29 November 2015
Guye Peak and Commonwealth Basin via Cascade Crest Trail
6.5 miles, 2250 ft. climb to 5160 ft. maximum elevation
With the overriding stress of the holiday season already here, my desire to be lost and alone outdoors has increased tenfold. Unfortunately, my motherly duties require me to exist in a world of gingerbread houses and candy fairies, leaving me smack dab in the heart of sugar-filled euphoria dusted with sparkly tiaras and tutus. Yes, I am a dance mom (of sorts). Big Hiking Buddy, with her many interests and talents, is an aspiring dancer who dreams of being the Sugarplum Fairy one day; and I will always be there to support her dedication, even if it means being surrounded by all that is the antithesis of me. While the early snow of the season has beckoned me to play outside in my Pacific Northwest backyard, the next few weekends require me to be indoors fulfilling my volunteer obligations backstage at BHB’s multiple Nutcracker productions.
Recognizing these two opposing events, and understanding my need for quiet reflection, I opted for a snowshoe hike that would take me off the beaten path on my solo adventure today. I returned to the very same trailhead that took me through the Pacific Crest Trail up to Kendall Ridge last week. This time, I traveled through the officially abandoned, but not any less loved, Cascade Crest Trail through Commonwealth Basin up to Guye Peak. With today being both a beautiful bluebird day and the tail-end of a long holiday weekend, many hikers were making their way up the popular Pacific Crest Trail to the even more eminent Kendall Katwalk.
When I arrived at the trailhead at 8:45am, it was a glacial 21F degrees. The parking lot itself was covered in an even thicker layer of snow and ice since last week. I definitely needed the extra base layers, hand/toe warmers, ski gloves and mini-crampons just to get from the car to the trailhead! After double-checking the avalanche forecast, I slowly began my backcountry journey in search of calm.
My path today started at the PCT, but within 200 feet I was immediately transported to a period long gone. After turning left unto the unmarked Cascade Crest Trail, I found myself walking through frozen brush and over layers of ice and snow-covered rock on a narrow boot path. The CCT quickly revealed its rugged depth and beauty, as it steered me directly towards a picturesque view of my intended destination. Guye Peak was lustrous against the blue sky just above the gorgeous wintry white formations all around me. I was already at peace on this trail, and it was just the first mile!
In just a little over a mile, I came to the lively Commonwealth Creek. Beneath the milky snow and diamond-crusted ice flowed clear water over rounded colors of stones. I took a second to enjoy the scenery all around me. It didn’t matter how brisk and rough out, I felt so warm and calm inside.
From there, I carefully crossed over the Creek on a log bridge wrapped in wire for traction, but now hidden under a thick blanket of snow. I continued to follow the boot trail through a number of fallen trees that crisscrossed the path, which then veered me left through a talus slope. This section of the trail offered me glimpses of Snoqualmie Mountain, Lundin Peak and Red Mountain on the far side of Commonwealth Basin.
I then traversed along a tree-covered ridge that leveled off briefly before finding myself at the base of a steep trail, paved only with rocks and roots made slick by ice. I was reminded by each crackling step of how thankful I was of my mini-crampons. Following this ascent, I was once again confronted with another abrupt incline, this time completely covered in white powdery flakes. While the trail was defined by recent boot tracks, the snowdrifts were at least two feet deep. I traded my existing traction devices for the snowshoes packed behind me. What a difference the increase in float and bite made to the climb above. Once I made my way past the gully to flat terrain, I was greeted by scavengers who led me to fresh cat prints in the snow. It made OBVIOUS sense to me to keep moving…
At a little over two miles, I angled left towards Guye Peak, bypassing the more technical Cave Ridge Trail. This boot trail led me straight to a frozen pond, serving as a stage for the sun’s dancing rays flickering through the trees. I played around the edges of the frozen ice, but found myself drawn to the warm light in the clearing further ahead. Heading beyond the trees led me to initial views of Mt. Rainier and Snoqualmie Pass. As great as the scenery was, I was even more thrilled to find myself standing in untouched powder on a flat plain. I unloaded my pack at a safe place and gleefully walked around in my snowshoes through the fluffy white powder. I had no purpose at this point other than to trek around in circles. It was joyful, beautiful, refreshing and simply fun.
