Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Spider Gap to Buck Creek Pass

For the July 4th weekend Emily and I took our dog Leo for an epic 4-day, 41 mile backpacking loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington.  We encountered snowy passes, lots of marmots and walked through miles of a fresh 2016 wildfire.  Leo got put through his paces and as I write this is still recovering.  It had been a long time since we had ventured so deeply into the wilderness and it felt good.  Read on:

We left Portland early on Saturday morning because we had a party to go to at the Van Warmerdam’s, Danielle and Scott staying over for a concert at Edgefield, and a surprise visit from our friend Emy whom we climbed Kilimanjaro with.  Everything sort-of all came down at once so we stuck around on Friday to see everyone.  Because of the chaotic Friday night we didn’t make it to the trailhead in Trinity, WA until around 1:30pm and it turned out to be a grueling start.  

We had tried to drive up the rutted-out road to the Phelps trailhead but halfway up the road we realized that at the end of the loop we’d have to hike up it anyway back to the car so instead of leaving the shitty climb to the end we decided to park low and climb up the road for the start.  Being that it was 2pm in July this meant hiking up a steep hill in hot, dusty conditions.   To say this was a terrible start would be an understatement.  Thankfully, a young kid who was doing work for the forest service pulled over and gave us a ride up to the trailhead to save us from half the climb ourselves.  Leo was especially grateful!

Once on the actual trail through the forest alongside Phelps Creek it was much more pleasant.  The trail was shaded well and despite some snow on the trail near the end we found ourselves at Spider Meadows around 5:30pm after about 7 miles of hiking (plus the 2 miles of dirt road).  There was a family already in the best camping spot and with the fresh snow everywhere and moist ground there were slim pickings.  

We spotted a nice area but it meant crossing Phelps Creek and there was definitely no way of doing that without getting wet!  So, I took off my boots, grabbed Leo, clenched my teeth against the cold bite of the river and sharp river rocks and carried my 65lb best friend across the creek safely to the other side.  Then it was back across for my backpack, then again for Emily’s.  I did not carry Emily.  Emily has proven herself tough as nails time and time again so I didn’t have to worry about her at all.  

After a long drive, a hot start, and a long gradual walk in up the valley we were pretty ready for bed and called it an early night, watching the last rays of sunlight climb over the surrounding peaks and listening to marmots calling moon and stars out with their adorable whistles.  The moon was so low in the sky that we were able to watch it clearly pass behind the shoulder of a mountain before turning in for the night.  

On Sunday we had a decision to make.  Assess how tired Leo was and how his paws were doing and decide whether to push on over Spider Gap, the highest and snowiest pass deeper into the wilderness, or to just remain in the meadows and relax for 3 days.  Leo made the decision easy by going into a rare “puppy-mode” racing all around our campsite with a big smile on his furry face.  We took our time leaving camp, soaking in the morning sun and having breakfast with Starbucks Via coffee.   We also wanted our clothes to dry out a bit more from the wet crossing the night before.  

Thankfully, once we got packed up I was able to spot a shallower and much safer crossing of Phelps Creek.  We had a little bit of a scare when Leo courageously stepped out to follow me and nearly go swept downstream but he probably would have just swam to the side or ended up in the slow pool at the end of the valley… That probably would have been fine as I spent the next few minutes holding him in the stream trying to drench him for the hot climb up to the pass ahead of us.  

Above Spider Meadows there were marmots everywhere and flowers were begging to peak their way out of the snowfields and avalanche debris we had to cross on our way.  We soon came to a bend in the trail with a couple camping above it.  They said they had planned to go over the pass but were concerned about the creek crossing ahead.  Indeed, when we got to the crossing it didn’t look pretty.  It wasn’t too deep but there was a mess of strainer logs you didn’t want to get stuck in and I definitely needed to carry Leo across.

After pushing our way through the brush to a safe spot I made my way across first and, as last time, carried Leo then our bags across.  I think that couple had put a little fear into Emily as she was a bit more timid this time making her way across.  Safely across we began our climb up switchbacks towards the pass.  On a couple occasions I simply lost the trail under patches of spring snow and had to continually check the map on my phone on the way up to stay on course.  We passed brilliant wildflowers, many more than were in the meadow below as we made our way upward on switchbacks beneath towering cliffs.

Soon we were on total snow pack heading towards the gap in the peaks called Spider Gap.   Sometimes the snow crossings were pretty steep so I went ahead of Emily and Leo kicking deep steps into the snow with my boots for her.  We were following a faint set of boot tracks but could tell they were days/weeks old.  We were definitely heading away from anyone else which is sometimes a fun thought but under snowy conditions with an older dog it also made me a little nervous.   Worse comes worse, we would back track.  

We made it to the high point of our loop hike at 2:15pm and from there we had a sunny, slushy descent down the backside towards our camping destination at the north end of Lyman Lake.  But, it was a long snowy descent over many miles before we would get there.  The views from the pass were stunning!  On the way up we had great views back towards Phelps Creek Valley and our campsite the night before but from the pass we gained expansive views north towards the towering peaks of the North Cascades.  

