Sunday, November 29, 2009

Elfin Lakes, British Columbia

We drove up a little past Squamish to the Diamond Head sector of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Snow conditions were initially crummy.

But there was this bright glowing orb in the sky and the Coast Range was out in all her glory.

We managed to finish the 11 km approach right as darkness swallowed us. The hut was even more deluxe than I had imagined, with gas light and heat, and we only had to share it with three other guys and two mice. The following day, I tagged along with some good ol' boys from Squamish and skied off of Columnar Peak. Over night six or seven inches of light and tasty snow had fallen. In the open, if you kept up your speed it was quite nice, but in the trees or in tighter terrain, the bumpy and runneled crust made skiing unpleasant. And needless to say, the visibility had taken a turn for the worse.

I acted (in my opinion) responsibly and prioritized a daylight return to the car over taking another lap off Columnar. It was still a bit of a slow, wet affair out of the hut. I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Better than the Sierra? Lyman Lakes Loop

After most backpacking trips Andrew and I have taken, I hear these words: "It was good, but not as good as the Sierra. You should go hike in the high Sierra, the best mountains in the world." I understand having favorite mountains, but by now the mountains of northern California have been built up so high that I fear grand-scale disappointment when I take my first trip. Here in Washington, we finally on a trip that rivaled the Sierras enough to stop these declarations. Of course the "I want to ski this" comments abounded, but the "You should go to California" comments were shushed.

We headed out for a long weekend to do some hiking in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area. Lyman Lakes loop was our destination. Most of the first day was spent in a slow, steady ascent in the trees. Although this was not delivering on the views, we did come across something that peaked our interest: pack goats.

I was sitting with our gear, waiting for Andrew to drop off the car at our endpoint and hitch a ride back to the trail head when I saw them first. A friendly guy out for a backpacking trip with his gear-laden group of goats. Ben, a white and black goat with a sweet-ass beard and loud bell, came over and sniffed me for awhile, licked my forehead, blew goat snot in my face, then attempted to eat my map. The owner apologized and tried to round up the other three goats to hit the trail. The rounding up part did not look like fun, as the goats were totally content destroying every huckleberry bush in sight. I can't blame them, huckleberries are delicious.

A wild pack of family goats

I excitedly told Andrew about the goats when he returned, and we took off on the trail, hoping to catch up with them. It ended up that we played leap-frog with the goat pack several times that day (maybe it was intentional), and every time we had a battery of questions for the guy: "How many pounds can they carry?", "How do you train them", "What do they eat on the trail, do you have to bring extra food?", "Can they go over glaciers?", "Can they carry skis?". We sadly said goodbye as the heartwarming group set up camp before the climb to Buck Creek Pass. Andrew was quiet for awhile, then says "I think it could be done, really". And by "it" I knew he meant finding a baby mountain goat, bottle feeding it, training it to carry gear, and using it to carry skis to the top of mountains. The trouble is having the heart to steal a baby mountain goat from its mother...

We continued on in the trees. Dusk was threatening when we emerged above tree line into views of jagged, crowding peaks with meadows of dying bear grass backlit by the setting sun. As we hit Buck Creek Pass, Glacier Peak in all of its splendor, popped out from hiding.

View back over Buck Creek Valley

Dying bear grass

We climbed to the top of Flower Dome where we had great views in every direction for about 10 minutes. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly (less than 4 minutes), the clouds moved in. One moment, a clear beautiful night with peaks as far as you could see, and the next minute fog so thick you couldn't make out the moon.

From our campsite as the fog rolls in

In the fog

We set up camp on a people-free yet foggy summit, and cooked dinner. Lately we have been stepping it up a notch in the back-country cooking department. Instant mashed potatoes can shockingly get old. One of our backpacking partners last week brought a delicious pork vindaloo for dinner the first night, which I tried to recreate on this trip. The gourmet dish was mighty flavorful, but I didn't grind the spices sufficiently. We kept biting into whole sticks of cinnamon or cardamom seeds that made our mouths go numb. Nonetheless, it was delicious, and my pack was much lighter sans Indian food the next day. Full and warm, we fell to sleep in the fog, with the sounds of marmots whistling.

