Sunday, September 18, 2011


This past weekend, a couple of us decided at the last minute to venture out on a backpacking trip to “Deadmans Lake” and “Goat Mountain”, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  Gifford Pinchot lies in the shadow of Mount St Helen’s, just a few miles north as the crow flies and is truly a beautiful area of Washington that seems to get less attention than many other more popular hiking/backpacking areas.

I had scouted the area last year, looking for a forest road that might allow us to start at a relatively high elevation as Goat Mountain lies above 5000 ft.  I was unable to access a trail head that started at approximately 4100 ft, as there were several gates closing some of the logging/forest roads.  After looking at the topographic map I had, I saw that there was an alternate road in, that would require the addition of approximately 3-4 miles to the hike, but would still allow us to start at an elevation of 2400 ft. (instead of coming from the opposite direction and backpacking up a 1.5 mile switchback that gained almost 2000 ft of elevation in that 1.5 miles!)

I drove the twisty logging road for a while and sure enough, it dead ended into a trail head called “Goat Creek”.  I had brought my Siberian Husky, “Luna” with me, as I had intended on hiking in a bit and staying the night.  When I approached the trail head, I was darn near attacked by an unusually large number of yellow jackets.  I retreated to the car with Luna and decided I had found a good trail head, and could at least present the trail/route to the group of guys I backpack with and see what they thought.

Fast forward to this year.  The guys I backpack with (Guys in my squad at work) took vacations at different times throughout the summer, there were a few guys that sustained injuries and we simply did not get our usual 2-3 backpacking trips planned/executed.  I had told the guys I really wanted to do the Goat Mountain trail, regardless of which route we took, as the views were supposed to be fantastic. (Looking north to Mt Rainier, and south to an unobstructed view of Mount St Helen’s, with Mt Adams in view at the same time...on a ridge that stood higher than 5000 ft!)  In March, we tentatively planned a 3 day trip for the first week in September.

The night before our first day off last week, I get a phone call form two of the guys (Jim and Taz) saying, “Whats the plan!?  Are we going tomorrow?!”.  Both of these guys had been off on vacation for the past month and I hadn't seen either of them for weeks!  To be honest, I assumed the trip was a no go and I had not prepared for it.  So, being unprepared, unpacked and still suffering from an injury I sustained two weeks before on a trail ride with he new motorcycle, what do I do?...I say “OK, lets go!”. (I don't want to be the wimp of the squad!?)

Now, remember I had scouted the alternate trail head and said that it added 3-4 miles to the original route?  Well, I seemed to forget about this as I pulled out the map and led Jim to the trail head, some three hours from where we picked up Taz.  It is a steep, winding hill and we all agree it is a good thing we weren't hiking it, as it would allow us to save considerable energy for the hike ahead.  Also of note...this is the first and only backpacking trip we have done this year.  Normally we would have had a chance to "season" our legs a bit on a few hikes covering a bit less distance.  We arrive at the trail head and secure our backpacks, ready to hit the forest and hike to Deadmans Lake.  It should be noted that Taz assumed we were starting at the trail head that I originally tried to locate.  It would have made the hike to Deadmans Lake approximately 3 miles or so.  He was unaware that we were starting at a totally different trail head and that it added at least 4 miles to the hike.  We had also looked at the trail and noted that much of it seemed to follow the contour lines of a few ridges, at least in the first 3 miles of the trail.  In short, Taz was prepared for a 3 mile, relatively “rolling” trail. Umm, WRONG!

We head out and within the first mile or so, we are impressed with the scenery, the elevation and the rather narrow mixed use trail. (Hikers and Horses allowed)  We immediately see frequent horse droppings along the trail and in some spots we are amazed that folks would be riding horseback given the sometimes 70-100 feet cliffs we are skirting on a trail that narrows to 18 inches in some places!  About this time one of the guys says, “look!”.  We look down along a washed out, gravel strewn portion of the trail some 60 feet below us and see a horse that appears to have fallen off the trail.  It appeared the horse had fallen within the last 24 hours and from the looks of it, had to be put down with a shot to the head.  It was sad, as I am sure that the horse was someones “buddy”...a four legged friend that likely spent many hours being fed, brushed and ridden by a familiar and caring two legged friend.  It was a grim reminder to be careful.

We trek on and about 45 minutes in, we start gaining elevation.  Just a little at first, we gain and lose 30-50 ft at a time...a rolling trail of sorts.  About an hour in we are steadily climbing.  Not a terribly steep climb, rather a continual, obvious rising trail.  A couple of hours later, after climbing steadily with no reprieve, we pull out the map to check our location.  It was about this time that Taz was made aware of just how far we had to go.  He was surprised, (in a bad way) but Jim's lighthearted spirit of adventure and my stubborn “one foot in front of the other” demeanor convinced him that it wouldn’t be as bad as it seemed.

