NOTE: I will add images later tonight.
Day 5 -8/29 “Hats Off to the Snow Fields” – to Above Bear Glacier
The next morning we awoke to clear skies and cool mountain air. We had committed to getting up early to make up miles and find the trail up to the Bailey Range. Over breakfast, Scott shared his personal declaration. He would talk no more of heli rescues. Through all the twists and turns of the trail, Tim had found our way and after our side trip against Tim’s instinct, Scott committed to taking Tim’s lead on navigating our way through the Bailey Range.
We headed out by 9 or so, back through the heather meadow, following the stream, picking out the trail we had taken. Not far along, the sun crested the valley, and I wanted to quickly shed layers, before we started pushing our way through the trees and brush. I made the decision to stop on my own and let the guys continue on.
Just as I put down my poles and started to unbuckle my pack, I heard Tim clearly announce “BEAR!” I immediately raised my head to find my eyes meet the gaze of a black bear. He was not more than a few yards above, peering down from a small ledge. After seeing all of us and before we could think to say anything to deter him coming closer, he abruptly turned to leave. Tim scrambled to position his camera for a couple photos before he was out of view.
It was my first real look at a bear in the wilds, that wasn’t a far off speck on a hillside. I was surprised that I remained calm, no draining feeling or ripple of fear down my spine. It seemed as though he had heard us tromping below, and just wanted to know, who it was and what direction we were going. To me, he looked like any other creature of the wild – beautiful and at home – in a place that we struggle to survive in. More awe inspiring, than anything else. We picked up our pace and kept checking over our shoulders for a bit, but no bear was ever in view. That was now the fifth bear we had seen on this trip.
|Black Bear in retreat after watching us for a short time. Think my camera scared him.
* * *
It was just yesterday that we had our first bear sighting. It was early morning at Cream Lake when Scott first picked out a black dot moving at a good pace across a high mountain meadow we had travelled the day before. We all watched as that one disappeared into the trees on the other side. To our amazement, it wasn’t more than a few minutes later that we saw three more dots start to make their way across the same meadow. Two were clearly cubs. They were smaller dots moving back and forth, obviously playing, as mom guided them in the same direction as the first bear. I couldn’t help but wonder from that very safe distance down by the lake – what would our experience have been, had all those bears come through that meadow at the same time we were making our way down the trail? Timing had definitely been on our side!
It wasn’t until later that day; we openly admitted to each other, we had all thought the next thing the trail would throw at us after descending to Cream Lake was a bear coming through our camp during the night. We had seen so much bear scat that afternoon as we bushwhacked our way down to the lake, even in the low meadows and marsh, it was clear then the odds were not in our favor to be spared the experience. But once again, we had been watched over.
* * *
After retracing our steps back to the second lake we had passed the day before, Tim and Scott scouted around to decide on the route to take heading up to the real Ferry Basin just below Mt Ferry. We followed somewhat of a trail for part of the way up the loose rocks, but as it opened up to larger granite rocks and snow, it became harder again to keep sight of any lines that looked like trail. Although we knew we were in the general area, it was still confusing about how to get on the right side of the Bailey range. We went as far as we could up the basin following some footsteps, but then saw nothing ahead on the low ridge line, and no visual evidence of a clear direction to get from there to the right side of the range.
Scott had been saying it looked like we needed to go up a rocky slope that we had passed. It ran up between two of the mountains and seemed to indicate a passage to the other side of the range, so we headed that direction and sure enough found footsteps and signs of trail again. As we made our way along the top of the slope between the mountains, we started to see more snow and glacier blue pools trickling into each other just below us. Up ahead the view clearly indicated we were soon to be at the foot of the high peaks. In that moment, we had no more doubts. We were heading into the heart of the Bailey range to be surrounded by craggy peaks covered in massive snow fields and glaciers descending thousands of feet below, many dropping into pools of turquoise blue.
We stopped at what we guessed would be the last stream to draw water before heading up into the snow and casually filled up what we thought we needed for the rest of the day – assuming our next camp would of course have water, not snow, nearby. We continued up a trail alongside the edge of two huge glacial lakes, side-hilling through loose shale. The views were outstanding! Looking eye level at each peak across the lakes below, it was hard to comprehend the proportion of us to our new surroundings. The second and largest lake had icebergs that seemed to be the size and shape of motor coaches or freighters floating at one end. It was awesome to see the hugeness of it all, and to realize that we might be the only people there that day – placing us among the very few to ever take in the views we were now experiencing.
We continued ascending past the second lake – only to find another seeming end to the trail. It appeared to stop on a rocky plateau, falling away to a view straight down to the valley way, way below and views of another far off range of the Olympics. Looking all around, we soon realized there were tracks in the snow bank right behind us heading up in the direction of the ridgeline we were to follow. In the absence of any other way to go, we assumed that must be the trail. Tim and I set about putting on our crampons to use them for the first time in our lives – Scott’s second. I couldn’t help but wonder as I cinched up my straps, what was next, up past the snow bank. We trekked up the snow a short distance and picked up a rock trail again. Relieved, we took off our crampons and continued up. This seemed to be in line with what Tim had researched – short sections of snow interspersed with following a ridgeline rocky trail.