Glacier from the top of Flower Dome

The next morning rang clear, and views of Glacier were f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s. We hit the trail doing the down-up dance over three passes: Middle Ridge, Suiattle Pass, and Cloudy Pass. Cloudy Pass ended up not being cloudy at all, and we found a perfect bivy spot for the night on a ledge overlooking Lyman Lakes. It was early in the afternoon, but we opted to make our hike out a little longer the next day and camp on higher ground in desolation, rather than descend to the lakes into crowds and fewer views. Hitting camp early made for a relaxing afternoon: exploring the surrounding knobs, meadows, and streams, making popcorn, and napping in the afternoon sun.

Views of Lyman Lakes and Spider Gap from our bivy site on Cloudy Pass

Sunset from the pass

Streams, Streams

Once the sun hit the horizon on day three it was a hot one. We left our perch on Cloudy Pass and sauntered down to lower and upper Lyman lakes. Then we began picking our way up the rocky, sometimes snowy, Spider Gap. The sweaty work to the gap payed off with views in both directions.

Views back toward Cloudy Pass from Spider Gap

We had two options from the top: trail over shifty rock or glacier. Picking the snowy route rather than the trail, we descended, greeting several parties on their way up. I have to admit that my prominent thought on the descent down this populated glacier was "Man, I'm glad I don't have to poop right now".

Algae patterns down Spider Glacier

Views up the talus and snow fields to Spider Gap

We came off the glacier trail to blossoming Spider Meadows. We weren't done. Eight of the 15 miles of the day lay between the base of Spider gap and the car. Good news was that the tread was good and mostly flat. Bad news was there were no more views and the sun was out in full force, making for some sweaty, sweaty pits. The walk back to the car was the worst part of the trip. But, it always is.

Part-time model shot after taking a dip in a stream on the long hike back to the car. But he'll probably have to keep his normal job.

Some of the only views from Spider Meadow

To my surprise, this time when we arrived back at the car there were only "That was great" comments. Somehow the Sierra had been forgotten, at least for a few days.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

26 Hours in the Boston Basin

We have been ascending for hours. Glances back to the north face of Johannesburg mountain, once towering above us and now at eye level, are a consolation. Now we need to stop and put on our harnesses. We gain a notch beside a decaying tower of rock and sit down. It is mid-morning, warm and windless. The sun makes me sleepy. I drift off for a few minutes before Mike, clinking hardware, draws me unwillingly back into consciousness. I glance at the route description and artfully offer to lead the first pitch to avoid leading the crux.

A few hours and a few pitches later, I am leading again. The ridge narrows to a sharp edge. I gingerly traverse, stick in a cam, and pause with a sinking feeling as I eye the next fin ahead. It is nearly vertical, six or seven feet long, and doesn't have even so much as the edge of a dime to step on. I look down, horrified at the abyss yawning beneath. I glance over to the north side, and see a rubble-strewn ledge system running four or five feet below the crest. Shit, that doesn't look enticing, either. I dither for a few more minutes and fantasize about large birds plucking me from my airy, unwilling perch and gliding with me to flat ground. I order my freaked-out brain to commit. It is much easier than it looked, but I'm gripped by the time I make my way across some sloping ledges a bit below the crest. I think I want my mom.

The next few pitches go slowly and it is now late afternoon. We come to the edge of an abrupt tower and rappel into a notch stacked with blocks of dark, lichen-covered rock. Above us, another stark tower of rock, variegated with water stains, guards passage to the summit. From the looks of it, this is the crux. Mike leads out, takes a few minutes to arrange a couple cams and suss out the moves, and then disappears over the top of the bulge. I feed out rope steadily for a while, then in fits and spurts, then stop.

