Test Lab Hike–White Pass/Pilot Ridge, part 1 of 5
Posted by joeabbott on September 4, 2012
Day 1 – To White Pass
– Part 1: To White Pass
– Part 2: Rest day at White Pass
– Part 3: To Blue Lake
– Part 4: Rest day at Blue Lake
– Part 5: Going home
Every year I take a hike with three chums from when I worked at Boeing in the Test Lab division on the 777 airplane. My friends and I swap turns for planning hikes and this year Ron drew up an itinerary that had us gasping: a five day hike that would ultimately take us nearly 45 miles through the middle Cascades. This would have been the norm in years past, but we’ve been doing this for 18 years now and some of us are getting old and soft.
Being eldest, he had the right to draw some long lines on the map and opt to breathe the rarified airs of the upper reaches, but that didn’t stop us from complaining one bit. Additionally, a five-day trip that dipped it’s toes deeply into September was flirting with a serious chance to get rained on … rain being something Ron seems adept at squeezing into the trips he plans. But, we’d agreed on a loop that would take us up the North Fork Sauk river, grunt 3000’ up to White Pass, enjoy a day’s rest, hike a long traversing route to Blue Lake, enjoy another day’s rest, and then march the 11.5 miles along Pilot Ridge back to the car (with its attendant 2700’ elevation drop).
It would be bruising but we gamely accepted the challenge: not only would it be nice to prove we could do a trip like this again, the area looked spectacular and we were all eager to spend time in this wonderful place.
We gathered at Ron’s house around 4:30PM Wednesday, stopped off to get sandwiches at the local Subway, and headed to the Sloan Creek Campground … and the trailhead to North Fork Sauk Trail #649!
We pitched our tents, munched our sandwiches, and then we headed straight to sleep; workdays get you up early and we had a long day ahead of us the next day.
On this trip I learned an interesting thing: Ron gets up at about 6:30 every day, alarm or not. And the following Thursday was no different. While we could prepare our gear without headlamps, most of the pictures look like we’re heading out excessively early. As it was, we left the trailhead about 7:40AM.
The surprising thing was just how heavy my pack was. I never actually weighed it but estimate that it came in around 50#. I took the basic gear but tossed in some fleece (boy was I glad to have that), some clean hiking and “camp” clothes, a book, and then a few things I might not bring on another long trip (cribbage board and battery powered mini-lantern). But there was a lot more going into that pack than that!
While I ate freeze dried food each night, five-days of food was heavy. Add in my part of the group gear (stove, tarp for under the tent, water filter), my part of the tent (we have a massive 6-man tent that we enjoy for the room it gives us), and then water to get me down the trail and up the hill … well, it was crushing.
Tim’s pack was likely the lightest … he didn’t take many luxuries or extras, and his diet was minimal. While he wasn’t as comfortable in camp, his pack was probably about 15# lighter than mine. Ron’s pack was physically huge! He had the body of the tent, which didn’t compress that well … he ended up just piling it into his pack and holding it down with the top-pouch. Dan’s pack … well, Dan’s pack felt like he was hauling bricks up the hill. I’m not sure how heavy it was, but it was outrageous. And, other than an excessive amount of food, he didn’t seem to be carrying a lot of extra stuff. That was an impressive pack.
Anyhow, we made slow but steady progress to Mackinaw Shelter, a ramshackle lean-to at the bottom of the steep ascent to White Pass. As we looked at the decrepit building and wondered aloud about the Yosemite hantavirus incidents, Tim noticed his pack was having troubles. Sure enough, one of the main support buckles holding the shoulder strap was broken. Over the next few minutes we considered a host of repair solutions before I produced a small carabiner I use for securing a tube from my hydration pouch; it worked dandy at fixing the problem.
With that, we shoulder our burdens and headed up the steep flank to gain our 3000’ for the day. And, in a word, it was brutal.
I think I’d mentioned I’m not in great shape and this leg of the trip either proved me right or wrong. I certainly made it but it was abusive and I was slow. Step after step after step, I slowly worked up and, by the time I crested the trees and could enjoy the views (like that above), my legs were spent and I was drained. I could move along well enough when the trail was flat, but the trail was seldom flat here. I had to work for every step. The worst of it was that we were traversing a hillside and every time I’d round a corner and hope to see the trail starting its descent into the camp area, it inevitably drew me ever upward. Slowly, fatiguingly, painfully upwards.
At about 2:30PM I met up with Dan and Tim just above the White Pass camp area and we sat, enjoying the view, enjoying not being on our feet, and irrationally cursing Ron for the steepness of the path and our general lack of being in shape. After catching our breaths and looking for an end to our day, we marched on.
Within another 15 minutes, we’d joined Ron (who was already in camp waiting for us) and started about the task of setting up. Tarps come out, tents go up, water gets filtered into “pigs” (our term for oversized water containers used for cooking and refilling personal water bottles), and someone starts up a stove. It’s a good routine but we were exhausted from the trip up.
I figured we’d setup the big tent on the hard, barren area that comprised “the camp”, but Ron argued that the open meadow adjacent to the camp was just fine. Given the hardness, rocks and roots, I acquiesced in spite of misgivings. Later when a ranger came by a couple times and didn’t point out our “error” or make suggestions for moving the tent, I figured we were just fine to camp there.
Amazingly, Dan wasn’t kidding about bringing his own tent … he had! When we questioned him on why he wasn’t staying in the main tent, he said he felt a cold coming on and didn’t want to share it with us. And he’d even carried up part of the group tent! It started to explain his heavy pack a bit. He setup on slightly higher ground but we were all situated without too much trouble.
In a final show for why his pack might be so heavy, Dan provided three bags of food he’d brought for the trip! He gave me an Aidell’s chicken and apple sausage (with bun!) and I didn’t need to eat my freeze dried beef stroganoff that night! I’ve never had a better trade … that sausage was delicious.
After dinner we hung our excess food in trees to keep it from the animals and, this trip, we all needed our own branches as our combined food bag weights would be too much for any limb in the area. And while we saw a lot of marmots in the area, I didn’t see many signs of rodent/squirrel/chipmunk or other animal that might disturb our eats. While we say we hang the food to keep it away from bear, you’re far more likely to have it ransacked by a ground squirrel. But, for this trip, our food hanged unmolested.
Anyhow, that was about it. That night we didn’t play our usual cards and Dan and I didn’t enjoy our usual late-night tea; we were all bushed and headed straight to sleep.