Early on a Saturday morning I walked down the East Fork Foss River trail in too-tight ski boots (which need a second, and better, thermo-molding attempt) through a lush green forest. I hoped to quickly reach the high country and spend the next couple of days exploring the landscapes and lakes surrounding Mt. Daniel and Mt. Hinman with a few summits thrown in for good measure. The plan was over-ambitious, as my plans tend to be; but for the moment it was smooth sailing, that blissful time before the mountains grind your plans under their bootheels, chew you up and spit out your mangled, aching body. The trail grade is mild, practically level (or so it felt on fresh legs) for the first 5.2 miles, meandering over streams, through fields of Trillium, and within airy forest with the pretty green Foss River rushing nearby. Then it crosses the river and shortly heads uphill at a much steeper grade. The trail becomes rocky and I divided my attention between trying not to stumble in my ski boots and trying not to get my skis caught on the slide alder overhanging the trail.
To distract myself (as if those things weren’t distracting enough), I played some fun games. Almost everyone knows the classic “Where’s the Damn Trail?” but have you played “Which Body Part Hurts the Most?” And here’s a new one I invented: “Is That Bug Landing on Me a Tick That’s Going to Give Me Lyme Disease?” That was inspired by an article I read (on the internet, so it must be true) which described how ticks gather on branches overhanging the trail, waiting for their unsuspecting prey to pass by so they can attack like tiny ninja assassins. I tried not to touch any vegetation as I passed down the trail; you can probably imagine how long that lasted, especially considering the skis sticking out the top of my pack. Before long I gave that up and decided to rely on my permethrin-treated clothing to keep them out (which it seems to have done).
Now, you might be thinking “Jeez, this guy complains a lot! Why does he go hiking at all?” I’m glad you asked. Getting through the physical hardship is actually a rewarding part of the experience. It may be uncomfortable, but the physical intensity of the experience makes the memory more intense. Pain fades quickly, but the memories last much longer and grow better with time. Of course, there is a limit, but I didn’t come close to it on this trip.
I’d somehow forgotten that the Foss River trail starts at 1600 feet, so I was unpleasantly surprised when I checked my altitude after what felt like a good long climb to find myself still only at what would be the starting altitude of many local hikes, 3200 feet. That would explain why I was only just beginning to see patches of snow. I recalibrated my expectations a bit, figuring that I probably wouldn’t make it past La Bohn Lakes that day, since a 10+ mile, 4200’ climb in ski boots is a lot for me.
I continued up the steep trail, losing it once but mostly able to stick with it even over the snow by following the boot prints of those who had come before. Eventually I reached Jade Lake at the entrance to Necklace Valley. Finally, continuous snow! I was very happy to get my skis off my back and onto my feet — and less happy to find the snow too slushy and soft to provide uphill traction. I floundered on, taking off my skis where necessary to proceed. The soft snow concealed a lot of treacherous voids underneath that can result in sudden drops. One such fall broke one of my trekking poles, though I was able to jury-rig it to function for the rest of the trip. After passing Jade Lake I happened upon a small and dirty but intact cabin. It’s quite unusual to find such obvious signs of human intrusion in Washington’s wilderness areas. According to its plaque, this one was built in 1950, obviously before “leave no trace” was considered a core wilderness ethic.
Some song always gets stuck in my head on these trips. I know it’s going to happen, and there’s always some trepidation that I’ll end up listening to “My Heart Will Go On” or “Tubthumping” for hours on a mental loop. This time I got lucky and ended up with Drapht’s Don Quixote. It’s funny, catchy, and “a little bit crazy” as the lyrics say. Any song that includes Don Quixote, cyborgs, lasers, tractor beams, space shuttles and time machines is alright with me. I also think Don Quixote himself is a bit of a kindred spirit to us mountain lovers, with our grand excursions and high ideals that ultimately add up to nothing but self-satisfaction and can seem a bit crazy to others.
Up Necklace Valley past mostly-frozen lakes I traveled until I was faced with an imposing headwall leading upward to the La Bohn Lakes plateau. I was now at 4800 feet, with another 1000 feet to go to reach the lakes. It was only about 4:30pm — early in the day for quitting in early summer when sunset is after 9 — but footing on the steep slope would probably be insecure in the sloppy snow that had been softening all afternoon. Additionally, I was concerned about the availability of liquid water. Even down in the valley where I was, most of the water was still snow-covered. I hadn’t brought my winter cook kit so I was unprepared to melt snow. (I didn’t have enough fuel for it, or a big enough pot to do it efficiently.) I could carry four liters up with me, which would be enough for the night, but not for the following day’s ascent as well. And I was tired and sore. Considering all this, I decided to make camp early and tackle the headwall in the morning.
