It happened again. Just like my attempt five years ago, we had to abort our attempt to cross Dome Peak because a party member rolled an ankle on steep heather.
Five years ago, fog rolled in the night before our big day crossing the Chickamin Glacier, climbing over a shoulder of 8860 foot Dome Peak and descending to join the classic Ptarmigan Traverse route through the North Cascades to Cascade Pass. One member of our party rolled his ankle crossing a steep slope of wet heather, even though he was wearing high-top climbing boots.
This year it was a different group but the same result. The treacherous heather slopes claimed another ankle just before we reached beautiful Hanging Gardens, the delightful ridge close to Dome Peak.
After testing negative for COVID-19 and driving together to Fields Point Landing on Lake Chelan, John Serkowski, Dave Clark, and I took the Lady Express up lake to the landing at Lucerne. We walked eleven miles on the road to the outskirts of Holden Village, which was closed to “outsiders” because of the pandemic. After skirting the village on a detour through a mine-tailing reclamation site, we walked to our rather forgettable first camp at Hart Lake.
The next day we climbed to lovely Cloudy Pass, which provided fields of wildflowers and expansive views of the Lyman basin.
After descending to Suiattle Pass, we followed the Pacific Crest Trail a mile before traversing westward on the Miners Ridge Trail to the heather-covered basin holding famed Image Lake. We left our packs above and descended to the lake to soak our feet and savor the beauty of the setting. Brilliant white Glacier Peak dominated the view across the Suiattle Valley.
We saw the last people for three days as we left the basin and dropped slightly to our second camp, giving us our first views north to Dome and Sinister Peaks.
This is where travel became challenging. There is a four-mile trail from Image Lake basin to Canyon Lake, but it’s not maintained anymore. Logs across the trail block progress through the forested sections. John and I talked of returning with saws to remove the smaller logs and shears to trim the encroaching limbs and brush. Yet a higher section of the trail that rose above the forest provided splendid views across flowering meadows to both Glacier Peak to the south and Dome and Sinister to the north. It is a trail worth saving!
The trail ends at Canyon Lake, a pristine subalpine pool surrounded by high walls on three sides. This lake must be rarely visited as there was no evidence of established campsites. We hoped to find a boot-beaten path to Totem Pass, 1000 feet above, but mostly had to make our way through dense forest and up steep meadowed slopes. From the pass we glissaded (deliberately slid) down a snow slope and then to get to the Hanging Gardens we had to traverse 1.5 miles across slopes of boulders, rock slabs and heather that were quite steep in places. We made good progress, but it was just as we approached the ridge holding the Hanging Gardens that Dave slipped on some steep heather and rolled his ankle, not once but twice. He was able to continue to our camp in the gardens, but his ankle swelled as we set up camp.
The Hanging Gardens were both enchanting and spectacular. Our camp offered stunning in-your-face views of the south faces of Dome and Sinister. The ridge itself is a complex of modest knolls rising above intimate meadow-draped basins for a quarter mile across the ridge and half a mile along it. Wildflowers were in their brightest phase, driving bumble bees delirious. Marmots rambled everywhere. Within a minute of setting out for water, I spotted three young bucks staring at me with concern, and startled a family of ptarmigans at my feet. John and Dave took exploratory ambles of their own. Each of us savored the magical setting.
At Hanging Gardens, we were 32 miles into our 68 mile trek. Given Dave’s injury, we had three options. We could have continued north on the Ptarmigan Traverse as originally planned. That route presented challenges because the next five miles is seldom traveled, so there is no boot-beaten path that makes traveling safer on the more popular classic route further north. It also involved crossing heavily crevassed Chickamin Glacier and finding a way over the 8500 foot shoulder of Dome Peak. The way is sufficiently dangerous that we carried rope, harnesses, equipment for a rescue should one of us fall into a crevasse hidden by the melting snow on the surface of the glacier. We had no idea how Dave’s ankle would fare on the 20 miles of off-trail travel to the trail leading down from Cascade Pass. The last thing we wanted was to call for a rescue should Dave become unable to walk any further.
The second option was to backtrack 13 miles to Suiattle Pass and then descend 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) down Agnes Creek. That route would take a healthy party three days, and would require crossing the same steep heather slopes that had injured Dave’s ankle. It was the option chosen by my party five years ago when faced with the same decision.
The third option was to take a “shortcut” roughly eight miles eastward down the Spruce Creek Valley, meeting the PCT nine miles from the Agnes Creek trailhead. Our maps and the view from camp showed some rather steep terrain, but we would only have to descend it rather than traverse. That was appealing. Yet we knew there were avalanche tracks below that were filled with the dreaded slide alder, which can impede progress dramatically.
With no really good options, we chose the Spruce Creek route. The descent began easily enough and we quickly reached a small meadow that marked the headwaters of the creek. At this point, the slope increased dramatically. The maps and our view from the ridge didn’t show the twenty-foot cliffs that repeatedly forced us to retreat and traverse through brush searching for safer routes down. Following one stream downward led to a fifteen-foot drop that required us to rope up and belay each other down a tricky rock wall. My fingers cramped from repeated grasping at branches to keep me from sliding down the slopes of heather and huckleberry. It took us nine hours to descend 2600 feet in three miles to the valley floor. We set up camp in a small clearing, exhausted.
The second day was not so dangerous, but the avalanche swaths consisted of a nearly impenetrable tangle of slide alder, vine maple, and devil’s club. Through the thickest brush, we traveled only a quarter mile in two hours! Between the avalanche tracks we avoided the slide alder along the creek by traversing through the forest above the valley floor. We tried to walk down the creek itself, but it had too many waterfalls to follow for long. We struggled for eleven hours to cover the five miles to the PCT. Along the way we broke a hiking pole and lost crampon, a water bottle, and a sandal. All of us slipped and fell numerous times, and accumulated numerous gashes in our shins, arms, and heads. Dave sprained his hand in one fall, and both Dave and John were stung by wasps.
We were relieved to find that fording Agnes Creek was much easier than feared. Dave led us to the PCT from there. Never has a trail felt so valued as when we walked the PCT a mile to our final camp and eight more to the trailhead the next day. We didn’t mind that the season’s logs across the trail hadn’t been cleared.
In retrospect, exiting the way we came (the devil we knew) would have been less painful, if not any faster, than our unexplored route (the devil we didn’t know). Even better might have been to do the trip in reverse, hiking first to Cascade Pass and then heading south on the easier established route before venturing over Dome Peak and dropping down to the Hanging Gardens. We’ll try that next time. Third time’s the charm, right?