And then, as we gained in elevation, a much higher and steeper ridgeline completely covered in snow rose up in front of us with clearly laid out tracks in the snow at a steep diagonal all the way up to the top of the ridge. I quickly had to fight back thoughts of “You have got to be kidding – I don’t go up things like that!” There were no other options, no other trail. So back on went the crampons and we began to trace the footsteps from the edge of the snow, up the steep ridgeline toward the sky to peer over the top.
* * *
My mental habit, ever since the Cat Walk, had become – quickly push away the “You’ve got to be kidding” thoughts, and get to work mentally calculating the risk level of whatever the steep traverse by scanning the terrain below us. My private conversation went something like this…”OK, if I slip and fall/slide anywhere along here, how far would a 150lb person in my case (120lb + 30lb pack) fall/slide and what is the worse that will happen from said fall/slide?”
In this case, the snow field was steep indicating a possible fast descent followed by a certain bottoming-out at the base of the hillside which might simply mean – a long slow climb back up the snow to regain the ground lost, with a big assumption that no limbs were contorted in the downhill slide. Strangely, that scenario was of some comfort in this case.
Two days prior, in the wet and slippery ravines we had crossed, sometimes the risk of injury was a complete unknown. The line of sight would drop off over a ledge– perhaps to another valley or possibly a cliff. Those were intense moments that had heightened my focus, and the deliberateness of every foot placement and hand hold – to ensure the unknown, stayed unknown.
On the snow now, with the crampons and trekking poles, the risks of slipping or sliding felt somewhat under control. We had also brought ice axes for the trip, unsure of whether we might really need them. At the base of the first snow bank, Scott and I had decided our trekking poles provided more stability and would hopefully prevent ever needing to use the ice axe. Tim, unconventional as always, chose to stabilize himself by extending a leg on his tripod. He had lost his ice axe somewhere along the Cat Walk.
We realized it was gone at Boston Charlie’s and couldn’t imagine that we had missed seeing or hearing it fall off. We figured that it must have been laid aside after the bear canister incident and didn’t make it back on to the pack after re-securing the canister. I had asked the two hikers at Boston Charlie’s to look for it and return it to the ranger, if they chose to turn back over the Cat Walk. Once we met them the next morning, heading our same direction, we knew there was no chance of getting it back. Of all the things to sacrifice to the Cat Walk, I was glad it was the ice axe and not the bear canister. It had become clear that the nature of this trail was not a giving one. It was making extractions from us not only physically, but personally and materially attempting to pluck off or destroy our possessions at whim.
|Deborah enjoying the view
* * *
As we came closer to reaching the top of the ridgeline, the trail set about making its next extraction – this time from Scott. He had been moving higher on the hillside above both Tim and I, and was now to a point directly above me – not a place of comfort in the event of a mis-step for the person below. My eye watched his movements, as I made mine. Then, just as Scott took his next step, a gust of wind came over the ridge and surprised him. It caught his hat enough to fling it from his head, away from his grasp, and down to the snow a few feet behind him. Scott didn’t want to risk any sudden movement, or turn around so close to the top, so he silently made the call to leave it where it landed – and kept moving toward the top. Tim, nor I, were in a position to easily maneuver to it and made the same decision to press on to the top and not look back. Scott lamented over his beloved hat every time the sun made a strong appearance after that – the hat had been his for many years, through many hikes – now it was simply a marker for where he had been.
* * *
I was determined to not let the trail target me for any extractions other than material, if I could help it, especially mental. After experiencing Scott’s fall and personal struggle to keep going, it was evident that this trip was going to be unlike anything, any of us, had ever done. And of the three, I was the least ‘qualified’ to be out here in many ways. I didn’t have anything to contribute in the way of trail finding or navigation, no survival training, nothing but what I could muster from inside. So, I committed myself to facing every challenge I was pointed to with a “let’s just go” mantra, always looking to make the next step with confidence, never letting fear take hold, not taking for granted any graces given to us along the way, and most of all lending whatever support and encouragement was needed in the moment to Tim and to Scott to keep them sane and thinking clearly. It was the most that I could do, and yet seemed the least of all, as Tim and Scott battled to crack the trail code with every step.
This first section out of Ferry Basin and up the first snowfield traverse was to be matched and surpassed by others as the day wore on. Further on, the trail became non-existent at times – taking twists and turns that put the mental maps Tim had etched into his subconscious, after many hours of trail research, to the ultimate test.
* * *
We were rewarded at the top of our first snowfield traverse, with site of a rocky trail and quickly made our way over and packed up our crampons.
Finally, we were walking the edge of the Bailey range with views to our left of the valley we had seen earlier and to our right the string of snowy peaks we had first seen – only a couple hours ago. For a few moments our spirits lifted as we followed the rocky trail past an awesome campsite perched on the ridge, then down into the next section of ridgeline. Confidence grew as the trail was now matching what both Tim and Scott had researched.
