October 8, 2018
Lake Catherine Outlet, 11,025 ft
Thanks to Double Tapp (Matt Parker) who provided his notes from a recent traverse of this route, as we have the perfect campsite tonight, at 11,025 ft, with the sound of water trickling underneath the empty space between the rocks, sure to lull us to sleep. We arrived here at 5:30 pm and given the nature of the terrain that lies ahead, we needed to stop here and camp. The area surrounding us is all granite, with a few tufts of yellow grass, we haven’t seen a tree for miles. The views are spectacular though, some of the best I’ve seen in my life, as we are at the back side of Banner and Ritter just beyond the deep blue, pure waters of Lake Catherine. How we got here? It wasn’t your average seven miles, I’ll tell you that much.
I was looking over the map this morning while sipping my coffee, and thinking, I like maps, I really love to study them. On all of my hikes I always make sure I have a good map, and I look over it every day, several times a day. This is usually for my enjoymeent and also because I really want to get better at map reading and navigation. Well, one of the things I like about the SHR, is that you MUST look at your map, or you don’t know where to go. This morning I looked over the maps out of necessity, and for pretty much all of today, with the exception of about a mile or two at most, was map-requiring cross country travel.
From our campsite near Lake Ediza, we needed to curve up the slope Northward and then around to the East, following a contuor line through the forest, climbing up out of the trees to grassy, rocky hillsides. Our first objective of the day was Whitebark Pass. For the most part it was super straightforward and pretty easy terrain, thank goodness. What was way above average however, were the views of Banner and Ritter as we started the climb. This route seems to be wrapping us around these two magnificent peaks, almost a circumnavigation, affording the hiker to witness nearly every side of these massifs, first from off in the distance, and now up close and personal.
One of my favorite authors, Joan Halifax, writes about how the mountain disappears as you climb it. How the closer to the mountain you become, the more you loose the sense of being separate from the mountain and become the mountain you climb. In this process of loosing your sense of self, you are no longer separate from the mountain, you are the mountain and the mountain is you. Earlier this Summer, while on the Colorado trail, I learned that the mountain is the medium to work on yourself. The mountain, the trail, the wilderness, holds the space to heal and to learn. I am both healing and learning. It is brilliant and humbling.
Looking over the maps and reading our notes from Roper and now my friend Double Tapp, I gathered that after passing 1,000 Island Lakes today, we will be dealing with a lot of slow going talus fields. You know, the tedious ones that just go on and on. But I will get to all that in a moment. Whitebark Pass was a lovely high point that we reached fairly easily. We snapped the oligitory photos at the top and from there we saw the lakes below, Garnet and 1,000 Island. Now the tough part. There was still a bunch of snow from a few days ago, on the North side of this pass, the side we had to go down. The Lakes look so close and I just want to be there, but first I have to descend 500 feet of talus. Well, let’s just do this, I think, and begin.
If this descent were just snow, that would be one thing, but the entire descent is all talus, anything from the size of your head to the size of a table at the largest. Now, imagine all the little holes, crevices, pockets and loose nature of these rocks, drop 6 inches of snow all over them, and try to walk downhill on it with a big backpack. Yep, it sucked. Hurlgoat is much more adept than I am at descending, and also at talus, whereas I am slow, slow, slow. I just can’t get past the fact that I could get very injured, and Idon’t feel my body can compensate so well with a mis-step, so I take my time to ensure that every step is solid and feels ok. I’m just not willing to surrender and loose control in a situation like this.
Not only that, going downhill, my knees really feel the pressure and so I go even slower. I am often using other rocks to hang onto and take the pressure off my knees by using my hands for balance. I am also often sitting right on my butt, one knee pressed up against my chest while the other leg dangles to reach a step far below. I am often using two hands to hold my body and pack weight like I’m doing dips, and then I lower my body and pass my feet and legs through a narrow slot. There is so much that is precarious about cross country travel of this nature, and now we’ve added fresh snow to the picture.
By the time I made it to solid ground, Hurlgoat had already been sitting on a rock for somewhere around 20-30 minutes. I felt bad for being so slow, but grateful he waited for me. I know if he were alone, when he was alone, he moves much faster and makes more miles. I find myself thinking often, maybe this cross country stuff isn’t for me. I prefer a trail, I like the dirt, the solid ground, and knowing that my feet will land and stay where I put them. I also like to make miles and get into a rhythm of walking, and this rhythm of stop and go, teeter and totter, nearly slipping but saving myself with a jolt, is agonizing. I am not embarrased to admit this. The main benefit of getting through these segments, however, are the massive rewards of beauty. And here, they are second to none. So, then, I trudge on to the next landmark.
