Saturday, September 18, 2004

Hike to Dishpan Gap in the North Cascades

Well, I just got back from a particularly brutal hike to Dishpan Gap and back. Rained practically the whole time and despite the claims of the makers of my $200 rainsuit, I stayed soaked and cold the whole two days. But it is a good conditioning hike for the much more brutal PCT hike we are going to do next month.

No. It wasn't a nude hike. You think I'm crazy? Besides, my two friends wouldn't understand anyway. Too mainstream and conservative. But they're good companions on the trail . . . far more experience than I have.

We had originally planned on meeting at the Quartz Creek trail head at the end of the Index River road on Wednesday night, camp out beside the North Fork of the Skykomish River and then enter the trail bright and early the next morning. That never happened; John ripped his tent packing it and frantically cancelled. I got the message halfway down Highway 2 to Index.

He got his tent fixed the next morning and we managed to meet up and get on the trail around ten in the morning. Things just got worse.

Quartz Creek is a pretty rough trail. Not a great deal of elevation changes but the trail is not well-maintained. It's narrow . . . it's full of snags and dropped trees across sections . . . and there are a lot of creek fords to accomplish.

Did I mention it was raining? The last time I did this trail I could hop from stone to stone to ford a creek. Not this time. Two, in particular, were roaring, raging cascades of white water averaging a foot deep. Narrow trail? Little room to maneuver? Heavy pack keeping me off-balance? Delays while we removed boots and socks and slipped on aqua-sox for the challenging ford. Suppose I could have tried it with my hiking boots as they were already rather soaked anyway. But I changed while my more experienced friends debated safety measures. Meanwhile, we're already feeling the cold from the dampness. This is poncho weather! Off in the distance I heard the deepthroated rumble of thunder rolling up the valley from the south.

The rope came out. I have never used the coil of climbing rope I carry on the outside of my backpack. The rope came out. The water was just too swift and the downhill ledge too close . . . a drop of twenty feet or more onto solid granite. We roped together and anchored one end . . . then one by one made it across the frigid rush of water. I was cold before, now I was shivering. I swear, freezing water managed to course it's way up the inside of my rainpants and freeze my balls off!

We did that two more times on normally tranquil creeks. Our timing couldn't have been worse. Ahead, the U-shaped head of the valley became a bowl for a menacing boil of dark clouds. We headed into the dark mists, losing the light of mid afternoon as we finally made a broad valley meadow and the juncture to the Cadet Trail at the other end.

This was where I met my bear the last time I did Quartz Creek. I'm sure my hand hovered frequently on the can of Bear deterrent next to the Buck knife on the pack waistbelt. I'm sure my friends also snickered up ahead. We made lunch at the Indian ruins . . . took the opportunity to make some sorely needed hot coffee and do a change of socks. Quartz Creek is only five miles yet it took us the same number of hours to do it. Not a very good rate of travel. Above us, the mountain crests and ridges promised faster times and clear hiking . . . once we scrambled up the mountainside before us. We dallied and recalculated our expectations. We COULD make Dishpan if we made no more stops and did a couple of hours in the dark. Or we could forget Dishpan and overnight the nearest peak.

Believe it or not, water was a consideration now . . . despite the rain showers and overflowing creeks. Once we were up above the treeline and on the crests of PCT there would be no water sources until the two small alpine lakes before the Gap . . . our expected camping location. We wasted more time filtering water into containers . . . then set off uphill. Wonder where the bear was. Probably all curled up nice and warm under a dry ledge. But then again, that bear doesn't have a nice expensive, $200 rainsuit like I do.

The spur of Cadet Trail was worse here. Skree and overgrown vegetation made footing and staying on the trail difficult. By five pm we made the first crest . . . above the worst of the clouds and rain. The going was pretty good and we made up for lost time. We dropped back down on the trail and switchbacked up onto the next ridge. The light was failing and the wind picking up. Headlamps came on. We now knew we could make the sheltered and protected lakes. By nine-thirty we turned to the north over the ridge and entered the caldera of some forgotten volcano. Mercifully, and methodically, we set up camp.

What a difference a change of dry clothes make. And a hot meal. The rain gods heard us and let off . . . at least on this peak. A fire would have been nice . . . but hey, candle lanterns do warm up the inside of a small tent . . . and the inside of that tent was dutifully dry as always. Boots came off and we stretched halfway out of the three tents arranged facing each other in a tight circle. Bobs' small flask of bourbon came out and a made the rounds of our coffee cups. Dinner was Alpine Chili . . . or so the pack said. Somehow, dehydrated foods never really rehydrate properly. It was more like a spicy mush except the corn kernels were still semi-rubbery. But it satisfied the hunger and there were a few other snacks to be had in our food pouches. No bears this high up. No trees either. So we didn't bother hanging the food bags off the ground. It wasn't long before I was all cuddled up in my sleeping bag and finally feeling warmth after so many hours of bone-chilling dampness.

We all got up early the next morning. We had actually accomplished our goal (or close to it as Dishpan Gap was less than a quarter of a mile away). The sky looked promising and I kept telling myself that the trip back was going to be easier than the trip inbound. My next disaster. Where was my camera? Then the sinking feeling. It's on the passenger seat of my car back at the trailhead . . . still attached to the charger. F*ck!

The view through Dishpan Gap to Glacier Peak. Prominent is the ridge that makes up a portion of the PCT in this area. This picture is from a previous trip.

I followed in a bad mood as we made Dishpan in under half an hour. They took pictures . . . I didn't. We all 'signed' the summit log and dallied just a while to enjoy the view. Then it was the trek back, bypassing the spur to the lakes to save time. What a difference one days weather makes. No rain . . . clouds high. We stayed in high cheer even as our knees complained about the steep downhill trek . . . never able to really stretch the legs out fully because of the slope.

I did not look forward to fording those streams again. We trudged down and into the Quartz Valley. Miraculously, everything was back to normal . . . except for the muddy trail. We stepped from rock to rock over the once-more-tranquil creeks. We were leaving it all behind . . . the trailhead getting closer.

The sun came out . . . humidity rose and the mosquitoes arose from some fleet of aircraft carriers in an ephemeral pond in search of a meal . . . us. We were tired and in no mood to enjoy the wilderness anymore. Our cars with heaters were ahead and they promised to take us home for a long, hot soak in the tub. I emerged into the open clearing of the trailhead right behind my friends just as the sun was giving up the last of its ruddy light to the evening. Few words were spoke. We were tired, cold, hungry, thirsty and pockmarked in impossible locations from Kamikaze insects. We went straight for our individual vehicles . . . engines first, heaters full as boots came off and aching feet slipped into softer shoes.

We espied each other from our metal sanctuaries . . . knowing glances. Thumbs up. We had a great time! Beside me on the passenger seat all by itself, the charge indicator on my digital camera winked steady. Full charge. That's nice to know I thought as I pulled the gear-shift back into reverse and backed out of my spot to join the other two sets of taillights already bouncing down the narrow forest service road back to civilization. Yes, that's good to know.

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