Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Year Of No Summer

2011 St. Helens, Part 1
Well, I had to go somewhere, sometime.

First we have a wet winter. Fair amount of cold, lots of rain, a few snow days here in the lowlands, but low snow levels overall.

Along Johnston Ridge, early afternoon. No one hiking.

Then around March the convoy arrived. The weather got marginally warmer here, but not drier, and in the mountains the snow hit with fury. We ended with snow levels two to three times normal.

I stopped to talk to a tree, but it was too depressed.

Gradually the weather warmed, but too gradually. Ultimately it took until the third week of June before there were any warm and dry stretches of sunny weather. I couldn't get out anywhere else, so decided to go and take a look at a place I'd checked out last spring, also a bad year.

A lonely trail marker was happy to see someone, even me.

This is in an area on the far western side of the St Helens National Volcanic Monument, out where no one ever goes. And with good reason, now. The trails are all shot.

Two ridges over, there's another one, all alone, very faint.

In 15 years of exploring this area I've never seen a trail crew. Back in 1996 the trails were great. About 2002 I even hiked around the mountain in one day (twice). Roughly 33 miles (53 km). Not easy. Not hard. Mostly long. Somewhat lumpy but not too hard, other than being a long day.

Snow all over, patchy here, heavier elsewhere.

Then there was a wet winter. One that took out six highway bridges in the general area. Things got worse.

Mt Rainier got hit during another wet winter
A steady rain began falling around 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 5 and continued through mid-afternoon on Tuesday, November 7, 2006. Varying amounts of precipitation reached the ground throughout the park from Carbon River to Ohanapecosh. Nearly 18 of rain inches was recorded at Paradise. As the ground was already saturated from a week of drizzle, rain and snow, most of the water flowed over roadways and across the landscape into the rivers.

The trail down to the plains below the volcano.

St Helens got hit just as hard but no one lives there, and hardly anyone hikes there, comparatively speaking. I've backpacked around the mountain a couple of times since, but ultimately decided that it isn't worth it any more.

Mid-June and the trees were just starting to leaf out.

Many sections of several trails were wiped away. Near June Lake, on the southeast side, where a small trickle of a stream goes under a road, the flood simply punched through the road and left a rubble-filled trench behind.

Many of the ravines that the Loowit Trail crosses (this is the trail that goes around the mountain) suddenly got much deeper, much steeper, and in at least two locations, impassable.

Makes for interesting photos though.

And it's gotten worse since. Part of the problem isn't just the erosion but the quality of the land. Literally.

The soil is a mix of boulders, cobbles, pebbles, gravel, sand, and powder. When damp it's fine. As in "so fine". It makes a good tread, is clean, and never gummy.

Down lower, after 3 p.m., things began to clear some.

But later in the season it dries. Flat portions of trail don't change much, other than becoming dusty.

Inclined portions of trail don't change much either.

Where the trail switches back and forth into and out of ravines (now become canyons), everything changes.

Spirit Lake at far left, clouds ahead.

There, the whole landscape becomes a thought experiment. Parts of it are always letting go and sliding, dropping, falling away, shooting up huge clouds of dust.

Put your foot down and you never know how much of the mountainside might suddenly decide to change its address.

Across the shore of Spirit Lake, toward Windy Ridge.

Things become hypothetical wherever the trail has to be redefined each year by the feet of hikers. Like going across ravines. The soil is so dry and there is so little holding it in place that it's easy to get trapped in a place that only slides away when you step on it.

This used to clear by mid-May. April 30 some years.

Or if someone else is there with you, triggering a slide becomes a communal experience.

And now the whole mountain is so chewed up that a person can't really go much of anywhere. You can hike out and back to some spots but anyone trying to go around the mountain on what used to be the trail needs to have scrambling skills.

And not the learn-as-you-go kind that I have.

Heading toward the mountain, the falls reveal themselves.

Which is OK in its own way.

Because if you are a loony galoot like me you enjoy being all alone in quiet places.

You see more elk this way, or coyotes, or big cat prints.

Loowit Falls, the older but smaller one.

And fewer people, though generally people you meet a few miles from the nearest trailhead are pretty nice.

Surprise! A happy little frog sat for a portrait.

So anyway, this was worth a shot. I'd been out to the eastern side of the mountain last spring, trying out my home-made hammock, and there was enough snow to be a little problem, but mainly then it was wind.

So I got to the ridge overlooking Castle Lake then and heard a waterfall off to the south, and thought this year I'd go back prepared to sleep on the ground and see where that waterfall was and explore the basin around the lake for a couple of days, and generally take it easy.

