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Monday, June 14, 2010

Early Winters Headwaters, June 2010

Harvey Manning once said that to really experience the mountains, or actually anything in life, it is best done “at human speed”. That is, to best appreciate something, do it at the pace of a walk, not at the pace of mechanization, be it a motor bike or an airplane. He noted reality tends to become a blur when engaged in mechanical travel, and to this I agree. I take that concept a step further, preferring to spend at least two nights in a given place to really get to know it. Since I began my backcountry travels and explorations, I have determined that getting to a summit isn’t the reason to go to a place, the reason to go is to BE in that place. And to best understand even a sliver of that locale’s reality requires at least two cycles of the sun.

A mission of better understanding the where’s, the what’s and the why’s of the American Alps Legacy Project provided the impetus to watch the sun twice rise and set on the Washington Pass area: Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires—the headwaters of Early Winters Creek, a principal tributary of the Methow River; and the headwaters of Bridge Creek, a principal tributary of the Stehekin River.
Truth be told, this is only the second time I’ve ever been to these icons of the Methow Mountains because I prefer REAL Wilderness. The proximity of Highway 20 diminishes the backcountry experience due to increased machine noise, and of course the large number of people the road brings to this otherwise remote and spectacular landscape. And so I have avoided the area save a trip 15 years ago in November when the temperature hovered around 10 degrees below zero F.

This time, I’d be one of those using the road for quick access—you see, I’m in the worst shape I’ve been in since 2002 (car-bike accident) thanks to a cool, wet Spring. So a short hike was called for—indeed, the healthy snowpack, my physical ability, fine weather, and American Alps research combined to make this a very attractive alternative, despite the crowds I would see, and the motor bikes I would hear. How silly of me to have not visited Early Winters more often in early summer…

Many in the NCCC are opposed to overflights of National Parks and other protected areas (notably Wilderness, but not confined to just those two), and so it was a couple weeks ago that some of us overflew Washington Pass as part of an aerial evaluation of the American Alps areas of interest. It was a wonderful experience, but it went so fast. Too fast. On this visit, it took less than 45 minutes of humping my full pack over snow-covered slabs to say aloud “This is so much better than the overflight”—nothing like having multi-hued (mainly salmon colors of red, orange and gold) spires of Golden Horn batholith rising thousands of feet straight up to the sky.




I love high country exploration in June: tons of snow, overland travel is usually easier, water is easy to come by, bugs are suppressed, peaks are dramatically contrasted (color, texture and appearance), the sounds of water and life roaring near and far, and the ability to camp in otherwise un-campable areas.

The peaks of this area are profoundly spectacular. Much like the Dolomites of the European Alps, or dare I say the Concordia area of the Himalaya, the (GH batholith) rock formations are remarkably vertical and colorful. And not just one or two peaks—there are several waves of mountains, indeed, all of the Methow Mountains—that exhibit the unique character that makes this place World Class, and worthy of recognition as National Park or Wilderness. Even though Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires get all the publicity due to the highway wending along their bases, the real beauty is in the integrated landscape—the relation of high peaks and low valleys that create, then distribute life-giving water. So many rivers! The Twisp, the Bridge-Stehekin, the Early Winters-Methow, the Granite-Skagit. My favorite, and what I came to appreciate the most over the three days (because of the three days) was the collection of Early Winters Creek below the fangs of Kangaroo Ridge.





I learned that the S end of Kangaroo Ridge actually forms the headwaters of the Twisp River. The pine forests along the base of the crags were that much greener thanks to the snow and the color of the rock. I actually glimpsed the geological process that laid down this rock 47 million years ago—the direct connection between far away Golden Horn, and Wamihaspi (the peak I was living on), and Silver Star many miles to the East. This whole realization, recognition and awareness came to me in the first day I was there—I love the time machine aspect of the North Cascades.


I was camped at 7,400’, a mere 400 vertical feet from the summit, debating whether to summit on the first day, or wait until Saturday. I had intended to camp in a nice flat basin, but avalanche danger was actually high, so (thanks to snow) I was able to camp on the craggy ridge that connects S Early Winter Spire and Wamihaspi. I have pictures of the summit area of Wamihaspi “before” and “after” avalanches swept the mountain Friday afternoon between 3PM and 7PM—and with a huge cornice looming over the basin, it was a good campsite.



Here is the "before" shot--note the avalanches evident in the pic with the tent compared to this...






A good campsite became better thanks to my decision to summit on Saturday and stay two nights. Yes, I had considered bailing after one day, but just knew there’d be more to see, learn and experience by exercising some patience and “living at human speed”. As expected, I did see many many people. The advent and proliferation of ski technology has opened up the backcountry as never before. I visited with people from age 20 to age 60+, all out enjoying the North Cascades, and all quite proficient skiers. I think I counted 25 skiers over the weekend, and a few hikers/climbers too. Everyone supports the idea of increased protection for this area—some thought it was already Wilderness or Park.

