Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Milk Creek/Royal Basin Loop, 3-5 Aug 2010

The plan was simple...

Will and I would leave work at noon on Friday and head up the Dungeness Trail to Camp Handy, then cross the river and locate a hard-to-find, hard-to-follow way trail up 2 miles to Goat Lake, camp for two days and retrace our steps to the car on Sunday. Easy peasy, right?

All went as planned up to the point where we were to find the elusive Goat Lake way trail. All the books say the beginning and end of this trail are hard to find, but the middle portion is quite navigable. Well we took this into account and searched around a bit until we found what we both felt had to be the proper trail. Our doubts continued throughout the day as we gained and lost the trail climbing the valley up steep walls and through slide areas that, if there ever was a trail 30 years ago (when the description we were using to navigate was written), it was long wiped out in huge rivers of boulder slides being choked out by large groves of slide alder and disfigured evergreens. And for some reason unknown to us, the valley seemed to take a pretty sharp left for one that was straight as a finger on the map. Undeterred, we pressed on. This decision was due in part to the fact that we had just broken free of the dense forest and gained the greatest advantage alpine areas afford the cross-country traveler...visibility. Now that we could see quite a way up the valley, we spotted an area that was sure to contain the lake we sought.
Up and up we went, side-hilling scree slopes until at last we were slogging through saturated alpine meadows. But no lake? This was irritating, but we looked up and spied yet another area that felt like it could contain a lake. We continued this process of failure far longer than we felt appropriate to the 2 miles we knew it would take to reach the lakes from Camp Handy. Even bush-whacking, we should have reached them by now. It was too late for backtracking now as dusk was approaching, so we continued up. We knew we had about 30 minutes of light left and we ought to find a place to hunker down for the night. We continued upward, reaching areas where you had to look hard to see anything besides boulders & snow. We finally reached a flatish area large enough for our needs just as night fell. I pitched my tent at the foot of a huge snowfield where the snowmelt was running swiftly. Although the day had been hot, I knew camping here meant cold winds blowing down the snowfield to settle in the valley at night. I was right. With camp situated, we sat down to eat dinner and watch the stars come out and also the city lights far below us and to the northeast. Afterwards, sitting around a Sterno can as one would a campfire, we chatted a bit and watched several lights just on the horizon darting in circles and back and forth. Sometimes one would dart at the other swiftly and the other would react to it by darting away, then slowly returning or blinking out altogether. We decided that the atmosphere was at work here (being so far away and so low on the horizon). That, or we had just seen some UFO's. Nobody reached for their camera.

This business of a missing Goat Lake didn't seem to bother us as we were safe, comfortable, enjoying every minute of it (except the grueling uphill sections), and had a fair idea that we had simply missed our turn and went one drainage farther than we should have and simply could climb up the ridge tomorrow and drop into the Goat Lake area as intended. With that decided (and it being 11pm), we called it quits. I headed for my tent, while Will got his bivy ready.

The stars really do put on a show if you ever get away from city lights long enough to see it. I got up for several performances throughout the night. The gusts of wind were amazingly cold though and penetrated instantly. Lucky for me I have an outstanding down sleeping bag to jump into as soon as it got too cold.

Morning. My favorite time of day out in the mountains. Everything is possible, nothing is excluded yet. The sun lights up the cliff faces and high, hanging meadows. Morning time is short though, for soon thoughts turn to climbing ridges and peaks and passes in search of “what’s around the next corner”. Possibilities are narrowed, plans set and gear gathered. We are climbing up the ridge first thing, to see if Goat Lakes is just on the other side.

As we climb, we can see our camp get smaller and smaller. As we crested the ridge, we saw a massive basin, complete with a aqua-blue tarn nestled in between a rock slide and an alpine meadow. As we walked the ridgeline a bit, we could see a larger lake down the valley a bit, and I instantly recognized it as Royal Lake. Now I could see the basin we had just discovered was the entire Royal Basin area. With that insight, we could see on the map that we had indeed missed our turn and taken the next one, but we had easily gone an extra 2 miles up. We had camped in the bosom of Mt. Fricaba.

The mystery was solved. So, knowing exactly where we were, there was nothing left to do but explore it thoroughly. The day was spent climbing, side-hilling, glissading down snowpacks, journaling, reading…I even took a nap in a warm tent away from the chilly gusts.

I’d seen Will eyeballing the summit of Mt. Fricaba earlier in the day, and when I rolled out of my tent from my nap, he had just started off on his quest. Having my binoculars and knowing where he intended to go, I walked up the snow chute to a good vantage point of the ridge he would be taking and watched him all the way up and back down. Well done Will!

As we ate dinner, we discussed simply climbing over the ridge and down into Royal Basin tomorrow and hiking the trail out instead of bushwhacking back the way we came. That sounded good to both of us so it became the plan.

Both mornings saw below freezing temperatures and made snow travel on an incline a dicey proposition. With that thought, we picked our way down the basin wall with care, discussing proposed routes and weighing our options. We did great and were having a great time until we found that we had actually boxed ourselves into a pickle. We discovered that the snow chute we were side-stepping was in fact fully intact on both sides of us. A long, steep climb was one option, but we spied a bare, boulder patch in the top third of the snow field and decided to test the traction of the snow. We grabbed a sharp rock (there are plenty around) and began hacking some crude footholds to get over to where we could let go and slide to, hopefully safely. Will went first. He picked up speed quick, but managed to stop himself before continuing down the rest of the icy snow to what was sure to be at least many broken bones. Next was my turn. For whatever reason, I had none of the slipping problems Will had and could shimmy my way down with relative control. We continued this process another time and reached our goal smiling and enjoying every minute of it.

An hour and a half after leaving camp, we reached the meadows of Royal Basin and were soon stepping foot on the trail at the foot of the upper basin. With the luxury of a trail under our feet, we made excellent time, and reached the car two and a half hours later.

In the big picture we did almost nothing according to the original plan, but neither of us cared or would have changed anything.