Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cathedral Lake in Fall, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades

Upper Cathedral Lake is one of the most photographed scenes in the Pasayten Wilderness, especially in the fall when the larch trees turn a brilliant gold against the backdrop of Cathedral Peak and Amphitheater Mountain.  The still evening waters of the lake reflect the scenes well.

There are several ways to approach the lake.  Since the approach from Cathedral Provincial Park in Canada is illegal (and logistically challenging), we'll rule that one out.

A lengthy, though scenic approach is from Horseshoe Basin.  This also requires driving to Tonasket near the Canadian border east of the Pasayten Wilderness - a long drive from the Seattle area.

The next common approaches are from north of Winthrop, driving the Chewuch River Road.  There are two trails leaving this road that will get you to Cathedral Lake:  The Chewuch River trail and the Andrews Creek trail.
The Chewuch River trail is the slightly shorter trail - 20 miles to the lake, with an elevation gain of 3,929'.  Though lacking in views most of the way, it is likely the safest trail for travel on breezy/windy days.

I followed the 100 Hikes recommendation of Harvey Manning and Ira Spring and hiked in via the Andrews Creek trail.  This route takes you over scenic Andrews Pass and arrives at Upper Cathedral Lake - 21 miles and 4,900' gain later.

Unbeknownst to me (poor research on my part), the entire valley of Andrews Creek (and more) was burned in the 2003 Farewell fire.  This created two unforeseen issues for my trip.

The first challenge was beginning my hike in the evening with plans to camp along the trail a short ways in.  The valley is carpeted in downed trees and churned up rocks.  There is no bare ground to be find until about 5 miles in.  I found a nice, flat sandy area very near the former 5.5 Mile trail junction marker (the side trail has been obliterated - at least down low).

The second issue was with the few remaining upright trees.  While my hike in was under calm conditions, my retreat was in high winds with blowing snow.  I nervously listened to the sound of creaking and groaning trees the entire way out (14 miles of burn), and counted 5 loud crashes behind me - one only 100 or so yards away.

That being said, hiking over Andrews Pass, though mostly burned, was quite scenic.  Historic Spanish Cabin was also a nice treat to visit.

No matter which route you choose, it is a long haul and you will want to pick your camera gear wisely with weight in mind.  I benefitted mostly from my 24-70mm lens, and some from my 17-40mm lens.  I was happy with my choices.

Cathedral Lake is definitely the highlight of the area and the area to focus on.  Don't forget Cathedral Pass. 

The downside of beginning your stay here is that the other lakes won't impress.  If Cathedral Lake is the dessert, the other lakes are more like the vegetables; Lower Cathedral Lake is down in a forested hole, and Remmel Lake is in open, rolling tundra with little supporting cast.

I camped at the west end of the lake for the views of Cathedral Peak across the lake.  There were many compositions I wished to play with here, and I had a lot of fun doing so.

One thing I found out about the lake is that it has a LOT of fish in it, and towards evening they begin their feeding frenzy very near the shore, frustrating you if a wide-angle reflection shot is on your menu.  Good luck with those jumping fish!

Another composition I wished to work was from the other side of the lake, looking back on Amphitheater Mountain.  I never got the opportunity to do so though, as a system moved in, which I knew was forecast to stay awhile.  I exited a day early, leaving this opportunity for another time.

I also would have liked to spend more time photographing around Cathedral Pass - a short 10 minute walk from the lake.  I highly recommend exploring this area, and even consider the easy scramble up Cathedral Peak.

While I wasn't impressed with Remmel Lake, there is a very scenic basin full of larch above it under the summit of Amphitheater Mountain on the south side.  To get there, walk the trail back toward the Lower Cathedral Lake junction, and find the junction with trail #565.  This trail stays mostly level as it traverses beautiful alpine country around the west shoulder of Amphitheater Mountain, before climbing up its gentle south slope up into this scenic upper basin.

As for wildlife, goats frequent the area and were regular visitors to my campsite.  I never saw them though.  They always visited during the night hours, and all attempts to rush out of my tent and catch sight of them with my headlamp proved futile.  As soon as I got back in my tent, I could hear their hooves come racing back, likely hoping I had urinated somewhere close by.

Evening offers the best light for this area.  The morning sun arrives late thanks in large part to Amphitheater Mountain running along the south side of the lake.  The sun didn't hit my tent until shortly after 10:00 am.

My itinerary was as follows:

I arrived at the TH and began my hike at 4:30 pm, with hopes of getting a few miles under my belt before sunset.  I reached camp 5.5 miles in around 7:15, shortly after sunset.

The next morning I started out at 7:30 and hiked the remaining 14.5 miles to Cathedral Lake, arriving shortly after 2:00 pm.  This gave me plenty of time to set camp and explore composition possibilities for that evening.

I spent the next day exploring around the other lakes as previously mentioned, as well as the pass above.  These are all in pretty close proximity and don't take long.

That evening, as expected, a system moved in after sunset (giving me great cloud action at sunset).  I awoke to a dusting of snow in the morning, and icy cold conditions.  Knowing the system was forecast to stay for a couple of days, and having nothing further to spend my day exploring, I decided to bail. 

