With the snow pack melting fast in the Olympic rain shadow, some of the higher trails are opening up for easy hiking. After a two hour hike up Mount Townsend (6260 ft) early yesterday evening, I slept on the summit, setting up the bivy sack right on the summit ridge. By early morning the West wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped in to the high 30’s, so I moved my bivy sack to a more sheltered location nearby, onto the East side of the ridge. Both sunset and sunrise were very pretty and colorful.
On Saturday a group of ten of us from the Mountaineers club took advantage of a slight break in the winter weather to explore the trail to Teebone Ridge and Monogram Lake above the town of Marblemount WA. While the snow was too deep to allow us to attain the ridge, we enjoyed the beautiful cones, mushrooms and otherworldly shapes that the recent blizzards brought to the rocks and trees of the Cascade Range.
Autumn colors were exceptionally brilliant in Washington this year – maybe the warm dry summer and Fall had something to do with it. The high country of the Cascades is one of the best places to experience Fall colors, with every hue and shade of yellow, orange and red on display in the trees and undergrowth.
In early October I got to spend a little over 4 days enjoying the Fall colors in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, along WA Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). WA Section J is one of the most scenic and challenging legs of the entire 2,650 mile long PCT, which runs from the Mexico border to the Canadian border through California, Oregon and Washington. This section of the PCT runs between popular trailheads at Snoqualmie Pass (PCT mile 2391) and Stevens Pass (PCT mile 2462). WA Section J is 71 miles long and has 18,000 feet of elevation gain running South to North.
This backpacking trip was unusual for me in two ways. First, it was a “through hike”, or a one-way hike starting from one trailhead and ending at another (in this case Stevens Pass south to Snoqualmie Pass). Second, this was my first light weight backpacking trip where the total weight carried was under 30 pounds. In fact, one of the main reasons for this trip was to test out some new light weight gear and backpacking techniques.
The trip was fantastic in many ways. The scenery was breathtaking, the weather was exceptional and hiking with such a light load felt nearly effortless compared to previous backpacking trips. Plus, the new gear and techniques worked very efficiently while keeping me comfortable and safe.
The Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho are a rugged range of deep clear lakes, white granite rocks and whitebark pines up to 1000 years old. In July of 2015 I was fortunate to spend a week exploring this beautiful area with four long-time friends from Colorado (Jeff, Ken, Stan and Steve). We enjoyed a relaxing and photogenic four night backpack in the Twin Lake and Toxaway Lake valleys followed by a successful scramble up Idaho’s highest peak Borah Peak (12,668 feet).
On 19 June 2015 Don Rice and seven other Mountaineers paddlers kayaked to Cape Flattery to enjoy the sea caves and wildlife on a sunny, calm and low-swell day. Over the following two days we had a successful clinic where all the students improved their skills kayaking in surf.
Three of the largest rivers in the Olympic Mountains begin on the slopes of Mount Anderson (7321 ft), the hydrographic center of the range. On June 12 and 13 I was fortunate to take part in an attempt to climb Mt. Anderson via Flypaper Pass and the upper Eel glacier on a trip led by Dave Morgan for the Seattle Mountaineers. While lack of snow below Flypaper Pass thwarted our summit attempt, we were blessed with great weather, a fun and fit team and beautiful scenery in the remote West Fork of the Dosewallips River and Anderson Glacier area.
On 5 June 2015 Barney Bernhard and I climbed Mount Deception, the second highest peak in Olympic National Park at 7788 feet. Not only is Mount Deception a high peak, it’s also large, aesthetic and sits as the rocky king at the head of Royal Basin.
Our route started from a camp in upper Royal Basin, attaining the low point on the Deception-Martin Peak Ridge via steep snow. From the ridge, we traversed the upper flanks of Deception Glacier under Gilhooley Spire to gain the summit ridge from the West. Blessed with clear skies, light winds and moderate temperatures, we enjoyed an excellent climb and great climbing conditions.
The Northwest is known for its trees. Big trees. The largest, oldest and tallest members of many tree species can be found here, especially conifers. But there’s one uncommon conifer hidden in high alpine basins known for its unusual color displays rather than its size. Each October like clockwork, this unusual conifer’s needles change from green to glowing yellow-gold before falling on winter’s first dusting of snow.
The Alpine Larch tree, aka Lyall’s larch (Larix Lyallii), is a deciduous conifer which drops its needles every Fall, just like other trees drop their leaves. One of only two deciduous conifers found in North America, the Alpine Larch grows in sparse pockets near treeline on cold, north-facing slopes. The Alpine larches short, soft needles begin changing colors in late September and usually reach peak color in early October. The autumn larch season is usually short and often unpredictable. Late autumn storms can strip the trees of their needles overnight and Fall storms can dump feet of snow on the trails, making access a challenge.
Finding Lyall’s Larch
Several places in Washington State are great for larch viewing, but Headlight Basin is one of the prettiest and easiest to access. The basin sits below the massive South face of Mount Stuart, Washington’s tallest non-volcanic peak, and is graced with stunning Lake Ingalls and a generous spattering of Lyall’s larch trees. Headlight Basin is part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and boasts the southern-most stands of alpine larches in the cascades. Lake Ingalls is a popular hiking destination in and of itself, but in the Fall, the basin becomes a magnet for larch enthusiasts.