After taking in the northern view of Snoqualmie Pass, I still had more time and energy left to meander around the lower summit. With that, I set off to explore the area only to find myself back at the frozen pond. I noticed a boot trail heading away from the pond up towards the ridge. I decided to follow it past the trees, if nothing more than to see where it would lead. And, did it ever lead me somewhere special! This was a climber’s trail, filled with craggy holds hidden under mounds of white, that wound its way straight up the rocky slope. I switched my wide snowshoes out for my nimble mini crampons and headed up the pitch. This scramble was just what I needed to get my climbing fix and release all (well, most) of my anxiety about the week ahead. I was alive and focused solely on the moment at hand. The texture of rock, ice and snow surrounding my ascent with open views all around me was the perfect elixir to the insanity of tutus and holiday affairs.
After climbing 75 feet up towards the summit, I ran into a young couple making their descent. They had made their way to Guye Peak from the trail starting at the ski resort on the western edge. While it had been challenging for them to hike up the more traveled trail in the snow, it was near impossible for them to climb down without any traction devices underfoot. After minutes of the two trying to figure out how best to move forward, I suggested the lady of the pair sit down and slide over the slick rock at one point so she could get a softer landing to the lower level. It worked and they continued their way home. I hope they made it back safely!
I made my final push to the true summit and was rewarded with the most magnificent views. I enjoyed the unobstructed panorama in complete solitude, without even a scavenger to hinder my peace as I warmed up with my steaming cafe mocha. Sunkissed Mt. Rainier floated to the heavens today, while the fog rolled into the valleys of South Snoqualmie Pass. To the east lay the cascading peaks of the eponymic mountain range as far as my eye (well, my camera) could see. Just behind me to the north were the guardian summits of Commonwealth Basin with every detail clearly defined by the crisp daylight. I couldn’t have been more thankful during this holiday weekend for this uplifting journey.
When it was finally time to go (after a luxuriously languid lunch break), I said my final goodbye to Mt. Rainier and her mountainous family. Sadly, it will be a prolonged few weeks before I will get to visit her this way again.
My way down, unfortunately, was as steep as my way up. Rather than trying to prevent myself from sliding, I took my own advice from earlier and sat down. I rode down on my backside all the way back to the pond below. It was SOOOOOOO MUCH FUN! (Granted, I did end up with a tear in my pants, but nothing that can’t be easily mended.) What took me over half an hour to summit took me just a quarter of the time to return. I did, ironically, end up planting my face in the snow when I initially stood up and lost my balance from the weight on my back. This only made for a frosty surprise that left me laughing at my own clumsiness.
I backtracked my way through Commonwealth Basin to the Creek itself. I must have missed the turn back to the log bridge because I ended up hiking alongside the rushing water on what turned out to be the Commonwealth Creek Trail for much of my return journey. The running water seemed so much louder this time around that it seemed only right to explore the spur trail to it. I’m so glad I did because what awaited me was absolutely splendid. Just beyond the snow-tipped trees was Commonwealth Creek Falls splashing into its frosted pool. Incredible!
Although I wanted to extend my time on the trail, the afternoon sun was getting lower, and I was finally starting to feel the exhaustion from having spikes under my feet all day. The light was beautiful at this time of day, however. It highlighted bald twigs gifted new life with sparkly wigs of snow, as well as lovely coats of frosty fur on conifer branches. While this unplanned loop in my hike was wonderful, I was very glad for my map and compass. Even while I was alone on an isolated trail throughout the day, I felt safe because of my proximity to Interstate 90 in addition to the nearby trails and ski resort.
I eventually found my way to civilization using my senses and GPS. I saw a clearing further ahead and decided to exit the covered forest. I found myself at the base of one of the ski runs. (Thankfully, the Summit at Snoqualmie/Alpental Ski Resort hasn’t yet opened for the season.) From there, I made my way to the road and headed back to the parking lot from the other end of my start. This final track back wasn’t disappointing at all. The snow here consisted of large crystallized flakes that shimmered like glitter in the sun, and I still hadn’t encountered another soul since meeting the pair at the Peak. In fact, my blissful hike ended with a perfect view of Guye Peak. I couldn’t have asked for a better day of adventure, solitude and respite in this lovely wilderness.