North Fork Sauk River & PCT to Red Pass, 09/28/08-09/30/08

The final weekend in September beckoned.  The weather looked to be fantastic.  Unfortunately, Nicole and one of her toenails were at odds with one another, so if anything were to be done, it would have to be done solo.  Somehow I decided that a mere dayhike wouldn’t suffice; this meant I’d be going on my very first all-alone backpack: two nights in Glacier Peak Wilderness.  I actually didn’t give it much thought at the time (that is, before I set up camp the first night in near-darkness and questioned every sound I thought I heard).  It just seemed like the natural progression of things, something that I knew I’d do eventually.

As I may have mentioned in the past, Glacier Peak Wilderness (hereafter, GPW) has held near-mythical status in my novice hiker mind.  Maybe it’s because Spring & Manning called it the last wild volcano.  I suppose that has something to do with it: unlike Mt. Baker or Mt. Rainier, you ain’t parking your Subaru on the side of Glacier Peak.  You gotta hike to get anywhere near it, man.  So when, a week or two prior, I saw a post on NWHikers about Sloan Creek Road re-opening, it stuck with me.  Sloan Creek Road (aka Road #49) had been closed for some time (forever, as far as it concerns me, since I wasn’t going anywhere near it before this summer) and it’s one of the nearest access points to GPW.  So it seemed predetermined that this trip would utilize the opportunity.

Old-growth along the Sauk River.

Old-growth along the Sauk River.

I decided I’d hike the North Fork Sauk River Trail (#649) on Sunday and spend the evening at or near Mackinaw Shelter, then get up Monday morning and hike until I reached the Pacific Crest Trail (#2000) and take that to Red Pass.  If I could, I’d investigate White Chuck Glacier or climb Portal Peak, spending the second night in the area.  Tuesday morning I’d hike all the way back out and get home sometime in the afternoon.  Since I was leaving the where-and-when with Nicole, I figured it best to stick as close to the plan as possible, and act conservatively.

Sunday morning’s departure was slightly postponed due to an uncooperative Green Bay Packers game.  Instead of putting it away early (or imploding immediately) they stretched the game out for nearly the entire four quarters.  At 13:15, I finally pulled out of West Seattle.  The drive went by quickly and I reached the trailhead two hours and thirty minutes later, the final ~20 minutes of which were spent on the Sloan Creek Road, which is in pretty great shape–pretty much any car should be able to make it.

At 15:55, I was on the trail, which starts out at 2100’.  The trailhead signs noted sites washed out at Mackinaw Shelter, but some spots open.  The register seemed to reinforce my hypothesis of solitude–it didn’t seem like anyone was going to be around for two nights, aside from a summit pair.  15:55 is a pretty late start for our short autumn days, so I was a bit anxious to make good time and get camp set up for the night.  I should note that my pack was heavy!  I was carrying everything that Nicole and I normally shared, 4 liters of water (even though I was hiking next to a river!) and more than enough food, as I found out later.  The trail parallels the North Fork Sauk River, through plenty of old growth forest.  This part of the trail is all trees and mushrooms, folks.  Some of those trees are in the way: there’s at least 6-7-8 blowdowns on the way to Mackinaw Shelter–some quite sizable, but none incredibly difficult.

Typical blowdown along the North Fork Sauk Trail.

Typical blowdown along the North Fork Sauk Trail.

After only a few minutes on the trail, I met some nice women picking mushrooms, and I have a suspicion now that they’re fellow posters on NWHikers.  They said they envied my trip, but I envied their ability to identify non-poisonous mushrooms.  I kept onward, forgoing photography for the sake of timeliness, but I did give some of the many mushrooms names in my mind: trumpet mushroom, sesame seed mushroom, and red bliss mushroom.  At 16:40, I was startled by what sounded like a large explosion.  Maybe it was a gun (but it sounded more like a canon) or perhaps it was an avalanche or a single, giant tree falling.  Whatever it was, it freaked me out.

At ~18:00, I came across that friendliest of trail signs, the one for a toilet.  I thought at first that this was been Mackinaw Shelter, but I hadn’t gone far enough and there was no shelter in sight…plenty of decent campsites, though…  After consulting my map I decided to push on, as the campsites at Mackinaw Shelter were probably only another mile or so away.  At about this time, I realized I lost my sunglasses.  I’d had a hate/hate relationship with those sunglasses.  I’d been really good at dropping them, and it finally happened for the last time.  Just after the campsites, the trail comes to a sizable creek.  This, and my Green Trails Map #112, gave a name to the campsites: Red Creek.  There was no immediately obvious place to ford for those unwilling to take off their boots, like me–there was a good amount of water, and the rocks were spaced and slippery.  I walked along the edge and took a picture or two of the water spilling over a log.  My lens cap fell from my fingers and began to roll toward the water.  I took a stab at it with my trekking pole, but missed.  Now I’d hike the entire time with my camera around my neck, sans lens cap.  Great.  And the pictures were blurry anyway, unsurprisingly.  With that, I set off from rock to rock, just downstream from the trail.  It took a bit of balance, and I decided that on the way back, I’d check upstream as well.

