Sunday, July 7, 2013

Necklace Valley - Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Emily, Leo and I spent an amazing weekend in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington.  It was a very long hike of over 24 miles round trip so we chose to do it over 3 days with a very needed rest day in between.  After a cloudy first night we had amazing views every day after and I was able to capture some of the best time-lapse night photography yet of the Milky Way progressing over Chimney Peak in the distance.  To read more about our last amazing backpacking trip as a "dating" couple click the title to read on and make sure to check out the video at the end....

This weekend Emily and I decided to go on one last backpacking trip as a dating couple before we get married.  Both of our jobs gave us Friday the 5th off of work so we were able to make it a 3 day weekend.  I of course wanted to go someplace far away that we hadn’t been before so we decided on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington.  I had seen some amazing photos of a jagged mountain range from an alpine lake and wanted to check it out and the trailhead was only about 3.5 hours away from us now that we live in Washington.  

We left Thursday the 4th at around 7:30pm so we might be able to see some fireworks from the highway on the way up around Seattle.  Poor Leo had been tormented all week by loud fireworks from a very inconsiderate neighbor who refused to stop setting them off in the middle of our development.  Other neighbors were pissed as well and called the cops but nobody ever came.  So, to save him the stress of the 4th of July we wanted to get him far into the woods where it would be quiet.  We ended up eating at a Shari’s just off the highway but were on the road again before the majority of the fireworks were being set off so he was with us in the car and comfortable.  As soon as we headed East from I-5 we lost the fireworks and found ourselves deep in the Washington Cascades, finding our trailhead at about 10:30pm where we stretched out our bags in the back and fell asleep.

In the morning while getting ready and grabbing some breakfast foods I realized we had forgotten utensils!  This would really suck with our bags of freeze dried Mountain House meals so I quickly drove back down the potted-out road to a local store to pick up some plastic ones, making it back just as Emily was about ready to hit the trail with a very excited Leo Dog, happy to be out of the cramped car.

The law was to have Leo on a leash less than 6 feet long but after hiking and biking with him on several occasions now we know he didn’t leave the trail much and stayed right with us, and he never chases animals so we weren’t worried about that either and left the leash in the car but his collar on for good measure just in case.  The trail in was a slow ascent up a long river valley until we booked a right away from the river and headed up a very steep few miles to the Necklace Valley area filled with lakes.  There were several stream crossings on the way up that had very fast moving water under them with narrow logs to traverse.  These worried me with Leo but with some coaxing he follows me pretty much anywhere and made it just fine.  I did click my hiking pole into his collar on one just to make sure we didn’t lose him in the river.

We passed a bunch of other parties making their way up to the area.  One party was a bunch of young kids, several with machetes and 6-packs of soda strapped to their small bags, who said they were headed to “the top” but clearly were not prepared to do so.  But, in a way, I appreciated their determined attitude.  When we started to cross around Jade Lake it became apparent to me that we may have a problem with snow.  Even on July 5th, in the high Cascades of Washington snow can linger well into July and prevent travel in the mountains....  Jade lake was so full that we found ourselves forced to take off our shoes and wade along the trail under a steep cliff face and then around a field of snow to continue on the trail, and we still had about 1500 feet of elevation to get to our destination, Tank Lakes.  

We then passed a very cool 1950’s cabin that was clearly falling apart and found ourselves confused as to how to ascend into the next valley.  We had followed the trail to the bottom of a huge scree field that was thickly blanketed in snow still.  Traveling over this area was treacherous as the snow was shallow and we easily found ourselves punching through and falling into chasms and sometimes running water below the snow.    This happened to Leo as well a few times and he got increasingly nervous about moving between solid rock and the snow around it.  We tried several routes with no luck until I saw a bare slope of scree free of snow that Leo and I ventured over to.  At this point I was about 5 minutes from calling it a day and finding a place to camp without views in the valley below, but I wanted to see what the top of the scree slope looked like before I bailed so Leo and I continued on.  

To my great relief at the top of the scree slope I saw vast fields of deep snow above us that continued up the valley.  I knew we had about 1.5 miles to go and about 800 feet more of ascent so if we hadn’t found this stable snow to walk on we would have had to bail.  Thankfully, we timed the conditions just right and it actually probably felt better on Leo’s paws to be on the mushy snow rather than the sharp rock below.  At this point we were at about 8.5 miles with very heavy overnight packs on and Emily was bonking hard.  When we stopped at a bare patch of rock on the snowy slopes on the way up both her and Leo nearly fell asleep!  I gave her some shot blocks and urged her onward to our campsite which I knew wasn’t too far.

