Throughout the 09\10 season I thoroughly explored the North Cascades region of Washington state from Snoqualmie pass to the Canadian Border. My main focus was separate ranges and unique areas within our mountains, the Alpine Lakes being one of those areas.
Last season turned out to be an abnormally wet year with rain lingering all the way until July. With an optimistic forecast Jason Hummel and I decided to make a trek through the Snoqualmie pass corridor deep into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. 70 miles of glaciers, lakes, and desolate terrain laid ahead of us
The Alpine Lake Traverse
From the Hyas Valley to Mt. Daniel
We parked our car at the Hyas Valley trailhead near Salmon La Sac. Above us the skies were dark gray with a thick layer of clouds and the valleys lush green from a recent shower.
Carefully we packed our bags to utilize every spare inch of space. Meticulously going through our gear we tried to find the balance between too much stuff and not enough. My major dilemma being whether or not to bring hiking shoes.
In the end I did the whole trek in snowboard boots.
We slowly hiked up the dirt covered trail in high spirit. We had finally embarked on a journey that I had wanted to do for years. I had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail when I was younger, but this time I would be traversing the mountainous peaks of this region. We read over the topographical maps for weeks on end and it felt great to finally be experiencing it.
The occasional hiker greeting us with questions like “What do you plan on doing with those skiis?” or “Where are you guys going” to which we would smile and reply “we are heading to Alpental (ski resort) to do some skiing”, Alpental was 70 miles away and it was the beginning of July. It was apparent people had moved onto other hobbies and skiing was the last thing on there minds.
It wasn’t long before we left the beaten path and joined a faint climbing trail. After traversing above a sheer vertical cliff we were at Cathedral Pass, our gateway to the lower flanks of Mt. Daniel.
Once over the pass the landscape turned from green to white. We had become engulfed in a sea of clouds as we took our first break on the shores of Peggys Pond. Surrounded by fog we rested on a melted out rock and glanced over our topographical map. Jason had previously been into the area but the terrain was featureless. Switching to skinning we felt releaved to get unwarranted weight of our pack.
By now we were deep in the clouds and concerned about potential white out conditions. Pushing on we climbed up the mellow glaciated slopes of Mt. Daniels. Before long we were above the ceiling of the cloud and into blue skies, a welcome change from the gloomy conditions below with Mt. Daniel in front of us standing proudly in the afternoon sun.
We felt reinvigorated as we climbed, skining on the three inches of new snow. Finally we could see the surrounding environ and with a few carefully placed switchbacks we gain the summit ridge. From our vista we could see a sea of clouds crashing among the opposing ridge, devouring it in whole. It quickly became apparent, we were going to get swallowed by the incoming front.
We picked up our pace fearing getting pinned on the glacier during the potential white out. Carefully we traverse the summit headwall, Jason skinning and I bootpacking. Promptly arriving at the summit as the clouds overwhelmed the valleys bellow.
We hastily set up camp feeling releaved that we had made it to our first objective. A celebration of lights was in order as we watched the sun set in the horizon. Little did we know what mother nature had in store for us.
24 Hours of Misery
We were awoken by the sounds of rain pelting the tent, then snow, then back to rain. It was the forth of July and we were locked down in the middle of a storm on the summit of Mt. Daniels. The weather was persistent as we lounged in a tent unable to stretch in the confined space. We rationed our food and overlooked the maps quickly becoming stir-crazy. We had no choice, we would have to wait out the storm and that’s what we did for the next 36 hours.
From Mt. Daniel to Mt. Hinman
We listened to the rain for hours on end, half awake and half asleep. By now both of us wanted nothing more then to get out of our refuge. We were loosing patients when all of a sudden the rain stopped. Quickly unzipping our tent we found that all our gear was caked thick in rhime ice. The cloud deck had lowered a few hundred feet finally loosening its firm grip on us.
We sat around for a hour drying our gear in the early morning sun wondering what to do next. We could turn back and return to the car or continue on and try to make up for a lost day. In the end we decided not to give up and push forward.
On the summit of Mt. Daniel we looked down onto the Lynch Glacier, featureless in a the sea of clouds. We waited for a hour before deciding to push on and head down to Pea Soup lake.
Jason went first and I closely followed.
We rode essential blind until we reached a suckerhole and saw the lake is 1000 feet below us. I had intended on riding to the shore line but quickly realized there was no shoreline. We would have to ride onto the lake itself. One at a time we got on the lake and quickly skirted across the surface to the opposing shoreline.
