Old Routes, Old Friends
Note: this is more of a photo story than a beta dump. For the most detailed beta on this route, see my original trip report from 2019.
All photos from the talented Nick Danielson.
Two summers ago, Logan and I set off into the remote heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Over two days, we traversed from Snoqualmie Pass to the summit of Mt. Daniel, staying off trail and alpine nearly the entire way. We called the route “The Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse”. It felt pure, stunning and totally wild, like nothing we had done before. For both of us, it was the start of a high routing binge that has sustained us over the last few years. After years of flip flopping between trail running and mountaineering and rock climbing, we finally found a unique blend that felt personal, that felt meaningful.
In the moment, it is hard to objectively measure the quality of a route like this. But in the years since, this route has generated more interest and curiosity than any other route I have created. Perhaps it is the striking contrast between the bustle of Snoqualmie Pass and the remoteness of the Crest. Perhaps it is the accessibility for a weekend trip. This sort of trip is so diverse and ambiguous that it appeals to everyone in different ways. Is it a trail run? A mountaineering route? A high route? A backpacking trip? I still do not know how to describe what I do, and maybe that is a good thing. Labels are restrict the imagination and more often than not, imagination is a ceiling on our potential. Call it an experience, and make it your own.
Last summer, Nick Danielson, a local filmmaker, photographer, designer, and badass mountain runner, approached me about creating a short film about the Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse. The idea was to demonstrate the potential of “trail running” when you bring in diverse terrain and experiences. It was too late to fit into the summer of 2020, so we planned for 2021.
It would be awkward to have a film featuring only me walking silently through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, so we needed a crew. We selected a dream team: Logan, who was on the original traverse with me; Daniel, my best friend since 6th grade; Jenny, an expert rock climber turned mountain runner; and Tara, a speedy ultrarunner with a racing background (who just won the Backcountry Rise 50k in her first race back from injury). A group of six is definitely unconventionally large for such a long, challenging route, but we felt confident in everyone’s abilities.
We had to work around six people’s busy travel schedules, so back in the spring, we planned for the last full weekend in July. That was about a month later than Logan originally did the traverse, but we hoped a fat snowpack would hold into the summer.
Nick and I met the day before and drove up the Salmon La Sac river road and left my car at the Cathedral Pass Trailhead. Then we returned to Snoqualmie Pass and tried to get some sleep before a big day.
We all met at 3 am the next morning. After some final gear checks, we were ready to go.
We took the initial Commonwealth cutoff, which lops a mile off the PCT. Somehow, I managed to lose the trail in the dark. So much for tour guide Kyle. We schwacked up to the real PCT and continued on our way towards the Katwalk.
We turned our headlamps off shortly after the Katwalk and continued on the PCT north. There are no water sources on the PCT at this time of year other than Ridge Lake. We generally jogged the flats and downhills, trying to preserve our strength for later. Even though we called it a “trail run”, we knew that we would only run probably 8 miles all day at best.
We reached the slopes beneath Chikamin about 3 hours in. Thus began the start of the fun. We munched on steep heather, scrambled some ledges through a cliff band, and cruised to the ridge line and our first taste of the morning sun.
As we left behind the world of the PCT and instead entered the world of heather hillsides, trickling tarns, and lingering snowfields, everyone got visibly excited. Logan was perhaps the most excited of all, even though he had done the route before. There are some places that impress with novelty, but there are other places that evoke a deeper appreciation, like an old friend. I had first seen this view six years ago, running Chikamin in a day, my first ultramarathon, my first hike over 14 miles ever. Chikamin stands like a guard at the head of the Gold Creek Valley, visible as you fly by on I90. Behind its gates are some of the most rugged, dramatic terrain in the entire Cascades.
We dropped down to the little tarn and continued to the Chikamin-Lemah Pass. There was a little less snow on the traverse to the Iceberg Lake Chute. It was interesting being a tourist on my own route. So many of the details had already faded and some route details I remembered were actually wrong. It was like rediscovering the micro terrain of the route, following the vague shadow of a Kyle before me.
