the camp – perhaps we could get to the pass but I don’t really care to hike Hannegan unless there is at least a chance of making it to the peak. I had been thinking of Excelsior as a replacement, so we decided to go there instead – this would give the maximum total information since we could find out about the situation on Hannegan from Pat, who had taken the other Trailblazers’ group up there last Thursday.

Glacier Lilies below the Pass

Glacier Lilies below the Pass

We were pleased to see not a trace of snow until we were well past where we’d reached on our earlier attempts this year. We hit the first significant snow on the trail at about 4600 feet, less than a mile from the pass; from there on the trail is about 50-60% snow-covered. At first, under the canopy, the snow is dense and firm, with lots of small depressions to cradle your foot; as you enter the open meadow and begin to get views up toward the ridge, the snow is softer. Of course, walking in snow is always harder than bare ground but none of this is scary or difficult. Jonelle was on the Goat Mountain hike the week before last and felt that this was easier.

As you can see in the photos, the open meadows below the pass are largely melted out. The photo on the right shows some of the wild abundance of glacier lilies along the trail – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. In that picture, way up in the upper right corner, you can see the trail as it approaches the last line of trees before the pass.

Mystery Plant

Mystery Plant

Snow areas are in blue

Snow areas are in blue

We also saw masses of these little grass-like plants tipped with blackish-purple spearheads about an inch long – I’m sure someone can tell me what they are.

You can see that we were right at the level of the cloud ceiling, so there wasn’t much of a view, except for one little hole in the clouds that exposed a bit of Ptarmigan Ridge over on the NE corner of Mount Baker. Thursday is forecast to be clear and cool, perfect weather both for hiking and for views.

To show the scale of the snow issue, on the way back down I kept track on my GPS of the edges of the major tracts of snow and prepared this little map – the green is bare earth and the blue is snow-covered. This is a long, steep hike (9 miles round trip and 3500′ of gain) and my main memory today is not of hiking in the snow. I joked to Jonelle that this hike is 4.5 miles on the way up but about 7.5 miles on the way back. When we got to the car she disagreed – she thought is was only 7 miles down.


Today I talked to Pat and learned that they ran into snow on the Hannegan trail about a half-mile before the camp area. This would mean covering a mile or so of snow, including some steep side slopes, just to get to the pass (also a 4.5 mile hike). To my mind the choice is an easy one – Excelsior it is!

July 17, 2012

And the snow lingers on…

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 11:50 am
Early glimpse of Baker

Early glimpse of Baker

On Sunday five stalwart hikers made our way up the Keep Cool trail to assess the snow conditions for this Thursday’s hike. (You can read more about this trail on an earlier post of mine.) The weather forecasts have been bouncing all over the place for the last week, so our concerted efforts to find the best day for a hike managed to come up with just about the worst. We caught a couple of peeks at the mountains across the river in the first few minutes of the hike and tantalizing patches of blue sky appeared now and then. The sun even squeezed through the trees a few times.

Keep Cool trail profile

Keep Cool trail profile

This trail is anything but boring. It starts out with the trail barely visible in brushy Alder thickets, gets very steep for awhile, levels out in at about 4000′, goes steeply up between two streams, flattens out in a wet meadow at 4750′, continues up a steep rocky slope. On the right is a profile of the trail taken from my GPS software. The line just looks a bit bumpy, but on the ground those changes in slope are huge.

Church Mountain trail profile

Church Mountain trail profile

On the left we have the opposite extreme: a profile of the Church Mountain which is a broad boulevard by comparison, albeit still a steep and challenging trail. (On each of these profiles, the guide lines point call out the meadows that are just below 5000′ – about as high as we are likely to get any time soon.)

At any rate, the snow situation is pretty similar to last year at this time, perhaps a bit better. You can see more about last year on DJan’s blog, including a picture showing the summit of Yellow Aster Butte on hikes at the beginning and end of July, 2011. This time there was only a tiny bit of snow on the level section at 4000′ and no significant amount until shortly before the meadow, which is full of soft snow.

