Autumn in the Alpine

Fall is long behind us. We’re thinking about the cold months ahead, snow and slush and getting back to the gym. Resolving to eat more fruit and put more into our savings…. and get all caught up with our blogs.

Which brings me back to writing about my fall.

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After my contract at the Stehekin Valley Ranch in the North Cascades ended in September, I went about tying up lose ends– returning books to the Visitors Center library, paying my tab at the organic garden (giving the farmer Carl an amazing goodbye hug), and eating loads on cinnamon buns to tide me over till next time. I gave away most of my things. A few precious keepsakes were mailed home. The remainder of my belongings I stuffed in a backpack (or rather my boyfriend’s backpack) and set out on our last hike.

We intended to hike out of the park, bum rides to the nearest bus station, and then see what happened.

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I’d been having some pretty serious back problems, so it wasn’t without some trepidation that we set out for this 30 mile hike, in which we would be literally climbing up and over mountain. My boyfriend Kevin, who really is an excellent human, carried far more than his fair share of the weight.

What I didn’t quite expect was the visual assault awaiting us– retina-poppingly bright maple and aspen leaves, massive cascades down mountainsides, carpets of alpine blueberry bushes red as flames, and mushrooms galore.

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We looked behind us and could see just where we’d come from. Stehekin is tucked under that last mountain, hazy in the distance.

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At this altitude, short growing seasons dramatically stunted the growth of maple trees. These ones gained perhaps just inches a year and were more bush-like, clustered together with dense foliage. Each patch of maple was a tuft of wildfire crawling up the mountainside. At time we’d hike through tunnels of it– sensory overload. We were surrounded by a kaleidoscopic explosion of vivid sun colors. It was like being inside a stained-glass window.

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We fed our souls, if not our stomachs. Our food was freeze-dried glorp, salvaged from the PCT hiker’s bin. We realized immediately after we set up the trail that we would be hiking through alpine zones, where fire was prohibited. So much of our food was cold and crunchy.

We also forgot spoons.

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Poop on a stick! (Truly, they were beans, but taste-wise….). This here is that excellent human I mentioned before. Having him there made eating beans on a stick quite tolerable.

On the second day, the switchbacks began. We climbed higher and higher, ascending the pass. With every turn in the trail we were afforded new views of cascades, vividly colored valleys and dying wildflowers– still gorgeous with their blackened leaves.


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It was crisp but the sun was strong. By mid-day we’d shed all our warm layers and were nearing the pass. At around 7,000 feet, we entered fairyland.

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Pelton basin was breathtaking. Enormously ragged spires sculpted by eons of ice grinding on rock towered over us from all sides. According to the Washington Trails Site, this is one of the very few places in the lower 48 to contain wilderness classified as Arctic Tundra. One of my favorite features is the krummholz, which is, basically put, a fairy forest.

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Krummholz: Krumm in German means bent, crooked, twisted, and holz means wood. In high alpine zones trees are barraged with frigid winds, so they are forced to grow closer to the ground where they can be sheltered by snow and rock. These tiny trees grow in little clumps, so ancient and otherworldly I kept expecting to see a gnome peek out.

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We hiked through this garden of crimson blueberry bushes and silver wood and a thousand other tiny plants, all growing in a fiery profusion. I stopped to pick blueberries and huckleberries, perfectly ripe and warm with the sun. It’s been almost three months and I can still taste those berries. They were a thousand kinds of sweet. Each one was a totally different flavor– some like cotton-candy, some like citrus, some with notes of cinnamon. I stopped every few feet to pick a particularly ripe one, savoring that sugary-sweet zing on my tongue. Kevin kept chiding me to hurry up. To be fair, left to my own devices I probably would’ve eaten them all….

We got to the pass, winded and cold. But we couldn’t stop long, we were anxious to see Sahale Glacier, and it was already late in the day. Although my calves were screaming and the air was getting thinner, I pushed on.

IMG_7144 IMG_7148We walked along the Sahale arm– where the ridge of the mountain curves around Lake Doubtful. Doubtful of what? Perhaps the discoverers were unsure they’d ever make it back alive. We felt far away from everything, isolated up on that spindly mountain at 7,000 feet. Ragged blue peaks stretched off as far as we could see. Lake Doubtful sat below us like a melted sapphire.

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(View of Sahale Arm, from Sahle Glacier)

Even far in the distance, Sahale towered over us. Ribbon-like cascades of glacial meltwater criss-crossed down the rocky precipice to the lake almost 3,000 feet below. We began to ascend the rocky scree fields up to the glacier. The way ahead of us looked improbably steep and precarious.

IMG_7174The temperature was dropping but we worked up a sweat, determined to reach the top. And then all of a sudden, we realized we had. The cascade range stretched around us into the blue, like broken teeth. The Sahale Glacier, an incredible mass of ice and rock, was beneath our feet. There– a particularly large spire in the distance– was Mt. Rainier, 120 miles away.

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Eager– Aaron M. Olson

Buddhist philosophy states that we aren’t separated from the environment by our skin, but rather joined to it. Up there on that exposed rock, at 7,200 feet, my skin felt raw and cold like every bit of it was connected to my surroundings. I could trace Rainier with my fingertips and follow the horizon line over to the Puget Sound, to where the pacific began. I was hungry and weary and utterly happy. I was part of it– the thrust and heave of tectonic plates that pushed these enormous mountains up, the wind and ice that will grind them into sand– connected with it all by every bit of my skin, rapidly becoming numb in the frigid air. We’re all made of the same things, aren’t we? Bits of stars that burst thousands of millennia ago. Seeing it all up there from my perch, I felt very far away and very much at home. All at once.

IMG_7215 We slept that night at the base of the mountain, surrounded by glaciers on all sides. They are enormous, icy blue and white, marble with black. Mammoths. We awoke at three in the morning to what sounded like the screeching, deafening roar of an airplane taking off. “Is that a glacier moving?!?” “I think so!” “Aren’t we camped right below one? Are we safe?” (pregnant pause until the sound subsided). “I guess so… back to sleep…”.

The next day we hiked out, through gold tunnels of Maple, to whatever came next.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Helen Luce says:

    Beautiful scenery – vivid descriptions – enjoyed every moment. And will return again and again to view and reread.

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