The sky had offered clear views of the stars last night, but by 5:00 this morning clouds already paced and grumbled along the visible edges of sky. We had until the top of Douglas Peak Pass, I guessed, to choose to turn around and still be out within our time frame.
Packed quickly, we donned rain gear to push through the dew soaked willows, winding along Lower Golden Lake, Lake Louise, and then Upper Golden Lake. We passed pockets of tents, surprised so many people were camped in a basin that had been so quiet and devoid of human sign last night. Shoes wet off the bat, we crossed several streams and marshy areas before the head of the basin carried us above the upper lake. It turned out, in fact, that the pass which had looked impassable was our pass: and what had appeared as a sheer wall from the south end of the basin, still appeared as a sheer wall from this much closer vantage. But, we were covering the ground much faster than I predicted, and so deferred trust to our guidebook author until it was disproven.
The last lake below Douglas Peak marked where we would leave the trail again. “Choose your line before departing the trail,” the guide directed, and so we did. Down, up, follow a grassy ramp, above an obvious cliff line, to where the right hand side of the gully met the left hand wall of Douglas Peak.
Our chosen line worked flawlessly, and at the base of the pass an unambiguous path revealed itself: tucked into the gully-corner was vegetation-anchored ground, not very wide, just wide enough. That’s not to say it wasn’t steep, which it was, or perfect, which it wasn’t; but the few loose sections were short, and standing at the top looking into the Alpine Lakes basin was like gazing into another world. The north side of our pass dropped vertically into loose gravel, and the string of lakes leading to the even more improbable-looking Alpine Pass were steeply hemmed by daunting ridges on each side, inclines terminating in the lakes themselves.
“The 4 miles will take at least as many hours,” encouraged the guide, and down we slid from Douglas Peak Pass, shoe skiing the top half until the gravel grew to scree, too big to ski, too loose to hop. We delicately worked our way against the wall, where the rock rubble was reposed enough to clamber on, and landed next to the southern-most lake. Hop, clamber, stride around the eastern side and across the bridge filling the middle lake, where a steep snowfield littered with chunks of ice swept from the peaks side to the water, in which a blue iceberg floated. Where did this ice come from? Nothing overhung the top of the field. But the blocks of clear blue ice breached from the snow like jewels from sand.
Unnerved by the snowfield above Dennis Lake, I was very hesitant tackling this one, no matter how much shorter. With Prana encouraging from across and above, I kick-kick-kick-stepped my way across, blocking out the aggressive slide into the deep end of the lake below. We practically skipped along the talus above the middle lake, around ponds of melt water, through pockets of tundra. The sun came out of the clouds for the first time, and I instantly overheated in the same moment I realized I was both thirsty and hungry- and this moment caught me among car size talus, needing both hands free to continue, but without a place to stop and stow my trekking poles. Well.
At a snowfield in the middle of the valley we took a break to attend all the urgent needs, and 20 minutes later, a spout of water faced us from the upper lake’s moraine dam, where Prana called for lunch in what might be the last grassy spot of the day . We sprawled on the tundra peninsula, dipping up rehydrated beans and salsa. The eastern arm of the middle lake squeezed between sheer ramparts topped with spires, twisting out of view, a captivating vista – somewhere that way lay Camp Lake, levels down. Behind us and ahead of us, the sky was beginning to gray and layer.
“What do you think about the weather?” I asked. The foreshadow of anxiety twinged in my stomach.
“I think we’ll just take it as it comes until we can’t.”
I was quiet, considering our route. Once we started up from our lunch spot, up Alpine Pass, as I understood it, we were more or less committed to both of the final passes – we’d contour from Alpine Pass to Indian Pass, on the Knifepoint Glacier, without dropping to any kind of hospitable terrain. A long time to be high in inclement weather with no shelter, moving toward where weather is often different (often stormier) on the west side of The Divide- no going up to just peek and come back down this time. But, we’d learned yesterday these patchwork skies could move weather through- menacing clouds wouldn’t necessarily sit for the rest of the day.
“Luck,” said Prana, dipping a chip.
I crossed my eyes at him.