A quick look at Yellow Aster Butte

A quick look at Yellow Aster Butte

Just as we got to the edge of that meadow there was a lot of blue sky above and the clouds parted in front of Yellow Aster Butte for just long enough for me to unholster my camera and grab a shot to compare with last year’s. I would say that there is a bit less snow on this day (7/15) than there was on the second hike last year (7/25) but it is still roughly in the same ballpark.

Fred lunching in the meadow

Fred lunching in the meadow

The blue sky lasted for about 30 seconds. By the time we’d mushed across the meadow and settled down for lunch the conditions had reverted to something that has been all too familiar on this season’s hikes – eating lunch while hunkered down in a cloud. As we finished eating the fog got a little more aggressive and gradually changed to a light rain on the way down. It wasn’t enough to cause any real problem but just enough to remind us that this trail, which could (charitably) be called “challenging” and “interesting” on a dry day, is truly unpleasant in the rain. The steep sections, the struggling around or over downed timber and the Alder brush are all much worse when wet.

So what’s up for Thursday?

I think the Trailblazers could handle this hike this week if the weather were good. Of course, not everyone enjoys slogging through the snow as much as I do, so I might get some argument on that. The recent spate of rapid melting does seem to be continuing, as evidenced by the rivers and streams running deep and brown and by the snow monitoring stations – the one at 5000′ just south of the town of Glacier has the snow depth at about 30 inches and dropping about five inches per day.

So I lean toward doing Keep Cool this week but I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole if the weather is bad.

Given the continuing unsettled state of the atmosphere it would seem prudent to plan on something with less of a down side. And the only one that comes to mind is a return to Church Mountain – it is a wide, well graded trail and we know from personal experience three weeks ago that the trail is snow-free to the meadows. Even if the weather is bad we’d still get a good, safe workout with the possibility of terrific views if the clouds permit.

July 10, 2012

Goat is a Go

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 12:16 pm

Goat Mountain Panorama

On Saturday I hiked up the Goat Mountain trail to see if it would be reasonable choice for this Thursday’s hike, and the short answer is, “Yes!” As you can see from the picture above I made it to the ledge at 5100′ which gives the splendid views of Mounts Sefrit, Shuksan and Baker, among others. The snow in the foreground gives away the fact I had to travel across some of the white stuff to get there.

First look at Shuksan

The trail is entirely free of snow as you climb up through the woods, with just a few small patches as you break out into the more open terrain and start to get views of Shuksan like the one at the left. Then at 4600′ where the trail takes a sharp right turn uphill, giving the first sighting of the summit of Goat Mountain, the trail suddenly disappears under the snow, never to appear again.

Sefrit & Shuksan

But the snow is fairly soft and there is a well-beaten track that leads to the ledge. It doesn’t follow the trail exactly but that may be an improvement – this part of the trail is pretty steep and rugged and muddy and rocky anyways. I went about half a mile and up about 500′ through the snow, but you could stop any place along the way – it is all open and sunny and the view just gets better with every step.

And even at my very slow pace I got to the ledge in just two and a half hours, making it a reasonable destination for lunch time.

By the way, don’t forget your sunglasses (as I did). And the bugs are beginning to make an appearance.


Since I won’t be able to make the hike on Thursday, I’ll give some directions for the part of the trip that is on snow. This is probably unnecessary since the boot track was very easy to follow and will surely get more traffic before Thursday.

