Standing in thigh-deep snow I toe with my right foot, pushing forward with my knee until I feel the scrape of metal on stone. I push off my poles slowly, adjust my center of gravity, and stand on my new foothold. Slowly I bring my left leg up, pendulum at the knee, and beat back the snow, but as I search for another hold my left pole gives way and plunges deeper into the snow, sending me sprawling backwards and sliding several feet until my crampon catches on the base of an evergreen. Lying there I can’t help but think that at least it smells nice.
And how stupid it was to sell my snowshoes.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that hiking in deep snow with crampons is ineffective, but it’s also fairly reckless –its only a matter of time before the spikes on one leg catch the tender flesh of the other. But when you make a last-minute decision to hike to a basin out of season and then oversleep, you work with what you’ve got, and what I’ve got is a set of crampons.
I’d made my decision late last night after feeling the restlessness of a wasted day in the city snarl up my spine. Declarations that “you need these days” or “you need to take time to relax” came from well-meaning family and friends, but they just made me that much more annoyed. Life isn’t for relaxing, I’d think as I responded agreeably, and days off aren’t for catching up on sleep and watching 30 Rock. I mean, Tina Fey is awesome, but not awesome enough when you live somewhere this beautiful.
So I’d leafed through my hiking books and settled on something in the North Cascades/Snoqualmie Baker region since I was on a budget, was flying solo, and was not in a position to shell out $35 in ferry fees (plus gas) to head out to my beloved peninsula. The color coded tabs in my Craig Romano tome led me to a few hikes that I hadn’t checked off this summer, and after checking WTA trail reports and seeing either snow-closed roads or roads on the losing end of a wash out, I opted for Gothic Basin, a popular hike with a lake and some alpine views that would likely be less crowded, being outside the suggested hiking season.
The ride to Gothic is surprisingly easy. The closest town, Granite Falls, is only about an hour from Seattle, and from there it’s a relatively easy 32 miles to the trailhead in the park. You’ll need a Interagency or a Northwest Forest Pass to park, the latter of which you can get from the Lochsloy Store on Granite Falls Highway (along with any other forgotten items *cough* gloves *cough*) for a reasonable price.
The trail starts at a gated former mining road just east of the snow gate for the rest of the park (I’m not sure how accessible this will be once the real snows start coming). Important note: the start is down the road from the parking lot, which marks the beginning of several other trails (including one across the road)–these are not the way to go; look for the threatening signs.
The road ambles for about a mile giving close views of the Sauk river and the surrounding mountains. A comprehensive trail description is available here, but I figured I’d point out a few fuzzy spots that tripped me up (a reminder to always bring a good map, not pictures you take of one with the iPhone they will pry from your smug, tech-savvy hand when you’re found in the spring):
Around the half mile point you’ll come to a bridge that cuts right and goes into some older growth, which is a change you’re looking for. But this isn’t it. Continue straight toward Weden Creek.
Eventually you’ll hit the river, bear right (at about a mile) and come to a kiosk for Gothic Basin. Now you can carry on a bit less perplexed. After another half mile or so you’ll reach a stream crossing, which as the book mentions, can be tricky at high water.
It’s tricky enough at low water. Glad to be wearing waterproof ankle-highs with gaiters and sporting two poles, I made my way over the few logs that offer passage. I’d be prepared to step in the river here; while not wildly steep, slipping while rock/log hopping is not going to be a fun tumble.
Shortly after the crossing the switchbacks began, which made for a steady climb up. I passed an older gentleman and his wife who had stopped for a water break and after hiking a few more minutes decided I should probably take one of my own, along with a bit of a high energy trail food (Warren’s at the bottom).
After about an hour of hiking (maybe 2-3 miles uptrail) the mist turned to snow and the trail sported more white carpet than Scarface’s livingroom. In the sheltered openings between trees the air was still as flakes bonded into clumsy masses on the tops of branches. With the snowcover I realized that I’d be the first one up today–the first one up in a while–there were no other depressions in the trail to indicate a footfall on the snow. It was encouraging to think that I’d be alone at the top. While not a summit or climb of note, it would offer a moment when I’d have a space in time with these mountains; a brief hour in their expansive existence in which they’d allow a lone human to be the sole admirer of their indifferent beauty.
