What to do when the sun is out and the forecast calls for several days of warm and dry weather? Read a book? Surf the web? Pull weeds in the garden? Go to the Olympics? I think we have a winner at last. I have been slowly working at my snow travel skills, and this seemed like an ideal time to get in some more practice.
I had a couple of things I needed to do on Monday, so planned to go up the North Fork of the Skokomish to about Camp Pleasant for the night, then cross First Divide and drop down to the Duckabush on Tuesday and then over LaCrosse Pass on Wednesday and out the Dosewallips on Thursday. Depending on conditions, I had left open the possibility of skipping LaCrosse Pass and coming out the Duck on Wednesday.
Monday went well and I made it up to Camp Pleasant with a few hours of daylight left. A branch of the Skokomish is currently flowing through the middle of the camp, leaving two of the sites on an island in the middle of the river. Walked a log across the dividing stream and hung between a couple of trees with a nice front lawn. Ate dinner, cleaned up in the river and enjoyed the solitude for a while before bedtime.
Tuesday morning I was on the trail around 7:30 and shortly after ran into a herd of elk; who went stomping off to and across the river. I counted 14 of them, but there could easily have been more I didn’t see. 15 minutes later I saw another solitary cow. I love seeing elk, although the feeling does not seem to be mutual.
Mid-way between Camp Pleasant and Nine Stream I was surprised to run into some patchy snow. It was not an issue at all, but was much lower than I expected. When I got to Nine Stream, I searched upstream for a bit, looking for a log or a good place to ford, but nothing looked too enticing, so I went back down to the ‘official’ ford location and found a small log that spanned the creek. Way to small to attempt to walk across, but I am not above sitting and scooching across. I was not so lucky on the stream just above Nine Stream, and, not for the last time, was forced to actually ford.
There was a single small tent set up at Nine Stream, but no sign of an occupant. I found Fay halfway up the switchbacks, just up from Nine Stream. She was an older woman just out to bag a peak or two. She has apparently bagged all the named peaks in the Olympics and is now working on the unnamed ones. Needless to say, I was impressed.
The snow started shortly after the switchbacks, and by 3500 foot it was pretty continuous. I popped my Microspikes onto my Altra Lone Peaks and headed on up, and eventually getting out the ice axe as well. But the snow was soft, postholing was common and progress was slow. And my inexperience with snow travel showed. I had the track from an earlier trip on my phone and attempted to follow it. In retrospect, it would have been easier to just strike out for the pass and forget about trying to follow the hidden trail.
I had expected to be down to the Duckabush by mid-afternoon, but it was 3 P.M. before I eventually reached the pass, sat down for lunch, and reconsidered the rest of the trip. If First Divide was taking this long, I was not optimistic about being able to get across LaCrosse pass in a day, and did not relish the thought of spending the night up there somewhere. So I used my inReach to contact my wife and arrange for the Duckabush pickup the next day.
That done, I started down to Home Sweet Home. Midway through the second long traverse I could see a long clear section without trees that ended down in the meadow so I flopped down and tried my hand at glissading. The biggest problem was that the snow was too soft and I just ended up being stopped by the mountain of snow I was pushing up in front of me. After a while of that I finally just stood up and postholed on down the rest of the way.
I met back up with the trail just before the creek crossing near Home Sweet Home. And it did not look to appealing. 10 feet down a vertical snow bank, then 10 feet back up another vertical snow bank; with a full pack on. I ended up backtracking to about where I had come off the pass and crossed the two creeks on snow bridges and then across the meadow back to the trail and started the descent.
Snow was continuous on the descent to about 3800 foot and then clear by 3500. But then when I got to the Upper Duckabush camp, I found nearly 6 inches of snow over most of the camp. I found a pair of trees to hang from with no snow between them and setup camp. It was dark by the time I made it to bed, as well as cold, and I was quite tired.
Wednesday morning I was up and gone by 7:30. The first obstacle was the Duckabush. It was much higher than I had ever seen it, and no possibility of a log across. In addition it braided somewhat and it was had to tell what was on the other side. So I struck out for what looked like a promising exit point and slowly moved across. The water was over my knees most of the way, and pretty swift, not to mention cold. But I eventually made it across, climbed through some brush, over a snow bank, through some more brush, a few smaller braids and eventually onto the far side trail; about half an hour of fun. The trail was mostly buried for the first mile, but was fairly easy to follow, and then patchy for another mile.
I had to ford half a dozen smaller streams on the way out, although none that were to difficult. The bigger problem was all of the blowdowns and debris on the trail. At times it was hard to follow because it blended in with the rest of the forest floor. And there were hundreds of trees down across the trail, sometimes in large clumps. Especially for the few miles downstream of Ten Mile Camp, a section that had recently burned. Progress was slow and tedious. But once I hit the ascent up Big Hump, there were no trees, and hardly any little branches the rest of the way. I expected to be out by 4, but it was closer to 6:30 when I finally staggered out to the car.
All in all a very challenging trip, but I think it was a good preparation for the PCT through the High Sierra this summer. Apart from the trail conditions, the upper Duckabush is rugged and remote and really worth the trip up it if you get the chance. And the Trilliums were busting out all over the lower elevations of both valleys; more than I had ever seen before.
And the biggest lesson; 7 hours with microspikes and wet trailrunners does not make for happy feet.