Multiple parties who had been on this route recently mentioned that there was significantly less snow coverage than when Logan and I did the route originally. This concerned me because snow coverage, particularly on the descents, facilities fast, efficient travel. However, throughout the day, we found snow coverage to be nearly as good, especially where it mattered on the descents. The Iceberg Lake Chute was continuous all the way to the lake still, although the morning snow was rather firm and so we stepped cautiously instead of speedy shoe skiing.
The deep hole of Iceberg Lake was absolutely freezing in the morning shade. It was nice to climb our first seven thousand feet to Overcoat Col nearly completely in the shade, because we knew it would get hot soon enough. Aspects are yet another subtle beauty of this route. When I did a similar route two months ago on skis, the Snoqualmie Haute Route, we discovered sun softened snow on nearly every ascents, and cool, shaded climbs. The aspects were similarly perfect.
We used crampons on the climb up the “Underpants Glacier” mostly just for efficiency. There was growing excitement for what lay beyond the dramatic V notch between Overcoat Peak and Chimney Rock.
Jenny led us through the “waterfall ledges”. It was fun to sit back and let others have the fun of route finding. There are so many unique challenges and fun features in this route. It feels like an escape room, unlocking one clue at a time. Each clue leads to the next. It is very engaging because you are always looking for the next major landmark, evaluating the current conditions, communicating with your partners, and finding a way through the challenge.
Overcoat Col feels like a revelation, a plateau of ice suspended above the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Jogging down the Overcoat Glacier on the short crossing is joyful and absolutely absurd, considering that lowly Snoqualmie Pass is not far away.
At the steeper 20-30 degree roll, we encountered blue ice, which we were able to easily go around to the right of. Logan and I did not encounter any glacial ice last time, but we did see cracks in the previous part of the glacier, which were not present this year. This just goes to show how unpredictable specific conditions are on a route like this. You have to be ready for a variety of conditions and different challenges. Each lap on a route like this will inevitably be very different as the glaciers and mountains change underfoot.
The next section, traversing a steep hillside to the “key ledge”, is the most involved section of route finding. We definitely cruised through this a bit faster this time around. Our friend Ely, who completed the route in a day the weekend before, reported “complete ecstasy” upon unlocking the “key ledge”. Looking back, it does look incredibly rugged and improbable.
The descent from Summit Chief Pass into the Valley of the Chief is one of my favorite parts of the trip. Once again, snow coverage was completely adequate, although just a tad too firm to really open it up, and we enjoyed over a thousand feet of shoe skiing. The Valley of the Chief is one of the great underrated spots in the Cascades, with peaks looming 3000 ft above, waterfalls coursing on their flanks, and a great roar of water pouring through a rocky Alaskan gravel bar at the valley floor. It is a spot that feels untouched, and so utterly alive.
We took off our shoes and rested here. I think this valley is approximately the halfway spot, at least in terms of both mileage and vert. I think we were about 8-9 hours in, and moving well. Every time I looked back, everyone was right there. It was such a competent, efficient group. I, however, was feeling substantial knee pain in my left knee. Every 5 or 10 steps, I would feel a sharp pain in my knee. As little as three months ago, I could not even walk down the stairs at home without feeling pain from this overuse injury I suffered last fall. Leading up to this day, I had done mountain runs of 3k ft vert, 4k, and 8k. Now I was attempting 14k. It was not an ideal ramp up, but I had a compressed timeline to work with.
We meandered down the valley to the base of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie. There were, incredibly, still large snow patches here at 4300 ft. This winter featured a remarkably deep low elevation snowpack and thin high elevation snowpack. Destructive avalanches were another signature of 2021 and there were some large ones that plowed into Williams Lake.
The climb from Williams Lake follows a rough miner’s trail through some dense brush. It felt hot and humid in the bushes and the heat began to take its toll. As we emerged into the boulder field above, Daniel started puking. From experience, he knew that once the heat set in, it would be difficult for him to recover from it. We took some breaks and slowly meandered up to the Chain Lakes, where we took a huge half hour break.