It was a blast sliding down the snow towards the Upper Lyman Lakes area.  In summer I pictured this area as pristine turquoise alpine lakes but now it was simply a massive snow field dotted by the occasional icy pool of water as it all melted out.  In this vast, treeless, alpine expanse we used cairns dotting the landscape to guide us along the snow-covered trail down towards Lyman Lake.  By this point Leo was slowing down, a lot, and it began to worry me.  At this point it was easier to make it to the campsite than turn around.  

It was a long descent and I think the coarse spring snow began to hurt Leo’s paws on the way down as he was often stopping to nibble on them.  When we finally made it down to the beautiful lake we realized the stream exiting the lake was too strong to safely cross, for any of us.  We poke around a bit and were about ready to head back to the lake to wade in the shallows across the mouth of it when Emily spotted a narrow log bridge across it.  All three of us crossed it very carefully and I kept a close watch on Leo and his inched his way across.  It was probably the most dangerous crossing of the entire trip and one slip would have been a bad situation for any of us.

We arrived at the lake around 5pm and poked around for a campsite eventually agreeing upon a deep snowfield overlooking the brilliant turquoise blue lake and peaks behind it.  We could clearly see Spider Gap that we had traversed earlier in the day.  We got Leo into the tent and on one of our sleeping pads for him to instantly pass out for a few hours.  We were surprised to see one other group on the opposite side of the lake from us, some of whom actually went swimming!  

Clouds began to move in that evening obstructing our view of the peaks and killing any chance of a great sunset so we cooked dinner and headed to bed early.  Emily’s co-worker had given her a bag of smoked Salmon so we all split that and gave a big chunk to Leo for being such a trooper for the day.  It was a cold night for us sleeping on the snow, especially for Leo who shivered a lot until I put him in my sleeping bag and slept cuddled with him on my pad  in all the clothes I could find.

On Monday we again assessed how Leo was doing and yet again he went into a strange puppy-mode of chasing a stick around and happily munching on clumps of snow he finally remembered he could eat.  There wasn’t much of an option now anyway as continuing on was about the same difficulty as turning back!  So, we packed up and headed on along the trail towards our next pass, Cloudy Pass.

The view from Cloudy Pass was the best of the whole trip.  Looking south towards Chiwawa, Dumbell, and Fortress Mountain over Lyman Lake was amazing.  Cloudy Peak was above us as we crossed a broad meadow towards the pass literally jam-packed with marmot families.  They were everywhere and super curious about us after spending a long uninteresting winter in their homes in the ground.  Leo usually never cares about other creatures and we were actually a little surprised when he took a few steps to chase after one then decided he didn’t want to waste the energy as usual!

We had left the campsite around 10:30am and we were already at Cloudy Pass by noon making great time.  Leo seemed to be in great spirits and suddenly had a whole new set of mountain views to the Northwest with Plummer Mountain hulking in front of us.  Suiattle Pass looked like a short stroll away from us and from there expected us to gradually descend out of the snow… I was wrong.

As we started our descent from Cloudy Pass we saw a sign that said “hiker’s shortcut” and took it trying to save distance for Leo (and us).  Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad choice, not because of the trail but because of the time of year.  The trail took us under towering cliffs on a steep hillside still thickly covered in snow with a boulder field of sharp granite below us.  One slip and it meant a slide.  

I was less worried about Leo than I was Emily as he usually has good grip with his nails and paws.  Emily, on the other hand loses her footing when she gets nervous and loses confidence.  I tried to appear like everything was hunky-dory but I was nervous and trying to kick deep kicks for her as I went which was tiring me out.  We had nearly made it across when Emily slipped and slid.. only about 15 feet but it definitely shook her up a little.  We took a quick break and then found our way through a boulder field helping Leo along the way until we made it to the steep, thick forest below the pass.  

From there it was a scramble up through the brush along a small stream with me checking my map every few minutes.  Finally, I broke through the brush onto a portion of the hiker’s shortcut trail that had melted out.  A short ways down the path we were back on the main trail with us both giving a big middle finger to the shortcut trail.  We were now on the better maintained Pacific Crest Trail and had hopes that trail conditions would improve for us.  Ok.. two passes down… one more to go.

It was a long descent down to Miners Creek from Suiattle Pass but as I had guessed the trail was much better and nearly all of it was melted out and dry which I’m sure made Leo much happier.  We took a lunch break at a wonderful overlook towards a ridge of Fortress Mountain with our first views of Glacier Peak off to the Southwest.  Miner’s Creek was raging but there was a nice big wooden bridge to cross it safely and things were really looking up for the rest of the day.  Wildflowers were all around us, the bugs weren’t too bad and Emily even spotted an adorable mouse just off the trail that posed for some photos.  

Just past Miner’s Creek we left the PCT again climbing up towards Middle Ridge and Buck Creek Pass beyond.  My plan was to get as far as Middle Ridge and camp there for the night but a couple hikers that passed us on the way down (only people we saw for 3 days) told us it would be well worth it to push on and camp on top of Flower Dome, a short climb just before Buck Creek Pass.  So, after we climbed 2,000 more feet back up to Middle Ridge we paused there, without any views, for a good long break before continuing on for another 1,000 foot descent and 1,000 foot climb.

