7.65 miles, 3560ft gain/3760ft loss.
Picture Perfect! Blue skies without a single cloud greet us in the morning! It’s great to roll out of bed to clear skies, and no bugs! Did I mention there are no bugs?!! That in itself is reason to smile…Before we break camp, we’re treated to the sun lighting up the peaks, which helps to accentuate the cracks and crevices that were hidden in shadows from the day before.
Packed and ready to go, we make our way to the saddle on the ridge that joins Tieton Peak to Gilbert Peak, and as we approach it, we pass by a huge purple swath of Lupine, growing so thick and dense it looks like an enormous purple carpet has been laid onto the red hued ridge.
“… trying my best to divert their attention from the enormity of it all…”
On top of the saddle, we now get our first glimpse of the other side, and the massive ice and snow covered chasm we have to cross. No one says a word, and to avoid talking or thinking about what lies immediately ahead and how to get safely across, I break out the camera and say cheerily, “Wow, look at that! Isn’t that beautiful?!” trying my best to divert their attention from the enormity of it all, while worrying about what my trekking partners are thinking about me right now…
I have to admit, looking at it from here, a bit of self-doubt crept in, and I thought that perhaps I might have overestimated the do-ability of this crossing…But, it was only for a moment, knowing that we’ve faced equally challenging routes in the past, I knew we were up for it, but…Still, the doubt was there for a bit…
The glacier here sits mostly at the base of the giant pinnacles that jut up along the ridge, too steep for snow and ice to really stay long. At the bottom edge of the ice, is a large permanent snowfield that we will have to cross, and thankfully, it’s not that steep. We should have no problem crossing it in hiking boots without crampons. It’s the other side we’re looking at, trying to discern the best route up to gain the other ridgeline, which is the ridge that we plan on hiking all the way to Old Snowy, and the PCT. From here it looks really, really steep, a result of the distance flattening out the slope, making it look more like a wall than an incline. Well, no way to tell from here, need to trust that we’ll find a safe way up…
From the comfort of my chair at home, poring over maps looking at gradient lines on a map, and the overlay on Google Earth, it certainly seemed doable. But here, now, standing with the wind blowing steadily uphill into our faces, channeled by the gap, looking across large fields of snow and steep rock strewn ravine sides, it certainly seems far more daunting than planned.
Sighing a deep sigh, we head off down into the snow covered valley, for its wide enough to be deemed a valley. Once on the snowfield, the flatness of the opposite side is beginning to recede, giving us new hope at finding a good route uphill.
“…The vanquished opponent of many winters past lay encased in the blue glacier ice…”
The view looking back up towards the glacier and the Goat Rocks is awe inspiring, making me feel small and insignificant, like a bug about to be crushed under a giant’s heel. Huge cathedral like spires rise black against the skyline, jagged and gnarled like a shattered fortress of old. The vanquished opponent of many winters past lay encased in the blue glacier ice crumpled up in frozen waves at the base of these grim parapets. Shattered rock dots its surface blasted off from the sheer rock above. Hopefully, this description gives you the ominous feel of what it was like to stand here…It’s not all rainbows and flowers, folks…
The sun cupped surface of the snow makes it easy to quickly get across, making perfect steps in the snowfield, and we pick our way across to the other side. We’ve now only traveled 1.44 miles to be at the other side of this huge cirque.
“… it’s impossible to see the bottom, as if it’s tucked back under itself…”
Looking up the hill from where we stand now, we pick a spot to go straight up, staying to the left of a snowfield we can see about mid-way up. It looks from here that if we can make that snowfield the rest will be relatively easy, so we begin picking our way up over loose sand and rock. It’s steep, for sure, and after only about 10 minutes of climbing, we reach the first snow patch, and looking back down slope to where we stood earlier, it’s impossible to see the bottom, as if it’s tucked back under itself.
