Olympus (10h12, FKT)

First view of Blue Glacier

First view of Blue Glacier


This Mount Olympus, not to be confused with the ones in Greece and Utah, is the high-point of the Olympic range in western Washington. It has something for everyone to dread: climbers are put off by the 18-mile approach, hikers by the glacier crossing. It therefore sees relatively few ascents for a prominent and beautiful peak with good trail access.

It had been on my to-do list for a couple of years as an ultra-prominence peak, and since I wanted to dayhike it, I figured I might as well try for the fastest known time (FKT). While I am used to pushing myself in the mountains, by either necessity or habit, I had forgotten the additional pain incurred by a genuine FKT attempt. Other than 12 minutes spent enjoying the summit, and another 5 talking to a friendly woman on the way down, I think this was close to my best effort with current fitness.

Standard rain forest trail

Standard rain forest trail

Between ongoing construction and a large, multi-lobed campground, it took me awhile to find the trailhead at night, but I eventually got that sorted out and hit the trail at 4:45. Running through a dense forest on the west side of the range, I actually needed my headlamp for contrast on the rough trail in the first half-hour. The trail follows the Hoh River for about 10 miles to the Olympus ranger cabin, gaining a measly 500 feet (average 1% grade). The slight grade is enough to be just noticeable while jogging, and is reflected in my splits. Frequent trail signs, and campsites labeled with their mileage from the trailhead, allowed me to keep track of my pace.

Hoh River from bridge

Hoh River from bridge

Beyond the ranger cabin, the trail climbs gradually over several miles before crossing the Hoh River at a spectacularly sharp gorge, then climbing more steeply above the runoff streams from the Blue and White Glaciers. Glad for the break from running, I fast-walked my way up the climb, passing campers at the various established spots along the way. I was a bit surprised to learn that many people backpack in for 3-5 days simply to walk to the base of the glacier. It’s probably for the best, as there is not enough climber traffic to justify maintaining the trail.

Looking down ladder

Looking down ladder

Shortly before Glacier Meadows, I came upon the famous ladder leading through a large slide chute. I found it surprisingly intimidating in the downward direction, and proceeded slowly until I became accustomed to this strange feature. Returning to the trail, I passed the platform for a seasonal ranger cabin, then continued up the trail to the lateral moraine.

Looking down Blue from summit

Looking down Blue from summit

From the moraine, I finally got my first view of the Blue Glacier, which I surprisingly found more impressive than most of the Cascades glaciers I have seen over the past two summers. Though it is apparently in rapid retreat, the Blue reminded me more of the glaciers I had seen in Canada, with a low-angle ice plain connected by impressive ice-falls to a striped, meandering valley glacier. The variety and complexity of this ice-landscape makes it seem somehow more impressive than the large but relatively uniform Cascades glaciers like the Challenger, Boston, and Inspiration.

Crossing lower blue

Crossing lower blue

Reaching the valley portion, I was glad I had chosen to bring crampons, as there was not enough grit on the surface of the wavy ice cube to make the crossing practical in just running shoes. I hopped from one ridge to the next, aiming for the toe of a rock buttress right of the icefalls. There are no large crevasses on this part of the glacier, but the unevenness makes for slow progress, and I suppose one could jump in a moulin. I was no longer moving at full FKT intensity, but I doubt effort would have translated to speed on this uneven terrain.

Doffing crampons on the other side of the glacier, I made my way up some 3rd class slabs to easier class 2 ground, aiming for the highest point of rock below the snow dome. I’m not sure if this is the standard route, but it is definitely the most efficient way to gain and lose elevation while the lower glacier is bare.

Upper glacier and summit

Upper glacier and summit

Returning to the glacier above, I found enough soft snow for crampons to be unnecessary, and did not feel especially insecure without an ice axe. Following and old boot-pack through the “stretch mark” crevasses of the upper glacier, I eyed the more direct routes to the higher western summit, but did not see an obvious line to take through the crevasses and bergschrund with only running shoe crampons. This forced me to the slightly indirect Crystal Pass route, which loops around to the eastern lobe of the glacier and around the back of the summit pinnacle.

Summit outcropping

Summit outcropping

Leaving the snow for a short stretch over the false summit, I downclimbed and slid across a short saddle, then kicked steps up steep snow to the highpoint of the snow below the summit rock, from which hung the usual Pacific Northwest collection of rappel tat. Stepping across onto the rock, I found about a pitch of low 5th class climbing, on steep but surprisingly solid rock with good incut holds. A bit of scrambling later, I reached the summit at 5h35, and knew that unless I imploded, the FKT was in the bag.

Upper White Glacier

Upper White Glacier

Even on a full-out effort, it felt criminal not to enjoy the surroundings. The large Blue and White Glaciers descended from opposite sides of the summit, their outlet streams eventually meeting to the north, with the Hoh Glacier visible farther east. Glaciation in the range is surprisingly concentrated, with relatively little ice visible outside these three large glaciers. 8,000 feet below to the west, east, and north, I could see the fog-covered ocean. Looking through the register while eating my last pop-tarts, I found a surprising number of familiar names, and even a couple dayhikers.

Icefall and lower glacier

Icefall and lower glacier

I retraced my steps across the false summit, ran down the snow to the rock buttress, then took another extended break to refill my water, wring out my socks, make my fig bars accessible, and pre-emptively ibuprofen my knees. After another crampon session getting across the ice, and an unpleasant slog up onto the lateral moraine, I was finally able to switch into downhill gear for awhile. I passed several groups of glacier sight-seers, stopping for five minutes to talk to an older woman from back east before turning up my pace and music to ignore the rest of the hikers.