About 3 miles up the trail you come to a couple of long switchbacks where the trail gets muddy and passes through groves of recumbent aspens and willows whose trunks have been bent almost horizontal by the winter snowpacks and you start to get views of Shuksan (like the one above) and Baker begins to poke its head out from behind Mount Herman:

Then you come to a 90 degree right turn, and you can see one of the summits of Goat straight ahead to the northeast:

First look at summit of Goat

At first you will head almost straight at the summit, into the open area. If you look closely at the picture above you can see another hill to the right, just peeking through the trees. That hill gradually emerges, giving a view like this:

Heading toward the notch

Your ultimate goal is to the right of that hill, way up in the upper right corner of the picture. But for now you want to head right up the center of the picture, aiming more or less for the notch between the hill and the summit. As you near the hill you will see a very steep slope ahead of you – but just before you get there you make a sharp right turn up a gully:

Up the creek

This gully is kind of gray and dirty-looking and it heads right up to the ledge. At this point you are back on the official trail. But you may recall that passes for a “trail” here is actual a steep slog over big rocks and up a creek – the current conditions are actually an improvement! Of course you should keep in mind that there is a whole lot of melting going now right now – the most likely place to break through would be right down the center of the gully so you might want to keep to one side.

I hope I didn’t make this sound more complicated than it is: you just head toward the notch and turn right at the gully.


Bagley Lakes from Ski Area

After the hike I drove up to Heather Meadows to assess the conditions there. As you can see by this picture looking down in to Bagley Lakes from the parking lot by the winter gate, there is a lot of snow up there. The DOT is determined to open the road to Artist Point but I’m not sure what good it will do – you will probably step out of your car and be faced with ten foot walls of snow!

Post-epilogual Afterword

Yesterday I went with friends to check out the Excelsior Pass trail. I was a bit disappointed; the snow is melting very slowly there. We may just have to trade back and forth between Church and Goat for the next month or so. On the other hand, there is a lot of melting going on. Sigh.

May 27, 2012

Good news and bad news and good news and …

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

On Saturday Fred and I hiked up the Excelsior Pass Trail to get a close-up look at the snow conditions in the high country.

The Flume

The Flume

The good news is that there is some serious melting going on up there – early in the hike we could hear Nooksack Falls roaring through half a mile of dense forest. A bit further on that joyous noise was replaced by the roar of the stream that the trail follows toward the pass, and soon we came to the place I call The Flume, where the stream has completely stripped the soil from an almost artificially flat expanse of bedrock, forming a tempting water slide. It is always a lovely spot but it, too, was roaring more than usual.

First snow bridges

First snow bridges

The bad news is that we ran into snow at about the same place we did last year, when the deep and lasting snowpack made a mess of the local hiking season. We saw the first dab of snow on the trail at about 3700′ of elevation and the snow patches grew across the trail soon thereafter. The snow in the picture on the left is very near the point on last year’s June 16th hike where DJan’s blog (click to view) shows me trying to blast my way trough a thin snow bridge. By the time we got to 4000′ the trail was completely buried – from then on we depended on instinct and a good GPS track (from last year’s first fully successful hike to the high country – on August 11!) to continue. We did pretty well at following the trail and continued on to about 4750′, a few hundred feet higher than on the June hike last year.



But the only times we could be absolutely certain that we were still on the trail were when I punched through the snow into the cavern carved out by the meltwaters flowing along the trail. The snow was not deep enough for this so-called “postholing” to be dangerous, but it can be a bit disconcerting to be strolling along and all of a sudden be up to your unmentionables in firm, wet snow.

But the bottom line, I think, is pretty good news. Last year’s hike was in mid-June and this is still May; we scheduled it for June 7 this year and that gives us two more weeks of melting. While we probably won’t make it to the pass at that time, we should be able to have at least as good a hike as last year. (Assuming decent weather, of course. I don’t think I’d like to do a hike like this in the rain. Again.)

And all things considered, the North Cascade Highway experience seems to be an accurate omen – the DOT managed to open the highway this year two weeks earlier than last year and the snow depth gauges and yesterday’s hike all are running about two weeks ahead of last year. So it’s not likely to turn into an average snow year but with some reasonably warm weather it won’t be a complete mess.

