Rae Lakes Loop, Day 1
It was a cool, but not cold, morning. I hadn't slept particularly well, since I didn't pick the best spot for my tent. I was on a slope, wisely tilted down towards my feet, but it was a strong enough slope that I kept gradually sliding down and had to wiggle myself back up repeatedly. Other than that, comfortable, and it didn't even seem too bad getting out of the sleeping bag.
Managed to break camp fairly quickly and started up the trail. The vast majority of the early hours was nearly flat, just a minor and consistent incline. Almost no downhills to speak of, and pure flats were rare too, just lots and lots of gentle incline. After a while, I saw a few people still at their campsite. At 10:30 in the morning. I'd been walking since 7:30. What were these people doing all day?
Here and there, when there was a break in the trees, you could look around the canyon and get some great views of the mountains enclosing you.
Then I realized that as high as those peaks seemed, as insurmountable as those walls looked, the elevation of Glen Pass, which I would have to cross, was above that. Yowza.
It was still well before lunch when the trail took a turn and the climbing began. Climbs are always deceptively long, not only because you slow down and don't cover as much ground in the same amount of time, but because the trail will start to do switchbacks, making it look a lot shorter on the map than it really is. What looked like less than a mile of climbing turned out to be at least two. And every time I saw a ridge and thought the climb was almost over, getting over the ridge only revealed a brief flat spot, followed by more climbing. Every so often, I stopped to catch my breath and looked back. Fantastic views.
And to think: I used to be at the bottom of those mountains. Now it looks like I'm on a level that's about halfway up!
At just about noon, I arrived at a break in the climb, a flat area at just over 10,000 feet of elevation. My initial plan for the hike actually had me camping here on Saturday night, and instead, I made it there before lunch. Getting over Glen Pass this afternoon was not only possible, but would now be easy. And the weather couldn't've been more perfect; warm but not hot, and not one single cloud in the sky. I might as well take on Glen Pass today, and camp at scenic Rae Lake on the other side tonight. I was even ahead-of-schedule enough that I took a 1.4-mile detour just to hike down to Charlotte Lake for lunch.
With a little rest, plenty of water, and some food in my belly, I headed up for the final assault on Glen Pass.
Here and there, there was snow across the trail, usually in a particularly steep slope where I'd rather not worry about slipping. On went the microspikes (think chains for your tires, but for your shoes). I went ahead and left them on for good, even though the majority of the trail was bare rock, probably the worst possible surface for microspikes. But I'd rather not have to keep stopping to take them off and put them back on, and like hell I was walking across a dangerous slope without them.
It wasn't until I'd reached about 11,000 feet that the elevation started to bother me. I just noticed that I kept slowing down, even stopping to catch my breath. Around this time, I got passed by a few hikers, all of which I'd passed earlier in the day. Seemed like they were just handling the elevation better than I was. None of them had microspikes, or anything for the snow other than trekking poles. I was eventually stopping close to once every two minutes. I had a headache. I looked up. Was that the top? There was no way there were more than 1,000 feet to go. I might as well suck it up and make it happen; going down the other side will be just as good as going back down this side. How bad could another 20 minutes and another 1,000 feet be?
After a slow but well-paced effort, I found myself on Glen Pass. I stopped and took a few pictures, quickly though, since it was ferociously windy. 12,000 feet and a gap in the peaks means you're quite literally in a wind tunnel. I like it when you can look down at peaks.
It wasn't until after I'd finished taking photographs that I really took a good look at the trail. Ho-ly crap. Now on the north face of the mountain (the side that gets the least sunlight), it was completely blanketed in snow. And by that, I mean the trail was completely obscured, invisible. There was nothing to do but follow footprints, which weren't even bothering to make switchbacks. Those before me must be much braver than I.
After looking forward to descending for over an hour, I found myself in a situation that was much worse than the climb. Snow gives me the heebie-jeebies. You see, to a kid from Texas, snow is a substance whispered about in legend, that presents itself every four years, only in just enough quantities to close school for a day. It certainly never causes any problems, and there's never so much you get sick of it.
Even putting my foot exactly in existing footprints, I was pausing between every single step, practically hyperventilating if my foot managed to slip one centimeter. I was probably moving about 10 meters every minute, if that. In some places, walking wasn't possible; the best option was a controlled slide. I hated it. Hated hated hated hated hated it. More than once, I slid into an unseen rock just below the surface of the snow, or else postholed and caught a rock in the shin on my way down. I was still in shorts. My shins have seen better days.
After an unreasonably long descent, I was finally on flatter ground again. Less snow, but still some over the trail here and there. I concluded that I would never do this loop again before the Fourth of July.
Stopped at Arrowhead Lake for dinner, planning to stop at Dollar Lake for the night. When I got there, though, there was a sign posted prohibiting camping by the lake. I looked at my watch. 7:00. I still had at least another hour of daylight. Rae Lake though, that just turned my day right around. I won't even bother describing it, here:
It was still only about 5:00 in the afternoon when I made it to the opposite end of Rae Lake. No reason to stop now. I took my time leaving the lake, but kept hiking. After going through hell over Glen Pass, now I couldn't keep a smile off my face. Just so happy to be here.
I wound up using almost that entire hour, descending the whole time, before I finally found a nice, flat, grassy meadow, perfect for camping. When I first walked in, there were a few deer grazing. I was finally under 10,000 feet again. Probably for the best. Tonight would have a little less chill and a little more oxygen.
from Rae Lakes