It's a rain forest, dawg

It’s a rain forest, dawg

The descent to the Hoh is intermittently technical, but I was fresh enough to make good downhill time, reaching the Hoh bridge (13 miles to go) at 8h02. On a normal outing, with plenty of daylight left, I would jog as boredom demanded. However this was an FKT, so I aimed for 6MPH for the rest of the day, eating my last ibuprofen and striving for relaxed, sustainable speed. The ranger was awake in his cabin, so I stopped to chat briefly before before grinding out the final 9 miles. Measuring my pace by the campsite mileages, I was pleased to see that I was managing 6 MPH or better.

Definitely type II fun

Definitely type II fun

Things started to fall apart with around 5 miles to go, as I no longer had the energy to run the short uphills or maintain speed through rougher trail sections. With 2-3 miles to go, I started noticing slight cramps in my forearm when I adjusted my earbud, a sign I was running low on electrolytes. My knees were definitely feeling it as well, though not in a way that made me worry about acute injury. I reminded myself that it would be over in 30 minutes instead of an hour if I jogged instead of walked, put on some more aggressive music, and passed the final tourist hordes in coma drive, reaching the sign in 10h12.

I immediately fetched a gallon jug of water from the car and lay down on some soft moss, carefully arranging my legs to prevent cramping while I rehydrated and cooled down in my thoroughly-soaked t-shirt. Once I felt basically functional, I hobbled back to the car, ate greasy, salty sardines mashed into bread, and drove over to a secluded spot to rinse myself off in the silty Hoh River.

Splits

  • Start: 4:45 AM
  • Ranger Cabin: 6:21 (1h37)
  • Hoh bridge: 7:03 (2h29)
  • Glacier Meadows: 8:14 (3h30)
  • Glacier: 8:39 (3h55)
  • Summit arrive: 10:19 (5h35)
  • Summit depart: 10:31 (5h47)
  • Hoh bridge: 12:46 (8h02)
  • Trailhead: 2:57 (10h12)

    Gear and nutrition

  • Kahtoola KTS crampons
  • 3 packs pop-tarts
  • 1 sleeve fig bars
  • 6-7 gels
  • 300mg ibuprofen

  • Eldorado

    Sunset on Eldorado

    Sunset on Eldorado


    Yes, I’ve been there before, but I don’t mind going back. When Kate mentioned she’d be spending time in northwestern Washington, I started thinking about appropriate first Cascade peaks, and almost immediately settled on Eldorado. It has all the key elements of a classic Cascades peak — lush forest, alpine heather, spectacular scenery, and a big glacier — without long trail miles, tedious bushwhacking, or tenuous choss-and-moss scrambling. It can also innoculate against the mindless orthodoxy of always roping up on glaciers: while the Inspiration and Eldorado glaciers are heavily crevassed in places, the route itself is both obvious and crevasse-free. For someone with the good fitness and snow-travel skills, a one- or two-day trip up Eldorado is the perfect introduction to the Cascades.

    After picking up a permit and cooking lunch, we drove up the dusty Cascade River Road to the large trailhead, availed ourselves of the fantastically-clean outhouse, then started across the old logs and up the “super-secret” Eldorado Creek trail. The Marblemount ranger had mentioned that the area had seen a lot more traffic lately, and the trail was much more beaten-in than when I had visited in 2010. While the straight-up climbers’ trail can be hellishly hot in the afternoon, temperatures were mostly reasonable, with gradually-increasing high clouds blunting the sun’s force. Partway through the boulder-field, we passed a group of three returning from a 5-day expedition way the heck across the glacier to Austera and Primus. They looked worn down, having gone in heavy with both glacier and rock gear, and warned of calf-deep mashed potato snow.

    We under darkening clouds up the heather section, watching far-off Glacier Peak disappear behind a curtain of rain. This section was at least as dry as when I last visited in August 2013, and showed the impact of more traffic and less snow-cover. With the ground snow-free for more months, and more parties visiting, the trail is a deepening trench. At the crest of the ridge over to Roush Creek and the Eldorado Glacier, we paused to wait out some light sprinkles. My original plan had been to camp at the flat spot on Eldorado’s bare east ridge, which has great view and early sun, but that looked cold to us in our damp state, so we decided to set up camp.

    View east from camp

    View east from camp

    Used to rushing through this kind of area while commuting between trailhead and rock or snow, I was more comfortable than I had expected lazing around with a map and some snacks while the clouds thankfully dispersed. I am relatively unfamiliar with the peaks south and east of Cascade Pass, and never get tired of looking at Johannesburg. We engineered a “couch” out of camping pads to have dinner and watch the sun set on the pass, then found some bare patches of ground to sleep.

    Starting up Eldorado glacier

    Starting up Eldorado glacier

    This high up and far north, it is only truly dark for about 6 hours at night; I woke a bit after 4:00, opening my eyes to face a mosquito patiently waiting outside the netting of my bivvy. We eyed each other for awhile, then I drifted off into my thoughts for awhile before emerging lazily around 5:00. It wasn’t cold enough for the snow to have completely hardened overnight, so there was no advantage to tromping around the cold dark. After a leisurely hot breakfast, we spread our sleeping stuff out to dry and took off for the base of the snow.

    Ascending from ice plain

    Ascending from ice plain

    Ascending the snowfields and the edge of the Eldorado Glacier, we found a variety of up- and down-bootprints leading to and from the broad ice plain south of the peak. As we topped out on the plain and into blessed direct sun, we saw a group of three early-starters on the ridge near Eldorado’s summit. The view of the steep Forbidden and broad Inspiration Glaciers draining into Moraine Lake, and the ridges of Forbidden and Klawatti behind them, is revelatory to someone only familiar with the small glaciers and snowfields of the Sierra, Colorado, and Wyoming. Though my time spent in the Cascades and Canada has dulled the “wow!” factor for me, I still remember the impression of my first visit.

