Solo winter backpacking adventure: Horsetail falls into Desolation Wilderness.
This post is a bit of a departure from the usual photography/web development/tech ramblings, but so be it.
- note: click any image for a larger view
…That it would be a good idea to go against summitpost.org’s, as well as the park ranger’s advice not to venture up Horsetail Falls in the winter. They both indicated the falls are “treacherous” in the ice and snow. I know the route up the falls, however, and I had previously trekked up this route in summer and rainy conditions. My goal was to get to the Ropi Lake area, camp, then set out on a summit attempt on Pyramid Peak.
The alternatives to the Horsetail Falls route:
From the east: Drive to Echo Summit, snowshoe into the Echo Lake area, then continue west past Lake of the Woods and descend towards Ropi lake. 5+ miles of snowshoeing, with a good descent on terrain I wasn’t familiar with.
From the west: attempt the summit from the Rocky Canyon area. A steep, 4,000+ vertical feet climb to the summit via routes/terrain that, again, I wasn’t familiar with.
So I ascended up the Falls route, knowing I could identify landmarks more easily than the other routes. Turns out the landmark of ‘sound’ became the best one of all: Pyramid Creek (which feeds Horsetail Falls) was, at times, nearly the only recognizable landmark.
Starting on trail: already Snowshoe time
Just passed the Twin Bridges parking lot, across from Lover’s Leap, snowshoes became a must. I saw someone’s tracks leading away from the parking lot and on towards the Falls, so with the trail being obliterated in snow (and since snowshoes meant I didn’t need to worry about a “trail’ anyway), I followed the foot-tracks.
The 5 ‘ish feet of snow beneath me made trekking into the canyon easier than when you have to follow the typical trail running alongside Pyramid Creek. By the time I hit the start of the trail, above, there was a bit of drizzle but no snowfall. (That changed quickly.)
You can see in the above photo that the snowfall is now coming down fairly nicely (and by “nicely” I mean cold, vision-obscuring, and sometimes sideways). At this point I was about a mile into the canyon, it’s getting steeper, but the trusty snowshoes allow me to go wherever.
Above is from the same vantage point as the previous shot, but zoomed in. Just above the center of the image is where I’m headed.
I’m now at the falls, which you can see in the larger image (click it to see). Up until this point, the terrain rose in elevation gradually. Nothing the snowshoes couldn’t handle. But here, the terrain’s steep as heck (however steep “heck” is supposed to be…), and the Falls are loud and howling.
I’m pretty sure the Falls were yelling something at me – perhaps reminding me of where I’d end up if I didn’t stay away from the edge, or if I let up on the ice axe while ascending/slipping on the steep snow… – but it was too loud to hear anything anyway so I kept on going. [ahem]
Here is the view looking back. The canyon certainly didn’t look that menacing when I entered it. Nor was it steep. But this was expected, as this part of the route is where the real steepness begins. Lots of rock-scrambling in the summer…
…and in the winter, you still have to rock-scramble. Only, it’s harder because you’re doing it in relatively fumbly snowshoes. My route was up the left side where all the snow is, until I reached the top of that, at which point it was a carefully placed ice-axe traverse across icy/snowy granite to hit another steep ravine of snow (not visible, but to the right of the snow ravine seen above).
So it’s much steeper now, and since I’m solo, it’s more unsettling. In fact, mathematically speaking, I discovered on this solo trip a direct correlation between steepness and unsettling – turns out they go hand in hand.
But that was enough math… I had more climbing.
At this point, it was getting late, and colder. In the summer, I had climbed with a full pack from the parking lot to the top of the Falls in 1 hour. On this day, it had been 5 hours, and I still had to climb the steepest part. Not visible above, the route I would eventually take would lead up to the left of the Falls (behind the tree, above).
This route would be the steepest, and most avalanche-prone of the entire ascent. Sometimes traversing, sometimes climbing, it was generally between 30-40 degrees, and deep in fresh powder. Post-holing while wearing snow shoes does wonders on draining your available energy.
Here is the final look south. You can see my snowshoe/ice-axe tracks from the lower right of the image. I was pretty happy to be atop the Falls, which are just to my left, but by now it had been 6.5 hours and I was beat. I still needed to trek to a suitable spot near Ropi Lake, setup camp, and eat.
About an hour later, I arrived “home”. Visible above are my snowshoe tracks. I practically owned Desolation Wilderness that night – almost literally – there were no other camps nor people in the entire area (when getting my wilderness permit, I had to book on the Forest Service’s new website, which listed 50 of 50 permits available for the night. I took one, and no one else took the other 49).
Summiting Pyramid Peak: where are the pictures?!
Not a chance, alas. The wind and snow pounded the tent all night, and the morning presented the same heavy snow/wind and bad visibility as the previous day. My original goal was to climb the Falls one day, then climb to the summit the next.
While I had packed for two nights, 3 days, all my clothing was frozen. Fairly painful putting on a frozen beanie, cold/wet gloves, and wet’ish double-plastic boots. Even worse when the wind picked up, which it did about every 5 or 6 seconds (damnit! stop!!).
So, no pictures of the descent.
I was far too cold and a little worried when I could not regain feeling in some of my toes and fingers.
In the end…
I think I would agree with the park ranger in that the climb is a bit too sketchy in the winter, solo to boot. Next time I’ll do a better job of listening. I’ll try, anyway… [ahem]