Everywhere we looked a glaciated peak dominated the horizon, seemingly at arm’s length. We’d forgotten to sweat, the uphill toil, and the absurd reminders of humanity strapped to our backs. Nothing mattered except the light playing through clouds and the spangled mountain tops. Nothing was important except our mortality.
Why do we travel into the wilderness? From a spartan, pragmatic point of view, it’s because we desire beautiful scenes and a chance to get away from our towns and cities. In the most elevated of encounters with the wild world, in the presence of dwarfing trees, towering walls of rock, and thundering rapids, I am reminded that I am human. I am not mortal and most importantly, that there are more impetuous forces in the world besides my species. I want to feel toothless, powerless in the face of nature. I don’t ascribe tooth and claw; there’s gentleness in the pika middens nestled beneath the hard tumult of scree fields. Strangely, I always come away confident, rested, and exhilarated every time I venture off the beaten path and encounter challenges that do not cushion my finite existence.
My friends Sam and Noel invited me on their annual backpacking trip in late August days beforehand and miraculously, I was able to join. Our destination was Hidden Lake, a snow fed scrape of granite just into North Cascades National Park. If we were lucky, which we were, we’d get to stay in the historic fire lookout tower. Not too far off Jack Kerouac had spent a season scanning for fires on Desolation Peak. To some degree, the excitement was because of those who tread before us.
I have a huge internal conflict when it comes to United States Forest Service roads. They were put there, not for rednecks to poach animals nor urbanites to peakbag, but for loggers to access trees. The night before our trek, we trundled up one such road, finding a beautiful view on a road seldom visited, enjoying simple exploration. One car broke our solitude, a SUV with grungy occupants. “Bear hunters.” Finding an impassible road, they turned around as we parked. The driver and I exchanged brief pleasantries, despite our apparent differences and he confided in me “I hope to god we don’t find a bear.” Strange words from someone “hunting,” but I kept that to myself.
Rainclouds were left in the valley and we searched for a lake, that didn’t exist, to fish in. Instead we looked across to our goal for the morrow and picked through a roadbed overgrown with Western hemlock and Douglas fir. I was reminded of remote mountain tops in Northern California, old Sierran forest roads swallowed by the regrowth of white fir or ponderosa pine.
It rained the entire rest of the day and night but we made the best of it. Clumsily fishing in the river at dusk, emboldened by bourbon, we groaned over the beautiful riverside camp, shaded by a massive cedar and two firs. It was reserved by someone we knew wouldn’t show due to weather. I was excited about the following morning as I climbed into my hammock, but awoke to listen morosely to the ceaseless dripping of the trees. The sound of rain or dripping forest was indistinguishable.
In the morning, we managed to pack and organize unmolested by precipitation. By the river, we stared into the dense hillside partially ensconced in valley clouds. A naked child ran into the water above us, a strange apparition diving into a slow, cold current covered by a layer of fog. Time to start climbing.
“What the $%#! are in these bags?”
To say that we were overloaded was an understatement. We needed our beer, our coffee percolator, our cameras, our fishing poles, and dozens of other extras. Spartan, has never been in my repertoire, despite my ability to rough it. Did I mention the bacon, the sausages, onion, and mounds of dried fruit and nuts. I hoped we didn’t catch any fish because we’d have carried food up for no reason. Exhausted, grumbling our way up switchbacks out of the forest, we stumbled into the Sibley Creek drainage. This winter time avalanche chute hosted stretching fields of green vegetation from mostly finished wildflowers and the rush of melt-water.
Marmots whistled as we filtered water at the top of the creek’s drainage, fearing there wouldn’t be easily had water elsewhere. This was laughable. Within several hundred meters of traversing the granite fields on the edge of the treeline we jumped several ephemeral creeks, but I’ve done enough backpacking to not want to assume. Hidden Lake Peak was 1000 feet above the lake itself; I knew we wouldn’t be climbing down for water once we scrambled up.
We got our first glimpse of ice covered El Dorado, epic beyond proportions, when we stopped to refuel on trail snacks. Blueberries were ripe all around us, leaves blushed red with autumn under a sky threatening storms. Miraculously we managed to make it to the top without rain.
I was really just paying attention to the pipits, the pika, looking got migrant hawks or a ptarmigan, and staring at the peaks which grew and morphed. Sam and Noel said I was dashing up the mountain. By the time we reached the saddle below the lookout’s perch, I was also very tired. The meager trail to the top was a stumbling, over-exhausted affair that scared me; the slope below wasn’t gentle. Finally, we crawled over the jumble of rocks that made up the peak and said hello to the lookout.
Nicole, a solo hiker, was inside taking a nap when I knocked. Gasping from elevation and towering packs, as much as from the other worldly view, we talked with her and looked about us in disbelief. She was hiking on her own and we realized we’d seen her early on, descending from Sibley Pass, which she’d accidentally ascended. By herself, she took off, heading back down to the car. We waved goodbye, thinking little of her down-climb, minds on a celebratory beer, our decadent sandwiches, and the outrageous place we’d just climbed to. A full two weeks since we were there I am still left with giddy exhilaration thinking about Hidden Lake Lookout.
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