June 10, 2014

GPS – a cautionary tale

Filed under: GPS, Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack — geezerwriter @ 7:59 pm

I was suckered into buying a new Garmin GPS handheld unit (GPSmap 62stc) by a half-price offer from REI – Garmin stuff never goes on sale and my old device (GPSmap 60-something) was getting a little long of tooth. I’ve always had problems with large errors that Garmin has never solved (or even fully acknowledged) so I’m not in love with the old one. And the newer model has some cool-sounding features – nothing earth shaking.

The long-standing errors are in the way the device reports distance traveled and elevation gained. For distance it has an odometer that tries to keep track of your total distance as you move, the same as in your car. But it also has a tracking feature (Track Log) that saves your location frequently, and is capable of going back over those saved points at the end of the trip and totaling up the distances between the points. These two measurements should be pretty close but they hardly ever are – differences of 20-40% are not uncommon. Years ago I examined it pretty closely and found that I could fool the odometer at will just by moving very slowly (which we often do when climbing steep trails). I once carried the device a quarter mile, according to the track log, and the odometer showed only 20 feet or so!

Elevation is just about as bad. My favorite example was a hike to Boundary Way where the trailhead is at 4300 feet and the high point of the hike at 5300, a nice round net gain of 1000 feet. There were some ups and downs along the way that added a bit to the total but the device showed a total gain of 750 feet.

I could never get either Garmin or REI excited about these software errors; I got as far as talking to a Garmin engineer who was puzzled and seemed convinced that there was a problem, but he never got back to me and I didn’t have the energy to start the whole process over. REI has replaced the device a couple of times but they didn’t seem to give a hoot, either.

Excelsior Pass

Upward Track

Upward Track – 4.2 miles

My first outing with the new device was a simple hike in Lake Padden Park and the results looked very good. The odometer and the track log were in pretty close agreement and the track agreed closely with tracks I’ve saved from other hikes there, and where they differed the new one looked better. So I was optimistic on our first high country hike of the season. Excelsior Pass Trail is a 4- to 4.5 mile hike that climbs about 3500 vertical feet through the forest from Mount Baker Highway at 1800′ to 5300′ at the pass. We were not going to make it all the way because of the remaining snow but we were aiming for a nice little spot with a view of the pass about 3 miles along the trail at about 4400′.

About that “3 miles”. I have traveled this trail many times (including 2 weeks ago) and saved a number of track logs that all look pretty similar. They range from 4.1 to 4.4 miles long, which I consider to be an acceptable tolerance range. This is a challenging environment for GPS: climbing out of a deep, steep-sided valley through heavy tree cover. Rain would make it worse, since water absorbs microwave signals, but this was a dry day. All in all, I have a lot of confidence in the 3 mile estimate.

I checked the device frequently (which was more difficult that with previous devices since Garmin has really screwed up their system for attaching the device to your person) and the accuracy was staying down in the 20-30 feet range and the new track (the red line on the map) was close to the old one. We had one stop that was a bit longer than usual while we waited for a hiker who wasn’t feeling well, but otherwise we plugged right along, getting to the aforementioned spot just before noon. We hit snow just above 4000 feet and lost sight of the trail near the middle of that east-west-ish traverse (at the word “Mount”).

The map also shows the old track from last fall in yellow – most of it is obscured by the new track, showing 1) we kept close the trail until just before we stopped and b) there was quite a good bit of trail left. The white arrow points to our longest stop, at the Excelsior Flume – more on that later.

The Upshot

And soon as we settled down into the snow for lunch I checked the new device and it showed an odometer reading of 4.2 miles, which was simply absurd. And puzzling – I expect huge errors in the odometer, but they are usually on the low side.

So as usual, I would resort to the track log – which also said 4.2 miles! It was most ironic that the first time these two measures had ever agreed they were both hugely wrong! Most of what I said and thought for the next few minutes is not suitable for a family publication.

I resisted the urge to pitch the thing into the nearby creek, saved the track and continued the track logging after lunch. When we got back to the trailhead the odometer and the track log both read about 7.9 miles, giving 4.2 miles on the way up and 3.7 on the way down, along the exact same trail – on the snow I was even stepping in own footprints. I’ve seen discrepancies like that before, too, and have written it off to the fact that we are traveling a bit faster on the way down (and the devices are known to have trouble with slow travel.) I was eager to upload these tracks to my computer and see if I could make sense of this before I started haranguing Garmin and REI. Again.