From Pea Soup Lake we rode down to the East Fork of the Foss tributary, surrounded in an amphitheater of rock. We started skinning up the lower flanks of Mt. Hinman in a Northwesterly direction passing numerous lakes and waterfalls still buried in the seasonal snowpack.
All of a sudden we once again reached the cloud deck. exposing the mellow contours of the upper slope. Below us the seas of clouds engulfed everything in site including Mt. Daniel.
It quickly became apparent we had made the right move.
Once on the ridge we watched the clouds slowly burning off. We were in sunshine once again and according to the forecast these would be the last clouds for weeks.
To the South Rainier stood proudly . To the north, lines that I had ridden earlier in the season. Mt.Stuart, The Big Chiwaukum, Seven Finger Jack, Kyes and Shuksan to name a few.
We were stoked. Finally we would get the opportunity to take a few laps on perfect corn with the setting sun lighting up the late afternoon sky.
We lapped up the northern face of Hinman for hours. Again and again we rode in perfect corn snow still feeling the rush of being in the sun and unbelievable terrain.
Our legs were worked. We had hiked and skinned non stop for the past 10 hours and needed some rest. We hiked back to camp occasionally looking over our shoulders at the setting sun.
Within minutes daylight had turned to darkness. We sat at our vantage point watching fireworks exploding in the towns and valleys below us.
Mt. Hinman to the Summit Chief Col
We woke up to a bright blue sky without a cloud in the sky. Slowly we exited the tent and put out all of our wet gear to dry in the early morning sun. We had waited for this forecast for months and finally we could see the route we would be taking the next few days.
With a renewed sense of faith we went over our options. Either we could traverse to a low col or get a run down the Hinman Glacier, we chose to get some riding in.
We could see every hump, bump and feature ripping down the Hinman Glacier. We acted like kids hooting and hollering at each other as we made turns on the open slope. We decided to stop at a massive glacier carved rock where we sat on the warm surface looking down upon Hinman lake. According to the topographical map it has doubled in size within the past ten years.
With our water bottles full of fresh water it was time to start skinning once again. Our endorphin levels were high as we skinned back to the low col. From our vantage point we could see well over 50 lakes scattered among the high alpine terrain. We had officially past the Eastern crest of the Cascades.
From what the topographical maps showed, the terrain below was riddled in cliffs. Below us La Bon Lakes turquoise color glistened brightly as we carefully examined the slopes. With a little bit of scouting we found a small ramp and were on our way to the next destination the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie river.
We passed by La Bon Lakes, Chain Lakes and Lake Williams before making it to the Middle Fork. We were at the low point of the tour and to no surprise we were once again on dirt. Carefully we followed the River taking into account both our elevation and how many streams we crossed.
Once we found the stream we needed to climb we clawed up the thickly vegetated slopes before reaching a snow covered bench. With skins on we pushed forward looking occasionally back at our route earlier in the day, amazed that we found a way through all the cliffs.
Once we made it to the col we were once again at another crux. Either we would go up and over or down and around. We Searched for hours unable to climb onto the Overcoat glacier because of a massive cliff band. It quickly became apparent that we would have to go down instead. Below we could see a steep melted out valley that would be a epic bushwhack. We had no choice there was no going over the mountain.
That night we camped on the col stressed about what was in store for us the next day.
From Summit Chief Col to Iceburg Lake
What to do? Either we would traverse across a huge cliff band and downclimb 2000 feet or ride down a potentially melted out gully. With our boards on our feet we rode down the gully for about 1500 feet until to our dismay it abruptly melted out.
Once on vegetation I tideously put my board on my back and downclimbed, grabbing hand holding on to anything I could. Once I made it back to the snow a 10 foot deep trench blocked my progress. I jumped across slamming hard and torqued my shoulder while using my ice axe for self arrest. After taking a few ibuprofens we were on our way.
The Summit Chief valley is truly a spectacular place immersed in massive cliff bands. There was no place in the entire trip that I felt more isolated, skinning on the Chimney Rock glacier and passing numerous waterfalls along the way.
Once on the upper slopes we switched to bootpacking, utilizing what little energy we had left. The afternoon sun blazed as sweat dripped into our eyes, finally making it to the open slopes of the Overcoat Glacier. We had passed the crux and it was time to take a much needed break.
For years I had wanted to ride the aesthetic colouir off Overcoat peak, a line both steep and committing. We skinned over to the base of Overcoat and dropped off all of our unneeded gear. With two ice axes in hand we pushed up the gut of the chute.
We were both stoked standing on the top of our line. Looking upon the Alpine Lake landscape we could see that our intended route for later in the day cliffed out.