We cross another steep snowfield, kick stepping our way straight up, then make our way to the top of the ridge. It’s a relief to finally reach the top, and we stop for a bit to rest, and look ahead to our next obstacles…
“…ok, according to spell check, that word “steepled”, I just made up…”
The top here is rounded and wide and from here we can look back towards where we came from, the notch we first started at looks far away now. To the south we can see the snow covered peak of Mt. Adams, SW to Mt. St. Helens, and north to Mt. Rainier. Continuing looking north we can see the way we have to go. Many peaks and dips on this ridge, all the way to Old Snowy, and some of them look formidably steep…We may not be able to go up and over all of them, may have to skirt their base, for some of those peaks look pretty steepled from here…(ok, according to spell check, that word “steepled”, I just made up…). Besides all of that, it still feels good to be here, at the 7300ft level on this ridge, only 1.9 miles in so far. It’s now 10:30am, and it’s taken us 2 hours just to get here…
“…The front side is sheer, and from its crest, it drops steeply down to the McCall Glacier hundreds of feet below…”
Following the ridge, we come to the next incline, and from a distance, the surface seems to be all one smooth, easy to negotiate rock, but once there, it becomes a jumbled and tangled collection of loose rock and boulders, most blackened on the surface by some kind of fungus or mold, making it look as if they had recently been scorched by fire. Now on top, we drop off the back side steeply, as if we’re climbing down off of a 20 foot bench, over large boulders that have broken off the north side of this rise in the ridge line, and on to the next one. At least, the next one has a name… The peak we’re now looking at is Ives Peak, and the original plan was to scale this on our way to Old Snowy, but…Looking at it from the south side it looks pretty daunting, like a petrified tidal wave at its peak, rising above the ridge here, and it’s backside has a long drawn out hump, with a snowfield at the base of the low spot, an obvious way over the back of this peak. The front side is sheer, and from its crest, it drops steeply down to the McCall Glacier hundreds of feet below. No going around that way, so we make our way around the backside of the peak, to cross above the snowfield.
“Whoa! I almost caused a rock slide!”
To get there, we have to cross a large talus field of rocks ranging in size from footstools to large trashcan size. Side hilling across these, I only get about 35 feet into the boulder field when I step on a rock that shifts, as do rocks 10 feet above me. I freeze, carefully watching the rocks above me to make sure they don’t continue to move. I fear that if I dislodge the one that I’ve got a foot on, the whole hillside will come down, like pulling an apple from the bottom of a carefully stacked display at the grocery store…Not good. Cursing, I yell out to the guys behind me, “Whoa! I almost caused a rock slide! We’re gonna have to be careful crossing this field!”
Looking ahead, I can see we still have a hundred feet or so to go, and short of going all the way to the bottom, to skirt the snowfield I’ve got my eye set on, there really is no other way to go. Carefully shifting my weight once again onto the rocks ahead of me, and watching the uphill ones as well, I step out onto the rocks, with a lot more caution…It’s nerve wracking to say the least, but all 3 of us make it safely across to the snowfield, which didn’t look any steeper than the one we crossed earlier today, but it is…And, I only try kicking one or two steps into it, and decide this is waaay too dicey, one slip here, and you’ll likely slide right into the jumbled mass of boulders at its run out, which would surely scuff you up…
“…That works, even if it too, has a certain pucker factor…”
Again, I call out to the guys, “Nope! This isn’t gonna work at all! Too steep, and I can’t kick good steps, pretty icy underneath, we’ll have to go down and around!” So, we back up slightly, to get around the bottom of this icy patch, side hill again through the loose rock, to a point where it looks safer to kick step our way straight up the snowfield. That works, even if it too, has a certain pucker factor, just can’t think about slipping and falling, that wouldn’t be acceptable…Finally, we’re around the back side of Ives Peak, and as we once again side hill, we reach a clearly defined climbers trail in the loose scree that points to the top of the peak! We put it up to a vote, whether or not we want to go ahead and summit Ives Peak, as it looks pretty easy from the north side, but no…Our already tired feet and backs from the constant side hilling on loose rock, and the fact that we can see we still have a ways to go, make the decision easy to make…Its forward to Old Snowy. We’ve only come 3.17 miles to here, and there’s still a lot to go…
Dropping downhill along ridge from the shoulder of Ives Peak, we reach a low point, and can look down into the valley floor below us, decidedly different than the shattered red and blackened rock we’re travelling on now, as it is green and flat, and the PCT is visible below, like a well-worn ant trail. In fact, we can see some multi colored ants on the route now. The good part of all this is, we have a bail out point now, so if the going gets too tough, we can head downhill to reach the trail.
We’re seeing glimpses now of other boot prints that have come this way, probably from the PCT and Old Snowy, on their way over to summit Ives Peak, which gives us hope that perhaps it will soon be over, this off trail scramble that has really worn us down.
We round another battered small peak that is too steep to summit, go around a trailing edge of ridge that leads downhill, and we see another peak looming in front of us. We’re now at the 3.7 mile mark, and it’s disappointing to see another small peak that we have to negotiate around to get to Old Snowy, but at this point, there’s nowhere to go but straight ahead, se we keep to the east side of this narrow knife edge ridge, and once around it, we drop down quickly to another small saddle, where a large cairn sits. Ahead lays the south side of Old Snowy, with a small arch at the top, like a doorway enticing you onward.