We scrambled and clawed our way up the snow and then talus of the topmost lake’s outlet, the water echoing deep digeridoo sounds where it thrummed below the talus. The mini hanging valley at the rim was reminiscent of Helen Lake below Muir Pass: beckoning, striking, austere. A couple hiking from the other direction with massive packs gave some unsolicited advice to Prana as I found a place to cross the creek. We reviewed the guide notes another time.
“‘The first bluff is easy to navigate,’” Prana read, “‘the second bluff you can sneak under and climb up 3rd class to gain the terminal moraine, or go over, which is less technical but adds 250 ft of elevation gain and loss.’ Well, we’ll take the less technical way, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
The first bluff passed almost unnoticed, and when we reached the second bluff, or what we assumed to be, it felt more like a continuation of the first. A group of 4 had marched past us at our exorbitantly and and accidentally long breakfast, and they were searching for the sneak under. We climbed.
The interesting thing was nothing really offered itself as a pass around, until we were surely well above 250 feet. Or maybe not. I’m a terrible judge at things like height and distance. The tiny chimney ramp that Prana found was not too bad, but the top was solidly class 3, or 3 1/2; which, more importantly, should have been the red light that we were not, in fact, on the less technical work around. Standing at the top of the chimney provided a spectacular view of the rugged and barren basin, the snow covered pass, the lake far, far below us, and the giant iceberg that floated over the middle 3rd of it.
“I think we’re too high,” I said.
“I’m just going to scout,” Prana said.
I followed him ramp by ramp, ledge by ledge until it would waste too much time to retreat, unless our way became literally impassable. So much for scouting, I grumped to myself. “I’m pretty sure this goes,” Prana called up. ‘Goes’ apparently meant linked climbing moves, albeit easy ones, though handhelds wiggled loose if I weighted them too forcefully, and my shoes bent floppily as I tried to weight only the toes of my apparently-worn out trail runners. ‘New shoes for the High Route,’ my brain noted on its clipboard.
“Just a few more ramps,” Prana called up, as I realized we’d come down too many sketchy ones to truly reverse our ‘scouting’. A low-grade panic began to gray and layer.
The ramps ran out. Luckily/unluckily, it was at a an obscenely steep chute freshly melted out of the snow: so we wouldn’t bobsled down on frozen water, but the mud was both slick and crumbly, and any rocks grabbed no longer pretended to be in repose.
Suffice it to say we made it down in one terrified piece. Our bypass of the class 3 technicalities had proven to be strenuous, stressful, time-consuming class 4+, and the boys we’d reached the second bluff with were far, far ahead. “Well,” Prana said, looking back at the bluff, “next time we’ll take the class 3 sneak-under route.”
“Yes,” I agreed adamantly. “Oh my god. Yes.”
Of course, the time-consuming part meant the disgruntled sky had gathered steam. We balance-walked across the top of an old moraine (these glacial remains! fossils of former topo lines!) and reached the edge of the snowfield leading up the pass.
“Time to spike up,” Prana said cheerfully.
Now, I really don’t know what I thought the spikes were for. I guess I thought they were due diligence for crossing the ice of the third pass’s glacier. You know, just the extra layer of unnecessarily conservative caution that colors most of my book-based decision-making. Any snow fields I’d crossed until this trip, there’d been 3 or 4 token kicked steps at the most, otherwise they were basically flat; the only other glacier I’d stood on, the Packwood, had also been flat, and indistinguishable from snow. I guess I’d thought they’d be a convenience, but not really necessary.
And while they may not have been strictly necessary- as in, I could have physically crossed this field and climbed this pass without them if the other option was expiring in the basin- for my dangerously swelling anxiety they were very necessary.
And they worked like magic.
I hadn’t put them on for any of the previous steep snow, because 1) I guess my brain just wasn’t processing that option yet- they were for the glacier, after all- and 2) I was concerned there’d be some kind of learning curve I didn’t want to deal with yet. But I tromped along, gently kicking to set each step firmly, planting each trekking pole as if it were the singular most important motion I’d ever executed, and suddenly most of the pass was below us. Just in time for the thunder to roll in.
“Doing great!” Prana called.
“Yeah,” I called back, “ but can we take a sec under one of the boulders? I just need a minute!”
