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This has misery written all over it. (continued)

Posted by joeabbott on September 19, 2013


Our next day started much like the prior one: azure skies, impossibly brilliant white goats on the hills around us, and all of us working cricks out of our backs from the stay in “hotel lumpy” … or, the tent that was too big for the area it was placed in. While I hated the idea of moving camps, I asked Tim and Ron if they’d consider moving to the site at the entrance to the Heart Lake basin. On the way in, it held a number of deep puddles and was generally a minor pond; yesterday as we hiked by, it was dry and looked the very picture of a perfect spot. They consented to move. I was elated.

Ron is usually the first up; you can set your watch by his chronologically accurate 6:30AM start times. No fanfare, no beeping alarms: just Ron popping out of his sleeping bag, pulling on whatever he’d wear that day, and heading out to greet the morning. So it was curious to see he was still abed (asleeping bag?) at 7:30 when I finally rose. But, he appeared to just be enjoying a good rest and before long we were all out and rustling up breakfast.

We enjoyed our respective repasts and considered the day. I’d thought the ridge above Heart Lake looked nice and Ron and Tim agreed getting up there in the sun would be a fine destination. I harbored no greater plans and merely considered the best route up, as the way wasn’t clear.

The entire face is fairly steep and regular rock bands break that face up; nowhere was there a clean line of ascent. I wasn’t interested in climbing or any dangerous pursuits, but imagined (as it is in many cases) that the way up would be easier once you were on the route, than it appeared from camp. I did, however, wish to find an easy enough way to avoid spooking my trail-mates.

P9080090Unfortunately, Dan, again, voiced his concerns for his back and opted to hang out in camp, preparing whatever needed preparation and scouting out other parts to the Lake. His efforts the prior day exposed a lack of fish in the lake, but he did find a number of salamanders, efts, newts, and similar lizardy amphibians. Dan is a catch-and-release man, so finding wildlife of any type allowed him a chance to use a camera to capture creatures in that way.

We were unhurried, so it was around 9:30AM when we headed north, favoring the left-side of the ridge and targeting a rocky bluff with trees at its side. Once we got to the bluff, we’d see if we could find a way through the tree line and then be in the upper section. From there the jaunt to the top would be a simple matter of continued exertion against gravity and our own inertia.

The trek across the lowlands by the lake was still hazardous with standing waters; we had all had very wet boots and no one wanted to lose ground on drying their footwear out. We had to decide if we wanted to head straight up the hill or take the trail to the left and then curve up and around, high in the valley and navigate up from there. I chose to hike straight up the hill to avoid losing sight of my line or ascent; Ron and Tim followed.

imageThe day was growing warm and the exertion felt good; we weren’t in a hurry so we rested once or twice. At the stony bluff, Tim was nearly ready to call it quits. The way was both steep and slick and the price for losing footing would be high, but I called out when I found what appeared to be a goat trail and we all continued on, happy for an established way through the trees to the upper meadow.

Once through the trees we continued up, heading for a feature we named “the Gopher” or “Gopher Point”, after a pile of rocks that had a vague gopher-like shape to them. And at Gopher Point, we found respective places to sit and continued to do that for a good long time.

The sun was warm and the breeze gentle; you could see for miles. But, when in the high places, something stirs and I look around for the pointy parts and so it was that, off along the ridge three-quarters of a mile or so, Johnson Peak rose above us.

Before continuing, allow me to share a bit more of the lay of the land using the map to the right. Our campsite was loaded on the NE side of a small hill just south of Heart Lake; note the tent symbol. Gopher Point was located at the flag symbol NNW from the camp; it was likely only a half mile or so from camp. It certainly took less than an hour to reach.

The prior day when we visited Goat Lake and headed uphill to cross over the ridge by the ice-hard snow bank, our path took us just south of Hawkeye Point.

As you can see, Johnson Peak is NE of Gopher Point and, upon voicing my interest to Tim and Ron, only Ron bit, and Tim decided to stay at Gopher Point and catching up on his reading and staying up on his remaining safe.

While the way wasn’t long, it took about an hour as we threaded through trees and rock bands, always within an easy tumble, never within serious danger. The same goat trails we found on the way up helped us to negotiate the way along the rocky ridgeline and we enjoyed awesome views all around. At one point we scrambled to the top of a rocky point only to find Johnson still laying beyond and higher yet. Victim to the false summit.

As we started up Johnson Peak proper, I asked Ron if he’d like to circle around to the more gently sloping south side or attempt a more rock climbing-like approach from the west; surprisingly, Ron chose the west route but it was short and we quickly surmounted the face to walk the jumbled top to the true summit.

In another surprising moment, I found myself with a small spook when looking over the eastern side of the peak. No picture does a great job at communicating depth and distance (well, at least none that I take), but it was straight down for what looked like thousands of feet. Both steep and abrupt, I could only imagine what might happen if the rain-soaked summit refused to support our weight and slid a bit. There wasn’t much to slide before the whole top came off!