We meadnered along a little faint trail that crossed an “isthmus” between 1,000 Island Lake and another small lake, and we found a great spot to have an early lunch. We sat there staring straight up at Banner Peak, with the little lake in the foreground, and sun shining down upon us. We took the opportunity to dry out all our gear, tents, rain flys, sleeping bags, everything was on display, like a garage sale.
Hurlgoat’s fuel canister unfortunately had leaked yesterday, so he is getting low on fuel. But that didn’t stop him from toasting his bagels with melted butter in the pan. I laughed at him, at his dilemma. “What should I do, I am almost out of fuel?” he says rhetorically. But I threw him an answer “just don’t toast your bagel” I offered. “What? That’s crazy, you have to toast a bagel, who eats a raw bagel?” I laugh at him and know if he runs out of fuel, he will figure something else out to continue cooking his food. He’s resourceful.
Over lunch, we looked over the maps and notes and saw that we had a lovely 1,200 ft climb up to Glacier Lake Pass. The lovely part came at the beginning. We crossed several creeklets that melted off the towering peaks and formed little rivulets and even some waterfalls in places. The entire hour of walking uphill after lunch was orchestrated by the sound of water trickling over rocks, cascading along, creating a wonderful soundtrack. The sun was very warm today and I contemplated going all the way down to t-shirt level. I pushed up my sleeves instead, knowing the higher we got the colder the wind would become.
That first few hundred feet along the creeks and on nice, soft grasses was lovely. Then, we hit our first snow field. No that bad, it was nice, crunchy snow. It was the first stage in the true climb to the pass and so I took the opportunity to take a quick bathroom break. Hurlgoat got ahead of me and I tried to catch up to no avail. I decided to put on my microspikes at this point, because, well, I was carrying them for snow, right?
After that first snow field, when the land leveled out a bit, we reached a long field of talus. We had to first cross it, and then climb it. And it, too, was covered in fresh snow. Awesome. Well, what can I do? I think. I start making my way now over the same exact terrain that we’d negotiated down from Whitebark Pass, but now it was a climb. I really tried to be patient and keep my cool, I had no choice. But so many times over the course of the next hour and a half, maybe two hours, I wanted so badly to just give up and cry. Seriously, it was so much to deal with. I don’t think Hurlgoat felt this way, I am sure he didn’t, he crusied through seemingly easily, and was ahead of me by 30 minutes or more. I just can’t go fast like that. Every step seems like it could end in a disaster.
I try to stay on deeper snow to gain traction, which sometimes works. I’ve got my spikes on and there is a lot of black polished granite and I can’t tell if I will slip or not when I am about to step onto it, so I am so so very careful. My trekking poles act as testers to see how deep the snow is and if there is anything solid underneath. Much of the time I hit a rock, and then I know I can step down and put my weight on it. Other times I hit big holes that seem to swallow my entire pole. I stomp down on the snow to make a platform, which sometimes works and other times ends in a deep crevasse that I absolutely do not want to step into or else loose a leg.
I negotiate the terrain like this for an eternity, occasionally stopping to take a break, get my bearings, look around, see where I need to aim or how much further it is to the next landmark. I get into an area that is blocked by the sun and suddenly the foreboding feeling feels even worse, like I am running out of daylight, I must hurry! But I can’t. I just can’t. I reach a jammed up section and look around for a way to pass through. Several times I’m feeling totally locked into the spot I am standing on, precariously balanced, where to go now? It seems in every direction there is danger, what the hell can I get across? I glance over to the large snowfield in the sun, the one below the pass, this is my target. I just need to get to the snow, I keep telling myself. I know I will get there, I know it, but it seems so damn far away right now.
As I am negotiating all this, Hurlgoat makes it to the notch that we think is the pass, and he hollers out “owhoooooo” and I am just annoyed that he is howling for joy while I am still down here, having no fun whatsoever. It was shit. These are the moments that I think this is not for me. I just want to walk on the ground, I want a trail dammit! And then I come to my senses and tell myself to just keep moving. You will get there, you chose to do this didn’t you? You knew this was going to be hard. And to quote Mother Theresa, “this too shall pass”.