Loowit Falls and its nameless sibling.

The weather didn't help a bunch. The fog at first was fun. It didn't clear. It was supposed to. The weather was supposed to be clear for at least four days, but the first day stayed dark gray trending toward lighter gray later on, and then dark gray again in the evening.

Overnight, though there was still no rain, the fog came back, wet this time.

Closer view of the right hand falls.

Inside my little plastic experimental tent it wasn't so bad. Condensation everywhere. On the inside of the tent. On the outside of the tent. On the ground inside the tent. On the ground outside the tent.

All over. But I put out enough heat to stay dry. Getting up during the night I almost got knocked over by the weight of the damp fog drifting along, and picked up a layer of wetness, but overall it wasn't bad.

The westward end of the Pumice Plain.

The second day things were a little brighter but not much. I hiked over to what used to be a fun part of the trail, where it goes switching back and forth down a long, long way to the north fork of the Toutle River.

There it used to be about a 10-foot (3 m) drop to the river bed, then a step down, and across.

Looking back east. Mine were the only footprints.

When the 2006 rains came through they scoured out this place. The 10-foot drop became at least 50 feet (15 m), and it was spooky.

The sides were vertical. It looked like someone had worked over the winter to cut a precise trench through the area. You came to the edge and then it was all air. A straight drop to the bottom.

Literally straight, not kind-of, not almost, not sort-of, not really steep. Vertical. Like it was cut.

Evening begins arriving.

So that's still there. You can get around it but you have to spend several hours detouring through brush, vines, thorns, midget trees, and all sorts of other fun.

But it's interesting to look at, especially if you know what it used to be like, and you're not going into it.

Nearly sunset. Time to find a camp.

And then, that second day, I went up to the lake, which we'll get to later.

Mt Rainier November 2006 Flooding

Previously: "Not Sleeping In The Air "

Olympic Snowpack is 39,100 Percent of Normal!


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

2010 Pasayten, Part 6

The run for home.

Morning on the wrong trail.

So it seemed like a good morning. After camping in a small spot right by the bridge (see last post) and not being eaten by anything, I set off for a nice walk down the ridge above Canyon Creek.

Backtracking after near-death fun.

The morning was cool but nice.

After a bit, there was the spur trail to the left, going up and eventually dead-ending somewhere after the dashed lines on the map gave up trying.

North side of Canyon Creek.

So I stayed on course. The trail descended at a shallow angle and all was fine with the world and everything.

The feared rain didn't come.

Then there were a few lumps, and the trail narrowed some, and seemed to have a thicker covering of twigs and detritus than it should. But it was the right place.

Because there was no other trail.

Nope. All dry here too.

And then after some more walking the trail got really lumpy, but what can you say? The rocks were part of the mountain, and the trail was on the mountain, so it had to be lumpy sometimes.

All was well.

OK, so what? Nothing here but the sign.

And then there was no more trail. Not the no-more-trail where it evaporates, or splits into 10 trail-lets, or goes under the snow. Nope.

In this case part of the mountainside was gone. Not too much, only about 30 feet (10m). It was a chute, cleaned down to mineral soil, right down the side of the mountain, ending in the rocks below, at the edge of the creek.

Shucks. Sometimes it's like that.

Plan B: Turn around and retrace the route for the last three days.

Plan A: Cross blank, empty space and pick up the trail on the other side without dying (which would muss up the entire experience).

I'm guessing this was Crater Mountain.

So, after crossing this 45-degree chute that was barely yielding enough to allow minuscule footholds after long and careful kicking, doing that with a full pack, sweating droplets of blood, and reaching the other side trembling with fear, and...

After not having lost footing, slid 300 feet (90m) or more downslope, under a log (maybe, or maybe getting decapitated instead), and crashing on the pointy rocks, well guess what?

Fooled ya!

No trail there either.

OK, here's the junction. Main trip almost done.

Across on the other side of that bald chute there was a knob big enough for three or four people to sit on, and around beyond that was vertical cliffs.

I still do not know where the trail might once have been, but there I was, all smarty-pants and brave, and screwed. Because I had to go back.

Not too bad, eh? Just retrace a few feet and get the eff out of there, but no.

Crossing that smooth, bare, almost rock-hard soil going back was also going upslope a bit. Just enough. Just enough to make it almost impossible.

Then my camera fell off.

Day hikers love stuff like this.

Yeah, right. Fell off. Bloop.

One end of the strap came out of the plastic buckle and while I was standing there supported by my toes, which were stuck into the only soft soil this side of death, shaking with fear, my camera fell off. And just sat there. And did not roll crazily down the side of the mountain.