But as quickly as the trail appeared to normalize with our stated expectations, it again disappeared into a snow-covered section with more searching for footsteps to point us in the right direction, up another high snow-covered ridgeline. Our hopes of a rocky ridgeline walk the rest of the way were starting to wane. We dropped down again and came face to face with the next section.
My breath was taken away immediately. It seemed magnified in size from what we had done so far. The snow field was ma-a-s-s-sive (about 4-5 football fields stretching between two peaks) with indications of crevasses in sections, possibly a river forming underneath on the side closest to us, and the appearance of a small glacial lake taking shape at the low point of the field with all sides continuing to funnel down past the lake further out of sight from our vantage point. From where we were standing above the snowfield, we could see it was butted up against the edge of a steep and craggy part of the ridgeline and appeared to have no other way around on the opposite side.
Tim headed down to scout for the route. I was frozen still, frantically scanning for a rocky trail that would divert us around and away from having to head straight into this massive snow field. Seeing no signs of trail, my involuntary responses took over my body and I was forced to hunt for some place in the shale to relieve myself of all internal contents. Never before had a snowy mountain had such a cleansing effect on me. In the midst of that humbling experience, crouched down behind the largest rock I could find, Scott began calling for me to “get my pants up” and head down after Tim. Scott had given up on finding an alternate route. And, Tim was already making his way well across the dreaded snow field. I realized I had no choice but to follow.
Tim was tracing the footsteps of what he believed was an experienced mountaineer that had left crampon and ice axe imprints in the snow. That made sense on some level, but each of us again, later, admitted along the way fighting doubts about whether that meant the way out, or that we were trailing some climber off to bag all the peaks. What I did know is that those tracks were probably the best indication of the safest place to walk in a landscape for which none of us had any proven experience to draw on.
We made it through the massive snow field only to be faced with another decision atop the next ridgeline where we saw tracks way below in a small basin that seemed to head back up on the other side, and a trail right next to us that stayed high. After some debate, we opted for staying high and continued to make our way along the ridge, weaving in between more mountain crags, following more tracks in the snow.
It was at this point, Tim and Scott lost all sense of the maps matching anything we saw around us. We were to have crossed Bear Glacier and dropped into a valley after crossing only a couple snow fields from the time we left Ferry Basin. We had crossed so many at that point in the day, and there was no sign of the ridgeline dropping any time soon. We kept seeing more peaks and more snow ahead. None of these were recognizable landmarks of the trail we intended to be on.
Just about that time, Scott and I both tapped out our water supply. None of us had eaten since breakfast and it was nearing six o’clock. We were still walking the snow and saw no evidence indicating we would come to a campsite of any kind relatively soon. Scott started asking me whether I had camped on snow before. I dreaded the thought in our ultra-lite tents and no winter gear. I guess the reality of our situation really sunk in for Scott and he got a surge of adrenaline. He pushed ahead of both Tim and I, up the next snow hill. I could tell Tim had reached his mental and physical limit awhile ago (no obscenity was left unused that afternoon, but I’m sure Mother Nature had heard them all before). He and I trudged forward, but agreed we had to stop soon, somewhere.
Unbelievably, Scott reappeared at the top of the hill, hollering down he had found campsites and more evidence of trail. I was so incredibly grateful for the news, until I rounded the hill, and saw a rocky exposed bluff and down below another massive snow field with Mt Olympus rising up off to the side. Clouds started closing in almost immediately creating close to white out conditions. This was NOT the campsite I had envisioned for the night. On top of that there was no water around, only snow.
Tim and Scott scouted around the bluff in the clouds to see if we could make our way further, before our view was closed off completely. I had no desire to head into the clouds or out onto another snow field. As Tim returned, the decision was made – we were calling this desolate spot “camp” for the night. It was as though the clouds were there for our safety, forcing us to accept the campsite and our circumstances and do our best to rest. It was going to be dark soon as well, and the temperature was dropping.
We agreed to set up only one tent and keep together for warmth, as it felt like the temps were already in the 40s, and we had no idea what the clouds were going to bring over night. Tim had a little water left that we divided up to keep somewhat hydrated over night. Scott braved the cold to have a quick no-cook dinner outside the tent. Tim had changed into his sleep clothes and then collapsed in a heap with no desire for food. After setting up our mats and quilt inside the tent with Tim, I couldn’t bear the cold again. I scrambled out and retrieved a package of tuna and decided no bears could possibly want to come up here, even if they could. Scott patiently waited as I woofed down a bag of tuna in the tent, and then we all nestled in.
Once again, Scott told story after story to keep our minds off of the immediate circumstances. It was clear we were working as a team, contributing what we could to keeping us all together and well enough to push forward the next day. Eventually, we all drifted off to sleep, wondering if the clouds would break up, so we could move further, or not. Once again, I was surprised at how warm and comfortable the tent was in near winter conditions. Sleep came easily in spite of the circumstances.