So, I eased back and enjoyed taking pictures of the wonderful mountains around me.


We didn’t want to make Tim wait over-long for us, so we hurried off a few snaps and then generally retraced our steps, improving them here and there and getting back in short order. And while Tim waited, he found a superior way down!

From the map segment above it’s clear that dropping off the north side takes you right to the trail we walked on the way in; what it doesn’t show is that the way down was much easier than our route on the way up and we were able to drop to that path without problems. I didn’t snap a shot looking down on the trail, but I did snap a picture looking back up. The feature we call Gopher Point is behind the tall rocky outcrop on the left; keen eyes may be able to pick out Tim heading down toward us (he’s just a little way to the right of center of the picture).

Gopher Point from the north

P9080140 StitchOnce on the trail we got back to camp quickly and Dan appeared a short time later. He’d been visiting a waterfall just north of camp and we’d seen it too, so he agreed to head that way with us. It was a short walk and, had we been thinking, we would have grabbed some sit pads and our stove and food so we could enjoy dinner in that cool place. But we didn’t and I was getting hungry so without spending too much time there, I wandered back to camp with Tim to start dinner.

That evening was almost enjoyable. I was too tired to insist on moving the camp and we had a small bit of scrub branches that had been drying a couple days and ready for us to start a fire. Or attempt to. The prior day we’d tried without success so on this day I offered up a cheap magazine I’d brought (and already read) as kindling material … and, wouldn’t you know, it did the trick! Soon we had a small cheery blaze.

On all of these yearly Test Lab Hikes, I bring what I call “camp cotton”: comfortable clothes for lounging about camp. While dressing into my camp cotton this time, I found that the callous and old starts to blisters that had hardened on my feet were starting to slough off. I guess two days in wet boots and then a third hiking over mountain ridges will burn off a lot of dead skin. While it was a bit yucky, my feet have seen years of abuse and disregard; the indignities of being part of me … a guy whose hiking ambitions exceed his physical capacities.

A quick bit of rubbing brought my feet to a baby-smooth skin!

But night closed in, chill and dark; clouds again had moved in and obscured the skies. We waited out the fire, allowing it to die to minor embers before scurrying into the tent to play our nightly hand of hearts. It was a great game in which the deal had circled the group and we were all within about 10 points of each other. That night Ron looked like he’d be the winner but ended up taking about 12 points and ended up busting 100. I believe Tim had low hand and I was second lowest. A fun game. Well, maybe not for Ron.

We stepped out of the tent for one last look at the stars and Milky Way before checking the fire ring one last time and then finding our separate “nests” among the dips, rocks and roots that embraced our sleeping bags.


Time the head home! While no one said anything, we were all wondering what the Grand Impasse would be like today. In practiced style, we all did our part in breaking down the tent and gathering our parts for the walk home. I had eaten enough food that I had plenty of space in my pack, so I volunteered to take the tent body; the bulkiest part. Tim to the fly and stakes; Ron got the poles.

It was at that point we realized that we’d just chucked the bags the tent parts came in into a plastic bag that we’d never dried out. Fishing those incredibly wet sacks out of the garbage bag was like pulling something up from the bottom of the lake. In and instant, it brought back just how soaked we were a few days prior. Disgusting.

But, we pushed our parts into the respective bags, covered those in plastic, and shoved them into our packs as we prepared to head home.


Grand ImpasseThe Grand Impasse was every bit as treacherous heading home as it was coming out. Now, rather than having rushing water coursing through it, the erosion of the trail around it was nearly complete.

I found a rock-climby sort of way through the insides of the cleft, but my partners chose to sit down and scoot along the muddy side, hoping to keep themselves from losing control. They would either lower their packs to someone at the bottom or have a person behind them slide it down to them, once they’d descended. In all, it was pretty tricky going but we managed to get through it without the loss of trekking poles or persons!

P9090178This was not one of the better parts of the trip but, like the rain, it was memorable!

And so we headed to the car. The trail was still cruel and by the time we got to the trailhead, I’d swallowed a couple of painkillers and was begging for it to be over.I’d hiked hard the past few months and my feet were ready for a rest.

We got to the cars while there was plenty of daylight; I doubt it was much after 3PM. At the car we changed into street clothing and headed into Packwood in search of a place that would sell us a good burger. We found that and then some!

I forget the name of the place but, in addition to burgers, we enjoyed an ice cream treat! Tim, Ron and Dan had cones, I chose to have a shake, and it was good. Unfortunately, the trials of the trail and a full belly made me poor company on the rest of the way home as I caught a few Zs in the backseat, lulled by the hum of the road.

In all, I strongly recommend this corner of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. I’d gently suggest you stay at Goat Lake, rather than Heart Lake (unless you like solitude and have a small tent), and I’d advise against the Lily Basin trail as your way in. If you do go that way, watch your footing.

Once again I’d like to thank my hiking partners, whatever good luck or good Will provides me with the opportunity to get out and enjoy the wilderness, and to you readers who have had the endurance to read this far. Thank you, one and all.


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