Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stars, Ice, and Impossible Beauty: Backpacking in the North Cascades

[Photos HERE]

Lake Ann is not a big lake, but what she lacks in size she more than makes up for with her grace and charm. She's also a calming force and an escape of sorts, from the surrounding drama of our main star, Mount Shuksan. When Shuksan is not fogged in it seems to spread itself across the entire sky. When it begins to feel like too much, one can simply turn around. Ann is there.

Fairly popular among day-hikers, you'll see everyone on this trail from hardened mountain lovers to families and even white-haired grannies. That said, it's not exactly an easy hike. At 8.2 miles and 1,900 feet of elevation gain (both round trip), Lake Ann is a bit more of a day hike than I'm usually up for, so, to those grannies who actually get there and back in a day, much respect.

As for my friends and me, we decided to backpack in and stay two nights at the lake so we could do a day-hike to the Lower Curtis Glacier on Mount Shuksan.

We began our hike on Friday afternoon, Labor Day weekend. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. A more perfect day simply could not exist for hiking in the North Cascades, where everywhere you look there are craggy, snow-capped peaks vying for your attention. As we set off on the trail with our heavy packs, we were almost giddy with excitement. Unlike a lot of trails you'll find, this one actually drops in elevation by about 900 feet from the trail head, winding its way through lush forest and eventually landing in a gorgeous little valley where dogs and humans alike may cool off in the many creek crossings. Views of Mount Baker and the surrounding mountains kept us stopping often for photos.

Another crossing and the trail then moves back into the trees, winding its way along the toe of the Shuksan Arm before bottoming out again at a junction where one may choose to go straight for Lake Ann, or turn right for a trail down the Swift Creek Valley to Baker Lake. From this junction, the trail climbs and climbs and climbs. We navigated switchbacks, scree fields, and the seemingly never-ending 1,000-foot slog up an exposed ridge, sucking water like crazy from our CamelBaks.

As we reached the saddle and looked down at shapely Lake Ann, we felt very happy we'd soon be ditching all the weight on our backs. After descending about 100 feet to the lake, we made our camp at the south end, near the outlet of the lake. Evening was setting in and it quickly grew much cooler out. Campfires are not allowed out here, so we wanted to set up camp and get to cooking our dinner to warm up, but Mount Shuksan was not making it easy. The evening light seemed to change the mountain every few minutes. We’d stop whatever we were doing to take more photos and gaze, open-mouthed, at the alpenglow lighting up this colossus of rock and ice dominating the sky.

After dinner, we sat atop our rocky point, sipping Irish whiskey and making casual conversation. We tipped our heads back, watching the stars appear. When it had grown completely dark, we unclipped the straps of our seats and lay back against the granite. The sky now directly above us, we were like children. The Milky Way spread itself across the sky in a dense band of light. Not much was said, save for an occasional remark on the beauty of this place and exclamations over shooting stars.

Eventually, the chill got to us and we turned in. I lay in my sleeping bag, in my little tent, reading Lonesome Dove (not a smart book to bring backpacking, for its size and heft--but I couldn’t stop myself from packing it) and as I began to feel the weight of sleep coming on, I happened across these words: "Augustus lay back, his head against his saddle. It was a clear night, the stars just beginning to appear." I laughed a little at the coincidence. I switched off my headlamp, closed my eyes, and slipped away to the sound of the lake's outlet babbling at my feet while glacial waters roared down the mountain above me.

The following morning was eerie. We were completely fogged in so that you couldn't even see the other side of our little lake. As we ate our breakfast and cleared our heads with hot coffee, we could feel the sun fighting to show itself. It never completely cleared up, but that was fine. The constantly shifting dance of sun and clouds throughout the day kept things very interesting. We were just happy it was not raining.

Once we were powered up and the sun was peeking through, we decided to set off for the Lower Curtis Glacier. I stuffed my pack with just the essentials (water, snacks, first aid kit, warm hat, extra layers) and off we went.

If our map was correct, the glacier is less than a mile from Lake Ann, but it took us over two hours to get there. To be fair, part of this is due to the fact that we stopped to take pictures every ten steps, but it's also because this is no walk in the park.

After angling away from the lake, we landed in a creek basin where everything suddenly felt very prehistoric. Above, the fog moved in and out of massive rock spires, while at our feet we walked among beautiful alpine flowers, wild blueberries, and lush, bright green ferns surrounding enormous rocks. The trail then climbs numerous switchbacks toward the Fisher Chimney, a popular climbing route for those planning to summit Mount Shuksan. As we continued, the glacial water rushing down the mountain became extremely loud, while far down the valley, Baker Lake came into view. By this time, I was wearing every piece of clothing I'd packed with me. After crossing a couple of tricky and steep rock gullies, we arrived near the edge of the glacier. One more scree field and we were there.

I was on the glacier before I knew I was on the glacier. Carefully placing each step, I started to notice more and more ice between and underneath the rocks. A little further and there was no mistaking it.


Standing on top of the Lower Curtis Glacier, looking up at the craggy pinnacles surrounding the Upper Curtis, and across the snow and ice-filled cirque of Mount Shuksan was, well, very affecting.

We didn't have a lot to say.

Getting there: From Bellingham, take the Mount Baker Highway (State Route 542) east about 60 miles to the trailhead (parking lot on the left, about 1.5 miles beyond the Mount Baker Ski Area). Call ahead to the Glacier Public Service Center for trail and weather information, (360)-599-2714.

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