The summit was more difficult than I figured. The huge cornice spanning from the true summit to the lower E summit was pretty exciting visually, some three to four meters high, especially on approach crossing steep snow that had been scrubbed by avalanches!



Indeed, the summit was so steep that I was turned back about 100 vertical feet short, but not so short that I did some extreme mixed climbing, hands seeking holds while my feet churned in near-vertical patches of snow, triggering avalanches that tumbled and roared down the cliffs below my feet…
Unnerving sounds to be sure, especially knowing that if the entire snowfield let go, I’d be tumbling right along. Nothing like the perspective a mortality-reminder (read: fear) those moments offer!
So I settled for the lower E summit and took in sweeping views from across the entire North Cascades. Wave after wave after seemingly endless wave of snowy peaks in every direction.





Once again I was impressed with how much farther the mountains extend to the E beyond what I consider the far E portion of the range! [see notes from 2007 Golden Horn visit] I was also impressed with the diversity of terrains, mountains, valleys and all the living things supported by this great range. The realization that the Twisp, Stehekin, Methow and Skagit Rivers radiate away from virtually a single point (Copper Point, just S of where I was, but not on the Skagit) was worth the trip alone.



Back at camp, I napped for a couple hours, mainly to keep out of the blistering sun. As with Friday, most everyone was gone by 5PM, or on their way out, and I was alone for the evening. Sadly for them, not a single party spent the night up in the high country, at least not human…
Not long after I returned to my favorite viewing perch, I saw a mountain goat about a kilometer away. I got all of my photo stuff going, cackling about how great the telephoto shots would be with the rugged peaks beyond. I snapped about 10 photos, then lost sight of the goat. Next thing I knew, Nanny was walking right in to camp, and there would be no need for telephoto anything. It was great—almost as if Nanny knew exactly where to stand to maximize the photo.






About 30 minutes later, along came her two kids—a yearling male and female. I’m not sure if the presence of so many people has resulted in these goats knowing to visit in search of mineral licks/lose their fear of humans, but Nanny seemed comfortable with me after a short time, and the kids eventually accepted me as well, at least with Nanny around. They ended up staying with me (or is that me with them) for about 16 hours—for only the third time in my life I was fortunate enough to live with mountain goats.


Like 2001, Nanny wanted nothing to do with the kids, and was quick to give them her horns if they tried to get close to her. Tough love in a tough landscape, for sure. It was fun, even humurous to watch the little ones spar, giving each other the horns. The male was usually the aggressor, but finally the young gal stood up for herself and gave him a good butt or two! Heck, the little guy even approached me (I was sitting down eating—better than teevee!), coming within a meter, and stamped his left front hoof to get me to move!
The youngsters (yearlings) were especially rambunctious--long after Nanny wandered off for the night they kept trying to come in to the tent. It got to the point I had to yell at them to "Go to bed!!" about 1:30 in the morning. Small though their horns might be, that's not a fun wake-up poke. Nanny's horns are a whole different story--she tried to get close a couple times, but I prefer my nature encounters to be bloodless, so I let her know I’d protect myself.



As the four of us watched the sunset together, eyeing the last two climbers scampering back down to their automobile, I was moved to consider once again why I do what I do: it takes AT LEAST two nights in a place to get to know it—I am so humbled and thankful for the opportunity. I’m sure glad I stayed that “extra” night, and will certainly return to better learn and know this place that needs our recognition and protection.
There has been much hand-wringing about the change in land-management for this area. Certainly there would be changes—that’s the whole point. Super-fund mine cleanups are underway within miles north and south of this area. Even folks with dogs are up in arms. Fact is, I believe most dog owners would prefer to experience goats and other wildlife in THEIR habitat—the alpine area that is the last remaining place in which wildthings can exist.
One would think being able to take your "best friend" along to 99% of
places in the woods is a good trade in exchange for the permanent protection of the remaining 1%--especially considering the opportunities offered by the North Cascades landscape! Hunting is another important aspect of this effort. Proper hunting has value for family and culture alike, and will be respected in most places. Of course, I’m confident the goats prefer a hunting-free National Park..



1 comment:

Tom Hammond said...

Note I changed the last sentence of the trip report to address more of the land-use concerns:

There has been much hand-wringing about the change in land-management for this area. Certainly there would be changes—that’s the whole point. Super-fund mine cleanups are underway within miles north and south of this area. Even folks with dogs are up in arms. Fact is, I believe most dog owners would prefer to experience goats and other wildlife in THEIR habitat—the alpine area that is the last remaining place in which wildthings can exist.
One would think being able to take your "best friend" along to 99% of
places in the woods is a good trade in exchange for the permanent protection of the remaining 1%--especially considering the opportunities offered by the North Cascades landscape! Hunting is another important aspect of this effort. Proper hunting has value for family and culture alike, and will be respected in most places. Of course, I’m confident the goats prefer a hunting-free National Park..