March 29, 2016: Jason Hummel and Kyle Miller
Skiing the northern section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness north of Mt. Daniel to Highway 2 rarely excited me. I had preemptively decided that it lacked the peaks and high country necessary to truly make it a classic. Perhaps this is true, but only in part. Having now schussed my skis through this varied terrain, I realized that not only do the peaks and terrain exist, but so does a micro complexity of slope and feature throughout. Coupled with this diversity, I found this route very much worthy of repeating.
As an ode to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and its hundreds of lakes, Kyle and I agreed that we would name this route, “The 14 Lakes Traverse” since there were 14 lakes we crossed along our route.
DAY 1: Deception pass trailhead to robin lakes
We left on the 29th of March, planning on four days. I wanted the extra time to enjoy the various summits along the way, so added a day to Kyle’s original three day itinerary. As it turns out, the heavy snow would chew up much of that time with copious amounts of slogging due to the March weather window we were chasing and this weather opening being the first big warm up of the year.
Nevertheless, I nearly didn’t make the trip at all having forgot my ski boots at home! I blame it on the delusion caused by my 2:30am wake-up call. It would be the 3rd time I’d ever forgotten my boots. Each have been memorable. I’m especially reminded of one such instance In 2008 during a 4 day adventure on the Garibaldi Traverse. It was then that I borrowed a pair of size 11 boots for my size 8.5 feet from a random guy at the trailhead, my own boots having been left across the border and in the street in downtown Seattle. Honestly, you’d expect that would be lesson enough, but alas time’s sweet embrace is memories great eraser; another reminder seemed inevitable, at least for me.
Only 25 minutes after leaving Kyle’s house I returned home like a storm wind, grabbing up my boots with the car still running. By then, Kyle was in North Bend with Boot, who along with another friend of his, also named Jason, would be giving Kyle and I a snowmobile bump to the Deception Pass trailhead.
The goal of this adventure was for Kyle and I to connect the northerly section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness north of Mt. Daniel to the southerly section we had already skied in 2010 (Alpine Lakes Traverse story).
I was very familiar with the start of our route. Growing up, I regularly hiked in this area, nicknamed the Little Enchantments – the region at whose heart lies Robin Lakes – maybe 30 times. Many of my earliest memories in the outdoors are rooted in these meadows of flowers and granite. I’d fish with my brothers in the lakes and we’d return to camp, hours later, with a dozen fish, as proud of our haul as kids could be, with satisfied smiles flashing like lures.
To this day, the memories of my time at Robin Lakes are a powerful reminder of the best and brightest days of my childhood.
Unlike those bygone summers where bees buzzed and butterflies swooped from flower to flower and all the colors of the rainbow filled the meadows and forests, it was March and winter’s reign ruled with a snow encrusted fist. Besides the green trees that had been blown free of their caps of snow, there was nothing to accent this world of white, except perhaps Kyle and my colorful clothes. Two jesters on our way from the King’s antechamber to his vainglorious court.
Kyle and I had parted ways from Boot and his friend at Hyas Lake. For hours we watched them ascend Mt. Daniel, cutting their skintrack back and forth all the way to the top.
Our route mirrored theirs on the opposite side of the valley.
Eventually, after hours of effort, we pitched our tent right betwixt Robin Lakes on a low ridge, just above the stream that connects the two lakes.
After a pleasant nap, Kyle and I decided to ascend Granite Mountain (7144 feet) near the end of the day. No more than an hour or two later, we arrived to the top at sunset.
As the last vestiges of light were being entangled with darkness, we left the summit toward Robin Lakes. Like an artist who’d spilled his inks, deep blues and subtle violets pooled in the basin where the lakes lay encapsulated in ice. Snaking upward, connecting us to the shore, was a broad couloir. Down it we went, like fish in a narrow stream, our speed a function of gravity, mostly out of our control, but not entirely. From side to side we slid downward and too soon crashed to a stop in a splash of satisfaction and a wave of coldsmoke.
DAY 2: Granite mountain to Mac Peak
Kyle and my morning began at a languid pace, but that changed soon after morning tea. With the heat of the day on the rise, we hustled toward Granite Potholes.
Leaving our overnight gear below Trico Peak (6630 feet), Kyle and I climbed to the top. Venturing even further, leaving Kyle to switch his board to ride mode, I chased the summit ridge to a viewpoint that overlooked the way ahead. I’d seen the view many times, but as of yet had not visited much of the area we’d go to that day.
A short ski and we returned to our packs and resorted gear (translation: we stuffed everything into our bags and hoped to God it all fit again). Next, we climbed to a promising col where we found a couloir that descended to a wide basin that eventually led to the frozen outlines of Lake Phoebe.
Including the two lakes we’d already crossed, we’d ski over middle Granite, upper Granite, Phoebe, lower Phoebe, Jungfrau and Talus Lakes by the end of the day.
