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Test Lab Hike–White Pass/Pilot Ridge, part 3 of 5

Posted by joeabbott on September 9, 2012

Day 3 – To Blue Lake


P9010140This is the third of five parts:

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

In the early hours of the morning, before sun-up, the clouds and elements coming in built to the point our tall, summer-weather tent was starting to sway noticeably in the winds. You could hear the white-noise roar of the blow coming in over the ridge, there’d be silence, and then it would hit the tent. One time I felt a nylon wall slap me on the top of the head when a gust kicked in. It made driving all those stakes in earlier worth it.

Upon arising for the day, we found heavy clouds edging the sky and foggy mists sweeping in and over the surrounding crests. A ranger we hailed shared with us that, while the forecast he’d heard before leaving the station indicated we’d have a clear day, in his experience, when clouds moved into this area, rain would follow. And while there was a lot of blue above, there were also a lot of clouds.

P9010119As we’d prepared for the night’s rest the day before, I’d attempted to extract a promise from my team to not move camp if it was raining (I hate packing wet gear, marching a long way, and setting up in the rain; just hate it), but it wasn’t raining when we got up and we had a long way to go. And so we set about breaking down camp.

Ron and Tim had their gear pulled out of the tent before I had my sleeping bag or pad stuffed, and so I felt a bit rushed and slow. But, the days before I’d done a poor job of taping my feet and I was currently sporting the start of a blister on both heels, just below the Achilles.

I’m both a pro at taping and carry several rolls of athletic tape with me, so I was done in a jiff but my gear had  apparently exploded over the prior days and it took a while to collect the stuff I’d strewn throughout the tent: books and light sources and clothing and whatnot were tossed around my corner of the shelter. However, I’m not a rook at this so I was able to join my partners soon enough. And then do one better: I started pulling down the tent.

Breakfast for everyone was roughly the same as the previous two days but, with two days passed, that meant we were carrying two days (and one breakfast) less food! The weight savings was grand. And while I refused to allow Dan to carry part of a tent he wasn’t going to use (and so I carried his share), the reduction in food weight and volume allowed me to pack more compactly than I had coming in. So with the smaller pack and a couple days of “seasoning” my legs, I was more prepared to shoulder my load and start pushing uphill.

P9010127 StitchP9010132Let’s be really clear on this, however: after climbing out of the basin and reaching the pass, I both needed a rest and found myself sweating and puffing. Yes, I was feeling a bit better, but I was still a pig. Now that we’re clear on that, let’s continue with the day, shall we?

At White Pass you don’t camp on the pass itself, but on a flatland just below the pass on the west side. Once at the pass proper we turned ourselves SE and headed along the lee side of several smaller hills toward Reflection Pond, a minor destination at roughly the “6” location on the map above. The hillsides on the way had a steep-ish aspect and blanketed with fields of alpine lupine. I recognize them because we have patches of this flower in the backyard; I was surprised when my fellow hikers also recognized this beautiful bloom.

The clouds continued to build, soon covering the entire sky but they remained voluminous and white; not yet threatening. We’d soon find they would keep us company throughout the day but never amount to a menace. Nature’s way of bestowing a bit of transient shade on a few hiking soles looking for their next campsite. Our great good fortune continued to mount. I’ll risk a bit of foreshadowing here to say that, by trip’s end, I was in a karmic deficit, benefiting from good luck and the generosity of man and wild from one end of our trip to the next. If anyone sees me doing something inconsiderate, remind me of this outing … I have a little payback to make!

After Reflection Pond, a small puddle that would frighten the thirstiest passerby from filtering a drink from its shallow and murky waters, we started to run into other hikers. Thus far, we’d bumped into one or two souls, but the number of people we’d seen failed to be commensurate with the number of cars back at the trailhead. We bumped into a young couple on their way to climb Glacier Peak, the ranger and a small group at White Pass, but not too many more. Our day trip was nearly completely without interruption by other parties but even the guy who had tucked his tent into a small grove at the very crest of the Pass (along with his barking companion) were gone when we headed out. But now we were starting to meet people.