Finally I am within about 10 boulders of the large snow field and the sun. I think of this as my saving grace and I focus intently on making it there. When I do, the snow is knee deep most of the time. Did I also mention that I am in shorts and trail runners? So, no, I can’t feel my feet and the snow scrapes at my skin. I dig in, at least there is nothing to fall down and crack my head open on here. I dig in some more. My trekking poles sometimes sink into the handle the snow is so deep in places. I root around to make sure everywhere I do step will hold me, and mostly the snow is up to my knees. My poles are not much good, no snow baskets and so they sink in quite far. I trudge and trudge up this slope until I can see Hurlgoat waiting for me in some rocks and he has his video camera out, capturing it all. Nice.
I finally reach the end of the snow field and then guess what? More boulders covered in snow and a slope that is easily 40 degrees, leading to the notch that we think is the pass. I am now hand over hand in the rocks and snow making those last few pitches to the notch. I get up there and Hurlgoat congratulates me, his enthusisam is welcome but I don’t show it, I simply stare straight ahead and feel defeated.
He lets me know that this is, in fact, not the pass yet. Of course it’s not! We still have more talus and boulders and snow to cross and climb. I don’t even stop, I can’t stop now, I can’t stop until this torture is over, I’m in the zone. I felt bad for being so grumpy but I had nothing in me to give him in that moment. He picked up his pack and followed me, soon passing me. We made our way up more rocks and another very steep slope with talus and snow that led finally to the actual Glacier Lake Pass at 11,129 ft.
I started to relax on that last segment up to the pass, as we were doing it together and we could talk. I think that helps me in these situations. I really dislike feeling like I am all alone out there and somebody is waiting for me ahead, just waiting because I am so slow. So we celebrated, cheered and laughed when we finally made it, and I tell you what, the views from up there are top notch. At this point we are loking at the back side of Banner and Ritter and this enormous Glacier/Snow field that permanently sits between them, connecting them.
Below these beauties lies Lake Catherine. Her classy, elegant, deep blue water, sparkling into the heavens. There is mist and swirling clouds around the peaks and more clouds building in the distance. The route takes us West, into the Sun and the light glitters on the surface of Lake Catherine, such a welcome, beautiful, nourishing sight. We have to negotiate more boulders and more talus the entire way down and along the shore of the lake, but at least now there is no snow. Very little, at least. I took off my spikes and enjoyed the grippy nature of my shoes on the snow-free rocks. This seems so easy now and I could travel with confidence!
We found a faint little trail with actual dirt and grass and I wanted to kiss the ground I was so relieved. Then, after only minutes, we were back on the talus, that faint trail alrady a memory. I was just so glad to be done with the snow and lack of sun. My feet were soaked, numb and hurting on the climb up to the pass, but so much better now. Sure they were still soaking wet, but at least not totally frozen. I can feel my feet again! The beauty of the area was like medicine for my hurting soul, making it all seem like it might be worth it. You reach a certain point in every day when you think, the worst part is over….this was definitely that point in the day.
I have never seen such beauty as this, we are sitting in the most austere, remote environment, camping under the big open sky. We are the only people here, and we wonder how many have ever passed through here? We sit nesteled under boulder protection, layered up completely, tucked in sleeping bags as we cook our dinners and wait for toes to defrost. Later, tucked into bed, we have our shoes slipped inside our rain pants, and then tucked inside our sleeping bags, along with batteries, shoe inserts, my keyboard, water filter, and wet socks and gaiters in a zip lock bag. What else can I fit in the foot of my bag? Thank goodness for sleeping bags we say! And for Western Mountaineering bags at that! I love love love this bag, have I ever mentioned that before?
Seriously, though. I feel so lucky that this is my life. I am so comfortable living out here, living in this way. I know my way around the wilderness, I know this life better than any other life right now. Even though today was tough, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I knew what I was getting myself into when I started this trek. And so, though I don’t know if this kind of cross country travel is really for me, the life I live out here definitely IS. How many people have passed through here? How many people have done what we just did today? Seen this beauty we are seeing? No doubt, we may have only made seven miles all day today, but it truly was not your average seven miles.