February has been a crazy month. I started a new job, we’ve been putting in some time prepping for our wedding this summer, and the weather has been abysmal. It has been tough to get outside. With the start of Boealps assured weekly adventures are in our future, but future adventures don’t exactly satisfy current needs. Luckily, we had been planning a trip to Hidden Lake Lookout for this weekend with a group of friends for a while now. I really needed it. I needed some long mountain slogging, good view looking, fun friend adventure time. This weekend came just in the nick of time and, true to mountain-adventure-form, didn’t go quite as planned.
The plan: to spend the night at Hidden Lake Lookout, a remote fire lookout in the North Cascades, which is open on a first come first serve basis. It is extremely scenic and therefore, extremely popular. In order to give ourselves an edge and claim spots in the lookout three of our friends took Friday off and headed up to the lookout early. The rest of the group, seven of us in total, planned to come up early in the morning on Saturday, meet up with them and have a raucous night perched high on top of the Cascades.
In order to get up there at a reasonable hour on Saturday we woke up at 4:00am. Our group of seven was split between two cars, the three skiers (Evan, Annie, and Chris) in Evan’s Subaru Sport and then us, Molly and Josh (aka Team Snowshoe) in the Tacoma. Despite it being super early we were surprisingly punctual, and were peeling onto I5 at 4:30. It was a long dark two and a half hour drive to Marblemount and from there a winding pavement to gravel to dirt road, heading towards the trailhead. Soon after hitting the dirt we also began to hit large patches of snow, our tires trapped in deep icy ruts. The Tacoma cleared the mound of snow between the ruts but after a couple of snow patches Evan pulled the Subaru over, deciding it had bottomed out enough. We piled the rest of their gear into the back of the truck, piled Chris on top of it and the rest of us squeezed into the cab, hollering back to Chris to see if he was ready. He had never been more ready. We continued on.
We were keeping our eyes open for other cars, because other cars meant other climbers who might be trying to snag our places in the lookout. We passed a very small little car pulled off to the side and estimated it couldn’t have carried more than two people. After navigating around some boulders we made it to the cut off and headed up towards the trailhead. Coming around a bend in the road a Jeep with three dudes standing next to it came into view and we all swore. They had skis and splitboards, which probably meant that they would, at least, move faster than team snowshoe. We tried to drive past them but the next switchback had too much loose snow on it. Defeated we backed down and parked behind the Jeep.
From there it was nothing but climbing. First we had to tromp the rest of the way up the road to the trailhead. Part way up we reluctantly put on our snowshoes. Carrying them isn’t fun because they are heavy but wearing them is also unpleasant because they are heavy. Really there is no winning… except staying inside during the winter and waiting for summer. Our skiers fell behind us, clomping awkwardly in their stiff ski boots, and we passed the other group of skiers and splitboarders as they put their gear on. We cut a couple switchbacks on the road when there was a clear snowbank to kick steps up. Eventually we could see the last stretch of road and found ourselves at the trailhead. After consulting the map we realized that the normal winter route involves taking a ridge that splits off from one of the road’s switchbacks, which we had clearly missed. You don’t want to take the summer route because of avalanche danger, so we studied the map, looking for a mellow ridge off of the trail that would let us climb up and cut over to the winter route. We identified a good one and headed that way.
When we reached our ridge we began to cut straight up, staying between to gullies. The ridge undulated between a healthy incline to very steep. My calfs were burning as I attempted to keep my snowshoes flat to the group so that my side rails and heel crampons could get a good grip. Eventually we got into a good rhythm, taking turns breaking trail and switchbacking slightly on the steeper sections. Finally we got 4,800ft, where we needed to cut across to the winter route. I was proper knackered (something we like to sigh occasionally in a heavy cockney accent) and we still had another 2,200ft to go, not to mention the elevation we would have to loose and then regain from the saddle to the hut. I tried not to think about what was left, but it was hard not to with my heavy pack digging into my shoulders, my snowshoes and my mountaineering boots adding pounds to each step, and my legs feeling like jello. I chomped on a bar as we shuffled through the flatter section of our traverse.
Finally we came upon the winter route, stepping into our friends tracks from the day before and whooping and hollering with the sweet glory of successful navigation! We continued up as it snowed lightly on us and finally crested a ridge to find ourselves above treeline and in a white out. I had never experienced anything like it before. We were inside a white cloud, so perfectly blank that it was impossible to tell where the clouds met the ground. Everything blended together in a completely disorienting way. All we could see were our friends’ tracks on the ground in front of us and we set off following them up to the saddle. After a little, when the clouds lifted slightly, we could see that we were passing underneath a ridge, steep slopes between us and the top. Beneath us the runout didn’t look good. We huddled and checked the map, realizing that despite what our friends had done, we didn’t want to be down here below the ridge, we wanted to be up above where it was safer. We backtracked and headed up instead, looking for something more mellow to follow up.