My trip to see the larches came together on very short notice after waiting a week for a weather break. Waking up Monday morning to a good week-long forecast, I finished up some work, hastily packed, and then drove over 4 hours to the end of North Fork of Teenaway Road to arrive at the 4,243 ft trailhead just after dark. A cool and remarkably bright 2.5 hour night hike under a brilliant first quarter moon brought me to the 6,500 ft Ingalls Pass. A short descent brought me into snow-filled Headlight Basin, where I pitched the tent, hung the food bag and was in bed by 11 PM.
The following day and a half was spent photographing and admiring the larch trees, with a day hike for sunset photography at Lake Ingalls. While many of the larches were past peak color, the display was nonetheless phenomenal and extremely photogenic, especially as it was my first time seeing larch trees in fall color. The clear, dry weather was a great blessing, along with the light winds preserving the needles on the trees. It was a joy to spend a few days in the high mountains on the cusp of winter in the company of such beautiful trees – I can’t wait to see them again next year.
In July of 2013 Ken Godowski, a long-time friend from Colorado, joined me for a 10 day road trip to the Canadian Rockies. This grand stretch of the Rocky Mountain range is home to the Rocky’s biggest glaciers and icefields and its most massive peaks, some rising precipitously 10,000 vertical feet from their base.
Famous for its beautiful turquoise lakes, painted many hues of blue by glacial sediment, the Canadian Rockies is home to several of Canada’s National and Provincial Parks. Banff and Jasper National Parks, two of the region’s largest, are home to grizzly bears, wolves and an abundance of other wildlife, thriving in the abundant inaccessible wilderness of the region. A bounty of verdant green forests, mighty rivers and some of Canada’s highest waterfalls add to the natural majesty of the range.
While full of remote wilderness, there are also accessible hiking and backpacking opportunities that we were able to enjoy, especially with the great weather we had for most of the trip. Starting out in Lake Louise, we hiked some of the area’s classic trails, including the Lake Louise circuit trails, the Iceline Trail and Mount Fairview. We also stocked up on food, bear spray and some other necessities we could not take over the border into Canada. Car camping for 4 nights at the wooded Lake Louise campground, we enjoyed the amenities of a large shower house, enclosed pavilions, stacks of cut fire wood and a bear-proof electric fence encompassing the entire 206 site campground.
The next leg of our trip took us North on the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic roads in North America. Stopping for night at Wilcox Creek Campground, we enjoyed short but scenic hikes on Parker Ridge, Wilcox Pass and to the retreating terminus of the Athabaska Glacier – perhaps the most famous river of ice in the Rockies. After passing through the mountain town of Jasper the next day for lunch, we drove to the Northern terminus of our Rockies road trip: a two-night backpack in Mount Robson Provincial Park, home to the highest and grandest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
Standing at the valley floor at an elevation of 2700 ft, craning our necks skyward toward the 12,972 summit of Mt. Robson, less than 5 miles away as the crow flies, we are struck by the sheer, monstrous vertical relief, over 10,000 feet in all. Looking like some giant icy monolith transplanted from the Himalayas, Mt. Robson stands head and shoulders above all the other great peaks of the Canadian Rockies, in terms of altitude, scale and in the severity of the weather on it’s freshly snow-whitened crown. The weather down at the visitor center and campground was hot, in the low 90’s, even while icy clouds brooded nearly Robson’s summit. After a warm relaxing afternoon of rest and a good night’s sleep, we awake at 4:00 AM the next morning to begin our 12 mile backpack while the day is still cool.
Arriving at Marmot Campsite in the early afternoon on the shores of Berg Lake, we are treated with breathtaking views of Mist and Berg Glacier, the latter plunging down from the Western flanks of Robson into the lake itself. It’s easy to see why Berg Lake is considered by many to be the number one must-do backpack in the Canadian Rockies. The next day we enjoyed the most strenuous, scenic and remote day hike of our trip: to the lofty saddle of Snowbird Pass. Skirting the margin of the huge Robson Glacier much of its way, the trail passed through green alpine meadows before topping out at the pass, opening up a wide panoramic view of the Reef Icefield and surrounding peaks. The third day of our backpack we rose early again for a cool and overcast hike back to the trailhead – the skies opened up with rain mere minutes after we reached the car and stowed our packs.
After filling up with gas and ice cream in Jasper, the last leg of our trip gave us the chance to see the Icefields Parkway from the other direction, as we drove back South to the Posh and Touristy town of Banff. Ken’s flight out of Calgary was the next day, as was my 12 hour drive back home to Western Washington. The drive home was relatively fast and uneventful, other than the small bit of bear spray I got in my eyes while emptying the can before crossing the border (bear spray is not allowed over the border). We had an excellent trip and were able to get an good introduction to Banff and Jasper National Parks and Mount Robson Provincial Park – enough of an introduction to know we’ll be back again someday.