This story begins as most hiking tales do; with dreams, research and planning. Ever since Conner and I summited Conundrum peak in Colorado, we have discussed hiking many more mountains next time we got together. Based in Seattle, Conner has been working on completing the Bulger list. A catalog of the top one-hundred highest peaks in Washington state. Consisting of many varying challenges, the Bulger list has mountains for every skill level. Seeking multiple isolated peaks to hike together, Conner investigated our options. We decided upon exploring the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness. It promised epic landscapes, seldom trekked back country and several pinnacles to conquer. Our mountaineering goals were set on Star, Courtney and Oval Peaks. Our goal of backpacking these mountains in one trip is called the “Wish Slam”.
Exploring the North Cascades Highway was breathtaking. A roller coaster road seemed to follow the most beautiful scenery available. The red and yellow leaves of fall lit up our surroundings. Mighty old growth woodlands stood timelessly above. Although the ride was enjoyable, both Conner and I were edging to get our boots in the dirt. Following a navigational maze of dirt roads we eventually reached the trailhead.
This trail was perfection. A steady climb meandered between enormous trees and various vegetative zones. Dense fog enveloped much of the valley we were traversing. Fall was in full swing locally. Fierce Red, orange and yellow specimens disrupted the banal green pines. For eight miles we enthusiastically hiked along in utter bliss. Eventually Conner spotted a cairn signifying our turn to Star Lake, our camp destination. With the sunlight fading, a pleasant evening ambience set in.
Discussing the route often. and calling out each cairn we spotted. We navigated many fallen trees and searched endlessly for worn footpath. Finally the terrain began to level out. We were nearing the end of two miles of route finding. Trudging up hill by way of headlamp, I suddenly heard Conner call out from the dim forest. Up ahead he had reached Star Lake. Faint moonlight illuminated the lakeshore, while pale yellow needles defined the waterline. Exhausting any last energy, we hastily set up our tent and made dinner. Although weary, I was excited for our summit hikes the following day.
Beginning a new day, bright blue skies lured us from our tent. Crisp cool mountain air greets us wafting up from the lake. We could not have picked a more striking place to camp. A light dusting of Larch needles blankets the area. Endless ripples fade out at the shoreline. Beyond the lake Star Peak rises steeply. I soak in the soothing silence. The tranquility of the scene permeates my conscious. For a few minutes I stand motionless, communing with the trees. Every struggle of societal life is gone, all that matters currently surrounds me. I find true happiness in nature. There is nothing else I would rather be doing than exploring the mountains. Conner shares my musing, he’s the best hiking partner I could ask for. Together we forge ahead in peace, pleased with the pristine weather.
Once we ascended above the treeline there was a clear view of our path to the summit. As the dense forest faded out along with the trail, there were only boulders. This was one of five main talus ridgelines leading to Star Peak. We high stepped and hand grabbed our way up towards the crest. Eventually taking a break where I broke out my camera gear. The view was spectacular. Fog pooled into the valley, yellow Larches climb the jagged mountains above. I took several images. Trying my best to capture the beautiful blue mood of the scene. This morning we had sunny skies. Now darker weather brewed on the horizon.
Ending our swift break, we headed for the top of the ridge. Cresting the ledge in a pocket of yellow peering into picturesque landscape. Despite lacking a polarizer filter. I managed to capture some of the depth of a rainbow over dreamy Cascades backcountry. Encompassing the entirety of the local views. Gold covered ridgelines were dwarfed by distant peaks obscured by a sea of clouds. I made several images from the main scene. Using my super zoom lens, I highlighted the most scenic landscape on either end of the color spectrum. Forcing myself to return focus to my footwork. I headed up the irregular granite, trailing Conner to the summit.
We found ourselves playfully bounding up the course rockscape. Making our own lines throughout the boulder fields pushing towards the summit. As gleeful as we were, an ominous storm had been developing and was rapidly closing in on our position. The edge of the storm was a face of mist. We trudged on watching it smother nearby Courtney Peak. Within a matter of minutes we found ourselves wet as well. Thankfully we had prepared for this. I snapped a few final images of the storm closing in before tucking my camera away. Immediately following I deployed several trash bags to keep our backpacks dry and we endured on.
Braving the violent and sudden gusts of wind and rain we reached the summit. During the last pitch up, our visuals had dwindled to less than thirty feet. We should have had awe striking mountainscapes! Instead, there were no views of Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Rainier, or the peaks we had planned on summiting this trip. Dull grey rain clouds mocked our accomplishment. While discussing our next course of action, Conner filled out the register. We had planned on hiking a connecting saddle over to Courtney Peak and then down to our campsite. But without any real visuals I ultimately reached the end of my comfort zone. For safety reasons we began the long haul back from where we came. Unrelenting thirty five mile per hour winds continued pelting us with rain. Instead of bounding across the boulder field with ease and fun, we had to be careful of every slippery surface.