Upward half-track - 3.6 miles?

Upward half-track – 3.6 miles?

At the Computer

The first thing I tried only added to my puzzlement. I transferred the two tracks,

  • upward (4.2mi and 558 points) and
  • round trip (7.9mi and 1200 points),

to the Garmin BaseCamp program and, just for the heck of it, I made a copy of the round trip, located the place where I had saved the upward track and split the track in two, giving me another upward half-track and a downward one. Result:

  • upward (3.6 mi and 560 points)
  • downward (3.3 mi and 641 points)

The last I checked 3.6 + 3.3 is a little shy of 7.9. What the φθψκ is going on? The map on the left shows this upward half-track made of the same 560 (or so) points as the 4.2 mile track – can you see any difference? I can’t.

The point counts are close enough to make it pretty clear that both devices (the GPS and BaseCamp, too) are working with the same raw data and somehow deriving significantly different results in different contexts.

BaseCamp track details

BaseCamp track details

Getting Down and Dirty with the Data

I will be sending this data to Garmin, rest assured. You’d think a track that loses a mile, but not any points, when split in two would get an engineer’s attention. We shall see.

But I just couldn’t let this go. I wanted more ammunition before hacking my way through the telephone trees.

The first issue is “Where does that track length come from?” I’ve always assumed that the software is adding up the distances between each pair of successive points. In BaseCamp you see the display on the right, showing latitude and longitude for each point and the length (in feet) of each “leg”. There are way too many numbers to add up by hand and, moreover, are those distances accurate to begin with?

The latter question is a toughie, since it is not trivial to calculate the distance between two points given latitude and longitude – it involves spherical trigonometry, which I encountered for a couple of weeks in the spring of 1958. But it didn’t take root.

Track details - UTM coordinates

Track details – UTM coordinates

I first found out that the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinate system was invented to simplify this very problem. Instead of resorting to extremely skinny triangles based at the center of the earth it uses measurements in meters from standardized reference points. It is much more difficult to describe than Good Ol’ latitude and longitude. It turns out that BaseCamp is capable of displaying UTM, shown in the detail on the left, but it only exports the old style coordinates. I have a picture of that, too.

Track details as exported

Track details as exported

But a search on DuckDuckGo (like Google but without the spying and tracking) coughed up a detailed dissertation on the use of the Spherical Law of Cosines for just this purpose. So it was time to build a spreadsheet!

After importing all these points into Apple’s Numbers application and struggling with a bunch of sines and cosines and deltas and phis and lambdas and meters and feet and miles, I had a working spreadsheet that looked almost exactly like the first BaseCamp display above, with the “legs” of the track in feet. I didn’t check all 560ish points, but every one I did check was true to the nearest foot.

And the grand total of all those legs? I have picture of that, too:

Spreadsheet Results

Spreadsheet Results

5720 meters or 3.554 miles. So this is consistent with the upward half of the split track, even though the data is from the saved 4.2 mile upward track. Where did that 4.2 come from? I have no mathematical answer for that. The best I can come up with would be an unlikely and deeply conspiratorial attempt to rig the results to agree with the odometer. But they probably wouldn’t do that.

Closeup of the Bulge at the Flume

Closeup of the Bulge at the Flume

Had enough yet?

Now 560 points is more than one needs to draw a pretty good picture of a 3 mile trail. Given that all the GPS coordinates have some error (or jitter) in them, having more data might give worse results. So I modified the spreadsheet to skip every other point and this dropped the track to 3.28 miles. Stripping it down to every third point brings it down to 3.00, and every fourth point gives 2.92. At some point just throwing data away willy-nilly like this is going to chuck out some good stuff (for example, it could seriously round off the switchbacks). To do this well one would have to detect places where the track has a serious change of direction and make sure those points are kept, while tossing out points when you are loping along a straightaway.

