Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Air Up There

At altitude, most airliners pressurize for a cabin altitude of around 8000 feet. The average passenger, inert in their seat, will not notice the altitude difference. The air is often stale and overly dry, and in my airplane it's likely to be 10 degrees too hot or cold! So it is the rare passenger that thinks of the air as being the equivalent of what you'd breath high on a mountain.

There's something about mountain air. It's crisp and light and refreshing, when not bitterly cold. It's uncommonly clean, almost sanitized, right down to the "Pine-Sol" scent. You don't truly appreciate the difference until you return to sea-level civilization. If the return is rapid, you'll almost choke on the smelly, oppresively thick air.

This weekend, Dawn and I returned to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness east of Seattle for another backpacking trip. This time, our destination was Spectacle Lake, an 11 mile hike in. My dad flew out from Minnesota to join us.

After a 5 hour drive from Vancouver, we began the hike at the Pete Lake Trailhead, elevation 2800. The first four miles followed the Cooper River valley floor, with lodgepole pine towering over wild raspberries, huckleberries, and maple brush just beginning it's fall show:

The trail had a distinctly "horsey" flavor, with piles of equine dung making fancy footwork an occasional neccessity. After four miles, we came across Pete Lake, elevation 3000. While stopping there for a rest, several F-18's came roaring up the valley, passed over the lake, and turned north over Lemah Ridge. What a kick! I'm sure other backpackers were less enthused by the show of raw power than I was.

A mile beyond Pete Lake, the trail crosses Lemah Creek. In late summer the water is low, making for an easy crossing. In early summer, this creek would necessitate a tricky ford.

Shortly after crossing Lemah Creek, the trail tees into the Pacific Crest Trail. Taking the PCT southbound, you climb slowly upwards alongside meadows filled with raspberry and huckleberry before beginning a long series of switchbacks up Chikamin Ridge. When the trail straightens to cross Delate Creek below a nice waterfall, the map shows only a short distance remaining before the Spectacle Lake Trail junction. In reality, you have another long set of switchbacks before turning off and descending back down to Spectacle Lake.

By the time we arrived, nightfall was getting close, but there was enough light for us to find a good campsite, set up our tents, and gawk at Lemah Peak tearing at the clouds.

The next morning's light revealed the rugged beauty that surrounds the lake. To the north, Lemah Mountain (center) and Chikamin Peak (far left) dominate the scene. A prominent ridge forms the northeast corner of the lake, and Chikamin Ridge wraps around the lake's west shore from Chikamin Peak to the Three Queens at due south (second picture). The lake's eastern shore falls away to the valley we hiked up, allowing for expansive views of the mountains to the east. Delate Creek cascades from this eastern lip (third picture).

My dad hurt his right knee on the hike in. Heredity and years of carpentry left him with weak knees, and severe pain flared up shortly before we reached the lake. On sunday morning, he was only able to walk several hundred feet before it became too painfull. He decided to rest in camp while Dawn and I went exploring.

Glacier Lake lies several hundred feet above Spectacle Lake in a valley that cuts into Chikamin Ridge. No trails go there, but it looked like the lake might be reachable by walking up its outflow stream. Dawn and I bushwhacked across the southern edge of Spectacle Lake to reach the stream, then rock-hopped up, climbing several gentle cascades. A high waterfall turned us off of the main stream, so we tried to skirt it by following several tributaries that seemed to come from the same general direction. We climbed a few steeper waterfalls, but came up against dead ends. Reaching Glacier Lake would require bushwhacking through thick underbrush on steep terrain; we decided to call it a day. Glacier Lake remained beyond our reach, but it was still pretty fun exploring the valley.

A day of rest left my dad no better off. We were all worried about how he was going to get down the mountain and 11 miles to the trailhead. Upon breaking camp Monday morning, we wrapped his knees with ace bandages, outfitted him with shortened trekking poles, and fortified him with Ibuprofin. Between those measures and some heartfelt prayers, Dad was able to make it down the mountain and to the trailhead using a weird stiff-legged lope. I joked that being German, goose-stepping should come naturally to him.

We made pretty good time to Pete Lake, but the last four miles seemed to last forever. Dad was getting tired, making it harder to keep his right leg stiff and swing it clear of the ground. Still, we didn't take much longer hiking out than we took hiking in.

Dad's already talking about starting a training program to strengthen his knees. "I might be getting older, but I'm sure not ready to give stuff like this up," he said. I hope he can come with on another trip next year. In the meantime, this backpacking season is drawing to a close, with enough time for perhaps one short run to Indian Heaven Wilderness. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, and the rain more frequent. I'm casting longing looks at the skis gathering dust in a corner of our garage.

I love the Northwest.


Lost Av8r said...

Beautiful photo's. The West Coast is great eh?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful pictures!

Yellowbird said...

Well, that's just disgusting. You should need at least 10 more years of seniority before you can enjoy such vistas.

But about your elevated air observation, I was coming back from a Lancaster flyin last month at 11,500, which is as high as I've taken Yellowbird. We were above the weather and the entirely unprocessed air coming from the cabin vents was fresh, crisp, cold, and dry. As I breathed it in, I had the distinct sensation that it was exactly the air I'm used to breathing in an airliner, minus the contributions of the other passengers. Maybe it was the lack of moisture. Maybe it was the lack of earthbound dust and stuff. Or maybe Yellowbird has an undocumented air conditioning pack in her belly.

It wasn't pine-fresh, but there aren't that many pine trees at 11,500 ft over Pennsylvania.

Sam said...

I know. The company has asked the union to stipulate that in our next contract, all FO's with less than 3 yrs seniority shall be locked in the company dungeon and fed gruel, to be unshackled only for daily floggings by crew scheduling. The same stipulation includes a 1% pay increase for jet captains, so they're all for it! [very big grin]