This has misery written all over it.
Posted by joeabbott on September 15, 2013
Fortunately, I’m not known for my Nostradamus-like qualities and that prediction was muttered after the worst was over. Yet, there was plenty of misery in the first day of our four-day backpacking trip to the Goat Rocks area south of Mt. Rainier.
I’ve written at various times about my yearly outing with three friends from Boeing: the Annual Boeing Test Lab Hike. All four of us met while on the 777 Major Static Test and we’ve been meeting once a year to hike the less-crowded places in Washington since. This was our 20th year and we were looking for something memorable. We got it.
Our original plan was to hike a 30+ mile loop in 4 days, taking in the quiet of Heart Lake, a busy stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, and then a high ridge over Packwood Lake and back to our car. But, a few days prior to the outing, Dan hurt his back and wouldn’t be able to do the loop. Rather than scratch the trip or go without Dan, we agreed to head in to the first spot, setup camp, and make day hikes from there. It would be 6.5 miles and test Dan’s back, but we enjoy the society of our mutual company and the trip is improved with all of us present; he was game and so were we.
Another wrinkle that arose was a thunderstorm system that moved into the area that week and was forecasted to be finishing up during the hike. We’d planned to be out Thursday thru Sunday, but had earlier agreed we could slide the time to Saturday thru Tuesday. That’s my recollection, at least. Tim, the planner, recalled the only alternate option being a slide to Friday thru Monday. Which proved unfortunate as the weather system bringing in the rain was still dumping on Friday.
Still, it was four days in a remote part of the state that gave my legs a good workout and a chance to meet up again with old friends. Here’s how the trip shaped up.
We stepped from the car at the trailhead to light rain. In spite of being in the Seattle area for over 25 years, I still don’t have the hang of the multiplicity of words for precipitation, so let’s call it a “sprinkle”. It didn’t seem terrible to me with my Gore-Tex boots, gaiters, rain pants, Gore-Tex jacket, and hood pulled up over my rain hat, but we had a long way to go. I tossed Tim and Ron their parts to the tent: the tent body and tent fly. They didn’t realize I’d covered their parts in plastic bags before stuffing our “home” into nylon sacks for them to carry, so in the pictures that follow you may wonder why they have white trash bags covering part of their packs: they wanted to keep the tent dry and that’s where they attached their share to their pack. Dan and I followed suit but made complete covers for our packs from the trash bags. I’d like to believe it helped, but can’t say how much.
Cutting to the chase, the 6.5 miles to Heart Lake was over trail that, at best, can be described as primitive, and in some places has been completely washed out. I’d like to wholly blame the recent storm but few sections were good and all tried my ankles, which on good days are never terribly strong. In those good places, the trail is narrow and overgrown with salal (a native plant), with plenty of fist-sized rocks beneath, waiting to turn an ankle. Additionally, the hills in the Goat Rocks area are built up from years and years of pyroclasitc debris: meaning, they’re mostly volcanic rock loosely bound with ash compacted over time. And that means a good strong rain could wash away a trail.
The key to having someone with a bad back along on a backpacking trip is to avoid having them carry much weight and going slowly; and while Dan, Ron and I all carried the tent and majority of group gear, Dan’s pack was still a stout bit of packing. So both the trail and our leisurely speed kept us from making great time and, over time, that sprinkle would vary between “gully washer” and “letting up”, but was ever present.
At one point in the trip we came across the Grand Impasse: a place where water had eroded the trail completely and, across the way, a helluva boiling stream raged. It was on the way to crossing the stream that Ron broke one of his trekking poles; as Tim was crossing it he dropped one of his poles to grab at some rock and it was swept over the falls. A treacherous place, to be sure. Based on watching Ron’s and Tim’s attempts, I was able to make a more graceful crossing, and Dan followed us all. We were happy to put this behind us but the inevitable crossing coming back was a regular topic of conversation.
So, 6 hours later we were at Heart Lake and found area around the lake to be completely saturated: a fen, bog, marsh … whatever you call it, not a place for a tent. Tim found a small space nestled above the lake in some trees that looked improbable and, had we not been desperate to setup something, downright impossible. We’d reached desperate, however: Dan was starting to shiver, my ankles were screaming, and both Tim and Ron were flagging. So, we popped our 10’x12’ tent up onto a sloping 4’x6’ space, accepted the roots, rocks, and divots that became part of the tent floor, and made this spot our home.
It was after we had the tent up but empty that I stood outside it, sodden from head to toe as if I’d laid to my neck in a pool of water for hours, that I looked in at the lump but dry interior of the tent and muttered the line that’s the title of this post. It became the tag-line to the trip.
We agreed to get our dry gear (sleeping bags, dry clothes, air mattresses, etc.) in and then one-by-one strip down outside, hop in, dry off and get into dry clothes. I was downhearted so I volunteered to fetch water for the evening meals and walked off to find a clear-running stream (not a difficult chore) while the others got dry.
When I got back and distributed water, I took my turn at getting in and getting dry. Each of us stowed our wet gear in a trash bag and then hauled that into the tent keeping the insides in … we then used the bags of wet gear to fill the holes, dips, and divots in the tent floor. Ron had a particularly deep hole on his side that we named “the sump” for its depth and wetness. My wet gear was so heavy, I found it impossible to lift with one arm and heaved it in before zipping up the tent fly.
Tim, rarely the optimist of the group, noted that we had at least encountered few bugs.