Another way that those inherent errors can exaggerate the track length is that the device doesn’t do a very good job of handling times when you are stopped. (To be fair, this is a difficult problem for a mere machine: How can you tell if you are moving or not when all you know is your position, and that is almost certainly in error?) What happens when you stop is that the GPS sees these inherent errors as legitimate movements (We’re here. No, now we’re over here! No! Over here!…). Going back to that white arrow on the first map, above, you can see a little bulge in the track at that right turn by the Flume, where we paused for 5 or 10 minutes. (Sometimes I remember to manually turn off the track logging when stopped, but not this time.) The map on the left is a closeup of that spot – there are actually 25 spurious points in that little bulge! In this case I culled almost a mile out of the 4.2 mile track just by deleting obviously extraneous points like these.

There are some settings in the GPS device that might serve to control the numbers of excess and spurious points without losing too much detail, and I will experiment with that. But consider that this is a $500 device which seems to be generally regarded as the best consumer-grade GPS available for hikers, that I was using the default settings and that 99 and 44/100 percent of users are using those defaults.

So the next time someone authoritatively announces what the cheap little GPS in their phone says, I hope you take it with enough grains of salt to gag a buffalo.

Appendix – Later that night…

Just a quick note – it occurred to me that the one difference between the 4.2 mile up-track and the 3.6 mile half-track: the former had been uploaded directly from the device and the latter had been created on the computer. I went back and made a duplicate of the original track; it still showed the 4.2 mile length. But when I deleted the last point, which should have changed the length by 18 feet, that length instead changed instantly to 3.6 miles. As soon as I forced the computer to recalculate the length it got the “correct” length, that is, the length based on the actual point data. So I conclude that the 4.2 number really had nothing to do with the actual track points but had somehow been attached to the track while it was in the GPS device. The conspiracy theory just got a bit more plausible – somehow the track length has been fudged, perhaps to make it agree with the odometer.

I can’t wait to hear Garmin’s explanation…stay tuned.

February 18, 2014

Some weather tidbits

I had to scrape the rust off this blog this morning – has it really been more than six months? Anyways, here is an olio of weather-related things that popped up this morning.

Mount Rainier in the snow

Today Cliff Mass of the University of Washington wrote on his meteorology blog about the big snows that are hitting the Cascades this week and included this picture of the Jackson Visitor Center at  Mount Rainier National Park:

Jackson Visitor Center yesterday (2/17/2014)

Jackson Visitor Center yesterday (2/17/2014)

For those of you who have not seen this splendid new building and might be deceived by the scale of the photo into thinking you are looking at something the size of an outhouse, here is a shot I took on our visit last July. It’s a big building!

Jackson Visitor Center, July 2013

Jackson Visitor Center, July 2013

MF Snow Depth

Cascades Snowpack

Up here in the North Cascades the mountain snowfall has been below average so far this winter, but not nearly the sort of drought you’ve been reading about down in California, Oregon and even southern Washington. (Down here in the NW lowlands we’ve had modest rainfall and snow has been nearly absent.)

Dangnabbit!! I just lost half of this post! I made an accidental click on a bookmark and the browser left the page without warning. I thought WordPress did some auto-saving but I guess not. Here we go again…

To document the situation, here is a graph that I’ve concocted out of data from a remote monitoring station belonging to the Soil Conservation Service and located at about 5000′ elevation on Lookout Mountain. (No, not that Lookout Mountain! And not that one either! It seems there are as many Lookout Mountains and there are Mud Lakes and Boulder Creeks.) This one is a few miles WNW of Mount Baker near the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead. The graph shows the water equivalent of the snow on the ground – essentially a measure of the weight or mass of the snow. This gives the best estimate of the meltwater that is going to be available to water crops the following summer, which is what the SCS is interested in.

The squiggly red, orange and green curves are for 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively; the smoother purple line is an average for most of the 15 years or so that the station has existed.

For us hikers, the most pertinent thing is the point where the curve drops back to the axis, indicating that most of the high country hiking trails will be snow-free. Recall that 2011 (red) was the year that the DOT (Department O’Truckin’) could not open the road to Artist Point. And last year (green) there was above average snowfall but it melted so quickly that the hiking trails were available a bit early.

You have to look closely (or expand the picture) to see this year’s dark blue curve – it has been below but very close to the average for the water year so far – you can see a little uptick in response to the recent storms.

