Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Who needs a plan? Cape Horn 7316', Frosty 6489' Upper Florence, Bingham and Mary Lakes

When I was younger, before a wife and kids, I used to set out for extended trips with just the dog from company. The goal was to hit as many alpine lakes as possible. Some where along the way I grew more interested in the summits and the quest began to climb the 200 highest peaks between Hy 2 and I-90. With more responsibilities I haven't made a point of doing an extended trips for many years, I thought I was due. I hatched a plan to do 9 peaks in 4 days. I was confident in my abilities to make all the summits with my skill set. I tweaked the route over the preceding weeks to make it efficient as possible. I asked for the time off from work and not only was approved I was asked to take it a week earlier. Now the only thing I needed was a weather window. Since the weather has been so poor this Summer I thought my luck had to change. As the days went by the forecast kept improving to the point I no longer worried about poor weather I now was worried about the growing predicted heat. Since I had to work the weekend before I was slated to leave I packed on Friday in order to allow an early departure. As I made my way to work I had an uneasy feeling and that was soon validated. In the end my day at work ended with my resignation. At first I was crushed but as my trips in the hills usually do, they give me clarity. I realized that my job actually makes me unhappy and it was probably the best for all involved.

   After a breakfast with my parents and family I decided that I would leave 2 days earlier, I mean what could I do over Labor Day weekend to fix my situation? I headed out in the early afternoon to give myself a chance to pound out some miles before dark.  I reached the Whitepine trailhead around 6pm giving me some time before dark. From the onset I was worried about the amount of gear I was carrying and more so of the weight. I was unable to fit everything into my pack and I had to resort to strapping down extra gear outside my pack. Once I finally shouldered the pack the weight wasn't too bothersome. The trail was in good shape except for one portion a little over a mile in that the trail has been rerouted because of a bees's nest. The trail has numerous ups and downs with little change in elevation. When I reached the Whitepine/Wildhorse junction I headed to the creeks to see if there was a good place to camp. I was worried that any spot might be taken since it was a holiday weekend. I was right and I found a couple of guys next to a nice campfire. I asked if they minded if I camped nearby and since they didn't I walked to some nice running water and found a spot that was both far enough away and comfortable for a bivy. I quickly made dinner and by the time I finished eating it was dark. I gave some thought of bringing the fifth of Bourbon over to the campfire and making friends. In the end I was worried that I might spend a little too much time with the bourbon making the next day less than pleasing.

  I had a good night sleep and was up and eating breakfast semi early. I packed up and headed cross country to directly regain the Whitepine trail. The morning was perfect and the bugs were at bay. The only thing lacking were my legs. Although they were fine for the grade of the trail I started to wonder about the off trail climb to Upper Grace Lakes with a  heavy pack. The intent  was to drop pack around 7000' and tag Big Chiwaukum and then return to my belongings and traverse to Upper Grace Lake for my first camp. My plan for the next day was to go with a day pack over the pass and traverse to Opportunity Peak and then back and pack up and head up the steep snowfield to the summit of Snowgrass Peak. There is an umarked split in the trail in the first large meadowy area where the tread is equally worn. The trail descends and the route I had intended on taking rises. From this vantage I could see the snowfield I need to surmount Snowgrass and it looked very daunting. The truth of the matter is that I had decided to alter my plans and head to Frosty Pass directly. The views of the area are pretty inspiring.

After the junction most of the climbing has been done, it is a lot of ups and downs and parts are muddy and brushy. Thankfully with the big snowpack this year there is no shortage of water along the trail. I lost count of the numerous crossings. Shortly after the signed junction for the Grace Lakes Trail there is a horse camp where I stopped and shed some layers as the sun was heating things up quickly. From the camp I could see Frosty Pass and I was happy that it wasn't too much further. Shortly before the pass I met up with a solo on his way out. I chatted for a brief time before continuing my plod to the pass. Once cresting the pass I headed East on the Icicle Ridge trail towards Mary Lake. I passed a group of three who I surmise were doing a loop trip and had camped at Upper Florence. I had camped at Mary Lake many years ago and on that trip I had visited upper Florence Lake. I remember Upper Florence being by far the better lake but Mary provided better campsites.  Since Mary was closer it was an easy decision to camp there. I was thankful to have the place to my self. I used the biggest camp site that has it's own mini trout pond. The views of the Snowgrass-Ladies group was on display and the dog seemed at home

I lounged for the rest of the day and when the bugs grew too tiresome I did some exploring around the lake. I founded the one thing I desperately needed.... a snowfield.  No Ice NO problem

