Windy Peak Circumnavigation:
Rugged Trails In the Remote East Pasayten Wilderness
Rugged Trails In the Remote East Pasayten Wilderness
By Kathy Vaughan
The dogs began to bark, letting me know that Lisa had arrived. She was right on time, although I had forgotten what time we had decided on in our phone conversation, several days prior. I was just about ready, but I had to make a cup of coffee for the road and grab my hummus and sandwich rolls to make up my trail food while on our two hour drive to the Long Swamp trail head.
Lisa and I had a 31 mile run planned in the Horseshoe Basin area of the Pasayten Wilderness. We would start off by climbing to just below the summit of 8.300 foot Windy Peak, and then circumnavigate it. The route was a lollipop, meaning the trail taking us towards Windy Peak was about four miles, making up the stick of the lollipop. We would then travel in a clockwise direction around the mountain, returning to our lollipop stick that would take us back to Lisa's truck at the end of our run.
I loaded my gear in Lisa's truck and we took off, hoping to be on the trail around 8 o'clock. The ride was scenic and pleasant. Lisa and I enjoyed catching up with each other, having not spent time together since our last run together, a 34 miler on the Kettle Crest Trail in the Colville National Forest, the end of June.
We passed by the Similkameen river; numerous apple orchards; old homestead apricot trees, loaded with fruit; the Enloe Dam; Palmer Lake and a handsome herd of Big Horn Mountain sheep, grazing peacefully in the early morning sun. As we rode along, Lisa told me about how she had called the local ranger district for the most current trail information. She asked about each specific trail that would connect our loop together, making it a thru route and she was assured that downed trees had been cleared off of each of these trails.
We purchased our $5.00 Northwest Recreation Pass, and readied our packs. The trail started out with a stiff climb towards the mountain, so we settled into it. We both were using Black Diamond trekking poles. I like using poles for more rugged adventures, when I know there will be lots of steep climbs and technical descents. I find them very helpful. Being a cross country skier, it comes naturally to me to use these with good technique.
The wild flowers were abundant and fragrant. Fireweed was growing everywhere, prone to thriving in old burns, like the one through which we were now climbing. Lisa told me that before the flowers bloom, when they are young and tender, they are good for eating and taste similar to young fiddle head ferns. We also saw little Grouse worel berries growing, low to the ground. They were tiny and tasted like huckleberries. They were delicious. Nature's bounty was everywhere. The old burn had encouraged new growth in the fertile soil it left in it's wake. We later learned that the fire had burned through this area 8 years ago, in the summer of 2006.
Below the summit of Windy Peak, Lisa and I took a break to have something to eat and soak in the views. As a trail crew supervisor for the Forest Service, Lisa has worked throughout much of the Pasayten Wilderness. She recognized many of the distant peaks as she cast her gaze out over the distant peaks and ranges. Referring to her map, Lisa was able to point out many of the areas where she had worked. The views were spectacular from this high perch. It was a perfect day to be in the mountains.
We hit the trail again, now dropping down into Horseshoe Basin. This area was rich with little streams, other varieties of wildflowers like Indian paintbrush and lupine, and groves of aspen trees that offered nice shade with their thick foliage. The breeze carried with it the sound of their leaves quaking and bird song from the happy feathered creatures enjoying the trees. I love aspen groves. They are filled with character. Aspen often rot as they get bigger, due to growing in wet environments. This means that there are often downed aspen in these groves that get silvered, piling on top of each other like matchsticks. Some of the older gnarled ones that die remain standing. The woodpeckers like these and create holes in them, turning them into flutes as the wind passes through. The white bark of the aspen also contributes to the beauty found in these stands of trees, making them endearing throughout all of the seasons of the year.