The thing that always strikes me first about this graph is the way the curves are clumped pretty close to average until about this time of year. The high snow years didn’t really start moving off average until February or, in the case of 2011, even March or April.

So the upshot is that we are having a fairly average year.  And what does that tell us about next summer hiking?

Nothing. Or maybe less. But talk to me again in April.

WunderMap radar image of NW Washington & SW BC

WunderMap radar image of NW Washington & SW BC

Rain Shadow

I close with a screenshot from this morning of the weather radar over NW Washington – it gives a vivid picture of the Olympic Rain Shadow. The precipitation pattern looks like a doughnut with a big hole over Whidbey Island and the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The story here is that storms, like this one, tend to come in from the southwest, riding the prevailing winds. The first terrestrial obstruction they encounter is the massif of the Olympic Mountains, which drives the air up and wrings the moisture out if it. Places on the windward flank like Aberdeen and Forks will get massive amounts of rain (100″ per year or more) while spots in the lee, such as Sequim and Port Townsend, receive Arizona-like rainfalls of 10″ or less.

There is another gap in the rainfall pattern directly over the Olympics, but I’m going to put that down to the fact that the radars, being located down near sea level, do not do a good job of seeing rain in high mountains. The main radar station in this area is located on Camano Island and has a clear view out over the water but not up into the Olympics.

BTW this image is from the “WunderMap” produced the weather site called Weather Underground. The name is kind of a snarky reference to the radical 60s group but it’s the best weather site I’ve found. I especially use their link to the Scientific Discussion to get a behind-the-scenes look at the forecast.

June 11, 2013

Snow, snow, go away!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 9:00 pm

Since we are planning to go up the Excelsior Pass Trail on Thursday, I had planned to go up today and check out the snow level. But I’m still feeling the effects of a very big weekend of choral singing. And there are those two blisters on my little toes from the long flat hike last week – it’s always the flat hikes that give me trouble.

Wells Creek Snow Depth

Wells Creek Snow Depth

Anyways, I stayed home and mowed the lawn and lazed about the house.

Luckily the good folks at the National Weather and Climate Center of the National Resource Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, have been kind enough to install some remote snow monitoring stations in the North Cascades and elsewhere. I’ve built a little spreadsheet into which I can download their data and generate some graphs.

The graphs to the left show the situation about a thousand feet feet below the Cougar Divide trailhead along Wells Creek Road – about 4000 feet above sea level. The lower graph shows the actual Snow Depth and the upper one the “Water Equivalent” of that snow – how deep the water would be if you could melt all that snow and somehow keep it from running off down the hill. It basically measures the total mass of the snow, ignoring the air that is trapped therein.

The red lines are the averages of “average” years – I graphed all the data and saw that they tended to clump together, except for a few years that were much lower or higher than the others. So I dropped those “outliers” from the average.

The orange and green lines are 2011 and 2012, respectively, which were very heavy snow years. In 2011 the Department O’ Truckin’ was not able to clear Mount Baker Highway to the end.

And blue is this year. On the Snow Depth chart we are already below average and the Water Equivalent is dropping steeply; it is down to 8.5″ and decreasing about 1″ per day.

Now this information has to be taken with a grain of salt – it is only one spot in a region of  tiny microclimates, the sensors have not been seen or touched by a human since the road closed last fall, etc. But the year-to-year comparison has a good chance of being valid.

But I’ll present it as pretty good news for hikers. We had a lot of snow in the middle of winter but it seems to have stopped (pretty much) quite awhile ago and has been melting like crazy in the recent warm weather – remember how Hidden Creek was roaring last week. And the place we are hiking this week is directly across the North Fork Nooksack Valley – a little further from the “snow fence” effect from Mount Baker (so there tends to be less snow) and on the south-facing side of the valley (so it melts faster). Getting to the Pass (over 5000′) is very unlikely, but I think we have an excellent chance getting to 4000′ feet without hitting snow, which would give us a nice hike in the woods and over two thousand feet of elevation gain. And, of course, we can always continue for aways on the snow – traction tires are advised.


1. It is my impression that the Water Equivalent, while harder to picture, is the more dependable of the two measures since it is easier to measure.

