Snowy Lakes (Oct 6-7, 2017)

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snowy_lks_coverConditions: Backpack
Gear: overnight & cold weather gear
Map: USGS Washington Pass
Area: North Cascades (Rainy Pass)
Reference: Backpacking Washington (Overnight and Multiday Routes)
Stats: 20.57mi, 4148'' gain (round trip)

Finally...I made it to Snowy Lakes! This trip has been on my to-do list for about 5 years. I've really, REALLY wanted to fit this trip in during larch season. Ever since I first glimpsed the area from near Granite Pass...I've wanted to go.

I talked to Steve, he was interested. Early on in the week the weather looked decent with mostly or partly sun and little chance of precip (snow). Late in the week it changed, a good chance for up to 8" of snow and some windy conditions. Nothing seemed to troubling so we decided to go for it.

We left town early, it's about a 3 hour drive just to get to the trailhead at Rainy Pass....then there is the 10+ mile hike in to the lakes. It would be a long day...

We left the trailhead (about 4900') a bit later than planned (around 10:30am) but under mostly clear skies and warmer temps than I was expecting. We knew weather was going to move in later in the day so the goal was to get into camp before the worst of it hit. We made decent time up the PCT and hit what I call the first viewpoint at about noon and could see that golden larch color we came to the area to see. In the middle of the prettiest part of the trail I saw Elle (and Izzy)...then Yoko (and Maya) and then Sandra and Barb. It was such a nice surprise to bump into them! The trail rounds the head of the drainage and reached Cutthroat Pass at about 5 miles (6897') at about 1:30pm and we stopped for a late and short lunch. We still had another 5+ miles to go and sunset is at about 6:30pm.

We continued north on the PCT and gawked quite a bit at the golden larch colors and reached a highpoint on the trail before it switches back steeply downhill to Granite Pass (about 6.3mi, 6870'). The time to lose some elevation... The trail has several short/tight switchbacks as it heads down to Granite Pass. Thankfully there wasn't any snow/ice on the trail. We reached the pass at about 7.3mi (6267') losing about 600' (it would feel like more on our trip out).

Now it was time for the long traverse over to where we had to cut off to head to the lakes. The PCT here is generally in good shape...nice and wide with a great PCT grade (nothing ever too steep). Near the cut off to head to the lakes though...about a mile from the cut off...there is a series of eroded gullies that the trail cuts across. These places rattled my nerves a bit. The trail is narrower that the rest of the stretch and the drop off is severe. But...none of those crossings is ever too long and the trail ever too narrow to be a real problem. It did get me wondering what it would be like to cross if those spots had some snow. Eventually we reached the giant white rock at the spot described where we needed to head uphill at 9.3mi (6235').

The boot path uphill to the lakes was as expected pretty distinct. It was easy to follow. Along the way we did see some flagging. I don't think this "trail" up to the lakes is an official trail but I could be wrong. Looks like the trail has been marked for some improvements. By now both Steve and I were starting to get tired...OK...more than just a little. At 9.8mi from the TH (about .5 from the PCT) we reached the outlet to Lower Snowy Lks (6741') and took a short break...a water break. There is little to no water along the trail from the gushing stream way down low in the Porcupine Ck drainage below Cutthroat Pass. We gulped down some water and then continued the last bit of uphill, another .3 miles (10.17mi from the TH, 6874') to the outlet of Upper Snowy Lks. Both lakes were absent of other hikers/tents. It was getting late, the wind was starting to pick up, we were both tired. Where to camp? The wind was pretty bad at the lower lake, about the same at the outlet to the upper lake. I dropped my pack to scout out a site that was somewhat protected. I found a decent site (there may have been a better one but we didn't have the luxury of time to find it). I met back up with Steve at the lake outlet, we hauled our stuff to the site, and then struggled to set up the tent without the wind blowing our gear all over the place. It was obvious later that others had been in the area recently...I found a tent stuff sack nearby. As soon as the tent was up we emptied our packs into it. Steve dove into his sleeping bag and I volunteered to make a couple of trips down to the lake to get water to filter and boil.

It was a late dinner and by then it was just way to windy to do anything but hang out inside the tent. After dinner we secured our gear as best we could and then listened to a podcast..then we tried to get some sleep. Sleep came hard because the wind was howling outside. It seemed more like sleet than snow was coming down and my mind couldn't stop thinking about those gully crossings. Neither of us could fall asleep. Finally...around 2am...Steve says a mouse in trying to get into the tent. It had chewed a small hole in the tent trying to get it. That made sense...I my semi sleep state I had seen dark shapes sliding down the tent between the tent and the rain fly. Hard to believe that at nearly 7000' and with those temperature that there would be varmints! Eventually we did get some sleep.

By early morning the wind seemed to die down a bit. We were up about 8:30am and talked about plans. This was originally planned as a 3 day trip. We woke to find 2-3 inches of new snow had fallen overnight. More snow was expected during the day and even more the following night. It looked to be a day that was too windy and cold to do anything but hunker down inside the tent. The weather for Sunday was forecasted to be better but who knew for sure? I did get a current weather forecast from my inReach and it mentioned continued snow, wind, and low 20 degree temps. We decided to pack up and head out. I had hoped for a rest day for my knees but that wasn't to be. We were packed up and moving by 9:30am.

We had several inches of snow down to Lower Snowy Lk. It lessened as we dropped down to the PCT. By the time we were back on the PCT it was just a dusting. Those eroded gullies were still on my mind but when we reached them we found them snow free! From the cut off to the lakes, the PCT as it head south loses about 100' before slowly heading uphill back to Granite Pass. The PCT remained snow free until right before Granite Pass. As we headed up the trail on the other side of the pass the switchbacks became increasingly covered in snow...but thankfully only snow. The close we got to Cutthroat Pass the deeper the snow got. The deepest snow (6"-8') was on the south side of the ridge between Pt 7331 and Pt 6990. It wasn't until we got to this section of trail that we finally saw other people...all of which appeared equipped just for the day. No other backpackers... Finally rounding the cover at Pt 7331 we could faintly see Cutthroat Pass through the increasingly heavy snow coming down. Big flakes. Crazy big flake were coming down. It looked more like Winter up at the pass instead of early Fall. We reached the pass and then dropped down the Porcupine drainage. I always forget how long this stretch of trail is. I think it is a few miles but it is always 2 miles longer than my memory! The snow followed us all the way back down to the car. Both of us were surprised to see it snowing at the trailhead. Winter in the North Cascades has arrived.
Snowy Lakes Slideshow

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