    Klawatti across Inspiration Glacier

    Klawatti across Inspiration Glacier

    Short-cutting through a gap in the ridge, we started up the bare talus left of the Inspiration Glacier toward the summit. The group of three we had seen earlier soon passed on their way down, roped together and fully kitted-out with crampons, axes, and helmets on the moderate snow-slope. We later learned that they were a guide and two clients on a course, so I suppose it was practice. Still, in practical terms, it was hard to see the point of all the gear on a slope so shallow and soft that it would be impossible to glissade without “rowing” with one’s axe.

    Nice crevasse and clouds

    Nice crevasse and clouds

    Where the snow became easier than the rock we switched over, using the group’s downward bootpack where possible while kicking steps up the slope in running shoes. Feeling an urge to sight-see, I wandered over to look into some of the small crevasses near the ridge, where the glacier is pulling away from its edge. A couple were decent-sized, but most were a jump wide and not too deep; still, it was fun to look down through the layers to the hard blue glacial ice.

    Descending summit snow ridge

    Descending summit snow ridge

    After more trudging, a final bit of steep step-kicking got us to the base of Eldorado’s distinctive and improbable summit snow-fin. Though she had been on plenty of steeper snow in the Tetons, Kate found this exposed ridge fairly intimidating, especially the prospect of descending it. It is a lot less risky than it looks, but it wasn’t hard to make myself picture tripping off one side or the other and sliding helplessly into the void. Exposure is strange and individual in how it creates unwarranted security or fear: I remember my rush of adrenaline induced by the convex drop of the south side of Mount Russell’s east ridge when I first climbed it in 2007, and how it seemed irrelevant on the reassuringly broad ridge when descending it in 2010.

    After a few minutes of what I hope wasn’t undue peer pressure, Kate carefully kicked her way up to the summit and, after a demonstrated lack of me dying, continued on to the rocks to the west. Dark, sunny, and warm, these rocks nevertheless lacked a crucial feature: comfortable seating. While Kate dug out the summit food, I set about constructing a south-facing bench next to a convenient backrest. Flagstone job done, we sat back to enjoy sardines and salami on slightly-stale bread, tearing them apart with our hands and teeth for lack of utensils.

    Fury across ice plain

    Fury across ice plain

    It was windless and t-shirt warm, and we had the aural and visual world to ourselves for awhile, until two more groups of three started making their (roped) way across the ice plain. After watching them for awhile, we abandoned our perch for the manageably-intimidating descent of the snow fin, and some plunge-stepping and boot-skiing back down along the ridge. Back at camp, I found my sun-baked sleeping bag smelling better (or at least less bad) than it has in a long time. We were fortunate to have made the climb when we did, as the oncoming heat-wave would have been truly brutal on the south-facing afternoon climb through the dark boulder-field. I pitied the suckers we passed on the way down, and felt warm enough to overcome my aversion to cold water and rinse off in the Cascade River for all of 30 seconds.

    Luna FAIL

    Over there somewhere...

    Over there somewhere…


    Proud devil's club

    Proud devil’s club

    Luna and Fury, at the southern end of the northern Pickets, are two of the last peaks on my list of “hardest dayhikes in the lower 48.” The most direct approach is a 16-mile hike around Ross Lake and up Big Beaver Creek, followed by a bushwhack up Access Creek. Since Luna is easier, my plan was to do it first as a scouting mission, then repeat the awful approach once more for Fury. I had visited Challenger and the southern Pickets in 2014, finding both approaches easier than their reputations suggested, and hoped for more of the same. Instead, I found brush every bit as awful as in the worst Pickets stories, and gave up after two hours wandering along a river through a swamp full of devil’s club. Now that I know what I am up against, I should be able to handle it, but I doubt I can force myself to repeat the approach twice more this summer.

    Big Beaver trail

    Big Beaver trail

    I set my alarm for an ambitious 2:00 AM, but slept right through it and started around 5:00 instead. Given the long days an an expected 16- to 18-hour outing, the late start didn’t really matter. I hiked and jogged the 7 miles to Big Beaver Creek, crossed the nice bridge, and turned left up the well-traveled Big Beaver trail. This section passes through lush old-growth forest, with huge trees, a moss carpet, and relatively little undergrowth. The trail is unfortunately and surprisingly popular with horsemen, so I dodged manure as I climbed a gradual thousand feet over 9 miles to Luna Camp.

    Field of devil's club

    Field of devil’s club

    The normal route leaves the trail slightly past this point, crossing Big Beaver Creek to climb along Access Creek, eventually reaching the saddle between Luna and Fury. Trip reports I found online mention various faint markers along the trail, and a large log or log-jam near the junction of the two creeks. One would think that a creek/valley junction would be obvious, but the woods are so dense here that it is difficult to see even where the two valleys join; in all of what follows, I never had a clear view of the actual creek junction.

    Cairn to nowhere

    Cairn to nowhere

    Finding Steph Abegg’s cairn, I headed into the woods along a narrow, gravelly dry stream, hoping that it would channel climbers and other animals into some kind of path, possibly with cairns. This was not what I found. Instead, after a bit of not-terrible woods, I descended into a mixture of bog, devil’s club, pine scrub, and alders. The vegetation was often too dense to step on actual soil, or even to see my own feet clearly. The best footing included old deadfall, alder trunks, and some kind of giant mutant spinach. When crossing fields of devil’s club, I found myself carefully stepping on stems to move the spiny leaves out of my way as I passed. The things seemed to be in heat, emitting some kind of frothy substance that, amazingly, was not venomous or corrosive.