When we finally reached the Tank Lakes area we found both lakes and all the surrounding terrain to be deeply covered in snow except for a few rock outcrops that we decided to pitch the tent next to.  I quickly set up the tent and got dinner going for us all as thick clouds rolled into the area and obstructed all views.  I had only seen one other couple in the same area before the clouds covered everything up.  Once we had some dinner and wine (yes, wine boxes) we stretched out in our tent with Leo between us listening to an audio book on my iphone which was soon to die of drained batteries anyway...  Leo was completely done for the day and no matter what we said he just couldn’t keep his eyes open.  We’d never seen him so tired before!

In the morning we woke to blue skies and some of the most amazing views I’d ever seen in the Pacific Northwest.  Middle Chief, Summit Chief and Chimney Rock Mountain towered above our surroundings to the south.  It was clear based on how we came up the valley that if we hadn’t made it up to the plateau of Land at the Tank Lakes area that we never would have seen these amazing peaks.  The original plan had been to backpack for two days but on the way to the trailhead we stopped for some extra food and were happy we had done so as it allowed us a relaxing day at 6,000 feet in the heart of the wilderness!

We spent the late morning and afternoon on Saturday walking around the Tank Lakes area with Leo to check out the views and see if we could locate a better view for our campsite.  It was beautiful out and just cool enough that we didn’t work up too much of a sweat walking around in the sun.  I was a little worried about Leo’s eyes from the reflection off the snow but he didn’t seem to be suffering and I didn’t even know if dogs could become snow blind.  We had wonderful views north towards Glacier Peak but our southern views were blocked by the enormous and jagged Chimney Peak.  Rising high above the Necklace Valley was Hinman Peak and next to it was the broad and flat-topped Moonstone Mountain.  

The Tank Lakes were still very much buried in snow but it was pretty to see the turquoise color under the white snow.  We decided not to get too close them.  Heading back towards our campsite we looped around to a high point and found a much better spot for the tent and an amazing view of Chimney and Chief to the south that I wanted to capture that night in the stars.  We trudged back to our first campsite and, using our poles as lifters, carried our full tent across the snow field to our new spot, which was not an easy task.  We then spent the rest of the afternoon listening to an audiobook and watching Leo cuddle up in a shaded nest he dug out in the shrubs.  

Saturday night we finished the wine and had a great meal before we were treated to one of the most amazing sunsets I’d ever seen.  I tired to capture it as best I could with multiple cameras but even the photos I got don’t do it justice.  I then set about configuring the DSLR for some night shots and set the interval timer to capture 8s shots every 12 seconds for the next 4 hours at 2200 ISO.  My phone had died the night before so I couldn’t check where the Milky Way would be but around 10:30-11 I noticed it rising, and then moving westerly perfectly over the beautiful peaks to our south.  I set the timer to start shooting hi-res JPEGs at 11:30 and then headed to bed.  What resulted blew my mind.  I was able to capture the full progression of the Milky Way on a perfect night, free of moonlight, as it traversed the mountain range I had the camera pointed at.  It was amazing!

On Sunday we awoke to yet another amazing site.  Unlike the previous morning of clear valleys and sky, we awoke to a sea of clouds below us.  All the peaks of the cascades had become islands and we got to watch the bank of clouds pour into the valley slowly below Chimney and Chief Peaks.  If I had more space on the memory card it would have been yet another amazing time-lapse.  We watched the sun rise over Moonstone mountain making the hardened snow fields from the cold night sparkle.  I snapped a few more photos of the area before we at breakfast and hustled to get moving down the valley.  

I thought we had 9-10 miles to trek out but later found out that it was more like 11-12 miles.  Once we had packed up our gear in our lighter bags we headed carefully down the snowfields with Leo excitedly bounding around us.  We made our way into the cloud filled Necklace Valley by taking a much easier route down along some thicker snowfields which allowed us to travel without falling into gaping holes.  We then made our way back around Jade Lake where we again had to take off our shoes.  There was no sign of the group of kids with machetes... perhaps they had given up on their summit goal! 
I knew Emily wanted to get back at a reasonable hour so I kept a pretty quick pace down the very steep trail to the main valley where we stopped to take a rest.  We found an amazing root system of a tree that had toppled that Emily and Leo easily fit into for some creative photos.  I thought it pretty cool that the same logs that Leo was scared to cross on the way in he ran across without a care in the world on the way out.  Maybe it was a loss of fear, maybe he just wanted to get back to home and lay down... who knows.  What took us nearly 9 hours on the way in took us only about 5 on the way out.  With some traffic on the way home we still got back around 5:30pm... to continue our wedding planning after a fantastic 3 days in paradise.

No comments: