Extreme Solitude

Extreme Solitude

Some people want the best and are willing to go to great lengths to find it, bystanders be damned. As a rule I try not to make a habit out of putting other people’s lives in danger, but this time I was convinced that the reward would be worth the risk. Was I right? “This is my favorite place I have woken up on this trip,” is Beth’s way of putting it. But there came a moment late in the day during the hike in when I questioned whether, morally, it was ok for me to bring somebody else into this risky situation.

Blanca Lake
Location: near Seattle, WA
Difficulty: Strenuous
Length: 4.4 miles one way
Rating: ★★★★★
Starting Elevation: 2000′
Know-Before-You-Go: NW Forest Pass or Annual National Parks Pass req’d and not available at TH
Highpoint: 4177′
Camp: 4040′

The sun beams in my eyes under the brim of my baseball cap, and a gentle but steady breeze ruffles my lightweight shorts and shirt. I look back at Beth as we climb toward Virgin Lake on a narrow snow covered ridge in the Cascades. We’re not using ice axes or crampons, though we might have brought them if we knew what lie ahead. It’s June and it’s warm enough as long as we keep moving. The snow came late this year in the pacific northwest, and there’s still plenty of it hanging around. Today the weather is what Washingtonians consider perfect: 65 and partly sunny. Our unspoken goal is to pass Virgin Lake by about half a mile, arriving at Blanca Lake by sundown. In the five weeks we’ve been on adventure we’ve setup camp in the dark more times than not and that’s about an hour from now. We’re ok with setting up in the dark because we like to sleep in, start slowly, do yoga; we camped nearby last night but didn’t hit the trail today until after 2:00.

We top out on a wind drifted ridge at 4200′ and I know from the number of footprints and from talking to returning hikers that this is where most people turn around (i.e. decide they’re lost.) But growing up in Colorado and wandering the deserts of the southwest these past few years has taught me the value of perseverance, and of a good map. Following my GPS we make the crucial right turn toward Virgin Lake that most hikers seemed to miss, then descend to a snowy depression that is the only evidence of Virgin Lake’s subterranean whereabouts. That and the fact that there’s no trees. Beth is moving slowly after a frightening slip on the ridge; she had lost her footing and then slid ten feet down a long field of icy snow before coming to a stop with her palms and heels dug in, literally scared stiff. I was at that moment quite thankful that we were traversing soft afternoon snow and not hard morning snow; she was headed directly into a tree with a deep well around it.

As we press on the trail is occasionally marked with flagging tape, but this welcome wilderness adulterant is conspicuously missing beginning on the far side of the buried lake. It wasn’t until the hike out that I noticed an occasional blaze. The footprints dwindled to a single set and then those disappeared too. I descended steeply, kicking steps in the sun-softened western slope where I could, and walking quickly and softly in the shadows where the snow was still hard, following the dashed track on my GPS as closely as possible. I wondered whether the crampons would have helped our pace. Where I could I descended swinging between stout trees to lower myself down. This is how I came across a very peculiar fungus. Swinging around to look uphill at Beth I saw before me a strangest of strange organic accouterments: a perfectly round, perfectly hot orange, perfectly and ever so slightly domed shiny rubber button, 1″ in diameter. “Trash?” I thought. “What is that!” I mused aloud. I plucked the strange lifeform from its log home and squished it’s squishy but dry top. It deformed but it did not break. I showed it to Beth. I flipped it over and over and took it’s picture in my palm. I squished it some more. I did not want to leave it, though the coldness in my feet eventually motivated me to do just that.

We continued our descent in this way,Beth holding together scared and with frozen feet, me playing and writing as I waited. Where warm angular sun beamed through the trees I would stand and wait for Beth and write. Occasionally we’d find part of the oft-buried trail and we’d get to cover an all-too-short five or ten feet on muddy ground before climbing back onto snowbanks. Every step had to be kicked, set, careful. “I feel like I’m just going to start crying,” Beth said. I smiled. “You’ll be okay.” It made me happy to see somebody living.

Blanca Lake is spectacular. We reach it just before sunset and without incident. Our first glimpse is a winding band of aquamarine water that traces the lakes western edge along vertical stone walls. The majority and the center of the lake is frozen and covered in snow. The bands at the lakes edges glow because the till-rich water winds along on a shallow trough atop the icy cap. We level a patch of snow with our numbed feet and setup camp on a knoll above the lake’s rumbling outlet. The whole lake spreads out below us, shored in this narrow hanging valley by stark granite cliffs and steep slopes of ice. Beyond and above these slopes lies the vast Columbia Glacier churning with geologic rapidity a deep self-preserving cirque. From below we cannot perceive it’s massive size.

Shelter is simple tonight, 2lbs and change, but still freestanding; we’ve brought just the tent’s footprint, rainfly and poles. Before dinner I surprise Beth with a glass of red wine, stemware and all, and after dinner she surprises me with dark chocolate. We’re good to each other and that is why, under the stress of weeks of travel, this still works. No sooner do we shutter the tent than it starts to rain, and by morning we’re shrouded from the lake, residing in a cloud too thick to be able to see even it’s a glowing aquamarine outline. Later in the day I will climb down to explore the lakes amazing outlet falls, then drive to REI to purchase better shoes and gaiters.

Equipment Used: ULA Ohm 2.0 pack, North Face Hightail 3s sleeping bag, JetBoil Sumo, MSR Hubba Hubba, Salomon XA Pro 3d Ultra 2 GTX shoes, OR gaiters, Seirus SoundTouch gloves, baseball cap, sunglasses, Sawyer Mini Filter, 2x 1.5l soda bottles, Arc’teryx Sabre Goretex jacket, FROG insulating top