We climbed out of Horsehoe Basin to reach a place called Sunny Pass. Here, we were surrounded by lovely alpine meadows filled with flowers. The colors seemed almost unreal; bright fuschia Indian Paintbrush, purple lupine, yellow asters, white yarrow and other flowers encompassing every color of the rainbow. We ran a 2 mile out n' back from this point to hit a place called Louden Lake. This section of trail was cruisy, winding through these flower meadows, crossing streams and dancing through the rocky trail. We ran into an old timer who immediately introduced himself to us. He went through his entire list of experiences he'd had in this area since the early 1970's. He was in the middle of a training hike, getting him ready to keep up with the younger folks with whom he normally hikes. He was quite the character and Lisa and I had some good laughs throughout the rest of our run remembering our conversation with him. He had told us that in all of his years hiking in this area of the Pasayten, he had never talked to anyone that made the approach to Windy Peak from the same trail head that Lisa and I had used.
This was a fun little ego boost, as Lisa and I had both felt like we had mostly been climbing, now half way into our day. We had miles to go still, but our climbing legs were feeling the elevation gain we had been chewing away at, as we looked back over the direction from which we had come. We had been climbing over many downed trees, from the first section of trail we hit, throughout the rest of the day. We were surprised at this, Lisa having been told all trails were cleared. We turned it into a joke, each time we came to a huge jumble of stacked trees over the trail. One of us would call out “All's Clear!”. At the end of the day, we'd both be scratched and scraped from climbing over or crawling under these.
We stayed up high, following a ridge line, after returning to Sunny Pass from our out n' back to Louden Lake. The trail became very rocky and technical, slowing our pace so that we could make our way through this section without a twisted ankle. We could see Windy Peak now. It was still far away. We would have to drop down off of this high ridge and climb 1,300 feet back up, in a mile and a half, to reach the lollipop stick portion of our route, before we would leave Windy Peak behind us for the day.
I saw a nice flat rock, one like Ras would love to rest upon, so I suggested we take another break before continuing along the ridge. Lisa liked this idea. The flat rock had a huge one standing on end behind it, so we were able to rest up against it, stretching our legs out in front of us on the cool rock below. The day had been hot and dry, the temperatures reaching the mid 90's. We had kept well hydrated and stopped for water at a nice creek in the Horseshoe Basin. Our water was holding out pretty good, but we looked at the map and decided to stop and filter more at our next creek crossing. I was carrying a Katadyn water filter bag, convenient to fill from a water source and then hang from a tree branch or log to refill bottles through the gravity feed, while you rest and eat. Ras and I used this on our Arizona Trail thru hike and I highly recommend it as a great way to treat water on the trail. It's simple to use.
Evening was coming on as we stopped at the creek. I put my Altra visor away, tucked my sunglasses and camera inside my pack and made sure my headlamp was handy to pull out when the light became too dim to see without it. I had extra batteries inside my pack, just in case. We continued through the creek bottoms. The evening air felt cooler and we made good time, working our way towards the big climb we knew we had ahead.
The trail began to ascend and we knew we had now reached that climb. Only a mile and half, but it seemed to last forever. It became dark about half way into it and at the same time, the trail grew faint. Not many hikers use this route, and grasses were growing over it in places. I was leading the way. I slowed down at times and even came to a stop a time or two, trying to find the trail. At one point I said to Lisa that I thought maybe we had missed the turn for the lollipop stick. I felt like we really should have been to it by now and that we were possibly climbing Windy Peak for a second time instead of descending back down to the truck. She assured me it was just up ahead. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was tired and feeling like the climb was lasting forever, that surely we had missed our turn.
Sure enough, within minutes of this scare, we reached the silvered sign directing us back towards the trail head where we had begun our run this morning. We still had at least 4 miles to go, but at least we were on the final stretch and knew we were headed in the right direction.
The trail tread became easier and I tried to pick up the pace, running when I could and speed hiking as fast as I could. It was getting late, but I didn't want to check my watch to see what time it was. I felt like this would break up the momentum and give me information I didn't really need to have. Putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as I could was the only focus I had at the time. Lisa said she could make coffee for us when we got to her truck and I was extremely motivated by this good news. I really love coffee and I couldn't wait to enjoy a cup when this night time trail adventure ended.