Shortly after Red Creek, the trail works its way down near the North Fork Sauk again, and there’s a small amount of storm damage.  The trail is easy enough to stay with, though.  At ~19:05, as it was just starting to get dark, I came upon Mackinaw Shelter, ~5.4 miles from the trailhead.  It’s an eerie little building in a spooky grove of trees.  At least, that was my immediate impression.  I walked around the area and looked for a campsite.  Apparently there had been some really nice campsites here, but I didn’t see ‘em.  I picked the flattest, noisiest spot I saw and quickly set up the tent with headlamp on.  Being alone was really starting to work on me.  I was hearing noises.  There was no way I was cooking at this point, so I settled for a quickly-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich, clapping my hands intermittently and a shouting a few times for good measure.  By 19:40, I was in the tent taking deep, calming breaths.  I hadn’t worked hard enough to exhaust myself to sleep, however, and I ended up turning and tossing all night.  I wondered if solo backpacking was really for me.


I looked at my watch for the first time at 05:00 the next morning–I’d stubbornly refused to look at it any sooner, for fear that it’d tell me I had to stay hiding in my tent for another 4-5-6 hours.  At 06:10 the stars had faded from the sky above me, but I wasn’t up for good until 06:50.  I was in no hurry today, so I made myself mashed potatoes for breakfast and treated myself to hot chocolate.  At 08:45, I broke camp.

Site near Mackinaw Shelter in the morning.

Site near Mackinaw Shelter in the morning.

Before and after Mackinaw Shelter, there are some pretty brushy sections, and if you’re going through them in the morning like I was, you’ll get some damp pants.  Once leaving the shelter, the trail turns away from the river and finally begins to gain some serious elevation through the trees for the next ~hour.  The trees start to thin out, providing views across the Sauk and it isn’t long before Sloan Peak is visible in the West.  At 10:00, you break out of the trees into a large avalanche swath.  With that, there’s a bunch of blowdown over the trail, which actually switchbacks through it, so you have to cross two sections of it, not just one.  While it is a bit tedious, it still only took me ~10 minutes to make it past, and you’re able to look uphill at vast meadows that, at this point, are pleasingly near.

Sloan Peak visible in the West.

Sloan Peak visible in the West.

The avalanche debris, and soon-to-be-visited meadows above it.

The avalanche debris, and soon-to-be-visited meadows above it.

After crossing the avalanche debris, the trail continues up through sparser trees, with several blowdowns and increasing views.   It isn’t long before the grade lessens and the trail is out in the big open spaces that are typical of the rest of the trail.  Across the valley, the Monte Cristo peaks rise into sight.  The fall colors were beautiful, and the trail was pleasant.  I stopped at 11:00 to snack and enjoy the views for ~20 minutes or so.  It was around this time that the breeze really picked up.  It was quite gusty from here on up, until the sun started to go down.  Otherwise, the weather was perfect.

Once higher, the Monte Cristo complex comes into view.

Once higher, the Monte Cristo complex comes into view.

Big autumnal colors in the meadows up high.

Big autumnal colors in the meadows up high.

After my brief break, I reached the junction with the PCT at 11:35, 6000’.  To the right: White Pass and Indian Head Peak.  To the left: an out-of-sight Red Pass.  The White Pass area looked quite inviting, but since I’d gained ~3000’ in the ~3 miles since Mackinaw Shelter, at that moment I didn’t feel like walking a another mile or two to check it out.  I continued northwest on the PCT, picked a blueberry or two, met some wind-resistant marmots, and took pictures en route to Red Pass.

The Pacific Crest Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail.

Sloan Peak.

Sloan Peak.

Looking back toward White Pass, with Indian Head Peak behind.

Looking back toward White Pass, with Indian Head Peak behind.

At 12:30, I reached the pass.  Just below it, there looked to be a pretty pleasant campsite, with some trees for some shelter from the wind.  I wandered around Red Pass and tried to figure out what to do.  I climbed up the small point opposite Portal Peak, which is 6636’ and has an easy trail to the top.  I couldn’t decide if I wanted to continue down over the pass and try to find a space to camp near White Chuck Cinder Cone or over toward the White Chuck Glacier.  It was plenty early in the day, but I was pretty exhausted from carrying the load and the elevation gain.  I also knew that whatever distance I covered today, I’d have to cover again on the way out tomorrow, when I’d have to go from camp to car.  Just returning from Red Pass would be ~10 miles, and I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to add on to that.

White Pass to Red Pass panorama.

White Pass to Red Pass panorama.

Panorama north from Red Pass.

Panorama north from Red Pass.

Closest I've been to Glacier Peak.

Closest I've been to Glacier Peak.

Glacier Peak and White Chuck from Red Pass.

Glacier Peak and White Chuck from Red Pass.