I spent the remainder of the evening reading and trying to put the traumatic events of last week into perspective while making my pack lighter by downing some bourbon. I made a great dinner and once the sun set I headed for less than restful night of sleep. Evidently my spot wasn't quite as level as I had hoped and I ended sliding off my pad most of the night. It did get surprisingly cold at night but I stayed warm in my bivy. Bosco was a natural and alerted me anytime any animals neared camp. The moon was only half but it did light up the night like a beacon. For those who haven't ever experienced a moon away from city lights and in altitude it something that words cannot ever describe. While I was off my intended schedule I could still make 7 of the remaining peaks. I eagerly packed a day pack and headed towards Upper Florence. The goal was Ladies Pass that is the shared saddle between Cape Horn and Ladies Peak which were my intended targets for this day. Mary's Pass went quickly and then I dropped some elevation before crossing Florence Pass. The basin that is between Florence and Ladies Pass is something to behold.  It is lush and green and immense why I didn't snap any picture I am not sure. Now I could see Cape Horn and it's North Ridge looked much more imposing than I had imagined

I plodded on towards Ladies Pass. I didn't realize that once cresting Ladies Pass the trail continues to climb. This enabled me to start the ridge much further up making the off trail portion much shorter. After a few switchback I spotted a worn track on the north end and followed. This led me to a small flat area on the ridge perfect for leaving my pack. I quickly made my way up the steep North ridge. There is plenty of loose rock but the footing is generally sound. Soon I found myself on the summit and wasn't able to find a register. I snapped a few pictures and quickly descended to my belongings.                                                               

  After descending to Ladies Pass I stopped and had lunch. Looking at the summit area of Ladies Peak I grew concerned. It didn't look inviting, I know it is doable with my capabilities but I started to wonder the wisdom of doing it solo. I decided to head up to see " how it goes". I made it up easily the first 400' and then I would have to traverse a ways before regaining the ridge. From there it looked doable until a couple hundred feet below the summit where I would have to do another steep traverse. I didn't like the look of it and decided it best left for another trip.

From the upper ridge I was able to Lake Bingham and I could see that it still had icebergs in it. I couldn't believe a lake at less than 6000' East of the crest could have ice still in it in Early September. I decided I should investigate. The drop to the Bingham is well graded and goes through some nice meadowy areas and I did have to cross a short steep section of snow that was still rock hard. I dropped 50' to around it instead of risking a slip. About a 200' above the lake I dropped to the immense snowfield on it South shore. I followed this down to the lake and had a short break. Bosco certainly enjoyed the snow. I was simply amazed at the depth of snow. I am certain that this will not melt this year.

I easily made my way back up the Ladies Pass. Without the weight of heavy overnight pack I felt like I was running up hill. When I reached the short steep snowfield I was very careful to kick good steps instead of going around it as I had done on the descent. Once back at the pass  I eagerly dropped to Upper Florence to do some fishing. When I was there many years ago I remember some VERY big trout. In fact one 20 incher rebuked everything I had to throw at him. He then had the gall to follow me around the entire lake taunting me as I went. I managed to land quite a few but none were lunkers. I did see some really nice ones but again they were very weary of what I was offering. After an hour I decided to head back to camp. On the descent I passed an older lady on a solo trip who hadn't decided where she was going to camp for the night. I find it inspiring to see people of all ages on the trail and I marvel at some of them. I do hope that when I reach my elder years I am still able to shoulder and overnight pack. Back at camp I made dinner and read before calling it a night. I switched spots to a more flat area that provided a much more comfortable sleep. The deer were out on this night and Bosco ran numerous deer out of camp at night. It is funny even though my sleep was disrupted it provided me much comfort and better sleep when he wasn't barking knowing that he was watching out for me. I again had to rearrange my plans when at Bingham where I could see the traverse to Snowgrass summit was still solid snow. This gave me pause since I was unsure how Bosco would do on a steep snow traverse. I had brought crampons and a ice axe so I felt like I would be ok.  Since prior to going to bed I noticed Bosco's limp more pronounced I decided that I was pushing him too hard. I had planned on heading to Doelle lakes for my last night but when his limp was even worse in the morning I decided to head out a day earlier. I settled for tagging Frosty Mountain before the long trudge to the car. I packed up and made my way to Frosty Pass where I dropped pack. I followed the trail to the horse camp a short ways before leaving the trail. I headed up and then hit a small ramp that had a fairly worn boot track heading up. I followed this all the way to the summit which provides a nice seat. I signed the register that was placed by Fay Pullen in 02' and had very few entries which didn't make sense to have a relatively worn path to it's summit. I had a short break and had to laugh when I caught Bosco lying on steep snowfield. I had to hold my breath hoping he wouldn't slide off of it.                                                            

I headed down to regain my belongings and head home. The heat was growing as I made my way out. It seemed as every step I took the temps went up. I was very thankful that again there was plenty of running water for both myself and the dog. I tried to stop for a short rest at a great spot about half way out and was marauded by black flies. I felt like if I stayed another minute I might not make it out alive. It took me about a quarter mile at top speed to finally loose the swarm. It certainly wasn't the rest spot I had hoped for. Not taking any chances I didn't stop the rest of the way. Finally after an eternity I made it back to the trailhead. Overall the trip served it's main purpose of allowing me to clear my head and did provide me a couple more summits. I hope to return to the area to finish my business. It certainly it a beautiful area and has now provided me two very memorable trips.

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