My surroundings all looked the same. There were charred trees on either side of me, creating a tunnel, both physically and in my mind. I looked straight ahead, only sensing these trees in my periphery. I wanted to see the thick cover of the fireweed again, knowing this would mean we were almost to the truck. Lisa and I moved quietly, our visiting long since done. We moved together as a unit; I could hear her footfalls behind me and if they changed even the slightest, I would know. If she fell behind to make an adjustment, I sensed it. She and Ras both like when I lead the pace, so I have a sense of comfort in that position on the trail with both of them now. It feels natural and intuitive. I can always sense Ras dropping behind as well, and I usually know without looking what he's doing. If it takes a few minutes, he is likely fiddling around with his mp3 player. If it's just a few seconds, he's probably watering the trail. On hot days, I know he'll stop at creeks. If it's going to be more than a few minutes, he will call out to me to stop. With the right running partner, a run can at times feel like a solo venture. When running in silence together for miles, you can experience the solitude of the wilderness. You can have the safety and comfort of having a friend with you, while benefiting from the stillness of nature. I love that with both Ras and Lisa, I can have this experience.
During one of our stretches of solitude, Lisa suddenly stopped behind me. She quietly said, “ There is some kind of bear down there.” I stopped and looked down into the deep creek bed, watching for movement or a dark animal. Within a few seconds, the bear began to run in the opposite direction of Lisa and I. Following behind, was her little cub. They were black bears, but in this area, it would not be out of the question to see a grizzly. Now, my bear sightings for the month of July total five (two mama bears with their cubs and one yearling by itself).
Finally, Lisa called out that she could see reflectors down below. She was seeing her truck. I looked down and saw the reflections myself, thinking that we must have several switchbacks until we reached them. Instead, after just a few more minutes, we dropped right down to the back end of the truck, done with our Windy Peak Circumnavigation in 15:18.
Lisa opened the tailgate and I pulled out my bag of dry, warm clothes. I saw her set up her Jet Boil to prepare the coffee she had promised while we were still on the trail. By the time I was changed into my cozy outfit, Lisa had pulled some amazing looking vegan spring rolls out of her cooler and opened up a container of Thai peanut dipping sauce. I could not believe my eyes. I had not gotten her Facebook message about this special treat she was bringing, and therefore I was surprised to see them there before me. As I thanked her, I opened the container of vegan chocolate chip/ dried apricot bars that I had made. We went over some of the highlights of our day as we filled ourselves with the nourishment we had brought to share with each other.
- Altra Lone Peak 1.5s
- What An Adventure Ultra Bag
- Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Poles (no longer able to fold down, duct taped together)
- Black Diamond headlamp with 3 extra AAA batteries
- Ras' Western Mountaineering puffy suit (lighter weight than my own Mammut puffy jacket and Montbell puffy pants)
- Smartwool hooded mid-weight sweater
- Smartwool toe socks
- Run Pretty Far gaiters
- Solomon black running skort
- North Face Spokane River Run tech-t
- Small ziplock baggie of first aid supplies: neoprene ankle wrap, a few Tums and Reed's ginger chews, 8 ibuprofen, inhaler for asthma (rarely use, but just in case), 2 benadryl capsules
- UltraPedestrian fleece beenie
- Altra buff , visor and bracelet (Always Representing!!)
- Buff Wear merino wool buff
- Swix cross country ski gloves
- Rain dickie (light weight rain vest that comes built into my W.A.A. Pack)
- Food for the day included: 1 raspberry flavored Hammer gel (leftover from a race), 6 Clif bars, a package of corn nuts (low fat & salty), 1 package of mango green tea beverage to add to my water bottle, several Nuun electrolyte tablets, 1 roasted garlic hummus sandwich on a chipotle roll (I was hesitant to eat the second sandwich I had brought as the day became hot and my stomach had times of queasiness already)