Alpine Lakes Traverse

July 3-8, 2010

Pale are the drops
that reflect the green underbelly
of hope
Silent are the drips that dance
in a rain sleep

~Jason Hummel

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason Hummel

"Above the Clouds"

Water - it melts from glaciers, splashes down granite, pools into lakes and flows once more down tumultuous streams, as cold and chilly as the snows that birthed it. Water is what makes Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness special, different. It is what fascinates me as well as Kyle Miller, the only partner I could find with interest in skiing and splitboarding across the Central Cascades from Mount Daniel to Gold Creek Valley (near Snoqualmie Pass). We hoped this classic link-up of several of the finest peaks in the region would measure up to our overactive imaginations that pictured sun, couloirs, corn snow, more sun, relaxing, and of course, spectacular camps overlooked by blazing sunsets, a throng of stars and resplendent sunrises.

The trouble with preconceived notions is that weather seldom matches the ideal requirements to optimize your adventure. Too sunny, the snow softens too fast. Too wet and foggy, the way forward becomes difficult to see. Conditions rarely are perfect. I rationalize, “Isn’t perfect a matter of perspective?” Is good enough, perfect? No, not really. But still, I believe in looking at what you have and saying, “Perspective is the soul of happiness.” Tune into the good rather than the bad; flip every coin to heads and suddenly life-is-perfect.

That being said, the Alpine Lakes Traverse was my most ‘perfect’ adventure in the past year. Not because it was the most adventuresome or finest skiing, but because it had begun so badly. In other words, there was perspective.

What there lacked in happy moments over our first three days doesn’t mean that there weren’t any. From the rainbow arcing over Tucquala Lake at Cathedral Pass Trailhead to the sun shimmying underneath cloudy covers, smothered in shades of red atop Mount Daniel, there most certainly were joyful times. And yet little did we know the price we’d pay for them. We were reminded that mountains can tax fortune with misfortune, good enough with too much, too little with more, just enough with less, and good luck with bad. Like with taxes, we worried we wouldn’t get what we paid for.

This misery is what epitomized our initial three days, although in the dimming hours of our first day, we were treated to an amazing sunset. This is why nature plunges me into exhilaration. It is virulent when it comes to the profoundness of its art. But, out here, it seems beauty is always on guard. As clouds marched upward they soon flung their first arrows; snow began to fall and wind began to whistle through green algae-covered rocks. This would continue through the night into the next day and night, before finally wet sleeping bags (thawed and refrozen) were peeled off with cold fingers, the battered tent was opened and we at last escaped. Despite the weather, we were leaving and after 42 hours of waiting, we weren’t going home without a fight.

From the summit of Mount Daniel the Lynch Glacier spills into Pea Soup Lake. Fog rolled over everything and withheld from view all but murky images of looming cliff faces. We were skiing into the great white nothingness, one turn at a time, until in a matter of feet we dropped below the cloud deck and could make out our location. We smiled. We could see the way ahead!

At Pea Soup Lake’s outlet, we met the last people we would see for the week. They had been tent-bound like us and graciously offered us tea. We obliged. I enjoyed the best tea in my life before we picked up our skis and board and traced the ribbons of snow around waterfalls and cliffs to the base of Mount Hinman.

As we remounted skins for the climb, dismal weather continued to pervade our demeanor as well as the surrounding terrain. Even so, the blue-fringed Foss Lakes were spellbinding. Partially thawed from winter’s ice, they appeared so colorful as to be artificial. As if they were a gateway to some higher cerulean plane, the static that had filled our vision for days began to clear out and give glimpses into bright blue sky. Was it a lie? Were we being deceived? On top of our second summit, Mount Hinman, all doubts were cast aside; the clouds were indeed receding. It was such a tranquil moment that we decided to indulge. We pitched camp right there near the highest point and struck out, sans overnight gear, to blissfully carve turns before that day’s wick had burned to a stub. Our perspective was sufficiently fine tuned. We recognized ‘great’ as more than that. It was ‘epic’ and there was no convincing us otherwise.

Transformation from night to day is achingly slow to witness. Before you know it, a gray monotony pervades the blackness, then a blot of color bleeds into the sky and spreads, permeating every inch until, at last, without protest, the sun rises over the horizon – light flashes! You cover your eyes. It is so spectacular, blinding! You peek through your split fingers to catch a glimpse. Black dots swim in your vision, but you see it – a day born. Now that is something you can feel blessed to behold! I did. The morning of the fourth day, I was held captive by this wonder of nature.

In happy spirits, Kyle and I set off, bound and determined to make up ground. Splendid conditions met us. Sun was shining through cloudless skies and the turns down to Hinman Lake were as rewarding as the views from the rocky ramparts overlooking her shores. After time to marinate on the warm rock slabs, we climbed to a pass, descended and followed a string of lakes, first to La Bon, then Chain and finally to William’s Lake. Beyond them, at the second tributary near the headwaters of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, we booted up steep forest to a gentle valley beneath Summit Chief Mountain. We reached a 6140-foot pass and visually surveyed the route ahead. A high route didn’t appear as we had expected. Knowing this meant we had to drop into a valley to the east, we decided to camp up high and solve the problem in the morning.