The Chain Lakes are a spectacular group of granite lined lakes, with little waterfalls and pools flowing into each other. They had been mostly frozen over during our previous visit, so it was nice to see them vibrant at the height of mid summer. There were quite a few sections of this route that I found more beautiful this time around because they were not covered in snow.
At this point, we still had nearly half the traverse left. Daniel decided it would be best if he bailed out over La Bohn Gap to the East Fork Foss trail. Logan graciously volunteered to join him. Daniel sent a message to Mills on his inReach that they would need to be picked up. Mills had driven us all over the North Cascades last fall, so she is a frequent savior. In one last act of heroism, Logan donated his sunglasses to Nick, who had forgotten his and been painfully squinting all day, using the camera as a filter. I said goodbye to my best friends and the rest of us pushed on towards Hinman.
The long break at the heat of the day did us all favors, not just for Daniel. My knee suddenly felt better and we maintained a slow and steady pace up the deceptively long Hinman climb. This was my fourth time up, so I was not tricked like the others into staying on the ridge line, deceived by every false summit.
It should be noted that Nick did this entire trip without poles, and a camera in hand. He was constantly running ahead and behind us to get the shots he wanted. Nick’s fitness and skill is truly amazing.
While the previous part of the route feels like you are encased by vertical walls and dodging cliffs, Hinman rolls out like a giant carpet of granite boulders and tarns. Look closely, and it feels like you are in the High Sierra. Look in the distance, and you realize you are on the rooftop of the Central Cascades.
Jenny was on a roll, and continued on the direct ridge line all the way to the janky jenga block ridge before the true summit. Only true mountain goats can climb this sort of precarious choss, so we were content to watch Jenny tag one of the summits before dropping down to the Foss Glacier.
We made a straight line towards Pea Soup Lake and found the most pleasant descent of the entire trip. Warmed afternoon snow allowed quick shoe skiing and soon we found ourselves on smooth granite slabs above the wonderful Hinman Tarns. This post glacial terrain had been snow covered when Logan and I last visited, but this time it revealed its splendor of waterfalls, tarns, and slabs. There was an absolutely perfect “Hinman Bathtub” that was very tempting, but temperatures were beginning to cool off.
It was quick progress down into the lower Foss valley and soon enough we were ascending towards the thunderous waterfalls slabs coming from the outlet of Pea Soup Lake. This was the beginning of the long, final 2600 ft climb. Our voices were drowned by the pounding of water rushing by us, so we quietly scrambled up the beautiful, bomber granite slabs.
The northwestern snow tongue of the Lynch Glacier was one of the puzzle pieces Logan and I had to figure out on our initial traverse. It allows access to the relatively un-crevassed upper Lynch, getting circumventing the lower icefall.
The two climbs up Hinman and Daniel are long, but very simple. It is nice how the second half of the route travels through generally easier terrain, but is always increasing in epicness.
We cramponed up the steep snow finger and then we were on the home stretch. Layers across the entire Central Cascades were sharpening. The vast icefield of the Lynch felt like such a contrast to the endless valleys and ridges between us and Glacier Peak. Mt. Daniel may not be a volcano, but it posses much of the character and aesthetics of a volcano in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
When I draw up routes, I do not think of the sections as individual components. Instead, I read the map like I read the outline of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. A conflict, and a resolution. Peaks become characters. I think about the way the light will hit certain surfaces at the time of day we will be passing through. I think about the way the eye will anticipate and foresee the next chapter. Ascending the wild north side of Mt. Daniel, the highest point in King County, the apex of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, at golden hour, felt like the climax I had envisioned all along.
We ditched the crampons on the saddle and finished the short scramble to the true summit. Nearly 16 hours after leaving Snoqualmie Pass, we stood atop the summit of Mt. Daniel, the culmination of the Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse.
Jenny and Tara were absolutely stunned when I pointed back to Overcoat Col and Chikamin, where we had been not long ago. Along the way, we crossed glaciers, jumped in alpine lakes, and scrambled up mountains. The varied terrain and dynamic movement felt actualized in this mesmerizing view.