I look down. Far below me, to my right, the immense Boston Glacier is now in shadow. Its crevasses are now black, the snow, blue. On my left, some final-looking rays of sunlight color the basin. The only human presence I see is a tent, three thousand feet below, in a stunted stand of avalanche-flagged pines. It is hopelessly removed and impossibly small.

I feel impossibly small, a trespasser sitting on this broken ridge. I shiver a bit and turn more of my body into the sun as a chill settles on the evening. At my feet, a clump of cobalt flowers flutters in the breeze, also seeming to shiver. The sun gets me drowsy and through the slits of my eyelids I see a fat bumblebee settle on one of the flowers at my feet. The bee doesn't care that it's on an inhospitable fin of rock thousands of feet above the nearest tree, just as the rock doesn't care that two humans are scrabbling across its spine. It seems inhuman, but beautiful. It makes me want to cry. A tug on the end of the rope startles me out of my existential reverie and I break down the anchor and start climbing.

It's a while still before we are standing on the summit. By now it is obvious that we will be chasing twilight off the mountain. Mike arrives, and we flee for our packs. Rappelling off of the north side of the mountain, further away from any road, only deepens the feeling of isolation. As the dusk deepens, we make our way along grassy ledges and look for passages across rocky ribs. It's dark by the time we find the gully that leads back to the civilized side of the ridge and up to our packs.

Back at our packs we exchange relieved high-fives. We descend by headlamp into the dark. A yellow moon is creeping above the horizon, but it is still hard to make out the buttress that guided us up this morning. We stand above an unfamiliar gully: noisy, with water pouring over drop-offs. I eye it dubiously and follow Mike. This is not the one we want. I dislodge a pile of rocks onto Mike as I claw my way back up to the flat spot above the gully. Hearts racing, we sit in the darkness, which is just as warm and windless as it was 12 hours before.

We try several variations on this theme before we locate the correct gully and slowly follow it back to the lower basin. By now the moon is diving towards the hazy western horizon. Some stumbling around in the dark later, we find the trail and follow it back towards the trees. The forest moths are startled by the strange blue orbs our headlamps cast, and flutter dizzily around our faces. Slippery roots blend into the dusty forest debris that conceals the tread. An hour later, I bid Mike goodnight and crawl off the trail. A man-shaped depression between two trees cradles me. I turn off my headlamp. The darkness is complete. I do not dream.

It's light out when the chill wakes me. I continue down the trail. Back at the car, Johannesburg once again towers above, its hanging glaciers cast blue by the diffuse light of dawn. Another team is preparing to head up.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

That Old, Sweet Song

I land in the South with a sore neck and red eyes. After a few hours of dodging cars that never use blinkers for merging, I finally turn onto the dirt road that takes me home. Out the window, the main garden is in full bloom: heads of corn reaching for the sun, beans sagging off of fixed poles, peppers and tomatoes shining red in the mid-morning sun. I stop the car and pick the makings for my all-time favorite lunch (BLT with garden-fresh tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and a cold glass of milk). Past the garden, boards fresh from the lumber mill are stacked high. I can smell the sawdust, potent after a recent thundershower. I walk to my house, which is surprisingly unsheltered after losing the familiar oaks out front last winter. I think about how strange it feels to mourn the loss of a tree, but it had the best foot holds for climbing.

Inside, little has changed. My room still is decorated with failed attempts at art created in high school and a Walt Whitman poem I haphazardly, yet passionately, painted on the wall one late night. A few books I couldn't bear to give away line the bookshelves. My mom has tried to make it seem more inviting by filling the empty picture frames on my desk and putting new sheets on the bed. I go wake up my brother, and get a leave-me-alone grunt. So I do as I'm told and leave him alone with his sleep palsy from a late night at work. Mom is cooking food for the wedding. She apologizes for the smell, remembering that I would leave the house for hours at a time when I was a kid because I hated the smell of chicken boiling. It doesn't bother me now. We talk. She leaves to go help bake cakes, and I decide to take the new puppy for a walk. We go explore the creek, which is barely a quarter of the size I expected. Years of drought have left a listless trickle, the waterfall dried to bare rocks. Obie (the pup) doesn't notice how lackluster the stream is, and we both leave wet, dirty, and smelling like dog. He finds a wild turkey in the bushes, and some of the most horrible noises I have ever heard ensue. I might have let him continue the pursuit if it had been Thanksgiving, but we've already got one bird on the burner.