    Creek crossing?

    Creek crossing?

    Reaching the Big Beaver, I found no sign of a log or stream junction. My (possibly inaccurate) map and GPS suggested that I was still upriver of the junction, so I made my way down near the creek along a sort of path of least resistance, periodically returning to the bank to look for a crossing or any sign of passage. I found a faint game trail for a short distance along the bank, and a few deer footprints on a sandy beach, but saw neither creek junction nor log.

    This was the better path

    This was the better path

    After two fruitless hours of full-on bushwhacking, I realized I should have simply forded the stream and bashed through, but I was mentally drained and possibly short on time. Even if I summited, I would not be satisfied with my time at this point. Returning to the trail, I decided to make some use of the day by checking out Beaver Pass and the start of the Eiley-Wiley approach to Challenger Arm. I continued another 4 miles up the trail, passing through multiple mowed slide paths as I climbed to the forested pass. I occasionally got glimpses of the Fury-Challenger cirque, but mostly saw a lot of green and brown.

    Nicely-mowed trail

    Nicely-mowed trail

    At the pass, I stopped to take some pictures of the cabin, refilled my water, and sat down for a rest before starting the 20-mile walk of failure to my car. Nearing the elusive Access Creek junction, I spent another half-hour in similarly fruitless scouting, then returned to the trail and turned off my brain for the afternoon. After re-passing a backpacker I had noticed at Beaver Pass, I picked up the pace, running past two more groups of hikers on the way to the boat dock. None of them looked like climbers, so it was a mystery to me why they would subject themselves to multiple days backpacking along a trail with almost no views of the surrounding peaks.

    Ross Lake Dam

    Ross Lake Dam

    Wanting the day to end, I mustered some half-hearted speed on the downhills and flats. It wasn’t much, but I felt surprisingly functional for being over 30 miles into the day. The whole fiasco came out to about 40 miles, with 10 hours of useful travel and 3 hours of thrashing. Having experienced only the Pickets’ friendly side, I had been both chastened and educated. I hope to return mentally prepared to complete the task, but I will need some time to recover.

    Ruby

    Hidden trail sign

    Hidden trail sign


    Finding myself disinclined to do Easy Pass twice in two days, and wanting something a bit easier than Mesahchie and its neighbors, I consulted my map and guidebook for awhile, then settled on Ruby Mountain, a lower summit prominently overlooking Ross and Diablo Lakes. With an old maintenance trail leading to the (unfortunately still present) radio tower on top and about 6,000 feet of gain, I thought it would be about the same as Crater. However, the trail junction has been totally obscured, so while the trail is still useful, it is essentially impossible to find unless you know exactly where to look.

    Logan and points south

    Logan and points south

    After puttering around at the trailhead for a bit, I headed up the Thunder Creek trail, crossed a bridge over the glacially-blue stream, and started up the switchbacks to Fourth of July Pass. A campground near the pass, and access to the other side from highway 20 via Panther Creek, make this a popular beginner overnight hike, so I passed the occasional family or newbie on the climb. Beckey’s directions suggested that the old trail turned off before the pass, so I turned off into the campground to search its far end for a junction. It seemed like a likely place, but I found nothing.

    Ross Lake and Hozomeen Peaks

    Ross Lake and Hozomeen Peaks

    Eventually returning to the main trail, I continued a short way, then left it at a red spike in a tree on what looked like a broad ridge in fairly open forest. Though there was no sign of a trail, I hoped that the spike meant “junction,” and that I could find other trail signs once the forest became more dense. Unfortunately, though the woods and brush thickened, no trail materialized, so I spent hours climbing over deadfall and bashing through underbrush. I eventually started to reach open rock slabs and small cliff bands, and finally found cairns and the old trail in one of these. From there, it was a surprisingly long but much more pleasant hike to the summit.

    Luna and Ross Lake/Big Beaver approach

    Luna and Ross Lake/Big Beaver approach

    Trying to ignore the ugly radio installation, I admired the view north to Ross Lake 6,000 feet below, and south up Thunder Creek to Logan and Buckner. On the way down, I found the trail easy to follow, with regular cairns and occasional flagging. I even found a sign — hidden from the Fourth of July Pass trail — declaring it unmaintained, though the junction itself is essentially invisible and possibly deliberately obscured. To find it, continue past the campground along a side-hilling section and into a broad, flat area. At a large, rotting tree stump naturally broken off about 6 feet high to the left, head into the woods. If you are in the right place, you should find the “unmaintained trail” sign within 50-100 yards.

    Workout hike complete, I headed into Concrete to resupply and rest for bigger things.

    Logan (Banded Glacier, 29 mi, 12,500 ft, 13h35)

    Logan (r) from Easy Pass

    Logan (r) from Easy Pass


    (Yes, that’s right: 12,500 feet. Credit Easy Pass, “the easiest way to add 6,000 feet to your day!” (TM).)

    Logan, my last remaining North Cascades 9,000-foot peak, is buried deep in the wilderness south of highway 20. The standard southwest route, with its northern approach, requires nearly 20 soul-crushing miles of mostly forested trail. The Banded Glacier route I chose instead involves either 13 miles and 2,000 feet of gain via Thunder Creek, or 10 miles and 3,000 feet in both directions via Easy Pass. The alternatives are energetically similar, and while the former is probably faster, I chose the latter to save a bit of mileage on my knees. My 13h35 represents a fairly hard effort, but not a speed attempt, and includes some route-finding errors and about a half-hour on the summit. Knowing the route, I could probably manage something closer to 12 hours at full speed via Thunder Creek, but once is enough.

