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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Winchester Mountain July 5-7, 2010





[Note the Winchester area is not included in the American Alps proposal. Lands from Church Mountain to closely W of Tomyhoi Peak are part of a conversation effort called CASCADES WILD.]


I’m going to keep this trip report brief since it involves a bailout, disappointment and things I’m not used to in the North Cascades.
The plan was to climb Mount Larrabee (aka Red Mountain) last week, but the weather was lousy and stubborn, and thus my departure kept getting pushed back back back. Finally it appeared the big break would happen Monday. So there I was Monday early, headed for the backcountry! Only it was raining so hard at times on the drive N that visibility went to zero on a number of occasions. Indeed, I found myself napping in the car at the trailhead for an hour waiting for the rain to let up. Finally it did, so I saddled up and began the approach. I should note this would be my first full climbing pack: all of the (heavy) gear on-board (shovel, crampons, axe, full fuel, etc)—so it was a hefty 50lb pack. The first couple miles were easy, then came the traverse section. I had thought it would be a mile of benches, but instead it was 3 miles, 1.5 of which was below huge sagging cornices off Winchester Mountain, and above incredibly steep snow/rock. I got about .3 miles out on the traverse and it started raining. Hard.
Cornices were breaking and avalanching all over, and my footing and footwork were terrible. I could barely make out the route through the shifting mists and driving rain, and right there, on a 35 degree slope with my pack trying to pull me off the hill, I realized I might not make it. I decided I could, with severe discomfort from my injured foot and sore knees, make it to the other side of the traverse, and maybe to high camp, but the thought of returning two days later under 80 heat was too much: I turned back. I felt so weak, not just out of shape, but out of mental shape too. As I worked my way back to easier terrain, I decided to climb Winchester Mountain. There is a lookout at the top, and from what I could tell, I was the only person on the mountain, so why not? It would offer shelter from this weather, and the blistering sun expected to show up. I have been to Winchester some four times over the past 20 years, so it didn’t really hold much for me in terms of mountaineering, so I was less than enthused to be honest.
My mountaineering interest was piqued when I found myself on more super-steep snow slopes—this climb was more difficult than I remembered! Oh wait: then I was in my 30s and had a much lighter pack…
I felt some excitement and challenge, and then I was at the lookout. The Mt. Baker (Climbing) Club has done a remarkable job restoring the facility. It was as nice as Hidden Lake, except for mice.
Yep, instead of goats, or bears, or some other cool fauna, I was stuck with mice. Many many mice. There was mice feces covering EVERY surface in the lookout—tables, chairs, cooking area, stove, BED, everywhere….
I finally convinced myself I could clean up enough to make it work, and began to remove the mattress. This action revealed momma mouse nursing a whole bunch of little ones, and a few other mice ran around my feet. And so much rice crap it made me squint with squeamishness. Lovely. So I moved the mattress back, and let the mice know I’d camp outside, and they could stay inside. So I set up the tent outside and made the best of it.

Mice weren’t the only ones not cleaning up. Every ski party (about half-dozen) that has come through since Winter has defecated right outside the lookout on the snowfield. It was a mine field of disgusting. Sacrilege! Finding clean drinking water would take me out on the huge summit cornice—very dangerous, but there was no other choice. I felt so let down, by myself and my fellow human. I would NEVER be so selfish, or so unconcerned with others—common courtesy alone would dictate these people take some responsibility…
And so it is with the profusion of high tech ski gear that the back country is not as protected as it used to be, even 10 years ago. I see there is a new usage challenge to consider as we work to protect and enhance our North Cascades.
I should note I haven’t been to the lookout since 1998, so I did have some new experiences—beyond the bad ones.
You see, I was there, living on the top of a mountain in the North Cascades, for three days and two nights. And I saw summer arrive…

One of the best experiences one can have in the mountains is watching the end of a storm, and the way the clouds and mists lift and shift, revealing first mountains close by, then mountains in the middle distance, and finally, mountains as far as the eye can see. Ocean too—I looked down upon the Straits of Georgia and out to the Pickets in the opposite direction. Awesome!

The cloud lift really was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, as evidenced by the many photos I took. I was in a rainbow, and then I was in alpenglow. Water is so powerful. The number of waterfalls, and the intensity of their flows as the weather warmed over the three days was impressive—what a collection of wonderous sounds. Oh, I did have three nice wildlife experiences: ptarmigans each night with their raucous cries, a grouse that tried to court me (full plumage display), and two spirit birds that tried to steal the tent.


I kept expecting hikers, skiers and others to show up: the lack of courtesy shown by the people who preceded me had me convinced the place is overrun, but not so—the steep snow kept humans at bay, so I had the summit of a mountain to myself for three glorious days. I saw some folks mill about Twin Lakes (covered in snow still, just the rims melting out), but nobody wanted to take on the steep snows and cornices.


I am again humbled and thankful for the experience. And lest I communicate that this bailout was wimpy, or otherwise sounding negative for the lack of “high mountain experience” remember this is the North Cascades. Even the small peaks have character . My ego was boosted a bit on the hike out. After some nice route finding and steep snow down-climbing, I was on the road, less than a mile from the car. A young couple was hiking up to visit Twin Lakes, and it looked like they were ready for a picnic. Flip flops, swim suits, beach towels and sunglasses. Hilarious! They took one look at me, with full boots/gaiters/gear and cautiously asked “How far to the lake”? CLASSIC! I responded as dead-pan as possible that the lakes were only about a mile and half, but it was another thousand feet up, and the lakes were under a meter of snow. It wasn’t five more minutes and they were driving past me on the way out as I stripped my boots and clothes off. I saw numerous other parties in automobiles sightseeing and looking for lakes to picnic at. North Cascades!



[note: also saw border patrol there, so the warnings issued are quite real. Snowpack is about average/”normal” for this time of year, and now melting fast—about a foot a day in this heat. 87F in Seattle as I type this.]

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