Test Lab Hike–White Pass/Pilot Ridge, part 5 of 5
Posted by joeabbott on September 14, 2012
Day 5 – Blue Lake to North Fork Sauk Trailhead
Today our trip would come to an end, but not before a long, 11.5 mile hike back to the car. Mileage-wise, today would be the longest day, but we all had hopes it would be the easier as we left the mountains and worked our way out of the elevations.
That said, I have a mapping program that’s quite old called Topo! but it still works well enough to tell me the way home included both a lot of up and a lot of down. Enough to keep our attention, tax our legs, and make us happy to see the car at the end of the day. In numbers, that means a loss of about 5500’ but a gain of almost 2000’!
We arose at 6:30AM and while we had all day, there was purpose in the air. I started wiping dew and respiration from the tent, Ron and Tim cleared their items out quickly, and the annual Dan Garage Sale of gear and stuff slowly spread out in another corner of the camp site. Anyone who doubted Dan carried a bunch of stuff in, only had to watch his preparation for packing to appreciate his load.
Water was boiled for tea and oat meal, water filters were compared to sort out whose was whose, and we jockeyed for which parts of the group gear we’d carry down the hill. Tim manned up and offered to take a set of poles and the fly, Ron got the tent body, and I took the second set of poles. Again, with the depletion of food from my stocks, my pack was at its most compact and lightest … a welcome boon for the long march out.
As we shuffled about and readied ourselves, we saw the Love Birds doing the same across the narrow stream from our camp. Dan stepped away for his morning constitutional, giving Ron, Tim and I a chance to silently bid Blue Lake farewell with the profound understanding that we’d likely never see this beautiful place again in our lifetimes. A dramatic thought but sobering for both its comment on our point in our lives and for what it meant in missing out on this particular beauty again.
Dan’s return broke our reverie and, minutes after the Love Birds had left the valley the route we’d entered it, we shouldered our burdens and headed the other direction, back down the trail taking us toward the Johnson Mountain summit and Pilot Ridge.
As we popped on our packs and cinched them down, Tim uttered and epithet and held up the broken buckle from his backpack … the main buckle. The buckle that held all the load and transferred the weight off his shoulders to his hips and legs. That buckle.
Without it and 11 mile march with a heavy pack would have been truly monstrous. As I fished about for the equivalent of gum and baling wire, Dan produced a perfect replacement buckle from his pack! He hadn’t exactly brought along replacement gear, but he did have a spare that was part of the top the breaks away as a waist pack.
And so, Tim dodged a bullet, we extracted promises from him to purchase a new pack before our next outing, and Dan became a hero. Almost brings a tear to the eye.
It was 8AM at our departure and we took a slow, measured pace. We were used to marathon marches and this day would be no different. For its familiarity, the initial part of the trail went quickly, but I had worked up a solid sweat on the way to the fork in the path. This time we took the former option: the way leading to Pilot Ridge and the North Fork Sauk Trailhead.
At that junction the trail drops down for a short several dozen feet, but the way is eroded significantly. We scampered and skipped down, surviving this treacherous section only to be met with a hard-as-ice patch of snow that hadn’t melted out since the winter before. In this immediate area, we hit two such spots but after that, our way was clear and easy.
The trail gently flowed across the south side of Pilot Ridge giving us gorgeous views of the Monte Cristo range and Mount Rainier to the south. But, for all the long way and the occasional ups, the trail very intentionally trended downward. As the morning wore on, Tim and Ron forged on out front, breaking trail, or at least soaking up all the dew. I was third and Dan would sometimes follow close and other times drop back. It was an easy, sun-drenched day and so we continued on in contemplative silence.
About 11AM the trail started to descend steeply, losing hundreds of feet. As we were still on the back side of Pilot Ridge, I began to worry just a bit. Then I saw Ron and Tim stopped and I worried a bit more: how could we possibly have gotten off trail? I reached them and noticed that Ron was tending to his feet; specifically, he was wringing out his completely drenched socks. I guess there had been more dew on the undergrowth than I’d thought!
Tim had the same questions I did but, after consulting our Greentrails map and the GPS, I found our location and we did indeed lose several hundred feet on this part of the trail.
Dan caught up and we all took a short break before Ron and Tim ran off out front again and Dan and I followed after. It was a comfortable arrangement and I found myself in good company when I wished for it and silence when that was more to my liking.
After descending nearly 700’, we gained 300’ and then some of it back up the next short slope and, at this time, found ourselves at the top of the section leading down off Pilot Ridge and into the North Fork Sauk drainage. It was now a quarter after noon and we were ready for our lunch.
I shared parts of my sandwich with the guys; it was a simple ham and cheese on a ciabatta-style roll. I have a Seal-a-meal that allows me to vacuum pack my perishables, giving me a small amount of confidence at eating this sort of sandwich on day 5. Ham is a smoked meat but you’ll notice I didn’t eat the whole thing myself. Either I’m mighty generous or I’m evil to the point of taking out my hiking mates with me. I’m happy to say I can appear magnanimous as we all made it through the trip without contracting food poisoning.
We nibbled our foods and enjoyed our views to the south for the last time on this outing. After our meal we’d head north, into the heavily wooded drainage basin and then we’d find the trail to the trailhead. As we set out, we weren’t somber but we weren’t chipper, either. Perhaps fatigue, time from home, or the warm sun was pulling the squirrelly energy out of us that often marks our companionship. Now it was time to head downhill.
Again, Tim and Ron out front, now Dan and I hung more closely together, chatting the whole time. My ankles are not as strong as I’d like, compliments of a motorcycle accident that left bone chips in the joint and have chewed away some cartilage there, and Dan’s hip was bothering him. So, casual chatter took our minds off our respective woes and at about 2PM we found the North Fork Sauk.
Tim photographed our crossing over a large tree that had conveniently fallen right where the trail crossed the stream (imagine that luck!), and while Dan was a little uncomfortable on the way over, we made it without incident. And so, with only a minor rest, we hoist our loads one last time and headed toward the car.
We passed a couple spots we recalled from earlier in the week when we’d passed them going the other way, but it could have been any trail, any where. And so it was, 45 minutes later, that we saw a cluster of painted metal objects through the thinning trees and popped out into the parking lot in the later afternoon sunlight.
Keys appeared from the depths of Dan’s pack, and a variety of chilled beverages appeared from the depths of a hidden cooler. We all fished about for a change of clothing, I enjoyed the pleasure of sitting in the front, and we made a final check of gear to ensure it was sufficiently stowed to last the journey home.
There’s a bit more to the story of getting home, but it mostly involves traffic, a meal at a place called Fred’s Rivertown Ale House in downtown Snohomish, changing cars and then more traffic before showing up around 8PM, badly in need of a shave, a shower, and a kiss from my much-missed Miss.
I reflect on this outing as “once-in-a-lifetime”, and privileged to enjoy them every year. The mountains are a deeply special place and this sort of trip fills me up, recharges my energy, and is just balm to a soul buffeted by status reports, daily meetings, and a lot of time behind a computer of one sort or another. And so, balancing the tension between my luck at having enjoyed so many of these trips with the knowledge that I’m getting a bit older and parts are starting to wear thin, it is with great humility that I ask: may I have another next year, please?
If the answer is “yes”, I’ll share that news here. Happy trails, all.