A long way gone but a longer way to go
Posted by joeabbott on August 22, 2012
This past weekend was the first of my two summer hikes. I typically do more than two, but I have two annual hikes with friends I very much look forward to … and this past weekend was my outing with Pete. Last year we enjoyed a long outing along Ingalls Creek Valley, just south of the Enchantments; this year we headed into the middle Cascades to try our feet at Necklace Valley.
Our trail this year was the better part of 20 miles and while neither of us are spring chickens or super-fit, we’ve done enough of these to know what we were getting ourselves in for and to gut it out if that’s what it took. And, for part of it, that’s what it took.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with the start and you can come long on the trek with us. This ride has something for everyone!
The Necklace Valley
While I’m not surprised Fred Beckey doesn’t give treatment to the Necklace Valley in his seminal climbing volumes, Cascade Alpine Guide, Climbing and High Routes (Necklace Valley isn’t exactly a “climb”), I’m more surprised at the absence of discussion in his excellent Range of Glaciers, The Explorations and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range. To be fair, the CAG does make a note if it in the Approaches section, saying,
Reach Necklace Valley (a hanging valley) in 7.4 miles (shelter at W side of Emerald Lake). The lovely valley has evidence of former glaciation, including a prominent series of moraines. The maintained trail ends at Opal Lake (8.3 miles). The largest of the gem-like lake is Ilswoot (4590 ft) – boxed in by a forested hump. To reach this lake, either (1) hike N from Cloudy Lake and follow the stream to Ilswoot, or (2) walk E from the trail between Jade and Emerald lakes, over a minor timbered ridge. To reach Locket and Jewel lakes, cross a low saddle W of Emerald Lake (keep S of Point 5243). Note: Necklace Valley and its grassy vales are very fragile. Camp only at existing sites. Be prepared for mosquitoes.
Which actually says a fair deal. We ascertain the nature of Necklace Valley (a hanging valley … a valley whose terminus is abrupt and high above a lower portion), that it contains many gem-like lakes, and that you’d best be prepared for mosquitoes if you make this your destination.
The briefest of mentions is included in RoG as, “A trail-locating party passed through Necklace Valley, La Bohn Gap, and parts of the Alpine Lakes area, climbing Mt. Hinman on the way.” Disappointingly brief for such a wonderful place.
My interest in Necklace Valley comes from the fact that, years ago, in 1995 to be exact, I made pains to hike this valley with a number of friends. It was the second in a series of annual hikes that’s been going on since 1994 and was intended to be a fun little outing. What it was, however, was wet. Very wet. So wet that I never saw much of the valley at all, instead spending the day in the tent and in the night finding our accommodations weren’t waterproof. I believe it was Dan who uttered the now famous (in our circles) phrase, “Guys … my sleeping pad is floating away!”
And so, with the memory of that hike many years distant, I asked Pete if he’d care to give Necklace Valley a try. As always, he was game.
As noted above, the trail in to Necklace Valley is just under 7.5 miles to the first lake, Jade Lake, of which the first 5 miles gain you a rolling 600’ of vertical and the balance of the distance gaining the remaining 2400’ of elevation. “Rude”, would be one way to describe the trail. Given my days of distance hiking are behind me, and five miles make my feet ache, I prepared the wives, and Pete, for one of two outcomes: we’d either get as far as five miles and stop at the horse camp just before the steep ascent into the valley, or we’d enjoy a long rest there before gutting out the last few miles. My concerns were not only for the distance and toil of the last two and a half miles, it was for the fact that for the first time this season I’d be under the weight of a pack. The weight of a 40# pack at that.
So it was with all that information and planning that I picked up Pete from his home, we had a breakfast at Denny’s, and found ourselves at the trailhead and leaving around 10:15AM last Friday.
The trail in was fast: our legs were fresh, the route is well-maintained, and the rolling gain and fall of the path didn’t much phase us. About a mile or so in I rolled an ankle and as I limped along under the stinging heat of pain, we came across a small, aluminum ice axe. I was still smarting from rolling my foot when I planted the axe into a downed tree just off trail but easily visible, so the party who’d lost it might pick it up on the way out. My positioning of it was a bit too close to the trail so Pete replanted it just a bit more out of reach. I realize now I was taking a bit of my frustration at getting hurt out on the axe as Pete struggled a bit to free it.
