May 30, 2015: Jason Hummel and Jeff Rich
Fog and clouds ghosted through the surrounding fir trees and tiptoed over the placid waters of Tucquala Lake, the evening I arrived to the trailhead for Mount Daniel (7959 feet), the tallest peak in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The surrounding landscape took on a ghoulish appearance as dusk faded to darkness, and when night finally commanded, the moon rose and illuminated the night with bluish tones. It was the kind of night you feel like hiding from, but instead, in grotesque fascination, you keep looking for some demon emerge from it.
Day 1: Cathedral Pass Trailhead to Venus Lake
By morning, Jeff Rich had arrived on time, and I joined him, dragging my pack from my car like a dead body. He had a friend that was supposed to show and when he hadn’t arrived as expected, I wandered the forest. Eventually, so much time had passed that we made the call to just go, guessing that he had slept in.
Our plan wasn’t merely a summit and ski of Mount Daniel, but instead it was to put a more adventurous spin on a familiar place by circumnavigating the mountain. A summit is a summit, but a circumnavigation of a summit is a tour that offers to show you so much more of what makes a mountain tick than a dash to the top ever would.
We hustled up the Cathedral Pass Trail in an attempt to make up time and ground that we had lost. By the time we reached snow a few hundred feet above Squaw Lake, the days heat was already melting us. On the way, we met two women who were attempting Mt. Daniel. We followed them to Cathedral Pass, near where the climbers path breaks off from the main trail and leads you to Peggy’s Pond. It was there, I realized that I had forgotten my water bottle. The girls took pity on me and let me have one of theirs, and as experienced as I am, it’s an shames me to admit that this was the second time I had forgotten my water bottle on a big trip in as many months.
Jeff and I parted ways with the women and traversed around the shoulder of Mt. Daniel toward Circle Lake, one of the bigger lakes we’d pass by. Continuous snow was in short supply, so we had to make a few carries, but none lasted long; although, I felt like they had. In March during a photoshoot, I hurt my knee and instead of stopping to let it heal, I continued to test it, willing my mind to forget about it, but the body rebelled and chose this trip to voice her fury at my total disregard for ‘taking it easy’ and ‘healing’. My knee was threatening to lock up, but with long days and plenty of time, I ground my teeth and kept moving because being unwise and pushing my limits is ingrained in me more than wisdom or consideration for continued good health ever had been.
We decided that we needed to cool down at Circle Lake by pond skimming, a fortuitous sport if there ever was any. Who can argue with the awesomeness of skis sliding from snow onto water and back to snow (well, back if you make it of course)? The danger of not bridging the watery gap is part of the ‘awesome’ factor. This undertaking was Jeff’s idea, but only because I didn’t think of it first, and believe it or not, we’re both naturally inclined to bouts of stupidity, which makes us great adventure buddies. Two kids that will stick their hands in fire just to see if it burns or, more relevantly, will stick two skis into a lake to see if they would float.
We made a few runs across the lake and during my own, the sticky snow threatened my pace so much so that I nearly sunk with my camera gear and pack! That would’ve been unfortunate and a fifteen thousand dollar miscalculation.
Sufficiently cooled off, we climbed to a pass below the Citadel. Jeff continued on a dry ridge line that curved toward Mt. Daniel because he was convinced a couloir dropped from there to Venus Lake. While he investigated, I rubbed my knee thinking that somehow the pain would just ‘go away’, but I knew it wouldn’t. When Jeff returned, we decided to go the way we knew, but like magnets, we traversed to the very couloir that Jeff was in search of. It wasn’t a fantasy after all. In fact it dropped from the ridge all the way to the lake! Quickly abandoning our idea of ‘just going the way we knew’, we climbed back up to the ridge and skied the couloir.
Midway down to the lake, a one foot band of snow was too tempting to just walk around and not ski, so instead babying our skis like any rationally thinking human would do, we forged on, balancing our skis on boulders, and being sure to maximize the satisfying ‘base grind’ our skis were getting as an added bonus. At some point, where I felt like I had enough space, I pointed my skis down the fall line, planning to dump speed as soon as I reached more snow. As it turns out, I had stepped on my binding latch and unexpectedly knocked it off, but since it is a telemark binding, the cable still held on, at least it held on until I was preparing to dumb my speed. It came as a shock when I was propelled down the slope with a full head of steam, rocks racing by like guardrail posts. With a nice ‘face grind’ also being an added bonus, I managed to spin around and catch my skis on a half exposed boulder jutting from the snow. A few howls and joyous laughter ensued, and after Jeff’s own chaotic kamikaze, he arrived and we shared another laugh as I spit blood and pebbles from my mouth. Now that’s adventure! I love a good ass kicking now and again. It keeps me grounded (well, not literally of course, just mentally).