But the best news…

Fred at viewpoint

Fred at viewpoint

is that Fred is out hiking again. In addition to the misfortune of having a full-time job, he was slammed a few months ago with a flare-up of his rheumatoid arthritis, which had been dormant for decades. Unlike the more common osteoarthritis, which is largely a matter of wear-and-tear on aging joints, RA is a tricky auto-immune disorder – the body mistakes its own tissues for a foreign invader and rallies the considerable forces of the immune system to repel the insidious “invader.” It also shows up most commonly as swollen and painful joints, but in this case it sneakily avoided treatment by presenting as debilitating pain in his leg muscles. But a few weeks ago the situation was decoded and brought under control by some powerful modern medications – yesterday’s hike was Fred’s first serious outing (almost 8 miles and 3000′ of gain, 1000 of it in the snow) in some time and it went very well.

Now is we can just do something about that darn job…


May 13, 2012

Snow in the Cascades, continued

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — geezerwriter @ 12:01 pm

I started examining the snow depth situation in the North Cascades last week, and just couldn’t let it go. I had noticed that the snotels gave the water-equivalent of the snow on the ground, but my first thought was that we wanted to know the actual depth of the snow and that the water equivalent, while more useful for agriculture and Seattle City Light’s summer planning, would be kind of abstract and even a little precious for our purposes.

But I got about halfway into patching all the missing data in the snow-depth table when I noticed that the water-equivalent data didn’t have all those gaps. This makes sense to me since it seems that measuring snow-depth remotely would be a harder problem than measuring water-equivalent, just the opposite of the situation that would obtain if we were present on the site. How would you locate the top surface of the snow? A very tall pole with some sort of automated range finder looking down on the snow? On the other hand, for the water-equivalent you would just need to get the weight of the snow (OK, it’s the mass, but I’m not a physicist) above a certain area and do a little calibration and arithmetic – a suspended plate and a pressure sensor would do the trick.

It also makes sense that the WE would be more stable – a large, powdery snowfall can bump the SD way up suddenly, but it would settle back down in a few days. By spring we are looking at well-compacted snow.

The WE data may indeed be of higher quality than SD, but it not what we are looking for! [I’m somehow reminded of the old story of the drunk crawling on the ground under a streetlight searching for his car keys which he had dropped while fumbling to open the door. When a passerby pointed out that the car was half a block away, the drunk said, “Yeah, but the light’s better here.”]

So I looked more closely at a couple of years’ data. First I did a quick check of the ratio between SD and WE and found that it generally started the snow year at 10 or 12 to one (consistent with what I’d always heard that an inch of rain falling as snow will pile up a foot or more deep) and tapers down irregularly to about 2 to one by the spring (as the air is pressed out by the weight of the overlying snow). And we don’t care much about the absolute values, just how fast the snow is disappearing, so a ratio is OK.

The one value we do care about is zero – when is the snow all gone? Everywhere I checked both numbers hit zero at about the same time and that pretty much settled the issue. So here is the graph of all ten years of operation of the Middle Fork Nooksack snotel:

Note, if you will, how all the curves but two crash into horizontal axis in early July (actually June 26 to July 12). (May 31, 2005 and August 12, 2011 are the two outliers.) As before, I took the average of all the years except this year, last year and 2005 and got this picture:

On the snow-depth graph on the other posting, this year’s blue line had already crossed below last year’s green one and seemed like it might join the average group. This water-equivalent graph is less encouraging: this year peaked higher and earlier but looks like it is trying to cross 2011 – will it drop quickly or hang up there for another month? The current warm weather is a good sign (it reached over 60°F at the snotel yesterday).

My best guess is that unless we get some really toasty weather (or, even better, some nice warm rain) it will just about split the difference between last year and the average. This is also not inconsistent with the fact that the North Cascades Highway opened Thursday, about two weeks earlier than last year.


I poked around and found some info about the sensors used on the snotels. I understood hardly anything but there was a reference to a “200 inch Transducer” , suggesting that perhaps it was not a coincidence that this year’s snow fall seemed to max out right at 200 inches, but in fact overshot the sensor’s capacity.

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