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Spiderwoman’s KCHBR Tips || Section 2: Great Western Divide

Keep scouting around. You’ll find your path.

Colby Lake

“After it crosses the outlet stream of Colby Lake”, head up two switchbacks, and then “Leave the Colby Pass Trail”.

Talus Creek

The combination of Skurka’s descriptions from Part II: As you go, and Critical Interim Updates – v 2.5, provides an excellent description for navigating between Colby Pass Trail and Talus Creek. His single most important tip was “you need only ascend 80 vertical feet” on your way to the baseline that is Talus Creek.

Where to next? Learning the lay of the land.

Travel was indeed “very pleasant” all the way from “PR-15” to “PR-16 Talus Pass”. The jagged-topped mountains you’re nestled against as you make your way along the western flank of the Great Western Divide are a show-stopper. Especially the rampart that is Table Mountain — this is truly a captivating, larger-than-life place to visit.

Our visit was punctuated by thunder booming off the rock towering above our heads…and then got real when a wall of drenching rain whipped through. It got stormy. We had to holler to hear each other across a short distance, and had to be uber-cautious not to bite-it on the strangely slippery-when-wet slabs we were just starting to descend. It was like they were coated in oil. No exaggeration; it was weird.

INCOMING

Table Creek

We did not drop down to “The tarn immediately below Talus Pass”. Instead, we “circumvented” it by scrambling to get atop a slabby band on its east shoulder. A second wave of pouring rain started up, so the accompanying booming thunder, and knowing that “There is good camping in the forested bowl at the base of the pass”, motivated us to head down to “PR-17”.

I always have to remind myself while walking in a cold, driving rain (knowing a tent set-up, instead of say, a car and warm shower, is my fate) that there’s a silver lining somewhere in this situation. Once down in the “forested bowl”, the silver lining came in the form of a welcome crew: a pack of 3 curious coyotes ran lightening fast toward us. They came from so far away we couldn’t figure out what they were at first. We stood stock-still and stared, flipping through our mental rolodexes of past experiences that could explain what was making a bee-line, at full speed, straight toward us. Their effortless sprint looked like a wispy cloud screaming across the ground. Then the cloud took the shape of bushy hair thin legs long tails pointed snouts, then bam, 5 beings hit on it at the same time: coyotes, meet the human visitors. Dead stop. Motionless. Long stares. Then nonchalant disengagement. One by one, they loped up into a nearby talus field and disappeared. Trickster magic unfolding right before our eyes.

Thunder cracks, booms and rumbles off the surrounding peaks

We took a long time finding a camp spot because everything was either exposed to blowing rain or saturated with water. We were extra appreciative then when The Brawn found our perfect spot. He ventured pretty far back along the northwestern edge of the meadow (180 degrees opposite the route), scouted through layers of trees, and found a wonderful, sheltered spot. I set up my tent in a full-on rain shower and it went well. There are some backpacking-related things I shudder at the thought of doing. Setting up or taking down my tent in a driving rain tops that list. Until now. Having a single-wall tent was the key to making it a positive experience.

It was good we camped there, even though it was early afternoon, because it was pretty solid talus for quite a ways after “PR-17 Nice camp”.

“Gem-colored tarns” – indeed.

Cunningham Creek

The sun and moon are about the have a good-morning kiss

Descending the “north side of Thunder Ridge Pass” was fun and relaxing. I use the word relaxing because moving down the talus chunks required that particular blend of cautious concentration and smooth agility that the alpine world so frequently extracts from us humans. Self-chatter quiets, the entire body engages. Cross-country scrambling on fairly stable, nonexposed terrain…with a scrubbed-clean smell to the morning and sun warming us from a bluebird sky…what a great start to our day. This is livin’.

You’ll definitely want to “circumvent the steep granite slabs above the southeast shore of the lake”. They drop vertically into the lake.

Misty Fjords-like. Where’s my sea kayak?

The “west ridge of the unnamed 13er” was our navigational aid as we made the straightforward walk from “PR-19” to “PR-20”. We squeezed through a tiny stretch of willow, but thankfully “nasty willow” wasn’t an issue. Visiting the stately trees atop the “Rocky lateral moraine” was a treat. It’s not every day a person gets to walk through a grove of gorgeous old growth perched on top of an ancient moraine. It was special how the very existence of those mature trees gave perspective on the age of that backbone of glacial debris.

We crossed paths with a chatty solo man around “PR-20”. We spotted him long before he saw us. Watching him move through the landscape put the enormity of everything in perspective. He is a prime example of one of the things I get a kick out of while people watching, so to speak, in the backcountry. All the various styles out there accomplish the same thing at the end of the day, thank you very much.

Our new acquaintance, who had just descended Table Mountain that morning (so he was the tiny figure we saw at the bottom of Thunder Ridge Pass), was wearing jeans, heavy leather boots, and a giant external frame pack with all sorts of things lashed to it. Gallon jug bottles bumped and swung as he walked. He had food for 2+ weeks and was reuniting with a bunch of peaks from his past. And what a mountaineering past he had. He launched into stories about climbing with the Russians back in the 60s was it? When he switched to telling the stories IN Russian, he not only lost us, but also seemed oblivious to our blank stares. He understood the story, threw his head back laughing in all the right places, and that was good enough for him, thank you very much.