“…Look at those crazy SOB’s!”” Hard to argue with that sentiment, I guess…”
Finally, we reach the arch over very steep rock and loose sand. Thankfully, the rock here is consolidated, so there are good places to step up on, and grab ahold of, so it doesn’t take us long to reach it. We’ve been looking over our shoulders now for the last hour, watching the wind blow in more weather, a dense fog that seems to swallow all the peaks we just passed. The swirling fog ebbs and flows over the valley far below, and we can no longer make out anything around us south, except for the gray. The urgency of our trek is evident, for as I look at the pictures of the day, they became less and less as the day wore on, and by the time we reached Old Snowy, there are only a couple to document the fact that we were there. At least, we thought we were on top, but this proves to be a false summit, the true summit is a little bit more up a narrow ridge that skirts a large snowfield. The top is now populated with people, who have come up from the PCT side. One more obstacle…Again, we’ll have to kick step our way across another steep snowfield to reach the ridge to the top. By now, we don’t even think about it, just sigh, and start out across the snow. As we do, it’s hard not to notice that a few people have stopped doing what they were doing, and come down the ridge a ways to watch our crossing. I don’t hear it, but Brian says, “Did you hear what they said?” Nope…Didn’t hear anything. He said, “I heard one guy say to the other, “Look at those crazy SOB’s!”” Hard to argue with that sentiment, I guess…
“…or some other equally bizarre augmentation…”
When we reach the man that had come over to watch us, he asked as we got near, “where did you come from?” “Cold Lake”, I replied, and I could tell by the puzzled look on his face he had never heard of it before. So we told him where it was located at, and how we had gotten there, and he gave us a look that seemed to indicate that we had potatoes growing out of our ears, or some other equally bizarre augmentation…
We stop for a few minutes to take hero shots on top of Old Snowy, all surrounded by snow…Stop me if you’ve heard a similar rendition before…Then, down the ridge to the PCT! Heading down this spine to the junction with the PCT, which starts at the high point here on the shoulder of Old Snowy, the trail is created over large pieces of shale or slate, that as you step on them, they sound like glass plates breaking. The way switchbacks back and forth a few times to get lower in elevation, then meets up with the PCT at 4.8 miles. This is the newer section of PCT, created to side hill below the Old Snowy peak route, so if you wanted to reach the peak from say Snowgrass Flats, you would have to head back up hill from this junction.
Our feet are ecstatic to finally be on trail, and it’s a great feeling to not have to worry about the next route up and over. Simple. Just follow the well-trod path in front of us, and enjoy the scenery around us!
Our plan is to camp in the McCall Basin, which we can see from the trail, sitting below the snowfields of Old Snowy, and it’s a temptation to just head straight down into the basin from here, cutting off miles of trail, but…Then we would miss the opportunity to travel the Knives edge of the PCT, this section that we’re currently on. It travels up and down the narrow ridgeline here, hence its name, and it’s pretty spectacular for the views.
Heading down this spine to the junction at Elk Pass, is a narrow trail that seems to traverse the ridge for a long ways, and you can see across the valley below us to the west towards Goat Lake, and Johnson Peak, and looking back south to the ridge above the Packwood Glacier, we can make out another herd of Mountain Goats, just above the snowline. Many people come up here to see Old Snowy, and walk the Knife edge, and we can see why, it is scenic and wide open. We reach Elk Pass at 6.5 miles, and a trail junction that leads NW towards Packwood Lake. From this open ridge line we can also look down into the open, stepped meadows below us, that we will have to cross once we round a point ahead, and we can see a small lake in a meadow. Brian notes that it might be a good place to stop, as we all are getting tired, so continuing on, we look for it, and reach it at 7.6 miles, and 6076 foot elevation. Dropping our packs here, it’s easy to see why many a traveler along the PCT has stopped here. Its flat, with spots for a few tents, and it sits near the small tarn we could see from up on the ridge. Also to the west, is a group of trees that provide shelter and wind break.
“…as if they were running some midnight steeplechase…”
After setting up camp, we collect our water for the night from a nearby stream, not wanting to drink out of the shallow tarn. Dinner and good conversation follow, and then turn in for the night.Sometime during the night, we hear the unmistakable sound of elk running, then, “Sploosh!” several of them running through the lake near our camp, as if they were running some midnight steeplechase. Listening intently after that, we couldn’t hear if anything was chasing them, or not.