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Trip Report

East Fork Foss - Necklace Valley, Tank Lakes — Saturday, Sep. 3, 2011

Central Cascades
Angeline Lake, taken from the talus field above the cliffs on the northeast edge of the lake.
We tried Fred Beckey's route, planning to make a three day loop by going in via the Necklace Valley and out on the Big Heart Lake trail. We weren't able to complete it, but what we did do was quite an adventure. Joining me for it where my friends Ola, Marcin, and Stephen, all of whom had camped with me many times before and were in great physical shape. Before starting, we checked with the ranger and there had been no further reports of the food-acclimatized bear since July, so we packed plenty of cord for hanging bear bags (as always) and didn't worry any further. Throughout the entire trip, we didn't see a single bear. Day 1 Our goal for the first day (Saturday) was to push all the way up to Tank Lakes, which was 10 miles in and roughly 4000' of gain. We were at the trailhead at 8:45, and the hike up through the Necklace Valley went easily enough. A while after the 7-mile marker, we reached Jade Lake, where we had a late lunch at 2pm. The trail continues up the valley, going right by the front door of the Necklace Valley Cabin, which is where the 8-mile marker is. Continuing in the direction of La Bohn Peak, eventually the trail disperses into the talus field, where cairned paths go off in a dozen different directions. If you know the direction of Tank Lakes, you can't go wrong, but the quickest way is to parallel the stream uphill and then follow the spine of the tiny ridge of talus in the middle of that field upward. We reached Tank Lakes at 6:30, with much photo-taking both on the way up and once we got there, it's a very beautiful area with a few glimpses of distant Glacier Peak on the way up. Although many other groups were already camping at the lake, somehow they had left us a table of rock with a prime view above the north end of the lake, right after you come over the ridge. We set up tents there, but unfortunately it was extremely windy, and we all had a very difficult time getting any sleep between the sounds of our tents constantly flapping, and occasionally having to get up to add rocks to the rock piles that we used in place of stakes. Day 2 Due to our painfully little sleep, I didn't have the heart to get the group up at 6am as originally planned. Instead, we were up by 8:30, and after a hot breakfast & packing, we didn't move out until 10:30. Ouch, not exactly an early start. Here's where we really got into the meat of the trip, since after Tank Lakes it wasn't always immediately obvious where we should be traveling. We left all other people behind and descended due south of the lake for a ways, hiking down from one meadow on a shelf to another over and over again while curving very slowly westward, until we reached the gentle saddle of Iron Cap Pass at 5300'. Many "committee meetings" about which way we should be going meant that we spent almost equal time stopped talking as we did actually moving, so progress was slow. From Iron Cap Pass at 12:30, we could see Otter Lake and the direction we had to go was more clear, so we headed north and descended, but now instead of simple walking we got our first taste this-trip of scrambling down a talus field, and it took forever. We each had different levels of comfort when it came to traveling on the rocks, so as a group we had to move slowly. We had all scrambled before on other trips, but I don't think for nearly as long. At 2:00 we reached the marshy meadow that made a flat bottom to the valley so far. After lunch there, it wasn't long until we were back on talus and aiming for the stream that feeds Otter Lake. Right about where the stream seems like it's about to become a waterfall close to the lake, the talus presents you with a Y-intersection, where the west fork of the Y traverses across the forested slope (as opposed to following the stream). That west fork is the right way to go, and as we traversed it we were shocked to see people coming up behind us, the first people we had seen since we left camp that morning. Turns out it was three guys who had passed us on our first day too. Their pace as at least two or three times what ours was, and they had hiked in Necklace Valley the same day we had, but then swung east, summited Mount Hinman, came back west, and caught up to us here. Holy crap that's impressive. We followed their lead for a while and it gave us a huge boost of speed too, something we badly needed, and we were very thankful. The talus gave way to a brief forest crowded with huckleberry bushes, descending slightly and then hoping over the stream that's the drainage of the small Iron Cap Lake high above us. After that, we crossed a swampy meadow and then were on talus again, which we followed descending slightly, reaching a wall of thick alder on the other side. After punching through the wall of alder, we were in a forest that was more open. At this point we let the Hinman guys go ahead, we couldn't match their pace anymore. I'm also not sure if we were following Beckey's route exactly or if we made our own short cut, but we diagonaled upward through the forest straight for Azurite Lake, and broke out onto an open meadow of heather overlooking it through a single row of trees. The time was 5:30, and everything had gone according to plan so far, except for it being far later in the day than I had originally imagined. The next part of Beckey's route gave us a world of trouble: we need to get around Azurite Lake, but it's in a deep bowl-shaped valley and it has cliffs dropping straight into it a points, so we couldn't simply walk around the shore. Beckey says there's a ledge on the south side that allows you to circle above the cliffs, but there's no clue how high this ledge is. We lost hours exploring and looking for it. As sunset crept up on us, we were forced to give up and go back to the our meadow overlook to camp, still on the east side of Azurite Lake. (My conscience cringed at camping on the heather here, but we had lost the sun and had nowhere else to go, so we had to set up camp.) Before going to sleep we had to discuss and come up with a new plan. Our problem was that we didn't make it nearly as far as we had hoped, since my goal had been to camp near Chetwoot Lake that night. (True, even if we found the ledge, we