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Alta Mountain and Lila Lake
posted by John : August 6-8, 2014


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Looking toward adventure


When kids turn three they get to camp in the backyard. When they turn four they get to go on a one-night backpacking trip. When they turn seven it becomes a two-night trip.

Mr. Henry just turned seven.

Since Henry had already spent time in Olympic National Park the previous weekend we (I) chose to focus on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

The ALW is our home Wilderness, extending from I-90 north to Highway 2. Many of my favorite close-to-home trips are in the ALW, but surprisingly there are still plenty of areas I've yet to explore. (After all, the ALW is 615 square miles. I can't be everywhere.)

One of the areas I've always wanted to go to (because it's all about me) is Lila Lake. I'd sort of been there once before, by accident. In 2012, I took a wrong turn while headed up Alta Mountain on a foggy, smoky, fast-paced Sunday morning. At the time, I felt I was on the shore, but couldn't see the water. (Knowing more now, I realize I was still quite a ways from Lila Lake proper.) Though the detour to the "lake" almost cost me the summit, it also gave me a strong desire to return when I could see.

The best thing about a three day trip is it provides a non-travel day when we can spend time experiencing nature without a pack on our back. I've found the middle day has been my favorite day on each of the multi-day trips I've done with the kids. On the Summerland trip we had time to climb to Panhandle Gap and glissade. At Berkeley Park we had the luxury of sitting and searching the talus field outside camp for pikas.

More importantly, it's a time I can relax with the kids. Being in nature with the kids with no pressures and no distractions is an amazing experience and one I treasure.

On this trip, we'd be pushing Henry's limits on all three days. The first day could be divided into four parts.

From the (unofficial) trailhead we climbed to Lake Lillian. This is a trail I'm very familiar with. In fact, Henry's been up the trail before, but not since 2010. It goes fast even if parts of it are a loose, dusty mess.

Lake Lillian was gorgeous as always. (There's a reason Lilly is named Lillian, after all.) Treen swam, Henry waded, and I lounged. I gave Henry extra time because I knew the next part was the hardest we'd face on the first day.

From Lillian, the second part of the trail crosses a bit of rock and then ascends the ridge in a steep gully that Henry dubbed, "The Gully of DOOM!" I didn't disagree. The gully is full of loose rocks, big steps, and veggie belays are a must. Treen made short work of it, but the big steps took a toll on Henry. However, when we reached the top and he could look out on the meadow and the distant mountains he pronounced the climb worth it.

The third part of our route took us across the steep meadows on a rolling traverse. Half way across, a pair of fighter jets screamed through the valley at almost our level. We waved, but I'm guessing the pilots were a little preoccupied avoiding things like mountains to wave back. Henry bubbled with excitement and kept looking around for more jets as we descended to the Rampart Lakes.

The Rampart Lakes are some of my favorites. They're a series of interconnected lakes that sit in granite basins. Some are big, some are small. All are gorgeous and they drain out a spectacular little creek into the Gold Creek valley far below. I usually see them from high above on Rampart Ridge or at lake level when they're covered in ice.

Once again, Henry kicked off his shoes (still the new testers from Altra and still loving them) and waded into the lake. Treen wasn't so dainty and I barely got her pack off before she was neck-deep swimming across. Just as at Lillian, we just hung out. The mosquitos were worse at the Ramparts, but not terrible. It was wonderful to be able to enjoy without worrying about where we had to be or when we had to be back.

When ready, we packed up and continued out the valley. Unlike my only other trip north of the lakes, we had no problem following the right trail, though none of the trails are marked. The trick is to stay to the west and head downhill, though it feels wrong. The trail eventually splits away from the tumbling creek and starts climbing up Alta's ridge.

Lila Lake isn't far from the Rampart Lakes, just after the intersection that heads down to Rachel Lake. (Lots of lakes, huh? That's why it's the "Alpine Lakes Wilderness.") While the Alta Mountain trail continues up, the Lila trail traverses into a bowl on the south side of the ridge. We saw the only other hikers of the entire day on their way out. They encouraged us to go beyond the lake because that's where it got "good."

I was excited.

Marmots whistled as we came to the first little body of water. It was shallow, though pretty. We climbed a little outcropping of rock and looked down to Lila proper. A thin rock island almost split the lake in two. A few campsites stood out so we dropped into the basin (about 100 feet below us) to grab one before someone, anyone swooped in. Of course, no one did. We had the glorious lakes all to ourselves. Yes, there were more than just the one lake. In fact, we found lake after lake after lake. Henry called them Lila, Mini Lila, Mini Mini Lila, and so on.

We swam once the tent was up, though not for long. The water was still cold. I could walk all the way to the island on my tiptoes. Henry paddled with the pool noodle he'd carried all the way. The noodle is a revelation brought to me by Eric. It makes it possible to dive into a cold lake and not drown while your heart seizes up for a few seconds. Everyone should carry pool noodles.

Clearly, we were in paradise. The mosquitos thought so, too. It was war.

Three years ago at Sprite Lake we fought the enemy to a stalemate. They were legion, but we were defiant. Everyone bled and in the end we left scratching our wounds. This time I was prepared.

While Henry took shelter in the tent and fought the bugs that rushed in every time the door opened I donned a head net and set up a larger net outside. Treen, Henry, and I got under the outdoor net and relaxed. Unfortunately, the mosquitos refused to give in. Somehow they got through the netting. We found we were safe only when in the tent, in the water (with head nets on), or completely clothed. It was getting late and cooling off so we were given a respite, but I fretted over the morning.

I wish the kids would sleep later when we camp. I'm not sure if it's the bright sky or the fresh air, but they are usually up with or before the sun. We grabbed everyone's breakfast and headed away from the water where perhaps the bugs wouldn't find us. It worked for a little while, but soon they were buzzing around. Too bad, too. We all had bacon-based meals that were sullied by the constant whine of the mosquitos.

Henry was all about the Bacon Jerky. I would have been, too, but he wasn't about to share. I had eggs and bacon (in a bag) while Treen was dining on bacon-flavored TurboPup bars.

In fact, Treen was eating nothing but TurboPup on this trip. The bars are more compact than kibble and easier to manage. Trips like this, where Treen carried her own food, were exactly what TurboPup was made for and why we signed on to be ambassadors.

After breakfast we moved the camp to the rocks just above the lake. The wind was a little stronger there and we occasionally were bug-free. Rather than sit around we went for a little walk. The immediate area was littered with lakes and ridges full of great scrambling and exploring. When we found a local high point with a strong breeze we dropped our pack (actually, Henry's pack that I was carrying) and hung out. I worried Henry would get bored, but he found sticks and rocks. We took pictures and talked about nothing in particular. We decided we'd climb Alta Mountain so we'd be there when TNAB showed up later that evening. Heck, we'd even have dinner up there!

Dinner was still a long ways away, though. After touring the lakes and tarns we returned to camp for a nap, but it was too hot. But too hot in the tent meant just right in the lake. At least for a little while. Henry clearly doesn't take after me because he has no body fat. I was comfortable in the lake, but he got cold after a few jumps. The mad dash back to the tent and the exercise of killing all the bugs inside the tent warmed us up.

I taught Henry how to play War with cards and got soundly defeated three times in a row. I taught him how to play Solitaire and promptly fell asleep. He played for about an hour before waking me up.

As we left camp to head up to Alta with dinner on my back I recalled the last time I was there. Once I figured out where I was I bushwhacked up the hillside until I found the trail to the peak. This time we started doing the same thing, but found an old trail that led up. It was pretty direct and I suspect it was the original trail down to the lakes before the current trail was built. It saved us about a quarter mile, which was good as we had a ways to go.

Alta Mountain is well know for its false summits. There are at least four and each is very convincing. In between the false summits the trail follows the ridge because it has nowhere else to go. A couple of spots are a little airy, but never dangerous. Nonetheless, I had a firm hand on Henry as we passed those areas.

On the summit we had incredible views in every direction. Rainier floated like an apparition in the south and peaks both familiar and strange were scattered all around. As far in the backcountry as I felt at Lila Lake, looking down to I-90 and the ski areas reminded me we really weren't that far out.

We played more cards and I finally won a game after I literally had a single card left. Luckily, it was an ace. Unfortunately, Henry flipped an ace, too. He graciously donated a card from the middle of the deck so we could wrap up the battle. It was yet another ace! The card he flipped was a king. From that set of four (high) cards I managed to claw my way back. (Don't worry, on the two subsequent games he beat me without mercy.)

As I cooked dinner we got word TNAB wasn't coming. Alta was a far stretch for an after-work hike and a combination of illness and late starts limited their range. Henry was very disappointed, but still enjoyed his (second) helping of mac and cheese. I've given up trying to get the kids to eat a variety of food while backpacking. They love the mac and cheese so that's what they eat.

We grudgingly left the summit so we could get back to camp before dark. The views were excellent, the time we spent just sitting and playing cards was great, but most of all there were no mosquitos. We had a few blissful minutes at camp before they figured out where we were, then it was straight to bed. (We saw three tents around the lake before we called it a night. Looks like Thursday night is a popular night to start a long weekend.)

In the morning we started packing. I wish I could pack as quickly and as well at home as I do when I'm at camp being attacked by mosquitos. Maybe everything fit thanks to the sweet Gregory Baltoro 85 I was testing. It's a preproduction model and not even shown on their site, but when it comes out you need to take a look.

We escaped the swarm and climbed out of the basin with a last look. Even with the bugs, I'd go back, but maybe later in the season.

Before we left, we took a diatom sample for an Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation project. The procedure was dead simple and Henry loved it. I've found that participating in citizen science projects gives the kids another reason to love being outdoors. Last year it was pikas. This year, glass microbes.

Where it was uphill on the way in, it was downhill on the way out. That made for a short hike to the Rampart Lakes. Henry took more samples and we had lunch. We briefly considered a swim, but the cold water chilled Henry with just a look so we pushed on.

The big effort was climbing out of the Rampart basin and it was hot, hard work. Bug bites that hadn't bothered him before began to itch. We stopped, slathered on some hydrocortisone, and were moving again without too much of a delay. Henry wasn't just fussing needlessly. His face was visibly swollen from a systemic reaction to the bites. (Good thing his mother wouldn't see him for a couple of days.)

As we returned to the steep meadows we started running into more people heading down to the lakes. Without fail, they marveled at Henry's ability and he got stronger with each word. There is nothing more effective at buoying the spirits of a tired seven year old than having random strangers tell him how well he's doing. I make it a point to do the same for other kids. Us parents need to work together.

Another sample at a tarn and then we were at the top of the Gully of Doom. It was packed with people coming up so we waited for them to clear. Many were clearly out of their element and pushing themselves hard. It made my heart swell. I love seeing people new to the outdoors (or at least to this level of effort) stretching for new adventures. There's talk that backpacking is dying out, but it certainly didn't look like it as we waited for the gully to clear.

When we emerged from the bottom we found a group of three women sitting at the shore of Lake Lillian enjoying lunch. They cheered us (weird) and said they had been camping on the other side of Lila Lake (oh, maybe not quite as weird). They gave Henry's ego another boost and we talked for a few minutes.

We hadn't stopped at Lake Laura on the way up, but now that Henry was in full-sample mode it was a must stop. He had four samples by that point (Lila, Ramparts, the tarn, and Lillian) and he wanted the fifth for completeness. It was a good thing he was so inclined, because we saw our second goat of the week high on the slopes above the lake. In all the time I've spent in the area I've only ever seen goat memories (discarded hair), but never an actual goat. Check!

The rest of the walk out was all downhill and easy. Henry declared he wanted a special dinner so we drove to the grocery for a pizza and chips and ice cream. He was asleep in the car when I got back to the house 10 minutes later. He woke long enough to unbuckle his seatbelt, turn around, and then collapsed back into the seat. I left him long enough to unpack, then got him up, and fed, showered, and put to bed.

Just like the girls did on their first two-night trip, Henry amazed me with his stamina and enthusiasm over these three days. He's now capable of adult-level trips that can get us to amazing places and he can overcome adversity to have a good time.

Although we've always done these trips with friends, I really liked having the intense one-on-one time with him. There's almost always someone else around whether it's the rest of the family or friends or even strangers at the store. Being alone with him at the lake on the first night was really, really special. I'm wondering if I need to split up the girls and ensure I get time with each of the kids next summer.

As an added bonus for doing three separate trips, I'll increase my time in the backcountry by 33%. Remember, it's all about me.

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