But that was my only mishap on my ankle. My feet hurt to high heavens before the trip was out but my muscles, joints, and body held up nicely under the stress of the long weekend.
At five miles down the trail a large “horse camp” sits by a bend in the East Fork Foss River. It’s large, has the shelter of established trees, and could fit a half dozen tents in a pinch. Had we stayed here, we would have enjoyed a good night’s rest before heading up the trail on somewhat fresh legs to explore the valley the subsequent day. When we arrived, we sat and enjoyed sandwiches and sun, swatting away the stray fly and mosquito and, energized by the good time we were making (just over 2 hours to the horse camp), we spent a solid half hour relaxing and greeting other hikers heading in or out before we tossed on our packs and began the stiff second leg of our trail in.
I wasn’t feeling as badly as I did going up Dickerman, but talk about a trial! Neither of us was going fast but the hot weather seemed to be particularly painful to Pete. While he never appeared to slip into a heat stroke condition, he was was heading toward heat exhaustion. Fortunately, he’s no dummy and stopped often, peeled off unnecessary layers, and kept himself hydrated. I was doing a little better but only a little. We’d march about a quarter mile, I’d stop and wait a few minutes for Pete, and then I’d go again. Our progress measured in tens of vertical feet between rests.
I continued to look for hope in signs from the valley walls, the light through the trees, a familiar bend in the trail … anything that might tell me we were getting closer to the hanging valley. Pete wasn’t one for hope; Pete was looking for a lake and short of that, he just kept his head down and his feet moving as much as they could before he took another break.
Before I go on, I’d like to say that every time I’m in that situation … where I’m so far out of shape that it’s painful to even recall … when I’m in that moment, the lines from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love repeat through my head, “Fat man sittin’ on a little stool, Takes the money from my hand …” It’s just humorous how I see myself as that “fat man sitting on a little stool”.
Anyhow, around 4:45PM we both made it to the spot we’d end up calling “camp”: we were at the first camp site as you enter the Necklace Valley just off Jade Lake. It was here we were able to shrug our burdens from our shoulders and sit back: we’d made it. The camp site was a large, square platform located on the SE end of the lake. What it had going for it in terms of being a nice site, it had the detracting quality of lacking any appreciable view. But, at that point, we weren’t interested in view … we were interested in getting the tent up, our pads inflated, and flopping down for a late afternoon nap.
It took us about four and a half hours to go 2.5 miles. The only inspiring thing here is that two guys over 40 (one of us well over 40) who have desk jobs and play too many video games were able to hike it into the Necklace Valley. All around us (and usually passing us), the youthful and the strong entered the valley and continued further in than we did (we took the first spot we came across), but at the entrance, we stood shoulder to shoulder with them. True, we were a bit stooped and breathing hard, but there we were.
And there we stayed. That was day one. And that was enough for one day.
We awoke feeling better but a lot of time on your back will do that for a guy. The biggest complaints we had were our mosquito bites, of which, even then after the first day, we had a prodigious number. The little buggers seemed to gravitate to the back of the upper forearm, on the far side of the bicep. My bites felt large and numerous … Pete’s looked (painfully) that way.
Our plan for the day was to trek about the valley and see what I missed all those years ago. Before we started, I looked for a discrete place for my morning constitutional. Two hundred feet from water sources is the gold standard in this department and, being in a valley, my options for getting that far away from water were limited. So I started hiking up the east to the top of the “forested hump”. It was here that I was able to peek into the crease that holds Ilswoot Lake. I’d followed a beaten trail, but not an official one. Later I tried to get Pete to join me on our trip to Ilswoot this way but he opted to stay with the known and established. Fair enough. Aside from the mosquitoes, it was a lovely place for a few minutes of privacy.
On getting back to camp we waved farewell to Anna and Channel, two young travelers who found themselves on a muddy tent site near ours, with a broken water filter and having to borrow Pete’s. We’d see them 3-4 other times over the weekend, along with “the dog guys” … that is, three guys and their two dogs. Curiously, the dogs would immediately growl and advance on anyone who walked by, causing the men to physically restrain their pets. I can scarcely believe either Pete or I would look menacing; stinky and worth avoiding, sure, but not a threat to anyone.