We progressed one cautious step at a time to the treeline. Once among the Larches we were able to assess our pathway back to Star Lake below. Carefully cutting across a steep embankment to where the boulders and forest met worked well. Quickly finding a climbers path, we traced it back towards Star Lake. Annoyingly, the weather eased up as we entered the valley. Eventually returning to camp, all the peaks above were still in the thick of the storm. In a matter of hours our hopes for summiting Courtney and Oval peaks had literally vanished into a blank grey slate. Just as sad, the harsh weather kept my camera hidden in my backpack since below the summit. I was enticed by the splendor in photographs from atop these summits. Unfortunately this trek offered nothing of the sort.
Occasionally cold can be an incredible motivator for me. This morning embodied that. Sleeping near the lake through the night’s storm was unforgiving. With ten miles of hiking ahead, we speedily broke camp after sunrise. It was difficult to walk away from this luscious environment. Remote and rugged, it had a serene allure. After three miles of enjoyable forest trail, the foggy sky broke. The valley was already dark and wet from the previous storm. Donning rain gear we dodged the growing puddles and flowing stream following the trail. Just like our trek on Snowmass Mountain, we retreated from the weather with what dignity we had left. Weather always seems to plague our hiking trips. Conner will now have to return to this area to complete the Bulger list. In time we reached the trailhead, thoroughly wet and weary. Hoping for another weather opening to hike in.
Our second destination was a large body of water, Rachel Lake. This stunning slice of Washington was perched on a mountain face overlooking a deep green gorge. Due to the previous rain storms the trail had become a mud bog. Additionally, many of the river crossings were dicey, although still fun carrying full packs. Occasionally the dense tree canopy would dissipate, revealing the sheer Alta Peak above. Eventually the trail opened up nearing the lake. Conner recognized this area and had apparently already visited this place. Regardless we both enjoyed the hike up to our camping destination.
Rachel Lake was an outdoor photographers playground. Scoping every angle around the water, the foliage was bright and lively. Nearby Alta Peak added nice vertical drama. Multiple trails branched out across the ridge overlooking the pond. A few vistas offered striking scenery enhanced by crystal clear skies. Endless forest engulfing all but the sheerest slab rocks. Fresh streams carve through timberland canyons below. I take it all in. Reflecting on the sustainability of this lush ecosystem. I’m sure the many consequences of global warming will continue to decay the Pacific Northwest forests in years to come. This hiking trip had been postponed several weeks due to the fires that ravaged Washington for months. I’m simply happy to have enjoyed these forest areas while they still exist in this state.
We retrace our steps down to the lake for a few chilled beers. Drinking on the mountain shoreline, it was a difficult relaxing spot to beat. Turning around from the glistening lake, a vast valley expands to dwarfed distant peaks. Conner and I watch the sunset in peace. The cold must have driven the crowds away for the night. We reminisce about our epic hikes in Colorado four months earlier. Climbing Conundrum peak for a fourteen-thousand foot sunrise summit will forever be a major highlight of my hiking career. Conundrum was a much needed conquest after warm snow conditions forced us to retreat from the high slopes of Snowmass Mountain. Reflecting on such moments of beauty and determination further inspire my own goals for landscape exploration and photography in Arizona.
I began the following day capturing the sunrise. A flamboyant finale finishing another incredible trip. Pastel orange and pink tones bring promise of warmth to my shivering body. Time has flown by too quickly, I yearn for a few more days in the mountains. As the sun’s direct light reaches Rachel Lake, Conner and I close camp and hit the trail. It was an enjoyable downhill hike, we took our time enjoying the sights around us. As quickly as our trip had gone by, we reached the trailhead. Wasting no time hopping into the car from the brisk air we made our way back to Seattle.
Upon our return to civilization, we spent the remaining afternoon relaxing in the city. I had planned for another full day in Seattle to explore alone. Once this had arrived I was endlessly thankful for the extra hours. Traveling the city by foot with my lightweight camera setup, I searched for a good feel of Seattle life. Thanks to my friend Sydney I grabbed lunch with, I acquired free admission to the EMP museum. The Jimi Hendrix exhibit was particularly interesting. The rest of the music exhibits kept me occupied for some time as well. As the sun fell further to the horizon I headed back to Conner’s flat. Although we may not have completed the Wish Slam, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this trip. Soon after meeting up we were once again parting ways at the airport. Concluding another indelible outdoors vacation with my best friend.