P9010142The greatest thing about the majority of folks we met, were that they were old. Older than us by decades! But they were out. Out hiking, enjoying all that we had, seeing the hills and taking in this wonderful area. It was inspiring. As I get up there in years and I feel some bodily aches and pains, I am inspired to think that, if I take care of myself, I have many more hiking years to look forward to.

It was in this wave of hikers that we met “The Plodder”.

As we were passing Indian Head Peak (just to the east of the “7” location in the map above), we met an older man who was either trying to filter water from a thin stream trickling from the hillside or he was making some other adjustment. Smiles all around and we passed him by. A short while later we bumped into his companion, a loquacious older brick of a woman who was slowly marching south. She said she’d camped at Reflection Pond the night before and had been rained on (we didn’t experience rain at White Pass) and that she was just going to keep “plodding” on south. She was good natured and jovial, again, giving me hope for those later years in my life when I become plodding and brick-like.

We passed her on but stopped a short time late, checking Tim’s pack and enjoying a small break. We were two hours into our march to Blue Lake, the weather was becoming warm and the clouds had ceased to be threatening. Dan was lagging and so it is nice to occasionally regroup.

Dan’s likely the fittest member of our group but he has the curious habit of enjoying the nature at his feet. And I mean really enjoying it. I’ll view the mountain ridges, survey rock outcroppings and stands of trees, note the flowers and sky; but I do all of this in a “macro” sort of way. Dan takes a more microscopic approach. He’s looking at the small bones of an animal by the streamside, toeing a pile of scat to determine what had been there and what it was eating, or walking off trail to find that lone but perfect feather to tuck into his pack to bring home and share with the family. The hike to a destination is always made longer when Dan’s out front and so he normally brings up the rear.

While we sat, the Plodder trekked by, exchanging pleasantries and getting a 15 minute start on us from that location. I began to worry about campsites at our destination and Tim’s pack checked out, so we opted to break our enjoyable break and start south again.

P9010147Our route at this point lay on the PCT: the Pacific Coast Trail. A thoroughfare that stretches from Mexico to Canada and runs through the heart of the Cascades. From Red Pass to the junction forking off to Blue Lake we’d be on the PCT and it was here we ran into the majority of people. Again, many of the hikers were old and in pairs, but very often we’d bump into the opposite: young, 20-somethings with feather light packs and wearing sneakers: these were the through-hikers (also known as thru-hikers). These are the people attempting to hike the entirety of the PCT in one long slog. You see many of them on the PCT in the Cascades this time of year, as they’re looking to finish up the trip before the winter weather sets in. Inevitably in our brief exchanges you’d hear them say their next destination was Stehekin: a small village/town some 40+ miles to the north where they could get groceries, a shower, and a hot meal. And we met many.

P9010148What seemed like just a few minutes after leaving our break spot, we had another chance to exchange a passing pleasantry with the Plodder and a few other folks as we continued on and up, slowly winding up from the low point of Indian Pass as we passed to the east and south of Kodak Peak (NE of location “12” on the map above).

Here the trail takes a long, traversing route along the hillside; Tim and Ron were before me, Dan behind me. The day was pleasant and the trail beneath our boots was a wonderfully soft volcanic ash that kicked up small poofs with each step but the dust settled quickly. It was a balm to my feet and ankles, cushioning each step.

We took an hour and a half to get to the far side of Kodak Peak and took a break above Meander Meadows; again regrouping, again taking in a snack. We were unhurried and thankful for the day: warm temps, shade from the clouds, wild flowers in profusion, a pleasant exchange with kindred spirits, and packs that were lighter by several days of eating. Throw in the gorgeous scenery and this was a wonderful day in the making.

At our stop, a group of four or five youths kept to themselves, snapping pictures and chatting loudly. We munched a bit of something and wondered whether we should have lunch here, or wait. Waiting won out and after we’d regained our strength, targeted lunch for Dishpan Gap. After the Gap, we’d leave the PCT and start heading west, taking in the route to Blue Lake. And, more importantly, finding the cut-off for the “shortcut” into the Blue Lake basin. Failing to find the cut-off bode for a much longer, albeit less steep, trek into the lakes (lower and upper lakes).