Finally catching on to our universally translatable we should be going now body language, he asked where we were headed, and cautioned us that since it had been such a high snow year, the cornice on Longley Pass might not be passable. Seeing our dismay, he tried to reassure us by emphasizing that if we’d been here a couple weeks earlier it most certainly wouldn’t be passable. We should be happy we have a sliver of a chance!

This startling new information (Skurka does have an “Early-season” warning. I must have thought we were exempt from it since we were late season), coupled with our experience on King Col, made us both think it would definitely be closed. The Brawn wanted to sit down, peruse the maps, and make a bail-out plan right then and there. But I thought we should spend our precious daylight on hope. We should get our butts up there pronto.

Debate settled, fueled by the urge to gain the only information that would relieve our sudden worry, we took off at a racer’s pace, pushed the aerobic envelope up the “moderately-graded, loose slope”, speed walked across the “gravel plain”, reached the saddle, which was indeed blocked by a long cornice wall, and dropped our packs. Time to scout.

What it looks like when a pass lets you sneak past

The south end looked promising. Still huffing and puffing, we scampered up some rocks around the cornice’s edge and wahoo!!! There was a passageway!!! We laughed, we howled, we high-fived. It was unicorns and rainbows and tension-relief all around! We were in heaven. Hugging and reveling, we stood at the top of the passageway for a minute and confessed to each other how uncomfortable our anxiety had been (to the point of nausea for us both!) since leaving the chatty man. That’s one of the neat things about backcountry travel. The highs are high, the lows are low, and the switch between the two can be intense and fast. Adventures within adventures.

A mountain’s take on waves

East Fork

Snowmelt from the cornice is apparently dependable enough for a strip of green to have established a home in the middle section of the pass. The flowers and succulents were particularly enchanting to our blissed-out brains.

From the “tarn”, you are aiming for “Lake 3496 northeast corner’s peninsula”. Skurka’s instructions in Critical Interim Updates – v 2.5 are spot-on. Before you reach the tarn and you still have a bird’s eye view, identify the “subtle bump”, the “shallow draw”, and “Lake 3496’s northeast corner”. Using those landmarks, you’ll have no problem finding the wide, mellow “grassy ramp”. The ramp “terminates” close to the “small cut” (aka Lake 3496’s outlet) that you’ll pass through as you continue your descent to “Lake Reflection”.

Standing on the edge of yet another immense, intertwining system of mountains and valleys, we are insignificant specks cradled between water and sky

The “semi-constructed trail” is a series of tight switchbacks. It was obvious and initially made for a quick passage. But it fizzled out so we had to just stick to cross-country travel along the “north” side of the “creek”.

Travel from “Willow-choked creek, better travel on N side” down to “PR-23” was not fast. We were on a nice, cairn-marked use trail near the upper end of Lake Reflection for a while. But despite trying, we eventually lost the cairns and just made our way across the sloped terrain, made of slabs and light brush, to the outlet.

The west side of Reflection Lake’s outlet area had several idyllic campable areas. The east side of the lake (accessed by a trail) had campsites, too; one or two were occupied as we passed through.

Crossing to the “east side of East Creek” was easy and fun. We did it by “linking partially submerged logs” and a small island in the middle of the “lake’s outlet”. I love opportunities like that – fusing agility with balance to solve a little puzzle and kick the day off to a rockin’ start. This crossing also marked our farewell to cross country travel. It’d be nothing but trails, daydreaming, and a serene Mediterranean-like day all the way back to the car.

It was a relaxing cruise down to East Lake on nice tread. We passed backpackers enjoying their morning coffee in the “Big horse camp”. Then, heading down to Junction Meadow on even nicer tread, we breezed through an area of freshly cleared downed trees just a hundred feet south of where the (damaged but open) bridge crosses East Creek. In terms of breadth, the clump of downed trees was fairly small; it was the height that was so impressive. Prior to being cleared, it must have been a nasty crawl through those enormous trees piled all helter-skelter. Skurka’s map says “Slow, poorly maintained trail” right about here. I’m thinking he was referring to this clump?

We didn’t cross Bubbs Creek where we initially intersected it – it was narrow and swift and we hoped we could do better. Scouting a little ways downstream, sure enough, it widened and looked more mellow. Crossing was fine, but surprising. I didn’t think it was going to be quite as deep as it was. The Brawn thinks he remembers it coming up to his knees.

This is a point where some itineraries turn west in order to “resupply at Cedar Grove”. We turned east here and continued on the route to “PR-27”. We finished our hike by exiting over Kearsarge Pass. Everything we stored in the bear locker was there and my car was fine.

Endings makes you stronger for the next beginning

We swung by Nevada’s Boundary Peak and Idaho’s Borah Peak on our drive home to Eastern WA. Both were wonderful day hikes, and Borah was especially stunning as the first storm of the season brewed overhead. The gunmetal sky made the striated colors in the surrounding peaks absolutely pop. We were home for a few weeks to get some work in, then retraced our drive back down to the Eastern Sierra and enjoyed the heck out of the Lowest to Highest route.

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