We would have to go another way, but it didn’t matter because we were about to rip 1000 feet of perfect corn conditions.
With our intended route blocked we had to do a counter clockwise traverse around Overcoat. The terrain was steep and riddled with cliffs. Below us stood the magnificent Overcoat lake still frozen from a endless winter.
Carefully we bootpacked above and around the inhospitable terrain, finally acquiring the ridge. According to our map we would be able to ride all the way to Iceburg lake.
In front of us was 2 miles of mellow slopes, half in the shade and half in the sun. This would be far be the longest uninterrupted run of the trip.
Once on the shorelines we traverse to the western edge. I chose to bootpack instead of transitioning and once at camp realized I had dropped my pin somewhere. To make matters worse, it was my only pin. I retraced my steps over and over to no avail. What was once anger became fear knowing I had a long trek in front of me. I contemplated what to do while returning to camp, only to find out Jason had found the pin.
That night we watched the sunset alpenglow on Chimney Rock before calling it a night. If all went according to plans, this would be our last night in a tent.
From Iceburg Lake to Gold Creek Valley
We started early in the day, not knowing how long the final leg of the journey would be. With the snow still firm we replaced our skiis with crampons and pushed forward, traversing under Lemah mountain. Suddenly the last mountain on our trip came into view, Chikamin Peak.
We skinned up the slopes as the afternoon sun drained our energy, later to find it was the hottest day of the season. Occasionally looking back at Jason and all the terrain we had covered in the past day.
Our final objective was to ride off the summit pyramid of Chikamin. Jason led the way up the steep eastern face while I transitioned to crampons and put my board on my pack.
It was much steeper then anticipated as I clenched onto two ice axes, meticulously kick stepping on the frozen surface. After a hasty lunge over the shrund we were standing merely feet below the true summit.
Standing near the summit we could see that our line had melted out. We pondered what to do next, looking to where are car was parked 4000 feet and 10 miles below.
We descended down the couloir we had just climbed and looked once again over the topo. It seemed that everything on the west face was melted, this was the direction we needed to go. A decision had to be made quickly so we decided to attempt riding a NW facing chute in hopes it would connect us to the Pacific Crest trail.
Once arriving at the top of the chute we prepared for a epic bushwack before dropping in. Its was unnerving but at that time we had no other choice. Jason led the way finding a route that melted out only feet from the trail. We had made it out and from then on everything would be easy, or so we thought.
We kept a great pace following the summer trail but because of where the car was parked we had to drop down into the valley. According to one of Jasons maps there was a trail that led directly to our car so we downclimbed in order to find it.
We quickly found the overgrown trail and forged through dense vegetation going less then a mile a hour. The sun was blazing and our bodies exhausted from the past 6 days as we pushed forward.
Not realizing our mistake we pushed past a creek without refilling our water bottles. By the time we had realized there was no water available and we had worked ourselves to the ground. A rest was in order and I was seriously considering camping right where we were.
We rested for about a hour before pushing on, only to find a stream a rock throw from where we were.
The trail slowly improved and before long we were back on a maintained path. By now all we could think of was making it back to the car before sunset. I didn’t care about wet gear anymore, passing stream after stream of knee deep water without taking my gear off. The creeks were deeper then normal but totally manageable.
When we reached the Gold Creek we saw that the bridge was out. It was the hottest day of the season and in front of us was waist to chest deep water. Thinking nothing of it I started crossing but the current almost ripped me off my feet, I grabbed onto a tree and pulled myself back to shore.
If I wanted to get out of there I would have to cross the river but falling could easily be fatal, it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Jason had experience crossing rivers so he slowly made his way across first. I didn’t want to attempt it again until morning but Jason went to the edge of the current and extended his pole for me to grab.
One foot at a time I stepped into the current and grabbed onto his ski pole, finally we were on the final stretch to the car.
All of my gear was soaked but I didn’t care. It was a race against sunlight and I was determined to win. My boots squished with every step for the final 9 miles. The nonstop hiking had taken its toll on my feet with not a inch of skin spared (later on my feet would be compared to a 3rd degree burn victim). We made it to the car just as darkness arrived, completely exhausted we dropped to the ground and celebrated.
We had completed our goal in traversing the regions most rugged mountains and pulled the route off perfectly.
No more 60 pound bags, no more freeze dried meals, no more living out of a tent. Or so we thought.
I highly recommend this tour if you have the opportunity to do so. Out of all the traverses I have done I easily found this to be the most enjoyable.
To hear Jason Hummels version click here
To see other photography of Jasons click here