We realize at this point, that we have some serious climbing to do, albeit somewhat gradual.  We are at about 3000 ft above sea level at this point (gained about 600 ft) and we have about 2000 vertical feet left to gain.  We set out towards “Vanson Lake” summit about 4 hours away.  As we march along the continually rising trail, we cant help but wish WE had a pack horse carrying our 40+ lb backpacks.  A couple of hours later, drenched in sweat and breathing a bit more heavily, we stop at a stream to replenish the nearly 1 gallon of water we had consumed up to this point.  It has been a few hours of steady leg workout.  It was like being on a “StairMaster” machine for 3 or 4 hours!  In short, the trail and it's gradual, but deceptively steep incline was...RELENTLESS!  That word was thrown around by us on a few occasions throughout the trip, for describe the unending uphill climb!

We reached the ridge near Vanson Lake, took off our backpacks and took time to take in a bit of a view, drink some water and determine how far we were from Deadmans Lake.  To say I was physically spent at this point would be an understatement.  I would have been happy putting my sleeping bag on the trail and sleeping where I fell!  We checked the map and determined we had about two miles to cover before reaching Deadmans Lake.

It was about 6 pm and it would be dark (due to the tree cover and the mountains blocking the sun) by 8 pm.  We headed out first heading uphill, then shortly thereafter, downhill.  Our feet hurt and our quadriceps were screaming for relief.  I cannot adequately describe the effect that trudging downhill for 1.5 miles has on already tired legs.  You have to step carefully due to the loose gravel, you take shorter steps to minimize the bouncing/impact of the backpack and it shoves your feet up against the front of one's shoes/boots.  It can be a bit uncomfortable, especially at the end of an already arduous hike.

We had a tough time matching the map's depiction of the trail to what we were looking at, but a few minutes after Jim set off up the trail to have a look, he came back and said he had found the trail that split off and let to Deadmans Lake.  The map was dead wrong (not often the case) and we had simply needed to hike another couple hundred yards to hit the cutoff south to the Lake.

Just after sunset, we walked about 200 yards south and the Lake came into view.  A simple, calm and shallow alpine lake surrounded by two mountains and tall green trees.  We walked to the lake edge and saw the sign...”Deadman Lake”.  I certainly felt like a dead man!  We realized we had about 10 minutes of twilight left, so we quickly setup our tents and bedrolls.  Taz collected up some wood and got a small fire started.  I pulled off my hiking boots with a sigh of relief and sat next to the fire as the sky went dark and we prepared our dinners.  I was exhausted.

Dinner tasted great (always does after such a long hike) and we talked a bit about the hike.  We had covered at least 8.5-9 miles and about 6 of those had been a steady uphill.  We had gained over 2400 feet in elevation and hiked double the distance Taz had expected...oops!!  We sat by the fire in the dead silence of the forest until the fire dwindled.  As it was about to go out, we decided to hit the sack and get off our feet...figuring we could chat while on our backs.  It wasn’t long before we were as quiet as the forest and sleep subdued us.

Morning brought sunlight, a renewed spirit, a hunger for breakfast and....mosquitoes and flies!!!  We awoke to the sound of flies and mosquitoes buzzing madly around our tents. Taz said it sounded like the “damn Indianapolis 500!!”.  The bugs were racing wildly in circles around our tents, surely anticipating their own breakfast should we venture out of our tents!  I had to laugh, as the sheer volume of the buzzing bugs was incredible and Taz's analogy was as ridiculous as it was accurate!  As we looked across the lake from the safety of our tents, you could see millions of bugs zooming just above the water...and you could see the Trout jumping for their own breakfasts!

We ventured out and were immediately greeted by the bugs.  A fire was started and we sat near the fire more for the smoke repelling the bugs than for the warmth of the fire.  We prepared our respective breakfasts and enjoyed a leisurely meal, and drank the rest of our water, still trying to replace the water we had spent during the hike in.  After braving the bugs during a quick bath in the cold lake, we retreated to our tents in an effort to escape the bugs.  It would be the second topic that would prompt someone to use the term “relentless”. “These damn bugs are RELENTLESS”!...was heard on several occasions...laced of course with several impolite expletives!!  I thought how unusual it was to have heard that word used so frequently over the past day or two, but not having heard it used otherwise for years!

We figured a day hike would be good for our tired muscles and provide us with an opportunity to check out at least partially, the view from the ridge that lies just west of Goat Mountain.  This would have been the ridge we would have traveled along, should we have braved the 1.5 mile switchback that started at the trails eastern trail head.  In hindsight I would have preferred this 4.8 mile route...pain in the ass switchback or the almost 9 mile trek we made from the western side of the mountain.

After a steep climb out of Deadmans Lake ( no backpack this time, just some water and a snack or two in hand) we were at the ridge line in about an hour.  It was impressive. To the north we could see Mt rainier from a southern perspective instead of the eastward perspective seen from Tacoma.  To the south we could glimpse the top of Mt St Helen’s. ( We did not hike the additional 2 miles that would have allowed us an unobstructed view) Looking down from the ridge to our south, there was a steep series of hills that led to a couple of streams some 2500 feet below us.  Just east was the top of Goat Mountain.  The trail that stayed just below the ridge line showed Mountain Goat tracks, Cougar tracks and Bear tracks!  Certainly the Mountain Goat was on the menu for the other two predators.