probably wouldn't have reached Chetwoot by nightfall, but we could have gotten lot closer and been better off distance-wise to the Heart Lake trail.) So, from east of Azurite there was too much distance to cover by going forward to Chetwoot, Big Heart, and the entire Big Heart trail the next day. There was also too much distance to cover to retrace the entire way we'd come over the last two days. After some back-of-the-napkin math, we figured if we got up at 5am, left camp at 7am, then hiked for 17 hours retracing our steps, we'd reach the car by midnight. Sunset would catch us on the well-defined trail of Necklace Valley, so hiking by headlamps would be acceptable there. With that plan in mind, we went to bed, knowing tomorrow was going to suck balls. Day 3 This group is not used to alpine starts, even though 5am barely qualifies as one. It hurt to get up, but the stars were pretty. Sunrise came quickly and we weren't fully packed by the time it was light. During our packing, I went down to the lake to fill our water, and guess who I ran into: The three Hinman Guys! They're still the only other people we ever saw out there. They effortlessly found the ledge on their first try: if you follow the shore all the way until it reaches the cliff face, then retrace until the very first steep climb of rocks (they're a little wet & mossy, but climbable), that'll get you up onto the ledge that takes you to the talus field on the other side. If you were doing the route the opposite way, it's much easier to find. With this new info, and the dread of 17 hours of hiking, we reevaluated where we were on the map. If we could get to Lake Angeline, and then cut north-west straight across it's drainage stream, it would be way shorter to get to the Big Heart trail. We had a way to get out at a reasonable hour again! Ironically, one of the main reasons I wanted to take this option was that the earlier exit would mean we'd contact Stephen's girlfriend, Mine, soon, because I was worried she might call SAR if we were out past midnight that night. I also confess that I was driven by ambition to complete the loop that we had set out to, and although that may have clouded my judgement a little, I wasn't pushing that idea on anyone else in the group, we all came a consensus fairly naturally and without encouragement: Angeline Lake it would be! Now that the mystery of the ledge was solved, getting to Angeline was straight forward, and it was a beautiful sight. Once we had climbed out of Azurite's bowl, we were in a meadow overlooking Angeline at 9am. We walked out on a rock point for photos and to scope out the ridges around the lake. Unfortunately, the ridge to the north east side of the lake that we were planning on taking didn't look so good. The bottom portion of it was cliffs straight down to the water. On slopes above the cliffs were steep talus fields, which was what we figured Beckey's hidden route in that area was referring to. However, just the idea of them being perched on top of cliffs made them look scary, even though the talus was obviously stable to still be there. We also briefly discussed sticking to the very spine of the ridge the whole way, which meant also summiting that 5359' point unnecessarily, so it sounded easier to take the lower talus fields. We traveled north through forest, easily at first, and we ran into cairns which reassured us even more. Eventually we got out onto talus. It ended up being 11:30, so we felt very committed to this route, since it would take at least 2 hours to return to the meadow, and probably another 2 just to get equally far on the spine of the ridge if we changed our mind. The way ahead through the talus field looked scarier & scarier, and I really wanted us to be up on the ridge instead. We happened across a gully that looked like a gentle slope all the way up to the ridge, or at least that's how it looked from the bottom. We started climbing it, and there were some tricky parts. We got past two short tricky parts by climbing it without packs, then handing the packs up. This was slow going, and eventually I realized what a bad idea it was. The climbs were only going to get trickier, and there was no way we were going to safely climb them all. We had to get out of there, and up was not an option. It was 1:45pm when we made the call, all cramped together on a ledge in the gully: we couldn't do this anymore, and we couldn't take any more risks. We should have retraced our steps in the first place, rather than go with the unknown. But, hindsight is always 20-20, and it's really hard to choose to go back when you think you are two-thirds of the way around your loop. Ultimately, we were under a mile as the crow flies between where we had to turn back, and where the Big Heart trail would have picked up for us. How frustrating! If only there had been a safe way to cross that mile, we would have been out before sunset on Monday night like originally planned. But, there was not, so we had to go back, all the distance we had covered in the last two and a half days, even though our friends were expecting us to be out tonight. We hiked back across the talus above the cliffs, through the forest, and arrived again at the meadow centered between Azurite and Angeline at 4:00pm. We had a quick late lunch, and then decided we cover all the ground we could before dark, and then we'd still have a painfully long hike to do Tuesday before we had gone completely out the way we came. At first our camping target was the same heather meadow we had used Sunday night. Our drive to do it was high and our pace was good, so we actually made it well past that, and all the way back to the swampy meadow by the drainage stream from Iron Cap Lake. Although we could make infinite drinking water, we were past the last meal that we had originally planned food for. We still had a ton of snack food left, since of course you always pack extra food, so our limited food was only a minor concern so far. Rather than a full meal pack for everyone, I ate a small snack and called it good for the night. Considering the high amount of calories I had been downing during the earlier half of the trip, that was all I needed and I still felt fully recharged. Day 4 (now overdue) 4:30am, up and at em! This time doing the alpine start right, we were packed & hiking by 6:15am, just after first light since we didn't want to navigate in this off-trail terrain with headlamps. We made