    Easy Pass

    Easy Pass

    I woke to my alarm at 4:00, but it was surprisingly cold outside my sleeping bag, so I went back to sleep for a bit. I was eventually reawakened by a mouse who had somehow climbed on top of my car, then decided that the best route to my pop-tarts from there was through the (closed) rear window next to my head. I slid into my puffy jacket, took my time with breakfast, and started up Easy Pass around 5:50. The northeast side of the pass is a consistent climb with good scenery, and the cool morning was actually pleasant once I was moving. After meandering through relatively open woods, the trail crosses talus and heather, finally switchbacking through scree to a grassy saddle east of Mesahchie.

    Fisher Creek valley

    Fisher Creek valley

    Reaching the pass at 6,600 feet, I was rewarded with views of Fisher to the left, Mesahchie to the right and, ahead in the distance, the Logan massif with its various summits and glaciers. Descending to Fisher Creek, I received my first Cascades leg-soaking of the season, as the eager flowers and greenery did their best to overrun the underused trail. This section was only intermittently runnable, with the footing often either too rough or completely obscured at calf-level by overhanging grass. Once in the forest, the trail opened up, though frequent blow-downs continued to break the flow. I saw few signs of recent human traffic, though I did see several large piles of bear manure.

    The 'schwack to the lake

    The ‘schwack to the lake

    I crossed the bridge over Fisher Creek, then consulted my map and GPS to locate the side-stream leading from the desired unnamed lake. The navigational aids are unnecessary: it’s a wide, rushing torrent with a bridge over its old, dry channel. Following the faint ridge just left of the creek, I found the going steep but mostly painless at first. The last few hundred feet through cliff bands and shrubbery were slow, but not outrageous by Cascade standards.

    Lake of a Thousand Mosquitos

    Lake of a Thousand Mosquitos

    Nearing the lake — “good camping,” says Beckey — I entered a brushy bog serving as a major mosquito breeding facility. Unable to stop, think, or put on bug spray, I bashed my way across the outlet marsh, unleashing clouds of mosquitos every time I hit a branch, then scurried up talus right of the lake until I was above the swarm. In retrospect, this was a bad route to the wrong place. While I aimed for a grassy ramp leading near the toe of the ridge, Beckey’s “Christmas Tree Col” is actually a notch much closer to Thunder Peak, across the snowfields upstream from the lake. Determined not to return to mosquito hell, I third-classed my way through cliff bands and burrowed through vegetation until I reached my ramp, then followed a faint goat-trail to the ridge.

    Follow the hair

    Follow the hair

    Peering over the other side, I expected to see Logan and the Banded Glacier, but instead found only lower Logan Creek. Trusting in goat, I looked for fur and spoor, and soon found an impressively-steep goat path which led up the spine of the ridge, traversed around a subpeak, then descended to the large, partly-frozen lake at the Banded Glacier’s snout.
    Lake, Banded Glacier, and Logan (r)

    Lake, Banded Glacier, and Logan (r)

    While putting on my crampons for the climb, I heard telltale small rockfall, and spotted a trio of mountain goats headed toward the ridge above and to the left. Figuring they knew the area better than I did, I decided to follow them on the return, and kept track of them as I climbed to the Douglas-Banded glacier col. Though the Banded Glacier is steep and has crevasses, they are easy to avoid by going along the left-hand side.

    View down to Banded Glacier

    View down to Banded Glacier

    At the col, I got my first view of the larger Douglas Glacier and, beyond, Mount Goode towering over the North Fork of Bridge Creek. After a bit more snow, class 2-3 rock led to the narrow, north-south choss-ridge of the summit.
    Buckner (l) to Eldorado (r)

    Buckner (l) to Eldorado (r)

    From this perch, the large Boston and Inspiration Glaciers are visible in their entirety to the west, Goode’s northeast face rises to the southeast, and Easy Pass looks deceptively close to the northeast. Finding a passable seat, I spent a leisurely half-hour enjoying my fish before the grim slog home.

    Tracks above glacier col

    Tracks above glacier col

    After downclimbing the upper glacier (too steep to boot-ski), I headed toward where I last saw the goats, hoping to find a “Christmas Tree Col” leading through the ridge north of Thunder. I initially found a cliff, then proceeded to an orange, chossy notch near the saddle, where I found a small, tree-shaped spire above a decidedly un-tree-shaped tree. The other side of the ridge looked treacherous on both sides of the “tree,” but I saw fresh goat-tracks below and, looking more closely, found fresh prints descending the perilous-looking muddy gully to the right.
    Christmas Tree Col

    Christmas Tree Col

    Carefully making my way down, I was impressed that the goats managed without ropes, axes, or opposable thumbs.

    Cascades marmot

    Cascades marmot

    From there, I played (and won) a fun game of “don’t cliff out” though the snowfields to the upstream side of the lake, going around the right with minimal bog and mosquito trouble. I somehow botched the descent, taking a brushier line farther from the stream, but still came out almost exactly where I left the trail. All that remained was 10 miles and 3,000 feet of tedium. Though it was not obvious going up, the upper northeast side of Easy Pass is constructed of sharp rubble to minimize erosion and maximize frustration. This made much of it unrunnable, but I was still done well before dark, with plenty of time to relax, savor my tuna, and decide what to do next.

    Crater

    Crater Lake

    Crater Lake


    Planning a big day, I woke to my alarm at 4:00 AM at the Easy Pass trailhead. It felt surprisingly cold out, so when it started sprinkling about 30 seconds later, I changed plans and went right back to sleep. Waking up again at a civilized hour, I spent a lazy morning reading; then, feeling guilty about doing nothing with what had turned into a perfect day, I skimmed my map and settled on Crater Peak. Neither high nor “serious” enough to have made my list — 8,100 feet with a trail to the top — it seemed like a peak that would leave me rested enough for something real the next day. Also, the reason for said trail, a crazy-high summit fire lookout from the 20s and 30s, was intriguing.