After spraying my clothes down in a vain attempt at red clay removal, I roam some more. I walk over to my great-grandparents' homestead. In the yard, Grandaddy is installing an aisle and chairs are being sowed in rows in anticipation for the ceremony. The place has been cleaned up, but the dilapidated barns are still pretty magical to explore. They hold old doll heads (I don't know where the bodies went), random garden tools, pieces of furniture and cars, horse tack, the old rusted tractor, and hundreds of mason jars that most certainly contain botulism by now. I sit on the tractor for awhile, and listen to sounds begin. Afternoon brings a cacophony of katydids, crickets, and frogs. Much different, but perhaps louder, than the traffic I hear out of my bedroom window every night in the city.

From Ansley's Wedding

From Ansley's Wedding

Daddy Jim and Ma Mamie, my great-grandparents, lived here and worked the land, sustaining themselves and making money with what they could sell at the farmer's market. Signs of this past are still around. After the winter loses its bitterness, the ground is blanketed with blooming jonquils. These were planted in order to have something to sell in the early spring, when few vegetables were ready for harvest. Ma Mamie scavenged asparagus, baked cakes and cut jonquils to sell at the market.

All this she would load in the buggy every weekend. The work horse that drew the buggy outlived my great-grandparents long enough for me to vaguely remember it. I don't remember his name, but I remember (fondly) that he had a flatulence problem. When that horse hit a gallop, you could hear it coming. It's too late for the jonquils to be in bloom, but I make a mental note to come home in the spring next time.

From Ansley's Wedding

There is a yellowed newspaper cutting, framed and hung in my grandmother's basement, that tells of how people would travel for miles to buy Ma Mamie's cakes. Coconut, caramel, pistachio. The recipes have been handed down, via first-hand kitchen experience, through the generations. My grandmother is busy baking the same cakes for the wedding tomorrow. All I can say is the newspaper was right, they are fucking delicious.

From my tractor perch, I can see the sky turning gray. It looks as if there will be another afternoon thundershower: the kind of Georgia summer storm that soaks the land and makes a lot of noise, and then leaves as fast as it came. I head back home to get ready for the rehearsal dinner. I pass the second garden which has been taken over by hundreds of sunflowers, Ansley's favorite.

From Ansley's Wedding

From Ansley's Wedding

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hidden Lake Peak, North Cascades

Washington and I are a few months shy of the two-year mark. And while I have been enjoying my time in the outdoors of the great Northwest, somehow I have never made it to North Cascades National Park. The shame! The folly! I really am sorry it took so long.

Growing up less than 20 minutes from the start of the AT, the Appalachians were my first love. I have a habit of subconsciously comparing all other mountains to my well-known, pastoral hills of the Appalachians. There is this weird family tree of mountain organization in my mind, and every time I am introduced to a new mountain group, along comes a new label. The Appalachians are the old grandmother who has seen it all, with face full of smooth laugh lines, and plenty of laid-back wisdom: disciplining, but never too harsh. The North Cascades definitely fill the rebel distant cousin role. Rugged, dangerous. The whole family is always talking about his crazy ramblings. Probably a heart breaker with his good looks. You never know, he might try to kill you with a broken beer bottle or befriend you and have the greatest adventures of your life.

We hit the road on Friday afternoon to be stuck in the city-escaping traffic of the holiday weekend. Stop-n-going it until well out of Seattle, we were finally able to escape the highway to the stretch of cities ending in -ington, then to the North Cascades Highway, and finally to the trailhead for Hidden Lake Peak.

