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The Endless Quest for Snow
posted by John : December 5, 2008

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At least it's cold

Since the beginning of November when the mountains saw their first snow I've been on the hunt. The first outing was pretty successful. Then it rained (a lot) and the snow went away. Just at the last minute it got cold again and the last of the rain fell as snow so we had a killer Lunatique. And then it rained again. But then it snowed again and the kids got some action. Just before it started raining again (sense a pattern here?) we got one more good trip in with a touch of snow up high.

So it's all been about snow, right? Well, not 100%. After the TNAB Turkey Burner Tokul seemed about done for. So it was with great trepidation that I decided to take her with me on the latest quixotic trip looking for the mythical white. It wasn't supposed to be a really hard trip so I figured she deserved another chance to get outside.

Neighbors Jeremy, Shannon, and Chase and their friend Clint showed up at about 8pm. With a little help Tokul was "convinced" to jump in Shannon's Jeep. The plan was to drive as high as we could and enjoy the snow. At Snoqualmie Pass it was 34F degrees. At least it was going to be cold. That's a good sign, right?

We started driving up and up and up. No snow so far, but the road was getting nasty. After a few too many rocks clanking against the underside of the truck. We stopped in the middle of the road and geared up. We were at about 3,800 feet and far higher than I thought we'd manage to drive.

The first mile or so was just walking up the road. We found quickly that just beyond the nasty rocks that had held us up the road recovered and was better than our driveway. At least the walking was easy. The dogs ran up and back as usual and Tokul had no issues. The mountains had brought her back to herself.

At a switchback we looked over Snoqualmie Pass as the moon broke through the clouds. The stars were bright in spite of the half full moon. The road continued along the top of the ridge heading north. We had to turn our headlamps back on when we entered the trees. When the road started dropping elevation we climbed over a berm and followed another road that seemed to follow the ridge. Along the bermed road the puddles were frozen over, but with just a thin layer of ice. The ice shattered at the barest hint of a touch (be it dog, foot, or trekking pole) and the sound was too much to not repeat over and over again.

We started seeing patchy snow and it looked like it might get good. The clouds were parting and we could see a really old abandoned road heading in the direction we wanted to go. (Up.) Maybe this wouldn't turn out to be a boondoggle after all.

Clint and I took turns poking through the thick brush below the big trees looking for the best way. We followed a very faint trail that weaved through the rocks and stumps and climbed the slope aggressively. Just when we were sure it was an animal trail we found a flag marking the way. Apparently someone had been this way before.

In the trees the undergrowth disappeared and we had an easier time pushing ahead. Every once in a while we even broke out of the trees onto an open, but snow-free ridge.

Unfortunately, the clouds that looked like they were moving away returned and hid the stars and the moon leaving us only with a dull glow from the horizon to the west and our headlamps.

Along the ridge we had to choose to drop to the north or south when we encountered a nasty bit of rock. The north side looked like it might go, but the south side was a definite and we opted to push through the low trees there.

Back on the ridge we found the only decent snow of the whole trip and it was only about six inches deep. Still, it was snow and we were in the wilderness (the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to be specific) so it was a good night.

Higher on the ridge I had to help Tokul up some rocks. I feared she'd have another slip and be done for, but in spite of her whining she pushed on. The worst spot for her was a big broken rock face where I not only helped, I actually lifted and deposited her on the next ledge. Coming down was not going to be pleasant.

Atop the rocks I found Shannon enjoying the view, though it was pretty poor. Had the moon been out and the clouds gone we'd have been able to see Rainier (we could barely make it out) and down to the Laura and Lillian basins. Instead, it was just dark.

Dropping off the rocks we descended to a saddle and stared up at a 100 foot high rock face. The map seemed to indicate it could be surpassed with a little creative scrambling to the north, but in the dark it wasn't obvious and at 11pm we were done. I was thinking about how Tokul was going to make it back.

Dropping to the north was a gully and what might be a route along the base of the big rocks that had caused Tokul so much trouble on the way up. I left Tokul with the group and found the way around did go. (Of course, I could only tell I'd made it when I found our footprints in the isolated pockets of snow where we had climbed the rocks just minutes before.)

I climbed up again (Woo hoo! Redundant gain!), took the best pictures I could, and then rejoined the group for a quick pic before we headed back. We mostly-jokingly suggested dropping all the way to Lillian, but the walk back up to the truck would have been a killer. Everyone decided to follow the low route for variety and the dogs definitely preferred it over the rocks.

I tried a glissade in the one spot with enough snow cover to prevent a complete pants-on-rock failure, but managed no more than a few feet at best. Following the faint train down the hill was a challenge and we had to backtrack more than a few times. Amazingly, Mr. GPS did a great job of showing we were just left or right of the track we'd taken up and when the little triangle was right on the line we'd see a rock or a stump that stood out in our memory.

Back on the road we busted the last few frozen puddles and I lamented my decision not to try to take a picture of one with the moonlight on the way up. Instead I had to settle on the flashed picture. Blech.

Approaching the truck we looked for threatening rocks and threw them to the side of the road. After dumping gear in the trunk Shannon and Clint continued down on foot to clear the way. Jeremy and I drove up to the good road where we could turn around and then caught the others at the base of the bad portion of the road.

By now it was after 1am and a long day had me nodding. I remember bits of the ride home including Jeremy showing me an amazing video of a pilot landing a one-winged plane on the wheels. I was finally showered and in bed at about 2:30am. (Dear sweet Amy let me sleep until almost 9am. No wonder she's my favorite wife ever.)

Total stats were about 4.4 miles, 1,650 feet of gain, and one pitiful excuse for a snowy mountain. Still, the moon is supposed to be full next week and there's even a rumor of snow at the Pass this week. Could it really be Winter at last?

(If you were wondering where we actually were look at the first picture from this 2006 trip to Rampart Ridge. I'm pretty sure we stopped in the trees just to the left of the second highest peak.)

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