We ducked into another talus cave, just as the rain showered down.
“Wow, these work so well.” I said. Sometimes I just need a moment of stillness to convince myself something new is working, that I’m not diving headfirst into a heuristic trap.
“Yeah, right? So well,” said Prana, unfazed as always, at least outwardly. I wished (not for the first time) I had his lack of apprehension- my world experience would be way more enjoyable.
“What are we going to do about the weather?” I asked.
“Well, we can always make it back down to that little green spot,” Prana pointed along our contour.
Oof: miserable, but doable. I nodded.
We gingerly eased into our rain gear, trying to stay out of the wind-driven drops while not dulling our spikes on the rocks, a twister-esque feat in such a confined space.
As we re-emerged and started up the last several hundred feet, a bubble of blue sky pushed over the pass, forcing the storm clouds behind us. Though it made it look like the weather was moving south, a steel gray band sat, swallowing all light, likely down by Angel Pass. Thunder rattled from that band. The last few steps to the top of the pass were covered in ice rather than snow, and then the Knifepoint basin opened below.
I couldn’t understand how each view kept getting exponentially better. Surely there’s a mathematical ceiling to increasing splendor?
The Knifepoint Glacier curved away to the left, blue and sparking and striated, below a jagged, serrated toothline outlined against the sky. Across the tiny basin, what I assumed was Knifepoint Creek tumbled away below more serrations; to the right were the lower meadows that would eventually lead to Blaurock Pass, when we were back and going that way in 2 weeks, although I didn’t have a guess where that pass could exist from here.
“Well?” said Prana. “What do you think?”
I looked behind us. The steel gray band had crept to the north over Douglas peak, even as we could see clouds, stalagtited with rain, slowly drawing towards us from the north. Gray wisps bubbled over Indian Pass as if a cauldron brewed on the other side, but directly above the clear blue bubble held its ground.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Definitely on guard. There sure doesn’t look to be much down there if we need to retreat.”
“Yeah, do you think we should go down that way? To the right? And then just retrace back this way in the morning?”
“Hmm…” ugh, but that sounded like a lot of work. With the blue skies…but with the storms…“I don’t know.”
“Well let’s go check it out first. Maybe we’ll find something random. We can always bail to the east.”
We worked our way off the snow, then despiked, hopping down steep talus, the basin growing around us as we descended. The glacier had obviously been receding; still mind-boggling massive, it no longer came close to encompassing its inscription on the map. The bowl it ringed was filled with rubble from baseball to VW Vanagon size. A shimmering turquoise pool leaked from below its edge.
Reconnoitering far from the route, Prana stopped to filter some water he’d been carrying since lunch, unsure when we’d be able to collect more. Leaning against a giant boulder, watching the Glacier (surely the embodiment of an earth god, if ever there was one) part of me lamented having to blow through this miraculous setting so quickly. Even though it was only our second day out, really, it felt like 4 or 5 or more had passed – like this particular spot would be much more difficult to return to.
I mentally rallied and shouldered my pack, trying to ready myself to be stressed for another few hours- in addition to the converging weather, from directly across, Indian Pass looked steep. Steeper than anything yet. And I was starting to get a bit tired.
2 dozen steps from our break, a bare space nooked between boulders appeared. Almost the exact size of our tent. And…floored with sand. The first footfall that wasn’t balancing on a boulder or kicking into snow since 8:00 this morning. What the? How could this possibly be?
It had to be a gift from the Glacier.
Prana looked at me. “Do you want to stay here?”
I wrestled. Why did I want myself to want to go on? “I do,” I finally said. “I really, really do.” This was one of the coolest settings I’d ever stood in, and here was an invitation, the wilderness equivalent of a guest room door opened with towels folded on the freshly made bed.
As soon as we set our packs down, thunder rolled up from Douglas Pass in waves along the Divide until it splattered itself out far north of us.
“Well, then. This was perfect, I guess.” Prana said.
And it was. The tent just barely fit. Rain battered in from the east, cleared, then swept down from the north. Rockfall clattered. The gushing of the stream hummed. And the whole time, Knifepoint mountain stood defiantly against the storm.