P9010149 Stitch

The hike to Dishpan gap went quickly and allowed us a half hour break before continuing our trip around 12:20PM. Our march had started at about 8AM but we were in no real rush and enjoying many breaks, so the “up” of the next section wasn’t terribly taxing.

We wound around a large ravine, the start of the North Fork Skykomish and P9010164angled for the cut-off to the shortcut trail. From across the valley I pointed out the cut-off trail, steeply climbing the far wall of the ravine and the way over the ridge, to which Ron responded that there was no way that was the actual route … it looked more to be a rockfall or slide area. I privately smiled and welcomed him to a small taste of mountaineering.

WiP9010168thin 20 minutes of lunch we found the spur and the knocked-down sign announcing it and the fact that the trail wasn’t stock-ready. Once we started up, the sign clearly stated the obvious, as it was a steep and ill-maintained thoroughfare, barely wide enough for my boots in places and sometimes less.

We met a threesome coming down and, as I fought to cling to a minor rock band to allow them to pass, one of their party stopped to chat, seemingly to impress a young companion from the East Coast at just how friendly and hospitable us West Coasters are. Fortunately she didn’t speak to me, as the way had gotten steep, my legs were now officially “tired”, and exchanging banal pleasantries while fighting gravity on a sketchy trail decidedly leaves me out of my comfort zone.

The chatting ended soon enough, however, and we continued to the small notch above Blue Lake whereat we could take in the equally treacherous route down. While the boys enjoyed the views and a small rest, I started down the far side. As I noted, I was becoming concerned about finding a camping spot. I’m usually not so worried, but we needed a spot not only for our massive tent, but we also had to consider Dan’s second tent.

On my way down I was surprised as how far the lake was; on the map it appeared “right there”, but it took about 20 minutes to do my own plodding down the sketchy path, across the ankle-rending scree, and onto the paths above the lake. As I was approaching the lake I saw a pair of hikers heading toward the only large camp site on the lake. I silently cursed myself for being 10 minutes too slow but, as it was before 2PM, they were just passing through and we had that site for ourselves. It was great luck as, later in the day, the lake had become a magnet for people. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the lake had seen some dozen groups camping nearby, and with only 5 or so established sites, it was interesting to see where people setup their tents.

P9010179    P9010178    P9010181    P9010192

But, we were “home” for the next few days.

We setup camp in a jiff, a small stream flowed right near our site. The chill that was in evidence the evening before returned and we were all finding what fleece and warm clothing we had to fight off the minor shivers. Dinner for Ron, Tim and I was some sort of freeze dried meal: Tim enjoyed some chicken or other something, I had some lasagna, and Ron sampled another entrée by Packit Gourmet … a brand he swears by. Dan, well, Dan had soup and potatoes and more sausage or something like that. Dan ate well.

We spent the late afternoon kicking around camp, reading when the sun was out and we could lounge, exploring the lake when moving around seemed the better course of action. Dan had brought a fly fishing rod and tried his hand at the late (no luck) and we all watched as group after group funneled into the basin, trying to find a patch of flat ground to hunker down on. While we all were disappointed at having to share the lake with so many, it was made all the more uncomfortable by a group who became known as “the love birds”. While they were nice enough young folk, they spontaneously chose times and places to ensure all knew they were passionately committed to one another. And they setup their camp just across the stream from ours.

We also saw the Plodder come by, tip her hat to us and share a few more words, and then continue on down the trail to the lower lake, looking for a slightly larger slice of solitude. While “Plodder” may sound like a disparaging appellation, I hold her constancy and stamina in high regard; it was a name she chose with which to christen herself, and she made it an apt description that evoked modest respect. I wish her well on her travels.

P9010185 StitchThat evening, cards returned for a short game … either Tim or I won … Dan and I enjoyed our evening tea, and the clouds parted enough to allow a minor bit of stargazing. Even though we were in a bowl with mountains on three sides, the full moon was still bright enough to wash out most of the faint stars.

Day three had come to an end. If I had to characterize it, I’d say there was a lot of gentle hiking, easy conversation with friends and fellow hikers, and constant, beautiful views. If I were given the authority to do so, I’d name that day as the prototypical hiking day. Just perfect.


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