Besides the hideous, unrelenting switchbacks up the hill, the Blanca Lake trail manages to incorporate a bevy of sub-optimal elements that make it the least enjoyable, most rewarding hike I've taken in Washington so far.
For starters, the opportunities for photography both at the lake and on the surrounding ridges, combined with the longer than usual driving distance due to a washed out FS road, are such that I chose to carry the extra gear needed to camp on the ridge both times I've hiked here. No one else seems to do this, particularly on weekdays when I'm usually out. So, I get the unforgettable experience of being the slow, sweaty guy lumbering up the interminable stair-step trail, while fresh-faced young women with water bottles and earbuds bounce past me, passing again on the way back down to cheerfully announce, “You're almost there!”, as if they secretly fear I won't make it without encouragement. As glad as I am to see an unusually large number of hikers enjoying a wilderness area (and no complaints about the friendly young ladies), getting passed multiple times while carrying 35lbs more than everyone else has a way of getting a guy down.
Speaking of wilderness area, many of these folks don't seem to understand what that means. Even into mid June, there is glacial snow covering parts of the trail, where a map and compass is necessary to navigate to the lake. Each time I've gone up, I've seen bear sign, near the trail and in the area of the campsites. The first time I hiked it, a full grown black bear ambled across the road in front of my car on the way out from the parking area. People get lost out here all the time. There is no highway to listen for, no houses around. Wilderness.
The first night I camped on the ridge just a few hundred feet from the trail. I tend to eschew established campsites in favor of finding a super low-impact site further off the trail, but the one I found this time was still within hearing distance of other hikers normal volume voices. Sometime around 9:30 PM, I woke up because I heard something odd on the wind. By 10:00 PM I had identified the noise as people, at least two but possibly three or more, making their way up the trail, hollering “Marco!” I shortly debated popping my head over the side of the hill and yelling back, “Polo!”, but thought that since they evidently were searching for a lost dog, that might seem insensitive. I didn't say anything, mostly because I couldn't have helped them at that point, and also I wanted to go back to bed. If this seems cold, remember that while I have immense compassion for the welfare of animals, I also think that if you take your dog off-leash into a wilderness area without a rock-solid recall, maybe you don't deserve to have a dog. I don't know if they ever found him or not.
Along with questionably responsible dog owners, anyone who hikes with a cheap 12 oz water bottle seems to feel it would be helpful to leave them by the side of the trail when they're empty. It isn't helpful at all. Stop it, you nincompoops.
Pro tip: if you're drinking a chai tea out of a plastic cafe cup that has your name written on it, don't drop it in the middle of the trail right in front of me and pretend you didn't mean to or notice that it wasn't in your hand anymore.
After conquering the miserable switchback situation, the lake itself is absolutely stunning. The trail is situated such that the first view of the lake is complete, and mostly a surprise. This view pops, and I hesitantly admit that I did indeed audibly utter something appropriately impressed when I first saw it. The water is pastel green, from a high concentration of suspended silt known as rock flour. The Columbia Glacier grinds bedrock, and then as it melts into the lake it carries these particles into the water. It also smells a little odd.
The second time I went up, I tried to hike around the west side, crossing the Troublesome Creek outflow, and across the rock field under the glacier to get to the two massive waterfalls that you can see from the southern shore. I almost made it, I was less than a quarter mile from the waterfalls when the thunder started, and the clouds moving in from the south turned into CGI movie clouds, dark and forbidding. I turned back short of my goal, although the dull weather had already precluded the capture of any effectively impressive photos. I managed to make this decision about 15 minutes too late to stay dry, and ended up soaked head to toe by the time I retrieved my tent and sleeping bag where I'd stashed them (to minimize weight on the journey from ridge to glacier and back). The campsite I'd chosen this time was on the very top of the ridge, where it forms a sub-peak just south of Virgin Lake. To get there, you follow an old, faint trail through scrub and close-growing trees that seem designed to transfer as much water as possible onto your sleeves and down into your socks. I actually, for the first time ever, used all of my emergency backup clothes that I carry on every hike. Socks, underwear, my pack towel, and a stocking cap saved my chilly bacon. Right when I got to the top of the hill, the light wasn't quite right to take pictures yet, so I started setting up my tent. I was still in my soaked shorts and t-shirt, having just pushed my way up a brutal hill, and between the rain and the sweat I was literally dripping. The wind on the ridge picked up and with tent-poles in hand I stopped suddenly and thought, “what a great textbook example of how to get hypothermia”. Because I didn't want to show up on the news as the next idiot getting rescued from Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Area, I flung the tent up and put on the dry clothes before I tried taking any more pictures.
Warmly garbed in fleece and rain gear, I sat down on the north-west side of the ridge with a bag of dried fruits and my trusty Stanley flask of bourbon, ready to await sunset. After a few minutes, I looked over my shoulder to see how the sky on the south-east side of the ridge looked... and it was amazing! So, rather than a peaceful evening of sitting and shooting the sunset as I'd planned, I spent the next three hours running back and forth the few hundred yards between north-west and south-east vantage points, catching glorious light, rainbows, and awesome clouds. The trail mix and whiskey didn't last, and soon after the sun finally stopped throwing blood-red light against the distant mountain peaks, I collapsed into my soggy sleeping bag.
When I awoke, I had expected an interesting sunrise after the solar fireworks of the previous evening, but instead was greeted by the inside of a cloud. Deep, thick fog turned the the steep ridgeline into an island, surrounded by unfathomable depths. I took a few photos, although the camera has limitations when faced with environments of such subtle immensity. The hike down this trail the morning after is always odd – I've drunk all my water weight, and going down is easier than coming up, and yet the trail still seems to drag on for an inappropriate length. Then, even after reaching the van at a brisk 8:30 AM, there are already fanatical hikers preparing to tackle the uphill, trotting off fresh as a clean dog, ready to play in the mud. And I'll be back soon, to do the same.
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