We thought we were going to hike out along the eastward Goat Mountain trail the next day, so we decided to head back to the lake for the day.  We scouted around looking for some wildlife and surveying the views as we made our way back to camp.  We certainly felt better than we had the day before and the day hike really stretched out our muscles and gave us a chance to recuperate.  We had a late lunch and took a nap, before being awakened by what we thought might be a bear foraging in the nearby underbrush.  We walked out towards the breaking branches etc., but never did see any large game, let alone bears.

Later, we heard the sound of horses and moments later two bow hunters entered the camp on two horses, with a pack horse in tow.  They were hunting Elk and asked if we had happened across any.  We told them the forest seemed unusually quiet and that while we had seen a few tracks, we had not seen any large animals.  We spoke for a few minutes and told them of the dead horse we had happened on the day before.  After the horses made their way through our campsite to get to the lake, they drank their fill and the group left for the westward trail.  We could not talk them out of their pack horse!

Dinner was nice, as we waited until the cool, dark evening had rid us of the bugs.  I have spent a lot of time in the woods and this night struck me as perhaps the quietest night/environment I have ever experienced.  We commented on how still and quiet it was.  We talked a bit and enjoyed a few Pop Tarts that Taz had brought along, (He always brings the most food and candy etc) then called it a night after deciding we would hike back the way we came.  We figured it would take at least 6 hours and knew we would need a good nights rest to start early in the cool morning.

We awoke to our buzzy alarm clock bug around our tents, eager to greet us!!  We packed up, enjoyed a hot breakfast and set out to return to the real world.  The backpack straps reminded us that we had journeyed in recently, as it almost felt like we had sunburned shoulders when we first threw the backpacks on.  Ouch!!

We started our climb out of Deadmans Lake, up a long, winding, uphill trail.  We knew it would be uphill right out of the lake, but we felt energized from having enjoyed a day of rest.  We made very good time on the uphill to Vanson Lake Ridge.  It was tiring, but we agreed it felt much better than the trip in.  We took in some water and started what we knew would be a long and gradual downhill hike, the opposite of our hike in.

Personally, the downhill hike is harder on me than going uphill, thanks to a 30 year old knee surgery and a lack of any cartilage on the inside of my right knee.  The downhill stepping really places a lot of stress on my knee and I had prepared for this by ingesting stupid amounts of Ibuprofen the last few days to mitigate the certain pain and swelling of my knee.  The upside was, that this downhill was simply not terribly steep, but rather gradual and it was easier on all of us than some of the past, more steep downhill hikes we had endured.

Now, on this trip I was breaking in a pair of brand new and pricey Merrell hiking boots.  They were not a full boot but rather a ¾ boot that placed the upper, outside leather edge of the boot in an uncomfortable position against my upper ankle.  It was uncomfortable because due to my knee issue, my right foot “pronates” a bit causing an atypical angle from my foot to my lower leg.  This caused the leather top edge o9f the boot to wear a cut into my upper ankle on the trip in.  I lived with it and thought, “I will just lace my boots a different way/adjust it” on the way down.  Well, that did not work and every step I was taking caused the leather edge to rub/cut into my skin in a most uncomfortable way!!

We stopped twice so that I could adjust my sock, add a sock, bandage/pad the ankle....nothing worked.  It was kicking my ass and making the trip down a real pain in the a--.  Now, these boots were a gift from my wife and cost the better part of 200 dollars.  They were purchased from REI. I told the guys, “this is ridiculous, I am going to cut a wedge out of the side of this boot”!  REI has a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee!!  They of course laughed, looked at me like I was crazy and said, "REI is not taking back a hacked up pair of boots from some sissy backpacker"!  We stopped, grabbed a knife and cut a wedge out of the top/side of the boot.  I saved the cutout piece, put the boots back on....and...its a miracle!!!!  No pain!!  I was blissful!  We continued our hike out and I felt like Superman.  No pain, alllll gain!!

As we neared the trail head, we came across a bit of a waterfall that we had seen on the way in.  It was quite pretty and I had mentioned a few miles back, I intended on using it as my personal shower!!  So off came the backpack, shirt, shorts (I had shorts on underneath) and stood under that wispy waterfall for several minutes as we took a break.  It felt fantastic...cold, clean...and I could taste the salt that was washing off my face.  I got dressed, loaded back up and we completed the hike out about 40 minutes later, making it out in 4 hours and 50 minutes.

Jim was fresh as a daisy, I was very tired but pleased with the hike/trip....Taz...looked like he had just completed the Bataan Death March!  We are an eclectic group for sure.

We loaded up and drove out.  We made our way north on I-5 towards Tacoma as Jim and I reviewed the trip and talked of alternative trips and the like. Taz was asleep.  We stopped off at the first McDonald’s that we came to.  We have a tradition of stopping at McDonald’s after our backpacking trips, as most of us do not eat there often.  After burning a ridiculous amount of calories on these backpacking trips, we know we can afford the luxury of some huge burgers...and they truly taste better after a long backpacking hike!

Several Quarter Pounder's with Cheese later, we were back on the rode home.  Full, tired, and ironically talking about the possibilities of the next trip, having forgotten already...about the trials and tribulations of the recently completed trip!

...And yeah, REI took the boots back!