Camp was found after another pond skim, cause ‘why not’? And a cold soaking in Venus Lakes outlet stream after we decided to camp on its far side above a waterfall was enjoyed, too.
That night, the moon glowed brightly against the night sky and highlighted the smoke-thin clouds. Jeff hung out next to the waterfall and I took up my camera, catching him and the moment perfectly.
Rest comes reluctantly, since it meant relinquishing the beauty surrounding us for sleep. But come it would because new surprises are around every corner, including those in life – and adventure. Sometimes you just have to be satisfied and contented; we had our share and tomorrow there would be more, and the day after, so forth.
Day 2: Venus Lake to Cathedral Pass Trailhead
We awoke early and since I had convinced myself that I would return the way we had come in order to save my knee, Jeff and I were prepared to go our separate ways, but like the fool I am I threw out that idea and instead followed Jeff to a small pass above Venus Lake. The sight from there was offending. Fields of boulders instead of fields of snow laid in wait. It felt like that moment when you meet a blind date and the woman you saw wasn’t matching the one you’d been told about.
The hike wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected. Perhaps only an hour later, we were back on snow and blazing our way to a pass between Mt. Daniel and Hinman. Once there, Jeff was dead set on going to the summit. I told him that I would sit this one out, but you know, patience isn’t a virtue I have in spades, so I started going up to, you know, look around – and – next thing I know, I’m at the summit of Hinman staring over the cliff face into the eye of Rowena Lake, half encrusted with ice and snow, and spiderwebbed in watery blues.
Jeff and I skied all the way back to our packs on incredible spring snow, perfectly softened for our enjoyment (because who else would it be for, but us, right).
Further skiing led Jeff and I to the end of the snowpack once again, but this time for an ascent to Peasoup Lake and to the base of the Lynch Glacier. In between an incredible waterfall ping-ponged down the entire route that led to the lake, captivating us for a thousand vertical feet! The lake crossing we had expected to potentially be melted out was questionable at best, but our options to bypass it were unfavorable and would require another night, which I was game for, either way, since you couldn’t ask for a better place to spend a night than there, overlooking this massive glacier lake and encompassing peaks.
But remaining daylight is kryptonite for us and our meager patience, and soon ground to cover yanked us from our respite and sent us scurrying across the lake like water striders. Every creak and groan scares up some fear, but it is put down quickly. I’d been across enough half frozen lakes to understand their temperaments (quickening your pace ever so slightly as to not be noticeably spitting in fates eye).
The climb of the Lynch Glacier was accompanied by cloud-shadows. It was one of those perfect afternoons that photographers like me would die for, rewarding us with soft, midday light.
At the top of the glacier, Jeff scrambled onto a narrow rock pyramid in his ski boots and stood on it, most certainly praying that a big wind wouldn’t whisk him from his perch onto the ground below. Why risk it then? I’d say there’s just something about facing that danger that amalgamates excitement and fear into one interminable emotion, the sort of passion that souls like us burn like kindling.
Daylight was going fast and with lots of snow still below us, we let gravity take hold and we rocketed down the slopes until we were at the flats near Peggy’s pond.
With skis and packs now conjoined, we reversed our path from the day before back to Cathedral Pass and there, Jeff and I separated. My pace was suffering from the pain in my knee which must’ve reached a pinnacle, or so I had thought. The long switchbacks below Squaw Lake were an absolute misery and I regretted not spending the night. Then, instead, I walked in darkness at an excruciatingly slow pace, feeling sorry that Jeff had to wait for me. But I’d been injured before and I knew that I had to take it easy.
Eventually I walked out of the woods onto the bridge that crossed the Cle Elum River and found that like when I had arrived there, two nights earlier, the filtered moonlight created an evening where ghouls and demons must certainly be, but as before, I only caught glimpses of shadows.
And finally, a video of our little adventure. I’m sure you’ll get some evil enjoyment/satisfaction out of the header I take a few moments into the movie. It’s a doozie. Oh and be sure to press HD on the video…on the right of the screen.