This was when we got the walkie talkie call (our skiers had the other one). They were about a 1,000ft below us and they had just run into our three friends who, we had figured, were gleefully weathering the white out in the cozy lookout. Turns out that they had gotten to the saddle the night before, seen evidence of avalanches on the other side (where we would have needed to traverse to get up to the lookout) and decided to stay the night at the saddle. Now they were headed out. This was not what we had expected to hear. We decided to huddle behind some trees out of the wind and talk it over. After we had donned all of our layers, nommed on some sandwiches, laughed nervously over how close Kyle’s car keys had been to escaping his backpack brain and talked our conundrum out we decided turning back was probably our best bet. None of us really fancied camping on a windy saddle in a white out for no real reason. We radioed our skiers and told them we would head down towards them.
We met them on our way down and regrouped. They agreed with our logic and we all decided that perhaps the best thing to do was to go back to the cars (it was only 1:30pm after all) and crack open the beers we had been saving for the top. They wanted to get a couple of turns in first so Team S
nowshoe set off, knowing they would catch up. Going down in snowshoes is even worse then going up, the straps dig deeply into your ankles, so after descending a couple hundred feet we decided to try our luck plunge stepping instead. It was practically heaven in comparison. Soon we were back down in the woods and following our friends tracks down the winter route, which we had decided to take all the way out, instead of retracing our steps. It was shorter, after all. At some point my hunger overtook me and I demanded a snack, which was interrupted by our skiers whizzing up and spraying everything with snow. We all sat and chatted for a while, enjoying cheese curds and icy, hard to open, nalgenes of water. Our hydration hoses were frozen solid. We then set off together, although our progress was slow on foot compared to the skiers swift turns.
After a little while we realized we were only following our skiers tracks but that the tracks that had been leading us down the winter route were gone. Our skiers realized it at the exact same time, all of us shouting that we needed to head further to the right. We checked the map quickly and discovered that we actually needed to traverse directly right and maybe even trend upwards in order not to descend into a steep gully between us and the ridge we wanted to be on. Our skiers were gone at that point, heading in the right direction but also downhill, as skiers often do. We kept our fingers crossed for them as we headed parallel to the steep slope, eventually meeting back up with the winter route. From there we headed down. And things were good for a while. But as we neared the road the snow conditions got worse and worse. I actually wished for my crampons. We were using all of our strength to plunge steps into the icy surface. Sticks and moss were mixed in, making the ice stronger. Only Josh seemed to be able to navigate it. At one point, within sight of the road, Molly, Kyle and I were all clinging to a downed tree, lowering ourselves via brach stubs and squealing, while Josh just stood below us shaking his head. After that it was just a short icy jaunt to the open safety of the road bed.
Of course, the last mile is always the longest and the road was no exception. Despite having eliminated most of the road by descending the winter route the road seemed to go on forever. I was honestly shocked we had made it anywhere at all in the morning, impressed that my past self had stuck it out for all of this. I determined that the going-up me was so much more resilient than the going-down me. I shouldered my heavy back and hoofed it into the darkening night. Finally we reached the car. And then we waited for our skiers. Well, we also organized and drank some wine, but mostly we waited nervously. We looked at the map and thought through all the ways they could have gone, where they could have ended up and tried to estimate how long it would take them to get back. The three dudes from the Jeep showed back up, they had been unable to make it much further than we had. Finally, out of the dim darkness Chris emerged and we all cheered. Annie and Evan were only ten minutes behind him. We sighed a sigh of relief and suggested the newest plan Team Snowshoe had come up with.
That is how we all ended up back in Seattle, at 10:00pm, eating pizza and drinking beers in our living room. When we had left very early that morning I would have never imagined the many twists and turns the day would take. But that is the glory of adventuring, the magic of the mountains, the reality of winter. I had a wonderful day. It was hard and long, my layers all worked properly, my body felt strong, and we navigated the shit out of the climb. I am very much looking forward to this spring and all the exciting mountains that in our future.
If you enjoy our posts and you want to help support Tandem Trekking consider becoming one of our patrons on Patreon! Depending on what level you contribute at you can receive all sorts of amazing perks. If you are intrigued but want to know more you can either click here or visit the tab above labeled Patreon. Or you can read the post “Join us on Patreon”. OR you can click the Patreon button below and check out our Patreon page.