Icy suncups sound like a delicious summer treat peddled by slightly creepy men in small brightly colored musical vans driving slowly through suburban neighborhoods. In reality, these snowpack depressions, which result from a vicious cycle of uneven melt rates, are damned frustrating to navigate on skis with pattern bases or kicker skins. You can easily find yourself sliding backwards or sideways, even on seemingly level terrain. Fortunately I only had a short distance to cover from my camp to the base of the headwall, at which point it became too steep to ski anyway. The firm snow made for good footing with Microspikes, and though I detoured up a rocky outcrop in the middle due to discomfort with exposure on steep snow (which probably ended up being scarier than staying on the snow would’ve been), I made it to the col without incident.
After topping out, I skied across gentle hills to a pass with breathtaking views. The massive hulk of Bear’s Breast Mountain loomed on my left; a bit more distant to the center-right, the many peaks of the Summit Chief / Overcoat / Chimney / Lemah group jutted into the sky. Just below me, still totally snow-covered, the Chain Lakes lay in peaceful slumber among rolling hillocks. On my right I picked out the Snoqualmie Middle Fork valley and on the left La Bohn Gap, a low point adjacent to Bear’s Breast that would provide access to remote Lake Rowena cradled in a cirque below Mt. Hinman. To my extreme left, jumbled and erratic, a series of cliffs and slopes led haltingly upward. Mt. Hinman itself, still hidden, lay somewhere up there waiting for me.
It’s hard to plan a route from below, especially when your objective isn’t even visible, but I could see what looked like good route just north of the largest La Bohn lake: no cliffs and not too steep, just consistent snow slopes. I made my way between the lakes, where I did find a (very little) bit of liquid water after all, and started up. The snow was already getting soft by now, and Microspikes were no longer required. Gaining a ridge at 6700 feet, I could see the Hinman Glacier sprawling below me, crowned by a long and ragged ridge. Beyond, Glacier Peak dominated the horizon, still holding a lot of snow itself. I sat on a rock to rest and experienced one of those rare moments of bliss: nothing hurt, I wasn’t too hot or cold or hungry or thirsty, and I didn’t have any immediate worries. I just sat for a few minutes and savored the feeling, enjoying the views and the sun’s warmth.
Before long, the invitingly mellow ridge beckoned me onward, so I contoured around Hinman Glacier south and then north-east, staying on the north side of the main ridge which follows the King-Kittitas county line. Foehn winds blasting out of the Hinman Glacier valley buffeted me as I followed the long ridge, skiing or walking depending on conditions and slope, until eventually I reached the point marked “Mount Hinman” on USGS maps. A feeling of accomplishment swept over me as I climbed the last few feet to take in the magnificent view. I raised my fists in triumph and shouted for joy. I’m the greatest! I’m king of the world! I’m — wait a minute. What’s that just to the west? That next bump on the ridge sure looks higher than this one. Sigh…I guess USGS is wrong. Not to be denied my victory, I trudged over to the true summit a few hundred feet off.
After snapping a few photos, I clicked into my skis and headed down. The snow was so slushy by now that it was definitely “survival skiing”, not much fun, and the long traverses were tough on tired legs. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reversing my route in a small fraction of the original time it had taken. I continued down to La Bohn Lakes, setting off many wet snow slides as I cut across the slopes. Then I carefully picked my way down steep slopes past a waterfall back to Necklace Valley. Feeling satisfied with the day, I ate dinner and went to bed.
In the morning, I packed everything up and headed back down the valley. Fog shrouded the walls of the valley and the day began with a dreary tone, but by the time I reached Jade Lake, the sun had broken through. I strapped my skis back onto my pack for the last time and headed out of the valley, down the long steep path to the Foss River and then along the river back to the car. By then — to be honest, even several miles before the end — my feet hurt so much the experience was edging out of “type 2 fun” into “type 3 fun” territory. But I didn’t end up losing any toenails, so it’s all good. I really do need to re-mold my ski boot liners for more toe room, though.