B. The last three years have been well above “normal.” Are we seeing the emergence of a new “normal?”

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

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 9, 2012

Snow in the Cascades

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — geezerwriter @ 4:39 pm

This morning as I was sitting at my computer trying to avoid going to the gym, I recalled having a short conversation at my meeting last Sunday about Snotels. These are remote automated weather stations that have been built at various places in the mountains by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA (Department of Agriculture). I had run across them in the past while poking around on my favorite weather website Weather Underground, Inc, but I never knew if they were accurate or reliable – I knew they reported snow depth, for instance, but were they measuring the actual snow depth at the moment or the total amount that had fallen or the water equivalent or what?

The man I spoke to at the American Alps meeting, a long-time employee at North Cascades National Park, was saying that they do measure actual snow depth as well as water content and are accurate enough that they are used by Seattle City Light, the Seattle utility that operates the three hydroelectric generating stations at the three big dams on the Skagit River along North Cascades Highway (SR 20).

And then this morning as I scrolled down through my local weather underground page I noticed a clutch of links to snotels in the area, two along the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River (near Lookout Mountain, called MF Nooksack, and Elbow Lake, resp.) and one on the North Fork (off Wells Creek Road). Those locations are approximate since the websites only give the latitude and longitude down to degrees and minutes, and a minute of latitude is more than a mile – I presume that don’t want unauthorized riff-raff (like me) to be able to find them. [I just had a bright idea of how to narrow the search but I’ll keep that to myself, for now.)

Anyways, the nice people at NRCS not only display current data and complete historical data for the entire lifetime of the snotel (10-20 years) in neat tables on your browser but they also package it in a machine-readable format (CSV) that can be imported into a spreadsheet application. Once there it can be manipulated and charted in all sorts of ways.

The motivation for this is that our hiking season was almost wiped out last year by the extraordinary La Nina snowfall. And we have now had a rare back-to-back La Nina this year, with near record snow depths at the Mount Baker Ski Area – great for skiers, not so much for hikers. We will be setting our July-September schedule in a few weeks and it would be nice to get an idea of when we can go where. So the first thing I did was download the data for the last two years at the MF Nooksack and Wells Creek locations, which I chose because they are in the areas where we hike in the summer and are at the sort of elevations that we hope to reach – 4900 feet and 4030 feet, respectively.

Snow Depth 2010-12 at MF Nooksack (4900′)
and Wells Creek (4030′)

The black line (on all graphs) is the current “water year”, starting on October 1, 2011. The first thing that struck me on the MF chart is the flat-topped area where it seems to be bouncing off the 200 inch line – I suspected that this might be some sort of physical limitation on the equipment. But the WC chart shows a very similar shape (at a lower level, to go with the lower elevation) so I don’t think it is an artifact. Notice also how it tracks with our experience at sea level – it is almost flat in December (which was unusually dry) with barely enough new snow to keep up with the natural settling and compaction, and then takes off after the New Year, with a monster spike in Feb and Mar, which were especially wet in town, too.

The encouraging thing is that the maximum snow depth was higher and earlier this year. Last year’s green line doesn’t peak until mid April and then hangs like Michael Jordan on a dunk well into May. I love the way this year’s line is already below last year’s – and the current warm sunny weather can’t hurt.

To get more of a context I went back and downloaded the 2010 data (the brownish line), which I remember as a more typical year. But was it really? The only way to know is to get more data…

MF Nooksack data for the years 2003 to 2012

So I fetched the entire history of the MF Nooksack snotel which went into service on October 10, 2003. Most years had some missing data (and some had a lot) so I smoothed over most of them, except 2008 (purple) which had such huge gaps that it would just be wild guessing.

This was even more encouraging – with the exception of that big hump in March we are moving close to where all but two recent years are clumped together.

On more picture: I averaged the years from 2003 to 2010 (with the exception of 2005 which is an obvious outlier on the low side) and graphed it with last year and this year, which gives a cleaner picture:

2012 and 2011 vs. the average of seven prior years

So where’s the beef? We are still well above average but well below last year. That little zag in the black line tracks with the damp, chilly weather which has been all too apparent on our recent hikes – without that we would be on a trajectory more likely to join the red line than the green one. So I think it is not too late for some warm, clear weather to rescue this year’s summer hiking season.

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