The day after hiking Mt. Townsend with the kids, Freya, Anna and I climb the 7-mile trail up the Dungeness River to Royal Basin. During the three and a half hour hike we are caught in only a few patches of sunshine peeking through the clouds to bathe the valley, which is like a mirror of dew. Otherwise, a dense grey mist keeps us cool. We can move faster in this weather, but we are in no rush. We stop and take our time to taste the sesame sticks and smell the lupines.
Royal Lake, a broken green plate with pollen clumps for decoration, is snow-free. There is a group of two camped on the west shore. The rest of the sites are empty. We drop our packs in a gold meadow to the south and discuss our options.
Since we are trying to climb Mt. Deception early tomorrow morning and then to hike all the way back to the trailhead in the same day, it would be advantageous to make camp as high as possible. According to the route description, there is a small campsite next to a tarn in Upper Royal Basin. Everything is pointing us towards another hour of hiking to a remote and probably snowy tarn beneath the mountain. Everything except the conditions.
The weather report is for rain and wind. There is guaranteed to be snow at Upper, but the question is how much. We are not sure if there will be a dry campsite exposed, or if there will be a location that is protected from the weather. Still, we decide to continue up, to take our chances for the benefit of tomorrow’s climb.
Just as we are about to leave however, the other campers, a man and woman with trekking poles and rain gear, walk into the meadow. We talk to them for a while and are convinced by their descriptions of Upper Royal Basin that we will be more comfortable here.
So, we find a campsite on the southern end of Royal Lake, set up our tents on a flat-topped lump of earth and stone.
Pesto, tortellini, Tofurky sausages, sun-dried tomatoes mix together in a titanium pot. The delicious and hearty meal is portioned out over and over again. We have trouble finishing the pasta. We are all very full. There is always room for chocolate though, and the nutty flavor is accentuated perfectly by a cup of peppermint tea. We crawl into our tents with bulging guts and fall immediately asleep, dreaming of sunshine, climbing.
I wake up at 3:30am. It’s raining.
I wake up at 4:00am. It’s pouring.
I wake up at 5:00am. The old man is snoring.
I wake up at 5:30am. I bump my head on the rain fly, get soaked taking a piss.
I wake up at 6:00am. If we don’t get up now, then we won’t have a chance to climb. It will be too late in the day for us to summit and descend all the way back to the car.
The rain has stopped for the moment. However, there is mist so dense that I can’t see the other side of the lake only 50 yards away. Breathing is more like drinking. I’m not worried about getting dehydrated. There is nothing for it but to prime the stove, boil water, and put the oatmeal on.
We leave camp donning full rain gear. The hike to Upper is a good warm-up.
We meet some other backpackers. Two women are camped on a dry outcropping of rock close to the tarn. The mountain is not visible. Nothing is visible. They show us their map, which is more detailed than ours. I take a compass bearing, hope that we are heading in the right direction.
Anna, having jogged up to the tarn yesterday afternoon, got a good glimpse of the peak. “I wish you had been able to see it Leif. It would make route finding today a lot easier,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, sighing. I know it will be almost impossible to find the correct route in this weather. Still, it’s worth a shot.
Visibility is a joke. We skirt along a steep slope of lupine, stepping on marmot tracks, heading westerly towards what looks like the mountain.
After a few hours of climbing I find myself on a steep snow chute, the top of which is invisible. I have no idea where it leads but I have an instinctual feeling that we are way off course. I step off the snow onto a ledge of rock, wait for Freya and Anna to catch up.
“I think we are way too far north,” I say, chugging water and munching on sesame sticks. The mist thins for a moment and we can see the entire basin beneath us. “I’m gonna run up to the top of this ridge and see if I can’t get a glimpse of the mountain.”
“Do you want us to wait here?” asks Freya.
“Um…yes.” I reply, and speed climb up the scree.
After nearly killing myself on the loose rock, I reach the ridgeline and gain a fleeting view of the pockmarked Deception Glacier far below. Now I know we are too far north. I wonder if we can traverse the ridgeline to the saddle between Mt. Deception and Martin Peak. To that end, I climb southerly for a few hundred feet. The rock is covered in black lichen, which has soaked up the dense air and become as slippery as butter in a frying pan. It doesn’t seem safe.
Clouds like atmospheric swells roll over me. Hesitation brings clarity only to my thoughts and decisions, but not to the sky. We can’t continue like this. I descend towards Freya and Anna, being careful not to knock off loose rocks.
We spend the rest of the morning practicing self-arrest techniques, glissading thin snow fingers, and generally getting soaked in the rain and snow. Smoked salmon, cheese, crackers, Clif bars are lunch. We eat in a protected clearing amongst stunted pines on an island of moss and earth that protrudes from an ocean of snow. The weather relents for a moment. Lunch is calm.
Returning to the tents, we begin packing up immediately. It is still a 7.5-mile hike to the trailhead. The tent is stuffed away wet and muddy. Our clothes go through the same treatment. Crumpled fabric and raindrops mashed into bags. Everything is soaked. Everything is heavier.
Thankfully, this is not the first day of a weeklong trip. The car, different shoes, dry clothes, extra food awaits us. I hike toward it like a starving dog with a long nose, never stopping, barely looking at the trail, just moving through space in a rainy zone of rustling leaves.
Before I know it, the car is in view. It feels weird to take my pack off and sit down. Walking is the only familiar motion. Since I don’t have the car keys I’m sitting in the rain for a while, waiting for Freya and Anna to show up.
In these few moments of lonely contemplation it becomes obvious that I am not miserable. Regardless of the rain, cold and general discomfort, my core is glowing and my spirits are calmly enjoying the surroundings. When Freya and Anna arrive, it is obvious that they are feeling the same things.
“Well, we didn’t summit, but what an awesome trip!”
“I really had a good time.”
“Thanks so much for taking me.”
“Thanks for coming. That was a blast.”
“For sure. So good for the soul.”
I wonder how many people could say they had an awesome time hiking, climbing and camping for two days in the rain. Probably more than I would imagine, but it still amazes me that we can put ourselves through so much discomfort and actually enjoy it immensely. Windshield wipers, defrost, leftover strawberries, double chocolate Newman-O’s signify our return to shelter.
As we bump our way along the Forest Service road, we don’t create even the smallest breath of dust. What we leave behind instead is laughter, muddy tracks, and a promise to return.