A windy night preceded a cool morning. Our descent took Kyle and me down a thin couloir for 1500 feet, well worth the time and effort to do if for only the mammoth views of this grand amphitheater of rock overlooking the valley. Following bands of snow, we began an ascent beneath Chimney Rock from whose dizzying cliffs haphazard rocks would bounce a few times before being thrown free into the unencumbered arms of gravity. Each one would whiz down to land among the others. As I was forced to walk among the outliers, I thought of scatter charts and statistics. Funny because there were hardly any other sounds on this quiet morning, besides that arbitrary, but deliberate, “Smack!”

Out of the firing range and onto the Overcoat Glacier, it was time to rest, eat and explore. Feeling energetic, I scouted over to the edge of the glacier at our descent into Iceberg Lake. It didn’t look promising, at least for a snow route. Since a couloir on Overcoat Peak was around the other side of the mountain, we decided that we would try an alternate route. The extra skiing would make up for the added effort. After dropping gear, Kyle and I booted this wonderful line that topped out to expansive views of the way we had come and the way we would go. The turns were fantastic! They continued toward Overcoat Lake before we began climbing again, this time attaining a 5,800 foot ridge that dropped into the opposite valley all the way to the shores of Iceberg Lake where we would camp for our final night. The alpenglow and reflections diminished that day’s efforts, reducing them as the wind had – to whispers.

There was no reason for us to finish on the sixth day, but we did. This wouldn’t have been a problem except for my ill-advised decision to include Chikamin’s South Couloir and Gold Creek Valley into our original itinerary instead of traversing to Snoqualmie Pass. While the South Couloir wasn’t the route we ended up taking, our car’s placement forced our hand. We had to go out this valley one way or another.

None of these worries were a bother as I climbed and traversed to the secluded shores of Chikamin Lake. On a budding patch of heather, I laid on a rock and waited for Kyle. Lunch was served not only for me but for the buzzing bees and flies that swarmed my head. With maps out, I swatted at them while acquainting myself with new terrain. While moderate, I worried about the snowpack, especially Chikamin’s 4000 foot southern aspect; it could be gone. As we mounted the ridge our concerns were justified. It’s amazing how much snow can melt in a week or even a day in the spring. We crisscrossed the ridge, climbed and skied a couloir near the true summit (but not from the tippy top as I had done in 2007), before retracing our tracks to the western edge of the ridge where our best option for descending appeared. Once on the Pacific Crest Trail a thousand feet below, we looked back up at the surprisingly easy route that snuck down this impressive mountain.

But grins would transform to grimaces as Kyle and I swiveled our heads and peered at what was to come. The Pacific Crest Trail doesn’t go where we were going. In fact, there was no trail to Joe Lake and even though the map showed a path beyond there, the deteriorating tread that we found quickly faded into brush as it reached into Gold Creek Valley. This was well and fine since it negotiated towering waterfalls that carved through mossy tree arms before disappearing into the forest. But the question remained, would we keep to the trail and would it continue?

Playing hide-and-seek with the forest and slide alder, we found ghosts of a trail from time to time. In our rush to sniff it out, we neglected to get water. This adventure had begun with temperatures in the twenties and now it would end in the hundreds! Spider webs, leaves and sweat hung from my face, and shoulders, and a week’s worth of effort came crashing into me all at once. I looked back at Kyle through an ocean of green and saw a reflection of my own misery. My vision was clouded and I felt nauseous as I croaked “Kyle, do you have any water?” He had nothing. Picking up our gear, we continued. I felt thirstier than I had in years. I couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh when Kyle stumbled on a creek not 50 feet from where we were resting! In our delusion we hadn’t heard it. Sometimes the best memories of an adventure come on the heels of the worst. Guzzling quarts of water from this tiny creek was certainly one of those instants where, “Life was good.” But that doesn’t always last. There are hiccups.

Kyle and I stood at the edge of Gold Creek. It was raging. For years I’d been a class V creek boater. I understood the power of water. I knew how it “thought” and how much I could get away with. I’d had bad swims through canyons, over waterfalls, under sieves and into log jams in much worse conditions than this, but looking at this creek, I recognized the danger. It was cold, fast moving and chest deep. Its mundane appearance couldn’t hide its potential. Kyle was rebuffed in his first attempt. I followed suit and was sent grappling for the shore. Having eight thousand dollars worth of camera gear didn’t help my cause. I was sweating because I’d lose it all if I slipped. I packed every bit of it on top of my pack, gritted my teeth and tried again. This time I made it. The current was so powerful it spun me around as I broke free. I made the shore with the coldest feet I’ve ever had. My legs were so frigid I couldn’t even stand. After several minutes, I returned to give Kyle a ski pole assist. He let out a breath of relief once across. He can’t swim well and hadn’t appreciated the thought he may have had to.

Back on the trail sopping wet shoes murmured “…squish-squish, squish-squish, squish-squish.” They measured every second of every moment until it got dark and we reached Kyle’s car. As its engine roared to life and its wheels spun over gravel, then pavement – I stopped! Time froze. “Perspective,” I whispered, “needs reflection.” The car wheels spun from pavement to gravel, my feet back to trail, to skis, to the beginning. My memories then snapped forward through my previous week. They landed on the summits of Daniel and Hinman; dove into the eighteen lakes we passed; danced over the turns we’d carved; swam through the clouds, sunsets and stars we’d bore witness too; and eventually flowed down the creeks that quenched parched throats. Water, it appeared, not only makes the Alpine Lakes Wilderness special, but my memories of it, too. ~

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Jason Hummel