"Jeez," I was thinking, "that was lucky. But on the other hand, maybe that's also the last of my luck."

So I had to let go with both hands and reattach the camera and tie a knot in the strap and sweat more blood for a while, and then failed twice in finding a reasonable way out of there.

You know (maybe), getting halfway out there and realizing it's no good? And then going backwards, squeaking with fear?

For a while it seemed like the only way not to die was to go down to the creek and hike out along that, miserably, forever, and maybe break one or two legs doing it, but even though the slope was covered with trees it was almost a vertical drop to the creek.

There were a couple of bushes in the chute, and I finally managed to make my way back by skirting just beneath them (holding two trekking poles in one hand -- hey, don't forget that) and grabbed at them a few times as I went by.

You know the kind of deal where one slip is your last? This was it.

Good places to immortalize yourself.

Super crapola.

That lumpy, dirty, unmaintained trail seemed really nice when I got back to it. I almost kissed it and bought it a beer.

I looked and looked and even went downslope a little, in case there was a switchback that had gotten overgrown or covered with duff, but there was nothing there. No trail.

I have no clue what happened to the original trail. It just got erased somehow. Still a giant mystery in my tiny mind.

Flats where Granite and Canyon creeks become Ruby Creek.

And yet.

You know how you find really strange things in strange places? Well there was one of those too.

While I'd been on the wrong side of the intersection so to speak, perched on the side of that little knob that had some soft soil on it, and had been looking around to the other side of it I saw footprints.

This is true.

Going right over the top of it. Or rather coming over it, from the side with the cliffs to the side with the smooth chute and what was left of the trail.

And the bridge. Nothing fancy but keeps your feets dry.

There were three or four prints. Boot prints. Tromp, tromp, tromp, angling down across the mossy top of this knob, and that was it. Pretty fresh too.

There is a saying for this: WTF?

Someone smarter and braver and way more accomplished than I had come through there, from the other direction, had crossed this knob, and then had gone off into empty space, in a straight line.

Or maybe he had been a bigger loser and the ravens were down there at the bottom pecking his rotting eyeballs out at that very moment.

First you overshoot, then backtrack down the highway.

I won't ever know because obviously that was not the right place for me, so after escaping I clomped back up the trail to the last turn, stuck my nose into the map for a few minutes, and took what obviously was the wrong turn.


After five minutes or so of going upslope the "wrong" trail curved right, to the west, and a bit later there was a faint trail to the left, going upslope. It was the real "dotted-line" trail. I let it run off wherever it went and stayed with the one I was on.

After a bit more forest hiking it's back to the first campsite.

The day turned warm.

Everything was cozy.

The trail was clean and smooth and wide and I was not lying on some rocks whimpering, and dying from the destruction of way too many important internal organs than would have been good for my digestion.

The trail sloped down gently, toward the west.

Looks ratty, bad photos, but you get some feel of the place.

So I'm a dope.

But a live one.

So I'm still here annoying people.

Too bad, eh?

Devils club. Spiky stems, umbrella-like leaves

Down low, where things get seriously flat, the two upstream creeks meet. Canyon Creek and Granite Creek end and Ruby Creek takes over. Shortly beyond, it flows into Ross Lake.

On the flats, in the shade, I had lunch and admired the non-homicidal landscape. A real treat.

Still dim during the morning inside the canyon.

All too soon came the end of the trail, and then it was back onto the highway to backtrack around half a mile (0.8 km) to the trail along Panther Creek. A few miles along it, a turn to the west, and you're back at a big campground with lots of parking.

Panther Creek in the morning gloom.

But first, one last night. Back at the place where I'd been the first night.

One of the fun parts of hammock camping is that you can stay places no one else can. This was well above the trail, and not visible from it, and just about perfect for a hammock.

Just so you know. (Campsite in next image.)

There was no brush. It was dry. There were mosquitoes but they were everywhere. Since this spot was a good 100 feet (30 m) above the water, it was much warmer there, and quieter.

Hammock camping lets you avoid obvious places like this.

The next day I passed one of three official campsites along this trail, glad that I didn't have to stay in places like that.

One of the other ones was midway along this trail, at a place called "Fourth of July Camp", but there is no water there at all, and it's still out in the open, though it is high up.

One of the peaks of North Cascades National Park.

A third place is on the south side, where Thunder Creek flows toward Colonial Creek campground, where the world turns back into pavement.

More of the same, slightly to the west.

So there I was, after having planned a long trip, gotten wetted out the first day, sprinkled on the second, seen clouds come in the third, having woken up the fourth day to see fog and mistaking it for more rain, and then having hiked out, and then the weather was clear, hot and dry for a week.