amazing time too, our drive was very high to get out and be done with this, and we blew my time estimates out of the water! We had ascended all the way back to Tank Lakes by 10:15am, whereas I was going to be happy if we made it there by early afternoon. Amazing! We did go slower on the two miles between Tank Lakes and picking up the Necklace Valley trail again, I think some of our adrenaline wore off at that point, plus our leg muscles were really, really tired from all the many and long talus fields we had already crossed this trip, so descending carefully through this last one took a difficult effort to keep our legs steady. After reaching the real trail at 1:15, we sat down and cooked up the emergency/extra meal packs that my friends were responsible enough to bring. It gave us a big lunch, and got some calories back in us for the long trail walk we had ahead of us: 8 or 9 miles to go, though at least it's downhill. All the while we're feeling super guilty and embarrassed about anyone who might be worried about us, the meetings at work we're missing that day, and largely unnecessary hassle that Search And Rescue might be going through right now. We kept trying to reach the outside world by both cell phone and a weak little GMRS walkie talkie, but never got any signals anywhere on the trail. As expected, the hike out was a long, uneventful slog. We cheered aloud when we reached the parking lot at 7:30pm. I hadn't even finished all my snack food by then, I still managed to hike out with extra. After all changing into the comfy shoes we had stashed in the car, we were able to drive until we got cell phone service, and finally get to tell people that we were just fine. Mine (Stephen's girlfriend) had handled the situation perfectly, posting on about us and asking for advice. She also called the local ranger to let them know we were overdue. She hadn't quite taken the plunge of calling SAR, which we were thankful for; I'd be mortified if they had to be mobilized because of us. A hugely helpful point was that, amazingly, the Hinman Guys helped us out yet again here: They saw Mine's post on, and told her that they had seen us safe & sound by Azurite Lake, so the most reasonable assumption was that we were just delayed, which set her mind at ease long enough for us to hike out. Retrospective So, in retrospect, what were our mistakes? It's easy to call all decisions bad after the fact when the outcome ends up being bad, but what are the ones where given the knowledge we had at the time, we should have made a different decision? A reoccurring theme is that when we had to choose between one option that we knew was a bad option, and a second option that was unknown, we always put too much optimism in the unknown even though realistically it could be worse than the known-but-bad-option. For example, on Monday morning we knew retracing our steps would suck and get us out ridiculously late that night, but the unknown option was to keep going forward, so we just assumed that would be better without any logical basis other than it was shorter, so that was a bad decision. That was probably our most crucial bad decision of the trip. Another example was when we were overlooking Angeline Lake and we were choosing between going around its south end and then walking out along the ridge between Angeline and Big Heart, which we had a previous trip report of so we knew it was passable, but it would be at least three times as much distance as shortcutting on the northeastern side, a route we didn't have a report from, but we were optimistic that that unknown route would be quicker simply because it was shorter on the map. Of course we were already in trouble by that point, but it's an example of the same mode of thinking. So, when choosing between a bad option and an unknown option, we frequently opted for the unknown, when we should have been smart enough at the time to stick with the known, even if it seemed like the bad option, because at least that limits the badness of it to only that. Another category of bad decision falls under the planning of the trip, even before we were out there. I don't think it was a mistake to go to this beautiful country, and I don't think it was a mistake to attempt so much off-trail travel (for the record we were awfully close to completing it), but it was a mistake to not make a better backup plan accounting for the fact that it was a loop hike. Realistically any loop (or car-shuttle hike) that doesn't have people travelling & reporting on it regularly could end up being blocked and force you to retrace at any point, off- or on-trail (like a major washout or something), so loops should only be attempted when you've already planned in both time & amount of food to do the entire thing backwards if need be. The fact that this was off-trail travel didn't bite us as much as the fact that it was a loop, since if it had been an in-and-out hike, running into trouble going forward would have caused us to turn around and get home at a sooner time than people expected us instead of at a later time. Overall, I think most of our decisions were good. For example, I'm happy we finally settled on hiking all the way back the way we came rather than trying to climb something dangerous. That was a decision that finally put our own safety at a higher priority than what the outside world would think of our safety at the time (a difficult tradeoff to make), since the outside world only had one data point: either we were overdue or we weren't. Thank you to Ola, your route-finding instincts are way better than mine, and I don't see how we could have done this with out you. Thank you to Stephen, who not only kept a positive attitude but was actually cheerful through the whole thing, uplifting the group. Thank you to Marcin, who was the voice of caution and reigned the rest of us in when we started to make too ambitious of decisions. Also thanks for packing extra meal packs. Thank you to the Hinman Guys, that makes three separate times where you hugely helped us out (the speedy travel, finding the ledge, and checking Thank you to Mine, who had our backs and walked the delicate line between panicking & relaxing perfectly. Also, for the record: we were never lost. We always knew where we were and how to get back. We were just blocked and didn't know where to go on ahead. Lost is such a strong word :) For more photos than you have patience to click through, go here: