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Lake Lillian Snow Camp
posted by John : March 16-17, 2007


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I've been to Lake Lillian a ton of times. No surprise since it's Lilly's namesake. In April 2005 and June 2006 the lake had been covered in snow. However, both of those were Spring trips when the snow was on its way out. I've wanted to see Lillian in the grip of Winter so I started looking for someone to accompany me.

I cast a wide net and snared a few, but only one was there Friday afternoon when the appointed hour to depart came near. My upstream neighbor Jeremy was off work for the day so we were able to leave as soon as I got home. (Amy, the girls, and Tokul were at NanaPapa's for the night.)

The weather forecast was for a rising freezing level, but generally clear skies until later on Saturday. The avalanche forecast was for generally moderate danger (the second lowest ranking) with a decrease Friday night until warming late Saturday morning. When we arrived at the end of the plowed road just east of Snoqualmie Pass it was in the mid 40s and the sun was blazing. Most of our bad weather gear was stowed.

Speaking of stowage I had all my gear piled on the pulk. The Incredible Pulk had previously held only human cargo, but since it's inaugural run it had practically begged to be loaded with gear for a more serious trip. I had pretty much everything packed in my backpack just in case the pulk didn't work out, but it did great. When I stopped I was carrying no weight and it slid along the snow without much effort at all. There was only an inkling of the trouble we'd have with it later, but I don't want to spoil the fun.

The first several miles of the road were groomed for snowmobiles. In fact, the groomer passed us several times. The first time he was on his way down. Soon we heard him coming back up and he passed us at a switchback. We joked that he'd be the coolest guy ever if he offered to give us a ride up the hill. Just then he started backing up and came right to where we were and stopped. Could we really accept a ride up the hill? It didn't matter. He was just a perfectionist and had missed a small section on the turn.

The road portion of the hike is pretty boring. However, with the groomer doing his stellar work we made good time and were at the turnoff after about an hour and 15 minutes. Another hour and 30 minutes and we were at the summer trailhead. We'd have a bit faster but we spent a long time looking at what was clearly an animal of some sort sitting in the snow and looking right at us. In the dusk it seemed to be moving its head back and forth. Amazing given it turned out to be a log upon further examination. Hmph.

At the summer trailhead we followed the usual route, which is normally a tunnel through leafy trees that you have to bat out of your way. With tons of snow covering it the way was clear but for a pile of avalanche debris that had ended just above our route. We went one at a time and had no worries.

At the first creek crossing we ditched the pulk. Although it had been great up until now the way from there forward was increasingly difficult. Jeremy hadn't been to Lake Lillian before, but some of the trail was nasty in the best of conditions so I shouldered my pack and we headed up with snowshoes on our feet. (Up until now we'd been walking in just boots since the snow was fairly well consolidated.)

The creek that was usually so hard to cross in the early and late parts of the year was completely covered with snow, though we could hear it roaring underneath. I followed the summer trail as best as I could, but everything looked different in the snow and the dark. (Oh yeah, did I forget to mention it was about 8:30pm now and completely dark?) The weirdest part was the boughs of the trees right along the trail were at eye level instead of way above our heads as they are in summer. The trees must have shrunk in the cold. Go figure.

The two hardest parts are right at the two rock walls where waterfalls lull you into a sense of tranquility. In summer these are scrambles in loose duff and rock with some green leafed branches you can grab on to on the way up. In March, however, they were slick with spots of ice covering the hard snow. I led the way up the first section, kicking steps in with my snowshoe cleats. Jeremy's shoes didn't work quite the same way and he had a couple of one-step-forward-10-steps-back and he slid backward. When he did make it to the top of the slope we sat for a few minutes to recover. (In retrospect we should have ditched the snowshoes and just kicked steps with our boots.)

It wasn't far until the next steep section. Jeremy didn't think he'd be able to do it (it was not quite as steep, but about twice as long) so I gave him my crampons to try instead. He was able to pretty much walk up it like there was no snow at all. At the top he cursed me. Not for not sharing my crampons on the first slope, but for introducing a gear junky like him to a new bit of gear he wasn't familiar with.

The route bends to the east and contours up to Lake Lillian. There's a big rock that marks about half way between Lakes Laura and Lillian, but I couldn't find it. We kept heading up and shining our headlamps into the darkness in search of the rock. I was sure we were on course, but hadn't seen the rock meaning it was either buried in snow or we still had a fair ways to go. I saw a bit of darkness ahead and decided that was the rock. Dang, dang, dang. It seems like we should be almost there, but we're only at the rock. Oh, wait. Are those stars?

Indeed. We were at the east end of the lake in a little half-pipe between two steep slopes. Pinwheels had rolled down each side toward the middle making me a little uncomfortable standing there. The spot I had in mind was an isolated knoll in the middle of the south shore, but to get there we had to walk on the lake itself. For some reason I was sure we'd punch right through the snow and fall into the freezing lake. I'm not sure why. It was probably frozen straight through to the bottom. (Ok, not really, but really thick anyway.) We were at about 5,000 feet and aside from being perfectly flat there was no way to tell we weren't on dry land.

On our avalanche-proof knoll we set up camp and started dinner. It had taken us five hours to get from the car to the lake. In the summer it would be about 45 minutes. Melting and boiling snow for dinner and for drinking took a really long time. For some reason I thought it'd be a quick process. I was also amazed and a bit disgusted to see just what came out of the snow as it melted. Ick. I filled a little Nalgene bottle full of boiled water for drinking and buried it in the snow to chill. I filled a full liter bottle with boiled water and put it in the bottom of my sleeping bag to warm my feet.

I don't usually have cold feet, but I had chosen cold feet over blisters for this trip. On the Cooper Spur trip a week earlier the waterproofing on my boots had pretty much failed in the wet snow on Mt. Hood. On the way home from Portland we had bought new boots, which were still in the box. I didn't have a chance to break them in and decided to give the old boots one last trip before retiring them to garden work.

I'm not sure going for cold over blisters was a good choice. My toes were on fire when I finally crawled into bed.

I was concerned about being cold so I'd brought tons of extras. I had my regular sleeping bag rated down to 20F as well as Amy's bag rated the same. I got in mine and used hers as a blanket. I was dressed in fleece pants and a wool sweater plus socks and a hat. Add the bottle at my feet and I was actually a little too warm at times.

Maybe that's why I "heard" animals scurrying around outside at one point. Or the "avalanche" thundering down some nearby hill. Or the strong wind that was threatening to blow all our gear away. Whatever. It was a restless night. (Or maybe it was the alien/snowmobile lights we saw bouncing off trees way in the distance.)

We had oriented the tent so the door faced south right where Mt. Rainier would be on a clear day. Too bad it wasn't clear when we woke around 7am. Clouds obscured the view so I crawled back into my sleeping bag.

When we did get up I was surprised to see nothing had refrozen from the night before. The tent was covered with liquid and we had some puddles inside. I guess that's why it's a three-season tent. (I wonder how much more that fourth season is...)

My boots were still soaking wet. I had packed new socks, but knew they'd be as useless as the previous day's pair if I didn't do something. Luckily, Jeremy gave me a couple of garbage bags and I used those as liners. One worked, the other leaked, but it was better than the alternative.

Although we saw some blue patches of sky it was mostly cloudy. Lake Lillian is in a pretty deep bowl with a high ridge to the east so the sun wasn't going to get to it for hours. Originally, I had thought we'd spend some time playing at the lake and maybe look over some of the ridges, but with the unexpected (to me) warm temperatures and a worrisome nature I wanted to get down below the avalanche slopes before they became unstable. We packed up and were gone within an hour of leaving the tent, though not before Rainier popped out for a few minutes. (Thanks!)

Snowshoes were great to skirt the lake again, but once on the semi-steep portions heading down they were next to useless. Jeremy shed his in favor of my crampons and I took mine off a short while later along with several layers. Without the long tails we were able to plunge step down the steep slope with little problem. My only issues were under some trees where the snow had a crust of ice and I couldn't get good penetration. However, I had my axe out and it came in handy a couple of times. (Yes, an axe is on Jeremy's shopping list, too. Sorry, Shannon.)

Even without snowshoes the two really steep sections were still difficult to navigate. Happily, in the daylight it was a lot easier to find our way. Amazingly, we hadn't strayed too far during the night.

Jeremy frequently disappeared, but it was really only because he was dressed in camouflage from head to toe. If it hadn't been for his blue snowshoes on his pack I'd have lost him for sure.

At the summer trailhead we retrieved the pulk and loaded it up. Unfortunately, it showed it had a mind of its own as it tried to overtake me (not possible due to the semi-rigid poles) or at least go around me (unfortunatley, quite possible). I had a length of rope that we attached to the back of the pulk and Jeremy used to steer like the fireman on the back of the ladder truck. After only a couple of roll-overs we got the hang of it and were soon making good time out.

Much to our surprise, we saw only one snowmobile all day. It sounded like it was about to run us down, but then shot off down a spur and up the hill to the west. We could still hear it, but it clearly had a place to go and was in a hurry to get there.

When we got back to the groomed snowmobile road I decided it was time to see if the pulk could carry my gear and me. I sat on it and pushed a little. Sweet. Even on a modest slope it started moving quickly. With just a little bit of refinement and shifting of gear I was able to effortlessly slide down the hill while poor Jeremy faded away behind me. I felt a bit like Maj. T.J. "King" Kong riding the bomb down the hill, though I didn't think to wave my hat or holler.

I did, however, shoot a first-person movie so you can get an idea for the utter sweetness of the ride. Take a look.

On one long switchback we could see tons (and I mean TONS) of snowshoers coming up the hill. Jeremy and I joked that I could go bowling, but of course neither of us was serious. As we got closer I got loads of entertained looks. Nobody at the front of the party knew where they were going.

Neither did the middle.

At the back of the group was a woman who said they were just out for a walk as part of Team Survivor NW, which is provides support and fitness opportunities for cancer survivors. Cool.

Jeremy did finally relent and give the pulk/sled a try, but decided head-first was the only way to go. As he disappeared around a corner I wondered if I'd see the track miss the turn and find him hanging from a tree. It was only slightly more disturbing to see him hunched over the pack motionless. (It was a good resting place, apparently.)

The rest of the trip down was uneventful. We made it down from the lake in about three and a half hours. I think most of the hour and a half we made up came from the short stretch between Lake Lillian and the summer trailhead. Coming down was WAY eaiser than going up.

In addition to being a great trip I learned a bunch of stuff. Leaky boots suck. Had we started later in the evening (as was the original plan) we might not have made it to the lake and would have been completely wiped even if we had. We should have gone earlier in the year when the weather was colder and the snow in better condition with sustained low avalanche danger so we could have stayed at the lake longer in the morning or done a multi-night trip. Crampons and ice axes rock. Had we both had sleds we could have raced on the way down.

Total distance was 11.6 miles round trip with a total gain of about 2,300 feet. Five hours up and 3.5 hours down. We saw only one snowmobile on the way out, but there were 19 trailers at the trailhead.

Oh, yeah. One last stat. My old boots had racked up about 840 miles of trail in two and a half years.

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