    Nice bridge...

    Nice bridge…

    I drove down to the Canyon Creek trailhead, offloaded some extra food, and took off across two bridges and through a minor trail maze. Like many trails of the pre-ADA era, the Crater Peak trail is well-constructed and businesslike, grinding out 4,000 feet of forest in steep, steady switchbacks. Finally leveling off, it passes some campsites, then exits the forest at Crater Lake in the cliffy cirque between Crater and its eastern subpeak.
    Snow-bowed tree

    Snow-bowed tree

    The lookout trail is somewhat fainter here, but still apparently well-used enough to survive.

    More trail-work

    More trail-work

    I followed the trail through grass and up built-up switchbacks to the base of the final summit tower, where the packers apparently once left supplies to be hauled the rest of the way by a pulley system. The trail becomes abruptly worse here, but it is easy to follow cairns and, later, yellow X’s and arrows up the convoluted series of ledges and class 2-3 steps to the slanted summit plateau. Constructing a lookout up here without helicopters, and before the current highway 20, took an impressive amount of work. From the top of the tram, a somewhat improved trail switchbacks to the summit.
    Follow the marks

    Follow the marks

    I would normally shortcut such useless switchbacks, but I followed these out of respect for the hardy and bored lookouts who had taken the time to engineer a trail used only by themselves.

    Jack

    Jack

    The view was all that was advertised, with neighboring Jack looming just to the northwest, the Hozomeen Peaks to the north, and the rest of the north Cascades stretched out to the south and west. Sadly, the lookout has been almost entirely removed, and only an odd metal pipe remains. It was unpleasantly cold and windy, so I ate and photographed quickly, then retreated to the warm and sheltered forest. I mostly jogged the return, stopping to let some backpackers get control of their vicious dog, then again for water at a stream crossing. This would have been a good peak to speed-climb, but I held back, saving energy for grimmer things the next day.

    Golden Horn

    Golden Horn from Lower Snowy Lake

    Golden Horn from Lower Snowy Lake


    Golden Horn and Tower, two similarly-shaped peaks along the PCT north of Rainy Pass, are among Washington’s highest 100. Both have steep eastern sides, easy western ones, and interesting summit blocks. I had meant to tag both last summer, but ran out of energy after taking the hard way up Tower. At something like 25 miles and 4,000 feet of gain, I though Golden Horn would be another good moderate day before my first serious outing.

    Golden Horn and Tower

    Golden Horn and Tower

    Starting up the PCT at a civilized hour, I hiked the 2,000 foot climb to Cutthroat Pass, then traversed and descended to the oddly-located Granite Pass. While it is a saddle between Pine and Swamp Creeks, the trail passes by rather than going over it, and no sane person would use it as a pass. Continuing along the sweeping traverse to Methow Pass, I left the trail a bit too near Snowy Lakes, picking up the well-established use trail a few hundred yards into the scrub.
    Larch detail

    Larch detail

    Passing near the lower lake, the scenery was reminiscent of the Sierra, with open meadows and golden peaks; the larches, weird deciduous conifers common to the eastern Cascades.

    Summit tower and east face

    Summit tower and east face

    Near the upper lake, I left the remnants of the trail to make a long, ascending traverse over dirt and scree to the ridge southeast of the peak. There were occasional cairns, but not enough traffic to have created a trail. The summit is imposingly vertical from the approach, but the cairned route around to the southwest provides class 2-3 access to the summit block. The true summit is reached by a few quick 4th class moves on the northwest side, “protected” by the inevitable Cascades nest of useless tat.

    Hardy

    Hardy

    After taking in the surroundings for a bit, including the mis-labeled Mount Hardy to the west, I returned to the trail, jogging the flats to pass the time. At Cutthroat Pass, I was perplexed to find a gaggle of people dressed for a bike tour, helmets and cleats included. They proved to be a friendly group of Canadians, who had apparently ridden down the west side and over highway 20, and were headed back to their igloos in the Great White North via Omak. I took a few group photos, then took off jogging back to Rainy Pass, passing a few backpackers on the way. Snow conditions were similar to what I found in late July last year, confirming my impression the previous day that the hills are dry.

    The Gardners

    North Gardner from Gardner

    North Gardner from Gardner


    Gardner and North Gardner are two high summits on the far eastern edge of the North Cascades between Twisp and Winthrop. Despite being almost 9,000 feet high, these peaks on the dry side of the range house no glaciers, and I could have hiked them without once touching snow. A previous, less effective version of myself had been defeated by rain and the long approach up Wolf Creek, but this year they were a perfect way to knock the cobwebs off my legs after two days sitting and driving.

    I woke at my favorite local camping spot, drove over to the trailhead, and started around 5:15, well into the creeping dawn. The trail descends to meet Wolf Creek, then climbs along the creek for 10 miles and about 2,500 vertical to reach Gardner Meadows. I settled into a brisk walk and tuned in some podcasts for the commute. Noticing a rustling in the underbrush, I paused the soundtrack to look for the animal. Rather than scurrying away like underbrush-sized creatures normally do, this one appeared to be approaching. The flapping and clucking soon revealed it to be an enraged grouse, hell-bent on my destruction; like Brave Sir Robin,

    When danger reared its feathered head,
    I bravely turned my tail and fled.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve been attacked by a 3-pound woods chicken. I’m not sure how much damage one could do, but I’m too cowardly to stand my ground and find out. The things are terrifying! Are they carnivorous, or do they merely kill for sport?