The rains stopped sometime late in the evening and the clouds had improbably blown clear of the area. While we’d broken all sensible rules of camping and had cooked our dinners in the tent the night before, we were now able to enjoy our breakfast outside. I was still unhappy with our choice of campsites and the meager space available to us for lingering about, but the location was a marvel.
Heart Lake is located in with a ring of low peaks about its north and east sides; a low, marshy area runs south accompanying a stream from a nearby waterfall, and to the west is a cleft and the low ridgeline we’d navigated into this valley. Brilliant white goats dotted the flanks of the mountainsides around us, and a trail to Goat Lake slashed across the face of the hills below the goats but mysteriously stopped at the waterfall.
Ron, Tim and I agreed that the day’s event would be to head to Goat Lake and beyond to Snowgrass Flats, our original destination; or at least one of them. We’d decide if we could move camps or if Heart Lake would be a place to make other day hikes from. Dan announced that his back had paid the price on the way in and he’d stick close to camp, fish the lake, and explore the area. He also offered to string up a few lines and see about getting our clothing dry.
While I’d brought spare undergarments and a clean shirt, I only had one pair of pants and one pair of boots … so I was destined to be damp that day. It was uncomfortable but tolerable given the lack of options, so we bid Dan farewell and with squishing feet and hopes the day would continue improving, Ron, Tim and I headed along the arcing trail to see just how it traversed the waterfall and what Goat Lake looked like.
The mystery of how the path traversed the waterfall was quickly solved, as it jumped the stream above the falls, was lost amid scrubby trees and broken rock, and then took a less-well-defined path through high stone and shifting paths. A few spotty cairns marked the way along the rudimentary path and we all agreed it would have been next to impossible to have come much further the previous day given our respective physical challenges.
At one point the trail bifurcated and I took the high road to a notch in the ridgeline that chased a stubborn patch of snow … which, when inspected, was as hard as ice. The broken rubble atop of the ridgeline gave us a place to sit for a bit and enjoy a break. By the time we were ready to move on, a patch of clouds moved in and we decided to continue waiting it out. And so we lingered another 45 minutes or so, reading in the quiet air of a mountain ridge.
But, ennui set in and even the enjoyable time with our books and magazines grew tiresome. We didn’t have the confidence to plunge straight off the notch(the trail had abruptly ended), so we traversed the far side of the ridgeline until we spotted a trail after breaking free of the clouds. At the trail we noted a low cloud cover had settled on the ridge and, had we waited it out, we might have spent the entire day up there.
We hadn’t, and now we had the run of the trail to Goat Lake and started meeting group after group of people. Where we didn’t see a single person in the Heart Lake area while staying there, we were seldom out of the site of other groups of people on this side of the ridge.
At Goat Lake, Tim said he’d enjoy staying there and watching the day pass, rather than walk three miles farther to Snowgrass Flats and three miles back. Ron was game so I enjoined him on the march and off we went.
The trails between Goat Lake and Snowgrass Flats are peculiarly established and solid, compared to the broken and vanishing trails in the Lily Basin (of which, Heart Lake is part). And over these solid trails Ron and I made good time.
On the way we continued to see many groups of people: lots that looked like day hikers (I’m assuming they had an established camp somewhere nearby), older folks, many women, groups of guys, and even a “Goth” couple (he in his Metallica t-shirt and jeans, she looking frightened, clutching his arm and out of place). It was a strange gathering this side of the ridge. Ron and I also saw the remains of a tree that had clearly been struck by lightning a day or two prior: the trunk with a broken gouge from its side and a severed limb still smoking on the ground below it.
As we neared Snowgrass Flats we noted it was “.2 miles” farther down and proceeded another half mile down trail. We never saw anything that said, “Welcome to Snowgrass Flats” or an intersection of trails at the point you were supposed to hit Snowgrass Flats. Lots of good places to camp, but we failed to find the place with the name we’d chased that afternoon. And so, after a quick break and some more map reading, we headed back.
By the time we gathered Tim and enjoyed another rest, my feet were no longer actively sliding in my boots and friction and body warmth had started to dry out my socks and the liners. My pants were long-dry but cloud cover had remained and it was time to head back to Heart Lake. Rather than retrace our path over the high notch, Ron led us along paths to the “right way” into the Heart Lake basin and I followed.
Immediately upon turning the corner to the far side of the ridge separating Goat Lake from Heart Lake, the trail climbed, grew rocky, and was generally deteriorating as we walked it. And while Ron attempted to take us on the correct path, he ended up just below the ridge on the hardscrabble, broken stone we’d taken a break on many hours prior. But, our destination was the tent so we walked past, picking the trail that bore our trekking pole divots and negotiated the rock field to the waterfall.
Again, without a break, we jumped the chirping stream, now flowing a bit less restlessly in its course, followed the grand arc of the path above Heart Lake, and dropped into the boggy marsh heading to camp.
At camp we enjoyed the benefits of Dan’s industriousness: He had removed all gear from the tent, resituated the tent as best he could, dried the gear, and generally cleaned the place up. While the camp area was still small, we all found spots to hover in while dinner cooked and we joked about.
The day ended grey but dry as we turned in, played a hand of cards (I won the game of Hearts), and then drifted off. When you grew accustomed to the slant of your sleeping pad, the root at your side, and the cruel stone just inside the tent flap, you might find yourself quite comfortable here.