31 August 2006

The View from Fish Peak (21Aug2006) - peak bagging

[Photo above: elk wallow on the way up to Hicks Lake.]

Well, in terms of difficulty, summer’s remaining backpack trips will be easy in comparison to last week’s destination: Hicks Lake and Fish Peak.

Fish Peak, especially if scrambled by way of Hicks Lake, is in my humble opinion the toughest peak in the Pintler. This is even more true when, as with last Thursday, the day includes rain, high winds, hail, sleet, snow, and visibility down to a few hundred feet. All began well, cruising up LaMarche Creek on the easy trail from the now-closed guest ranch (note that because the dude ranch is closed with a locked gate, it adds a half-mile or so to the hike). Roly-The-Dog & I made the approximate 10 mile trek in just a few hours. We got an early start and the weather was pleasantly cool but clear. There is a great deal of bear sign everywhere along the trail, we saw some wolf sign too, and treat of treats we were visited along the way by a pileated woodpecker. We did not see any elk or bear in the marvelous avalanche slides coming off the high ridges along the south side of the creek, but I’ll bet they are full of critters early and late in the day.

[Little Hicks Lake; Hickie? Hiccup?]

At the right spot, we turned up onto the old CCC trail for the 2,000 foot and 2 miles as-the-raven-flies climb to Hicks Lake. We lost the old trail as we approached Little Hicks Lake (Hickie Lake? Hiccup Lake?) in steep country filled with deadfall and bogs. RolyTD gave out on me about this time. She simply lay down and refused to take another step. Once I removed her panniers and loaded them onto the top of my pack, she was ready to hike again. Just what I needed at that point—another 8 or 10 pounds.

[Photo above: dog tired upon arrival at Hicks Lake.]

But we arrived at Hicks with no real difficulties, although I did get a little turned by the steep ridge and we popped into the cirque just east of the lake. The lake never looked so good, with the stark Fish Peak ridge looming over us. The gathering clouds helped me speed the location of a campsite and setup of my little rain fly. We slept to the sound of distant thunder and the pattering of raindrops on the tarp. Then woke to build a quick fire, enjoy a cup of steaming tea, and then dinner of Ramen + jerky followed by instant pudding. The air cooled and the on-and-off showers forced me to don full rain gear. Part of our meal was eaten under the fly. Sleep came early, and just before drifting off a fierce storm dropped an inch or so of popcorn like sleet/hail with lightening (mostly cloud to cloud) booming over us.

Morning I slept in a bit, waiting for the sun to rise over the Fish Peak ridge. The day looked “iffy” for bagging a difficult peak, but the brief sunholes and patches of blue sky were enough encouragement, and we set off around the lake and up the western end of the ridge. Though a long route, this looked much friendlier than the steep, sheer rock closer to the peak. Much of the rock strata is tilted near the peak, forming “slick rock.” We said hello to a goat after we reached the ridge and turned toward the peak. There were several elk grazing in a distant meadow near Cut-away pass. Walking the ridge was difficult, with lots of scree, unstable scree on side-slopes, and only the occasional flat spot or bit of vegetation to ease our way. The closer we got to the peak, the more the weather closed in. By the time we reached the cairn marking the peak, clouds had closed in around the ridge and first rain and then sleet pelted us. I have never found a peak note jar or can at the Fish Peak cairn, so I brought a jar and wrote a hurried note before starting down—as I was writing the note, the sleet turned to snow, which was incredibly beautiful and made pleasant because the wind died down. But the rocks were made loose and the lichen slippery by the rain. Though steep, I chose a descent near the peak. I just could not stand the thought of hiking a mile or two back through the scree along the ridge. RolyTD showed great fear of crossing any areas of slick rock, and I obeyed her intuition and we found better places to cross these slick rock slides even when it meant going back uphill. On the way down, the sky cleared long enough for a pleasant lunch and well deserved rest. Again, the lake was a welcome sight and we napped to the sound of rain.

[Photo above: Hicks Lake from Fish Peak ridge.]

The rest of the day was filled with intermittent showers, though it never rained so hard that I could not keep my little fire going to heat water and make supper. After supper, we fished a bit and caught 4 larger trout and quite a lot of smaller ones. Temperatures hovered in the low 40s. During the night the sky cleared, temps dipped below freezing, and a crescent moon lit the sky toward morning. I was up at dawn, and enjoyed watching light fill the cirque while I drank my coffee and ate my oatmeal. With sun up I aired my sleeping bag and bivvy sack before packing and starting down the ridge toward the trail. The route was good, and the morning cool. I did not change my long underwear and wool shirt until we hit the main trail, when I also removed the panniers from my pack and strapped them on RolyTD where they belong. With a light load, I set a fast pace for the trailhead. The clock in the truck read 2 pm as we climbed in for the drive home. Thankfully, no one had bothered the 3 beers that I had stashed in the creek.

[Photo above: RTD in a snow squall on Fish Peak.]

During much of every Hicks Lake trip I think “never again.” But miraculously, upon reaching the truck, each time I find myself planning the next trip.

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