I figured I could make the 21 miles out to the road in a single day, but knew I had the option of camping along the way if needed.  I left camp in blowing snow at 7:10 am, and reached the road around 3:30 pm, with blowing snow all but the last 4 miles.  This was a pretty motivated retreat, but I really didn't want to camp another night in the burn area, especially in high winds.

My final word of recommendation is to pack warm if visiting this area in the fall.  At 7,400' elevation, Cathedral Lake is open to sudden changes in the weather, and the area can turn winter-like at a moment's notice.

Hindsight:  It likely would have been safer to exit via the Chewuch River trail and hike the short road distance back to my vehicle.

I also wish I had explored the area around Apex Pass and the Tungsten cabins and mine.  From Cathedral Pass, Apex Pass didn't look like much, and was at a lower elevation.  I did not learn about the Tungsten cabins until after my return.  Again, a reason to re-visit.

Finally, I'm glad I made visiting the Thirtymile Fire Memorial a priority during my visit (see previous post).  I highly recommend you do too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Remembering the Thirtymile Fire and Lives Lost

Only July 10th, 2001, four firefighters lost their lives in a fierce fire that suddenly and unpredictably changed direction, trapping them in the Chewuch River Valley.  The loss of innocent lives devastated their families and friends, and the communities they were trying to protect.  It was a sad day in Washington and firefighting history.

I still remember where I was when this devastating event took place.  I was in the North Cascades doing the Eldorado - Austera traverse; a high alpine traverse over several glaciers in one of the park's most wild of places.  We summited four summits in one day on this glorious trip.  We had a high camp at Klawatti col, with an amazing view of Eldorado and the massive Eldorado glacier before us.  Life was grand.  We didn't want to leave.

Shortly after descending, we heard the news.  It took all the wind out of our sails.  Talk about a reality check right to the gut.

An abandoned campfire was blamed for the cause of the fire, which, in tinderbox conditions, erupted quickly and ferociously into a devastating firestorm that swept up the Chewuch River valley.  Fourteen firefighters and two hikers became trapped when the fire suddenly changed direction and surrounded them, cutting off their escape route.

Down the road where firefighters were running in retreat, the wall of fire advanced at an estimated rate of 125 feet per minute under the strong winds.

This is the short version.  From here, the details get complicated.  I highly recommend visiting John McLean's website.  Warning:  Even his website is "can't put it down" reading.

Fast forward to 2014, I found myself planning a trip to the Pasayton Wilderness for the first time since this historic event.  Call me late to the dance.  While I was excited about my venture into this new land, targeting a lake famed for its larches, I also was determined not to leave without visiting the memorial I had heard about, honoring these brave firefighters.  My trip would be incomplete otherwise.

First I must set the stage by describing my hike up Andrews Creek and the sheer awe I felt upon viewing the scene.  I had no idea the size of the fire, or that it even jumped over to this drainage.  As I rounded a bend and got to a vantage where I could see up the valley, there were nothing but burnt trees as far as the eye could see - from valley floor all the way to the ridge top.  It didn't end.  13 miles later as I neared Andrews Pass, the hillsides remained the same; nothing but devastation.  This fire was massive; beyond anything I had imagined.

Back at my vehicle 42+ miles later, it was time to seek out the memorial and pay my respects.

Driving up the road, I first came to the roadside pullout signs.  I don't typically stop for these, but this time I just had to.  The signs were incredible, with amazing photographs of the firestorm and firefighters, and very detailed accounts of the events that unfolded.  I found myself re-reading each one, buying time for my senses to catch up, and trying to fathom the size and magnitude of this catastrophe.

As I neared the last two signs, I noticed the pullout was paved and there was a small walkway leading away.  It was the time of truth.  My heart grew heavy.

As I read the last two signs, I became aware that I was standing in the middle of where the event took place.  My SUV was parked in the exact spot as a van, who's lone occupant survived the ordeal with only a melted license plate frame.  Above me on the boulder field was the scene where the emergency shelters were deployed, ultimately succumbing to the heat of the fire.  Below me was the river, where refuge was sought.  Where did those hikers come from out of nowhere, complicating the survival plan?  It was intense reading.

I had not seen pictures of the memorial leading up to my visit, so I didn't know what awaited me.  My expectations were of a very classy, well-done memorial honoring the efforts of the firefighters who lost their lives.

As I rounded the corner of the paved walkway, I was surprised at what I saw.  The memorial was decorated with remembrance items from fire departments, search and rescue organizations, respectful individual visitors, and more.  The sight was overwhelming.

What's more, all these years later and there are no signs of disrespect to be seen.  No graffiti, no vandalism, just an outpouring of love and a collection of undisturbed remembrance items, from signed t-shirts to personal notes and offerings.

If you find yourself in the Winthrop area of Washington, the Thirtymile Fire Memorial is a must visit.  Your emotions will take over, and I dare you to leave with a dry eye.

The memorial is easily found.  Turn up the West Chewuch Road (county road), which turns into forest service road #51.  The memorial is 21 miles up the road, on the left side.

Don't miss it.