    Approaching Gardner Meadows

    Approaching Gardner Meadows

    Anyways… Reaching open ground about 2h30 in, I left the trail at a convenient spot in deference to Beckey’s advice to “follow the southeast ridge from before Gardner Meadows.” I found relatively easy going up to the ridge, passing a deer that, fortunately, decided to flee panting up a ravine rather than attack.

    Gardner's ESE ridge was all like this...

    Gardner’s ESE ridge was all like this…

    Unfortunately, what I ended up on (er… the thing upon which I ended) was more like an east or ESE ridge, with lots of choss-gendarmes and false summits, which I spent a good deal of frustrating and exhausting time negotiating to reach the broad talus mound of the true summit. The register had been stolen, but fortunately someone had left a printed-out route description from somewhere in its place, so I had a recipe to follow for the rest of the day.

    North Gardner in the far distance

    North Gardner in the far distance

    After skiing down a bit of scree to the southwest, I followed ledges and bits of faint path in a traverse to the next saddle, then continued along the ridge to North Gardner, finding a more consistent trail and a few cairns. Finding no disgusting ladybug swarms, little wind, and only a few non-biting flies, I decided to enjoy the summit for awhile. I ate my remaining food, found a flat spot, and half-dozed for an hour, sometimes opening my eyes to admire the view. The Cascades are most impressive from the northeast, with their glaciers on best display, and North Gardner, near the northeast end of the range, has a superb view of peaks from Glacier to Baker.

    Screeing, anyone?

    Screeing, anyone?

    Finally getting moving again, I returned to the knob where the ridge turns east, then had an excellent scree- and snow-ski down to the valley above Gardner Meadows. After a bit of a fight with some deadfall — a twig managed to punch through my worn-out shoes and almost stab me in the foot — the trail materialized, and the rest was just mindless trail-work. I stopped in Winthrop to re-up on bug spray (I’d rather eat DEET than get West Nile), then drove west into the real Cascades for the start of the season’s Serious Business.

    Grand Teton speed attempt

    Andy Anderson’s 2h53 on the Grand is far out of my reach even in perfect conditions, but with decent fitness and a reasonably cold night up high, I figured I might as well give speed-running the Grand a try before I left. The major disadvantage of an early-season attempt is the extra gear required: with crampons, ice axe, and warm clothing, one is forced to carry a backpack. The major advantage is a blazingly-fast, low-impact descent via glissade from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows. In perfect snow conditions, the early season run could potentially be faster, and would favor mountain skill over raw athletic ability. While I found difficult conditions up high and decided to stop short of the summit, I believe that the early approach has potential, though probably not in a year like 2015 with low winter snowpack.

    Starting from the Ranch, I took it easy across the flats before ramping up my effort on the climb up Burnt Wagon Gulch, reaching the junction in a leisurely 27:45. Using both shortcuts, I reached the Meadows sign at 1h03, stopping to put on crampons a few hundred yards up the snow. The winter route was thin but doable, and the Lower Saddle headwall lacked the boot-pack normally put in by guided parties; with slightly softer-than-ideal snow conditions, I reached the Lower Saddle around 1h56.

    Switching back out of crampons, I talked to a guide and client who had turned around on the Upper Exum because of supposed bad snow conditions and avalanche risk. As is often the case when guides talk to non-guides, he wasn’t being particularly honest: the snow was nice hard-pack with a bit of crunchy fuzz on top, it was cold, and the sun wouldn’t touch the upper route for another couple of hours. I guess I didn’t look like I could handle the truth.

    Finding hard, shaded snow above the Black Dike, I went back to crampons, hacking and front-pointing my way up the steeper terrain. While rarely tenuous, this section was often slow going with worn running-shoe crampons, so it was 2h38 by the time I reached the Upper Saddle. I found the belly crawl slightly iced but basically okay, but soon ran into more difficulties. When dry, the rest of the climb is a quick scramble up two short chimney-ish sections and some connecting ledges. What I found instead was partially ice-filled chimneys and steep, hard snow on the ledges. While this would have been manageable with Real Mountaineering equipment (boots, crampons, possibly ice tools), I decided after some flailing that it was more than I wanted to try with running-shoe crampons and a mountaineering axe.

    I carefully retreated to the saddle, then headed over to the pleasantly sunny Enclosure to enjoy the view. No longer interested in my overall time, I spent about five minutes eating and looking around before time-trialing the descent. The hard snow between the Upper Saddle and Black Dike once again cost me time, as I had to downclimb facing in rather than plunge-stepping or boot-skiing. But the stretch from Lower Saddle to the Meadows was awesome: with a combination of boot-skiing, glissading, and snow-running, this stretch took something like 10 minutes. The whole descent from the Lower Saddle to the Burnt Wagon Gulch turnoff took only 29:47, despite having to skip the lower shortcut because of nearby hikers.

    A half-hearted attempt at speed on the unpleasant BWG trail got me to the Ranch at about 4h40 feeling surprisingly spry. Based on my splits, I think I could come close to 4 hours on an all-out, rested effort in late summer conditions. That’s nowhere near the record, but it’s not bad for an aging dirtbag. I’ll take it.

    Avalanche-Cascade Loop, and Veiled

    Off to south Cascade

    Off to south Cascade


    In addition to climbing, the Tetons are made for long loop hikes and runs. With the Crest Trail running behind the major peaks, and the Valley Trail running along the eastern base, it is possible to go up one canyon (with or without trail), follow the Crest Trail to another, descend it, and return to the start along the Valley Trail. Unfortunately, the high-elevation Crest Trail is only a trail in mid- to late-summer, when I am elsewhere. Despite the sometimes-frustrating snow, I have managed to do a couple of these loops this year, and if I were more of a trail runner, I would probably come back for more while they are in season.