So I dropped down on the south side of Red Pass to investigate the campsite.  There was one small snow patch, but water was scarce–actually, it had been nearly dry since leaving Mackinaw Shelter, so I’d carried up water.  The site sat quite a bit above what looked to be an upper branch of the Red Creek basin, and several side paths looked like they’d descend, but faded away not far from the campsite.  I finally decided that I’d set up camp, and possibly explore something later that afternoon.  By 13:20, the tent was up, staked in all over the place, and all of my gear (sans food) was in place to hold the tent down.  The wind was blowing.  I took off my boots and took a rest.  The boots would end up being off for the rest of the day.

I spent the afternoon snapping photos, wandering up to Red Pass to look at Portal Peak and Glacier Peak in my flip-flops, filling up pots with snow, and staring at my maps.  I didn’t bring a book because the book I started weights about four pounds.  I was a bit bored.

Wandering around the campsite.

Wandering around the campsite.

Can you see said campsite?

The campsite, in its element.

Colors on the southwest slope of Portal Peak.

Colors on the southwest slope of Portal Peak.

So they call this Red Pass, huh?

So they call this Red Pass, huh?

I made dinner early (~18:00) using a bit of the melted snow water for cooking, but it didn’t look good enough to drink.  I sat around waiting for the sun to set, which it did, right behind Sloan Peak.  Since I was carrying enough weight already (how much, I’d like to know), I left the tripod at home.  But it was beautiful to be up there all alone.

Sunset (1).

Sunset (1).

Sunset (2).

Sunset (2).

Sunset (3).

Sunset (3).

After seeing three people the first day, at the beginning of the trail, I’d seen three people the second day–two on their way down through the avalanche swath, and one person on the PCT above me as I was lying in my tent.  I went to bed much more comfortably then I did the night before.  It may only be in my mind, but camping in open, alpine spaces seems safer (re: bears) than camping amongst trees next to a river.  The stars came out and the Milky Way appeared above me as I drifted off to sleep.

Tuesday morning I was up at 06:15 and broke camp ~07:00.  On my way up the path to Red Pass, I spooked a Ptarmigan.  I’d had my head down, so I only saw it fly away, but it was still the first Ptarmigan I’ve seen.  At Red Pass, I watched the sun rise over the White Chuck, and then started back along the PCT the way I came.  By 07:40 I was back on the North Fork Sauk Trail; at 08:05 I left the meadows and the views of Monte Cristo behind; at 08:40 I passed through the avalanche swath, staying on the downhill side and stopping to finish the sandwich I’d started in the morning; at 09:25 I was back at the Mackinaw Shelter; at 10:05, I forded Red Creek via a small log upstream; at 11:20, I reached the Pilot Ridge junction, and shortly thereafter I spent ~10 minutes talking to a backpacker heading up for a White Pass/Pilot Ridge loop; at 12:20, about 5.5 hours after leaving Red Pass, I was back in the parking lot.

I made pretty good time, but I definitely had an eye out for the final hour or so for my lost sunglasses.  My memory card was filling up, but since I wasn’t stopping for pictures of mushrooms on the way in, I stopped for a few on the way out:

There were many mushrooms more exciting than these.

There were many mushrooms more exciting than these.

Like this one, for example.

Like this one, for example.

This trip was a great experience for me, since it was my first time out solo.  Sure, I had a bit of the fear in me the first night, but that’s something that will just take some getting used to.  I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get closer to Glacier Peak, or scramble up Portal Peak, but I wanted to make sure I would make it back alive for Nicole.  I think I will be able to handle future solo trips, but when we can, we should keep it the two of us.  And Glacier Peak Wilderness is an area we need to get into deeper.

Leaving, for now.

Leaving, for now.

Stats: ~20+ miles round-trip from Sloan Creek Campground to Red Pass and back, spread over 3 days, with ~4500’ of elevation gain (and loss).
Day 1: 5.4 miles to Mackinaw Shelter, ~3:00 hiking time, ~900’ gain.
Day 2: 4.5 miles to Red Pass, plus, ~4:00 hiking time, ~3600’ gain.
Day 3: 9.9 miles out, ~5:00 hiking time, ~4400’ loss.

As always, more photos at Flickr.

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4 Responses to North Fork Sauk River & PCT to Red Pass, 09/28/08-09/30/08

  1. EcoRover says:

    What a great place for your first All-One night out. I do a lot of solo (well, usually with Roly-The-Dog) and while I like my hiking/backpacking companions, there is a lot to be said for silence sometimes!

  2. EcoRover says:

    One other comment/question: so what are the red plants on the pass? Fall colors of grouse whortleberry or huckleberry or?

  3. jeremy says:

    I really did enjoy this trip–even more now, looking back at it. I loved the silence of the second night. The sounds of the first had me just a little bit frightened!

    I’m not yet an expert on plants. I did pick and eat a berry, and from what I’ve just looked at, I’d guess perhaps whortleberry/bilberry, since Wikipedia mentions a distinguishing factor is single or paired fruit (compared to clusters of blueberries). That’s how I remember them, at least.

    The colors were beautiful.

  4. Pingback: The Year in Review « Don’t Look Down

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