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Sunday, May 19, 2002

Nature 2, Me 0



The drive east from I-5 along route 20 shows immediate promise as a sight-seeing venture. The road follows the Skagit River upstream to its source in the Northern Cascades of Washington. The towns are small and far apart on this road. Traffic is what you would expect on a small highway that connects a metropolis like Concrete with its less glamorous neighbor, Rockport, seven miles further upstream. The odd thing about the lack of traffic is that a few miles beyond these urban centers lies one of the most beautiful National parks in the country.

North Cascades National Park is called the Alps of the U.S. except this park is in Washington and has more glaciers and more peaks above 7,000 feet than do the Alps. I didn’t know that this area was compared to the Alps when I began the spectacular drive through the canyon at the beginning of the park but I remarked that it reminded me of Switzerland. Route 20 through North Cascades is as scenic as any piece of road I have ever driven, walked, rail-roaded, or cycled. Something else to put in your DON’T YOU WISH YOU LIVED HERE file: the park is only about 200 miles from Seattle.

After last week’s hike-from-hell I wasn’t even sure that I was going to get out of the car on this trip. I had my hiking gear in the trunk but I was planning on using the lame excuse that it was raining to keep it there. It stopped raining before we reached the park but I was still talking myself out of hiking.

A park ranger told us that most of the high country trails were still covered with a heavy snow pack so he suggested a hike through the old growth forest along Thunder Creek. The trail follows a valley for a pretty fair distance so snow cover wouldn’t be a problem. We parked at the trail head and walked south along the shores of Diablo Lake. We even walked past a Boy Scout troop so I figured this trail must be pretty easy.

It probably would have been easy had we stuck to it but we opted for the more challenging Fourth of July trail which headed up the mountain on the east side of the valley to the pass at 3,501 feet. After the pass the trail dropped down again and ended up about ten miles further along route 20. After we hit the road I figured we could hitch-hike back to the car. It seemed like an easy plan and preferable to the in-out backtracking we would have to do on the Thunder Creek trail. I hate backtracking.

I was traveling light. I was wearing my hydration pack and carried only a wool sweater, a thermal sweatshirt, gloves, and a hat--ignoring my good sense to bring along a rain parka. I figured if the weather turned to shit I could run back. I also took someone’s advice and decided to wear, running shoes instead of hiking shoes. The running shoes worked out really well. I appreciated their light weight and adequate stability.

I had made several comments on the way up that on the mountain across the valley there seemed to be a LOT of snow yet we had yet to see any on the trail. A bit further I noticed a cute little tuft of snow near the path. A little farther along a twenty feet section of the trail was covered with snow. I hoped we were near the top.

The running shoes were great right up until I had to traverse the top of the ridge which was covered by about 4-6 feet of snow. I was following a set of prints put there by someone I hoped knew the trail well enough to negotiate the snow and bring us to the other side. The trail dropped altitude in the next ½ mile or so and from there it would be downhill and dry to the highway.

Unfortunately we came upon the person setting the trail for us. I wasn’t sure if it was a man or woman; a mountain Pat wearing boots, gators, and carrying an ice axe. Pat said that he/she had gone a few hundred yards further before turning back.

After turning back last week I was determined to make it over this ridge. We pressed on and so did the snow. We weren’t descending at this point but merely rounding the ridge so the snow pack remained formidable. I would alternate between on foot resting firmly on the surface to breaking through to my crotch. I had seen no trace of the trail for a few hundred yards and no chance of it up ahead in the snow. As much as I hated the idea of backtracking I had little choice at this point. Our map wasn’t detailed enough to get me past this point.

Back at the car I thought again about how something I was so glad was over seemed like fun when we started and would seem fun again the next time out.

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