    While Cascade Canyon features easy access and a crowded trail, Avalanche Canyon is famous for the bog blocking one end and the Wall blocking the other. On the one hand, I had always wanted to visit the Wall, a striking limestone cliff visible from the Jackson Valley, and to tag Veiled Peak, one of my last unclimbed summits between Death and Moran Canyons. On the other, I had tasted the bog once, and was not eager to do so again. Free time and Kate’s perverse fondness for the place finally moved me to return this year.

    Splitter fist crack, bro!

    Splitter fist crack, bro!

    Starting off from the Ranch, we headed toward Braggart and Tadley Lakes, then thrashed around a bit until we found the reasonably well-used (more by wildlife than by humans) Avalanche trail. A recent windstorm had downed a number of trees around the park, adding more obstacles, but not enough to make it significantly worse than it was before. Passing a giant boulder split by a perfect fist crack, we made our way upstream though dense forest, trying to avoid both the bog in the center and the large talus on the north side. The trail mostly follows subtle high ground in the forested canyon bottom, with a few forays into the bog and one onto the boulders. Finally emerging from the dense forest, we crossed a large slide path descending all the way to the creek and reached the fork between north and south canyons.

    Taminah Falls and Wister

    Taminah Falls and Wister

    Taking the north branch, we skirted the impressive Taminah Falls to the north on scree and talus, finding the occasional cairn or bit of trail left by climbers headed to the supposedly good but seldom-climbed arĂȘtes on the north side of the canyon. After pausing at half-melted Taminah Lake, constantly reshaped by fresh rock-slides, we continued to the equally large and mostly frozen Snowdrift Lake, crossing snow just soft enough to kick steps in running shoes, and patches of the underlying heath.

    Wall and Snowdrift Lake

    Wall and Snowdrift Lake

    Kate was apparently happy to just hang out under the looming Wall, so I “sprinted” off to tag Veiled and rejoin her near the pass into Cascade Canyon. My hoped-for sprint was actually a bit of a slog, as the northeast-facing snowfield leading to Veiled’s east ridge had turned to slush under the northern morning sun. After extracting myself from the slush near the ridge, I spent awhile cliffing out on the dry south side before traversing around the north to reach the summit on chossy, wet class 3 rock.

    Wall and Snowdrift from Veiled

    Wall and Snowdrift from Veiled

    Rather than return the way I came, I decided to continue west along the ridge, hoping to traverse the Wall, or at least find better snow. After another cliff-out on the south side, I found a circuitous route down the north ridge, then back through a gap in the east ridge to the scree below. The south-facing slope to the west was mostly snow-free grass, so I was able to jog and make good time, but the southern end of the Wall was guarded by an unpleasant choss-cliff. I could probably have looped around south to gain the top, but I wasn’t sure if I could get off the north end. Rather than boring Kate by potentially spending hours route-finding through rotten rock, I cut directly back across the base of the Wall on decent but softening snow.

    "Toilet Bowl" near the Wall

    “Toilet Bowl” near the Wall

    Later in the season, a trail connects the pass north of the Wall to the south Cascade Canyon trail below, but we were faced instead with miles of varied snow. After a disheartening initial plunge through knee- and thigh-deep sludge, we found good walking and even what looked to me like a perfect boot-skiing hill. Kate was reluctant, but it has been my mission this summer to spread the Gospel of the Boot-Ski in the Tetons, and I managed to convince her to give it a try. The runout was not great, but fortunately nothing bad happened, and I had another convert.

    NW ridge of Enclosure from Cascade

    NW ridge of Enclosure from Cascade

    Quite a bit of sludge-trudge remained, but it was warm and the views of the southwest side of Owen and the Grand were impressive and relatively new to me, so I squelched along happily, looking down just enough to avoid tripping. We stopped for lunch at an apparently-popular rock outcrop with a clear view of the northwest ridge of the Enclosure, the Valhalla Traverse, and Owen’s upper north face. This is another area I would like to explore, though I am not sure when, since most of the climbing would require a partner.

    Look, a swamp-donkey!

    Look, a swamp-donkey!

    From the junction with north Cascade Canyon, we faced an increasingly tourist-choked hike to south Jenny Lake, then a walk along the bike path back to the Ranch. While Cascade is a nice hike, with its impressive views of the steep north faces of Owen and Teewinot, we were both back on familiar ground and somewhat impatient. Thus it seemed like a good idea, when we reached Inspiration Point and saw 50 canvas bags of rocks and no workers, to try to poach the closed trail down its south side. Bad idea: no more than 100 yards down the trail, a worker emerged from hiding, silently making the universal sign for “WTF?!”

    After some not-so-convincing feigned ignorance on our part, we meekly retreated to the roundabout trail to the boat dock. As a small consolation, the hiker trail along the lakeshore had finally reopened, sparing us the rolling, boring horse trail higher up. Unfortunately, the trail crew had apparently packed up just minutes after thwarting us above, so we got to meet the same worker again on the way around Jenny Lake. He apparently didn’t hold a grudge, and we even talked a bit while we paused to watch three healthy kits and a vaguely protective mother fox in the boulders near the trail.

    I was glad to have company on the final stretch, as the long walk along the flat, paved bike path began to wear on the soles of my feet, which had been softening and marinating in snowmelt all day. The whole thing ended up about 12h30 at a fast walk with some breaks, the most time I have spent on the trail since last season. With jogging and dry trails, it would have been a pleasant and more manageable 7-8 hours.