Eventually I left the old growth and ventured out onto the ledge, which gave panning views of the surrounding mountains. As I worked my way around to the south the aspect of the peaks changed, revealing glimpses of far-away snowfields and still-forming cornices. I came to several stream crossings which presented no problems, and continued up my best guess as to where the trail was. The path that had been so clearly defined was becoming increasingly lost in the snowy terrain.
Cresting ridges I began to study routes before walking on, tracing them up as far as I could see, attempting to discern where the actual trail was and what was just open white space. Some of the stream crossings came after navigating steep ledges that ended in the river 60′ below, causing me to mentally double-check who I’d filed my trip plan with. If you’re not comfortable with route finding or traveling on snow, this would probably be the point to turn around.
Betting on my best guess, I continued up the side of the mountain, the snow noticeably getting deeper and spilling over the tops of my gaiters, which I cinched down. Approaching the scramble section (in the summer months, anyway) I decided to throw on my crampons in the hope of getting some toe holds. My pace dropped from about 2 miles an hour to half a mile an hour as I swam through the fluff that refused to bear anything but the lightest weight. Walking in the middle of the trail became one prolonged, off-balance situp in deep snow. Walking on the side in the tougher, impacted snow that fell from the trees bore the risk of post-holing into whatever was below. As the terrain steepened, falling backward began to lose its comical appeal.
Eventually the trail moved back away from the ledge and into the woods, winding through buried streams and to more inclines. I looked at my watch and realized I was at my turn around point, but given that I had a headlamp and a clear path of destruction left in my wake I decided I could push on just over the next lip in the hopes of seeing the basin.
Half an hour later and one toe-spike in the back of my own calf prompted the realization that I would not accomplish my goal. Feeling a sting in my leg and watching grey clouds spill through the notch I decided to heed nature’s warning and postpone my one-on-one with the mountains to a day I was smart enough to bring snowshoes.
Not having to divine routes or travel uphill made my exit a quick one, which was good since the cold grey cloud that enshrouded the terrain had begun unloading a heavy snowfall.
The levels of snow dropped quickly with my descent, and before I knew it I was back in ankle-deep snow wondering if I could have pressed on. I began to notice a new set of tracks, punctuated by a note drawn in the snow that told me my other trail friends had been through.
I was fortunate enough to catch them about a half mile later and chat about the views we had missed, and revel in the ones we had seen. I headed down the trail into the green terrain, stopping briefly to lose a fishing lure in the fast moving river which I refuse to believe holds fish, as no ichthyoid can resist the siren call of a mustacheod man with a collapsible fishing rod.
I walked out of the woods to fading light, still amazed that for a relatively easy hike I’d started on bare ground and wandered into snow topping my hips. There was no no pang of exhaustion on the hike, but as I stripped off my boots and threw them into the car I could feel my tempo slowing. Breath came slowly and deeply, and I felt the disquieting restlessness calm as I relaxed and sat on my bumper, staring off into the trees. I may not have had a culminating accomplishment in the mountains, but even sitting at the trailhead I could feel the frustration drain out and a peacefulness flow in. Maybe not every moment in the woods needs to be straddling a peak that you’ve first-ascended, 30 miles removed from any other human being. Sometimes you commune with the outdoors when you can, even if that’s while you’re sitting at the trailhead reflecting on what you’ve just had the privilege of doing.
I slowly drove the 32 miles out of the park, taking in the evening river views and stopping for the occasional deer. I accelerated quickly on the highway, because life was waiting for me back home in Seattle. And I did have that episode of 30 Rock to watch.
Gothic Basin’s common hiking season is from June-October, though with snowshoes and open roads it could go beyond. Full trip reports are available online, and always remember to bring extra food, water, and clothing (and a headlamp!) just in case.