The first quarter mile of the trail gained a couple hundred feet and we both felt it, even with significantly lightened packs. We headed south to Emerald Lake and then crossed at its northern end where the water cascaded down into Jade Lake. Jade was the lovelier as Emerald looked shallow and had enough reedy parts to appear to be the source of the valley’s mosquito population. Once around Emerald, we hiked along a game trail to Ilswoot and enjoyed a marvelously beautiful lake.
Deep emerald blue, serene, and a single camp site on the entire length. Not only that, the camping spot was in a cool chute on the lake’s SW flank, had a beautiful view of a 100’ waterfall, and seemed very nearly mosquito-free. Neither Pete nor I were interested in moving our camp, but if we could have magically been setup here, we would have taken it in an instant.
After a break, we found the official trail out of Ilswoot to Emerald (marked by an old, large, rusted farmer’s milk jug), and then followed the incoming stream from Opal Lake to its source. The route wasn’t an official trail, but we were largely rock-hopping and avoided trampling vegetation. We met up with the trail but lost it somewhere on the south side of Opal. After crossing a soft, marsh area, my GPS said we’d just walked across the lake! The bugs were thick here so I urged us on.
This time, I did encourage a route across country and heading south. I wanted to see La Bohn Gap and the clearing “just a bit farther on” looked like it would give us that chance.
Our path was roughly a quarter mile and ended at the head of the Necklace Valley and looked upon a wonderful gap. I incorrectly identified it as La Bohn Gap (it wasn’t … just a low saddle on the way up to La Bohn Lakes) but contentedly enjoyed a small lunch while we sat in modest peace. Which, as usual for this trip, was spoiled by the mosquitoes.
It was about 1:30PM and, while we were tired and both would have enjoyed heading back to camp, it seemed a bit early for that. So I suggested we check out Locket Lake, Ilswoot’s twin sandwiching Jade Lake, and Pete consented. Over a minor but taxing rise, back along Opal Lake, and at Emerald Lake we followed a fork in the trail to the west.
Before long we were at a beautiful little lake and had it to ourselves, perching on a mosquito-free rock on the south end. After checking my GPS, I noted we were at Al Lake and so we got to our booted feet again and dutifully marched the last quarter mile down a treacherously, ill-maintained section of the trail to Locket Lake. There we took a few pictures, posed on a stubborn snow patch, and then headed back to the tent.
The trip to the tent was uneventful and ended the day’s toils at just about 3PM. While there was plenty of daylight left, there wasn’t that much energy or interest in either of us to matter. For the rest of the day we ate, read, or napped. Another day well-spent.
It took about two hours to descend to “the horse camp”, whereat we enjoyed some food and replenished our water supply. From there, another two hours took us to the car. I never told Pete this, but my marker for the trailhead was based on a guess from an earlier estimate (I never actually marked that waypoint when we took off … my bad!) and so my continued encouragements of “just another quarter mile” were completely wrong. And, as I think about it, with about a mile to go, Pete pretty much got tired of me, put his head down and steamed off to the car, leaving me trailing for the first time in the trip. He assured me there were no hard feelings … he just wanted it over.
The trip home was long-ish, made the longer for Sunday traffic on Hwy 2. I got home around 4PM, showered, and asked Suzy if we could go out for Mexican food. For some reason, after a long hike, burritos, rice, and beans are extremely satisfying. And that was it.
While I’d thought I’d seen worse mosquito swarms before, I have so many bites on my head (the little suckers just drain my shaved pate right though a bandana) that my scalp feels like bubble wrap. But, I have little other wear or tear. I feel the slightest of tugs when I go up or down stairs and, as I’d said before, my ankles held up well. I have hopes that my outing the weekend after next won’t be a train wreck but I will have to watch what I pack.
Were I in better shape I could have used my time in the valley better: more exploring, spend more time talking and connecting with Pete, or time just looking at the stars on a near-moonless night without a hint of clouds. But we know I’m not in better shape and my condition was part of this trip, like all the other stuff: the crystal blue waters of Ilswoot, the cascading waterfalls around the valley, the high carved walls of the surrounding ridges, and the marvelous col at the valley’s head.
Good stuff and less good stuff; all of it has made this trip another great experience.
Sorry this got long; thanks for reading.