From the summit of Daniel, we could see the steep walls of Mt. Index and Baring in the Sky Valley. We could see the outline of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island. We could see the intimidating North Ridge of Stuart, which I had climbed the previous weekend. We could see smoke plumes billowing from the Methow. We could see light glimmering off Puget Sound and the outline of highrises in Seattle cutting through the glare. And somewhere, within plain sight, the incredibly complex mosaic of the Cascades was hiding a few million people. We had gone from Snoqualmie Pass to Mt. Daniel without seeing a single other soul. Is adventure truly dead? Or is it just evolving?
We lingered and cherished the moment, enjoying the warm sun as a cold, cold wind blasted us. But we were nearly out of food and ready to get down to the car.
We enjoyed a nice sunset as we descended to Peggy’s Pond and finally to easy terrain on the Cathedral Pass trail.
Somehow, after 17 hours on the move, my legs felt better than when they began the day. My knee pain had disappeared and I was able to jog most of the way out from Peggy’s Pond. I am grateful for my body and all it allows me to do in the mountains. This injury has been frustrating at times, and will continue to frustrate me, but I am grateful that I was able to complete this day. A few months ago, it felt completely impossible. But aren’t many things only impossible because we tell ourselves that they are impossible?
We reached the car in darkness, 18.5 hours after we started. Snoqualmie Pass felt like days ago, not just earlier that morning. Big days in the mountains have a way of wrinkling our sense of time. We feel like different people from when we started: beaten but not broken; drained but revitalized; humbled but inspired.
The Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse in a day was one of the hardest and most incredible days I have ever experienced in the mountains. The middle section feature 20 miles of nearly continuous off trail travel through the beautiful, remote heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It was a pleasure to share this special experience with Tara, Nick, Jenny, Daniel, and Logan once more. For me, it was, ironically, a new experience to repeat one of my experiences. I am constantly seeking new places, chasing the addiction of novelty, but even in a range as expansive as the Cascades, the mountains are not infinite. There will come a day when I cannot create a “better” route than this, and possibly that day has already come. No artist expects their first song to be their greatest hit. On my second tour of the Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse, I found an equal, perhaps even greater appreciation for the beauty of this landscape and fluidity of our movement through it. It is reassuring to know that, like an old friend, these routes will always stir something special in my heart.
A few days after our trip, Jenny’s parents sent her these photos from 1982, when they did a 5 day trip of the Alpine Lakes High Route continuing over to Hinman and Daniel, just like we did.
- We all measured about 33 miles and 14k ft gain. The stats fail to capture how challenging of a day this felt. I have done 45 miles and 13k gain on trail in 13-14 hours. This took 18.5 hours, although we did take many breaks.
- That being said, I think that completing this route in a single push is within the realms of an experienced mountaineer / speed hiker. It is more about route finding and moving efficiently over a variety of terrain than pure trail running speed or anything. If you are making your first attempt in a day, I would recommend starting around 2 am to give you maximum buffer and possibly familiarizing yourself with the Daniel descent. You do not need light for the PCT at the start.
- The snow coverage was a concern going in, but was totally fine. There was plenty of snow for shoe skiing on descents, although it was a bit firmer than ideal at times. Crampons are a must-bring on this route. Even though you could make it through without them, there are so many situations where they would become necessary.
- The Overcoat Glacier will soon (maybe in a week or two) have a mandatory blue ice crossing of 20-30 degrees. I would not attempt this route after another two weeks or so for that reason and just not having enough snow coverage on the descents. What snow that remains will only get firmer.
- The Lynch Glacier looked very filled in where we crossed it. Only one crevasse was visible and it was very far away from us. But unroped glacial travel is always a risk and that risk can be difficult to quantify. As a group, we discussed this and were willing to accept the risk. Make your own decision that suits your risk tolerance.
- It is challenging to quantify the difficulty of a route like this. I think it is easiest through comparisons. Some others have also done the Ptarmigan Traverse in a day and they feel that this route is more navigationally complex and has more micro terrain. Overall, this route will take most parties longer. The Ptarmigan does have more serious glaciers though.
- Nick does not have a timeline for the short film, but I will certainly post here when it goes live! Stay tuned!