By the time we had reached the side trail to Flower Dome we were back on snowy trails and completely burnt out.  I was carrying a lot of the weight to help out and was dragging behind Emily and Leo with sore, blistered, wet feet.  We looked up at Flower Dome and from our viewpoint it looked completely covered in snow, was another 300 feet of climbing, and felt days away.  Yet, an intense feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) came over me and I encouraged Emily and Leo to push it just a little bit further, my brain pleading with the mountain Gods to provide a dry platform for us to sleep on at the top.  

By the beard of Zeus I got my wish!  Not only was there a wonderful flat dry spot, it was protected by the wind under some trees and had a great view west towards Glacier Peak as well as East towards Fortress Mountain.  We had gotten to the campsite at around 7:30pm after about 12 hard miles and over 4,000 feet of ascent with heavy backpacks.   

We had just enough time to cook dinner and pull out the wine before an amazing sunset stretched out before us.  We limped around the top of Flower Dome taking photos of all the different views  we had.  There were trees as the top so it wasn’t a 360 degree view but as the other hikers had told us, it was worth the effort.  With temperatures dropping we dressed Leo in my thick puffy jacket and we all climbed into bed exhausted.

At about 5am I had to get up to pee (the wine) and when I exited the tent I was blown away by the view.  The sky was literally a full rainbow of colors from the rising sun.  I wasted no time grabbing the camera and snapping some panoramas of the colors over Fortress Mountain to the East.  It was stunning but not enough to keep me from crawling back into my warm sleeping bag for a few more hours of sleep.  

On the Fourth of July we chilled at camp for the whole morning assuming that we would have two easy days of descent down from Buck Creek Pass.  We had crushed the mileage the previous day making it further than planned so we had no worries ahead of us for the downhill… except for maybe the burn… Before leaving the campsite we were visited by a deer and I took some time to down-climb a hill to get some expansive views of Glacier Peak to the west.  

The descent down from Buck Creek pass was very pleasant and for the most part, snow-free!  After a good night’s rest and leisurely morning the three of us were in good spirits.  I had attended to my blisters and Leo looked to be in good shape as well.  

There were amazing views heading down in to the Buck Creek Valley and the stream crossings were easy rock-hops across.  A big fat marmot ran across the trail in front of us at one point and Leo spotted us a chunky porcupine!  Any other dog we know would have chased it and probably got hurt but Leo just watched saunter across the forest floor and then slowly climb a tree to stare at us from it’s perch!

In the distance we could a hillside that had been burned and I grew a little nervous about what we would encounter when we came to the fall 2016 burn that turned us away from this trip with Chris and Paris last fall.  We had seen a sign also saying that the Chiwawa River bridge was out as well due to the fire… but we had rolled the dice and there was no way we could turn around now.  

When we got to the burn it was bad.  At first it started off ok with the trail being in good shape but then it got nasty.  Trees were down everywhere and crawling over them covered your clothes and hands in black charcoal.  The trail often disappeared behind whole stands of trees that had fallen into it.  

Sticky sap was everywhere.  Even though there had been a full winter it still smelled smokey and with the rich soil of the Northwest burnt to fine dust it felt like we were walking through a hellscape.  Yes, the burn opened up a bit more views of the surrounding peaks but it didn’t overcome the feeling of walking through death.  

The only upside of the walking through the burn was that we got lucky with the creek crossing.  Yes, the bridge was out but it wasn’t gone.  It was simply collapsed into the creek below, broken in half.  We crossed it very carefully but it was definitely more safe than some of the other crossings on the trip.  We were continually searching the trail for a spot to camp but we didn’t want to camp inside the burn as it wasn’t pleasant.  By the time we had made it out of the 3-4 miles of burn we were just a few miles from the car.  

Leo was tired and moving slowly and we agreed to set up camp if we could find a spot but nothing appeared and we found ourselves a short mile from the car…. so we pushed on, making it out of the woods around 6pm.  We took a quick break at the car to feed Leo and get him settled comfortably into the back seat for the long drive home, then we burned rubber to get to Leavenworth before the sausage garden closed!!!

Yes - there is no better way to finish a hike around Leavenworth than to load up on sausages and 32oz mugs of microbrew in the Bavarian-styled village.  Instead of trying to find an expensive motel on the holiday weekend Emily and I pushed onward making it home a day earlier than we expected but thankfully after all the fireworks in the area had calmed down for the night for Leo’s sake.  

Days after this hike Leo took a turn for the worse which really scared us.  He seemed very lethargic, more than normal, and he wasn’t eating his food.  Terrified that we broke our beloved dog we took him to the vet for a full rack of tests which he all passed with flying stars.  He was a little dehydrated but the thing that stuck out to the vet the most was the bright red color of this tongue!  I had felt bad forgetting his doggles and booties at home but it had never occurred to me that the bright sun reflecting off the snow could burn his tongue!  We felt so bad that we had hurt our best friend but thankfully after a week of wet dog food and healing up he returned to his old self again!

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