The trail was heavily wooded for the first 800 feet, but then broke out into a drainage, where it climbed steadily through areas of wildflowers, tongues of avalanche debris, and snow-melt streams.

From Hidden Lake Lookout

At about 5500 feet the trail turned to snow. Breaking out boots and ice axe, we kicked steps up to the ridge. We found the lookout on hidden lake peak just after the sun set behind Baker. As the sun was down, and I was a bit freaked out about crossing even slightly inclined frozen snow in the dark, I talked Andrew into a bivy on some snow-free ground at the top of the col. The sunset had been beautiful, with alpenglow lighting up peaks in every direction. From our bivy spot it was jagged, snow capped peaks for about 340 degrees around us. A perfect spot to sleep for the night.

From Hidden Lake Lookout

From Hidden Lake Lookout

...well, a perfect spot to sleep out except for the mosquitoes. We had been above tree line in solid snow for the last 1000 feet, and you think this would ensure a bug-free zone. But these mosquitoes if anything were worse up here than in the melted-out meadows below. Resigning to having at least two hundred bites by the morning, I fell into a deep sleep with a soundtrack of buzzing to my dreams.

Andrew with his own, personal swarm. Kind of like your own, personal Jesus, but a little less guilt when you kill them.
From Hidden Lake Lookout

My feelings towards the biting bugs
From Hidden Lake Lookout

We woke up to find that, in the light of day, the trail up to the lookout was melted out and an easy climb. So we climbed up to the lookout post, and spent some time taking in the views and reading journal entries from the lookout log. My favorite entry is from a girl who just was dumped for a "skinny girl in California", taking post-breakup haven in the mountains, and wishing her ex-boyfriend ugly children. Second favorite was a long entry about how the outdoor privy outside the lookout was, hands-down, one of the best views for pooping in the history of outdoor thrones.

Andrew reading journal entries in the lookout.
From Hidden Lake Lookout

Views from the breakfast table.
From Hidden Lake Lookout

We decided to start our descent about mid-day, after Andrew got in some turns. (Note to self: skis are a much faster downhill method of transportation than feet.)

From Hidden Lake Lookout

We hit the car in the late afternoon, and headed back to Seattle for some fireworks, crowds, and good, old-fashioned redcoat bashing. Don't get me wrong, fireworks and drunken crowds are great, but there is no greater way to celebrate Independence than in the woods on a mountain top.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Solstice!

A Haiku:

Light early, dark late
Glorious summertime days
It's downhill from here


We missed the naked bike ride, but got to see most of the Fremont Solstice parade. I love hippies.

From solstice

From solstice

I don't understand either.
From solstice

Trying to see
From solstice

A bowl...
From solstice

...of spaghetti.
From solstice

Friday, June 19, 2009

Seven Lakes Basin, Olympic National Park

After landing in Seattle, I had two days of freedom before working a few shifts. We decided to hit up the Olympic Mountains. Olympic National Park is pretty diverse. It is a huge place with rain forests, a wild shoreline, snowy mountain vistas, and areas of thick ferned-n-mossed, rain-fed growth under a canopy of pines. Having seen the coast and rainforest, we wanted to head to the higher hills on this trip. It didn't end up to be all that we had hoped. The weather turned rainy, with clouds blocking any views, and the patchy snow and terrain made for not-so-great skiing conditions. So the days were spent hiking with a heavy pack and skis (for Andrew) and awkwardly slipping and post-holing (for me). Andrew did get in about 6 turns, and we made it back to Sol Duc hot springs about an hour before closing to soak in the sulfurous not a total loss.

Andrew looking over the Olympics to the North.
From Olympic National Park

Fun with shutter speeds
From Olympic National Park

Light at the end of the day
From Olympic National Park

Wishing the skis were on...
From Olympic National Park

Seven lakes basin
From Olympic National Park