Hey. I am a dope.

Google's idea of the landscape.


Part 5

Part 4

Parts 1 - 3


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

2010 Pasayten, Part 5

Doofus bails.
Morning at Sky Pilot Pass.

It seems completely irrational now, but after three nights, some rain showers, and waking up to fog, I somehow decided to bag most of the hike I had planned and turn back.

Someone got up early.

I was in a really delicious little spot I'd camped at twice before, below the trail, with good hammocking trees, a tipped over tree good for hanging food, and a little creek splashing downhill.

Looking south along "hard-to-follow" (Trail 754).

But somehow I got spooked. One of those things. So I turned around and spent a half hour or so on day four trudging back up to the top of Sky Pilot Pass, and then turned left, to the south, and started heading back. This was a different trail, though.

Looking back at dreariness.

There was no sign there but it was obviously the right trail because it was the only one, and well worn. And right exactly where it should have been. The weather did not look good even though it was a bright morning, because everything was in deep fog, and it was chilly.

After a couple of hours the day became un-dismal.

After a mile or so of walking along the ridge-top the fog lifted and I was on a long stretch of what in the Southeast they call a bald. Which was nice. Still foggy all around and below, but clear and sunny on top, with a good trail.

Ditto, with pointy things.

Then the trail disappeared. Just like that. Right out in the open. After maybe a half hour of backtracking, looking all over, checking the map several times, and trying several different directions, I decided on doing the only logical thing left.

This must be Jack Mountain, to the west.

Which was to descend along the western slope of the ridge. If there was a trail it had to be there, and my course would have to intercept it. This was from the high point of the ridge, called Center Mountain, so there was no other way to go but down, if I could find it.

Much, much later. Cascade Creek.

About a hundred feet down (30 m) I saw the trail coming over to me from the right, and after that it was a mostly easy hike down 2000 feet (610 m) through quiet woods, though the trail obviously had not been maintained in years. Every now and then I just guessed which way to go and always ended up back on the trail.

Ever wonder what the trees think about?

The trail wasn't washed out or covered in piles of logs, but was sprinkled with years of dropped branches and constricted every now and then by scratchy shrubs.

The forest provided warmth at first, and then after the day heated, it supplied shade. Though the whole trail (#754) was only seven miles (11 km) the last third was all overgrown, switchbacks descending steeply.

Finally, a sign, saying nothing I need to know.

Eventually there was a stream on the right or west side. This was Cascade Creek.

Shortly before getting to it there is an opening right above it, which provided a view down to the creek, but at "grade", where there probably was once a bridge, there wasn't.

An easy crossing, but for a half mile or so (0.8 km) below the ford the landscape is all toppled trees jumbled with rocks and the leftovers from a couple of slumps that may have been caused by flooding.

You have to just keep heading downstream, and eventually the trail reappears.

And then there's this.

Finally I saw a sign, which didn't help too much because it's hard to tell what trails it refers to, but the trail flattens right out and widens into what was obviously once a road. And it's always downstream, so no matter what, you follow the water.

Along here I saw a small wagon with a pair of boots in the back and the remains of a few tools. I couldn't figure out who would leave boots uncovered out in the open, but then I don't get paid to think, so hey.

Which turns out to be (guess).

And then there was a dumpy little cabin, marking a mining claim. It may be left over from a much earlier claim because it obviously was not built recently. Sort of strange, because no one was around, though I went over for a peek and a couple of photos.

Which is not all that romantic, or inspiring.

The cabin was dark inside and the second floor is not really there any more. Going around to the back I saw that the building is all open on top on that side, so maybe it's more of a shed than a place to stay. Vaguely quaint though.

But has a good bridge to help tired hikers along.

Eventually there is a nice bridge to the other side of the stream, which at this point has become Canyon Creek and is headed in the direction of State Highway 20. Another half hour or so later there is a more traditional wood-and-rock hiker-type bridge.

Later comes a more typical hiker's bridge.

It was getting late enough that I stopped there, washed up, ate, and ended up hanging my hammock near the ramp to this bridge.

This bridge is old style but newly built. The remains of the old bridge are right beside it, and there is a small flat spot just big enough to camp, but it was noisy and humid there, and I was skittish about sleeping so close to the trail.

Which I camped near and left the next morning.

You never know what might be walking by overnight, and I had to hang my food fairly close by, and low, too, but aside from the sound of the stream rushing by the night was quiet.

From that crossing the trail climbs steeply and runs along the side of the canyon high above the stream, continuing to follow it toward Ross Lake.