Throughout, though, our progress would be slow. The snow was a soupy melange that reacted more like water than ice. By the time we came to our final lake and ascent of the day, we had gone half the pace we’d expected.
Nevertheless, an ascent of Mac Peak (6859 feet) was going to coincide with the last hours of the day just right. Once we neared the top of an arduous climb, the warm face and its slew of snow gave way to a wind scoured ridge and, from there, easy access to the top.
The soft drone of wind flapped the tent and soothed worn feet once we’d pitched camp. Not long after I slept like the rocks buried ten feet under me, not waking until sunrise had been whisked away and the new day was cooking under a bright sun.
DAY 3: MAC PEAK to ridge south of hope lake
Night had run its cold fingers over the east ridge, so the first turns Kyle and I made from Mac peak’s summit were on ice, but that wouldn’t last. We found, still unsullied by the sunny days, powder hidden as we transitioned around enormous cornices onto the north face.
With good skiing, we only paused once before reaching the shores of Square Lake whose massive outline and distinct shape appeared out of place, so big and yet somehow squeezed within this tiny alpine valley.
We continued to the summit of Thor Peak (6804 feet) by crossing Wolverine Lake, then ascending directly north to a perfect notch that provided a gentle ridge to climb to the tippy top. It was here I felt like I’d reached the tipping point that every traverse has. The point when more obstacles lay behind than ahead; although this traverse held few challenges, it was still a region I hadn’t skied through, another piece of the puzzle and one less mystery.
A pleasant descent led us away from Thor Peak. This was followed by a short climb that contoured us up then down a couloir to the shores of Trap Lake.
We connected to the Pacific Crest Trail on the other end of Trap Lake or at least where the presumed trail would be if it weren’t covered in feet of snow. The trail traversed several avalanche paths, which wouldn’t have been so bad if not for every step being taken in two feet of mank, as heavy as mud and just about as appetizing. There was a way we could’ve avoided all this side hilling. We noticed below Thor a northerly valley that narrowed into a couloir which eventually bisected the much bigger easterly valley 1500 feet below us and the Pacific Crest trail.
With Kyle and my last reserves of strength, we reached a high point and a perfect camp southwest of Hope Lake just as the horizon was lapping up the last drops of the daylight.
DAY 4: Hope lake to stevens pass
From what we could see on the maps, nothing ahead warranted much excitement. We were basically following the Pacific Crest trail to Stevens Pass ski resort.
Even though at first I felt like any excitement was fleeting, no descents or summits, there was that excitement I manufactured. It reminded me of running long distances. You get lost in your thoughts. You seize the solitude. You submit yourself to the moment. But, really, it could be my brains way of making the suffering more palpable or at the very least the result of hours of thinking about the ‘why am I doing this?’ and not really discovering a satisfactory answer beyond this.
We glided past Hope, Mig and Swimming Deer lakes and from a final high point, we descended to the backside road on Stevens Pass Ski area. A final ascent took less than an hour to arrive at the top of the Tye Mill chair.
At the base of the area, after setting heavy packs down, I went into the lodge only to find that they’d already shut down food services for the day. My dreams of a hamburger were demolished!
Since we had no car at the pass and worst of all no shoes to change into, Kyle and I crossed the highway and eventually hitched a ride to Everett. From there, we caught the bus to downtown Seattle. Once I stepped from that bus in my squishy ski boots into the confined aisles between skyscrapers full of thousands of people in shades, tee shirts, shorts and every kind of beautiful shoe you could imagine, I secretly felt like robocop. There I was in all my mountainous glory. Skis over shoulder, ski pants, ski coat, sunscreen streaked face and of course, those very special boots I couldn’t forget about then if I tried.
On the street passerby’s wouldn’t even talk to us, but their various expressions were priceless and beyond anything language could express.
We eventually jumped onto the Metro Bus which would take Kyle and I too a friend, Ben Starkey’s house. After leaving the bus and one particularly freaky looking dude who couldn’t stop staring at us, we arrived at a street-side lemonade stand run by two little girls. Having hiked for some ways to get to Ben’s house and the previous efforts of the day, a lemonade was the perfect medicine to soothe our parched throats. It was best spent $2.50 ever!
The traveling wasn’t over yet. With Ben’s help, Kyle and I drove back to my car in North Bend and I drove Kyle back to his mother’s house in Kent.
With my ski boots finally off, I finished the final leg of my journey back to Tacoma. I had thought my adventure was over, but less than a week later, my plans would fall through and I’d find myself joining Kyle on a six day adventure from the North Fork Sauk River to Highway 2.
I would hope others would follow our tracks across the 14 Lakes Traverse. While it isn’t the most classic section of the Cascade Crest, it certainly has its appeal. As I said it’s “…another piece of the puzzle and one less mystery.”
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