|| Background ||
Kyle and I had spent the first half of August on the Beartooth High Route and the Wind River High Route…and we wanted MORE high routing!! This time, though, we were intrigued by the Cascades, in our backyard. Kyle asked me if I wanted to join for a Labor Day weekend trip; at first, he and his friend Steve were thinking of a trip in the Chelan-Sawtooth range (a future destination for sure…), but after some investigating they came back with a new idea, one that had been in the back of my mind for a while: the Watson-Blum Traverse. I was INTRIGUED! I had read trip reports about the route, a beautiful bushwhack and alpine traverse in between Shuksan and the Picket Range. I wanted to bring Tyler along as well, and thus the group was formed. We had a great weather window, with no precipitation forecast and warm overnight temperatures. I managed to get my school work done early on in the week and even get a little bit ahead on work so that I could sneak away for 3 days.
|| Route Overview ||
We chose to begin our traverse at the Watson Lakes trailhead and head north towards the Baker Lake trailhead; in order, we would summit Mt. Watson, Bacon Peak, Hagan Mountain, and Mt. Blum, before descending thick brush down from Blum Lakes towards Baker Lake. Starting at the Watson Lakes trailhead has the advantage of starting at nearly 4,000′, as opposed to 800′ at Baker Lake. We would have a gradual climb up trail towards Mt. Watson, rather than a steep, somewhat heinous bushwhack up to Blum Lakes, from 800′ to 5,400′. To us, bushwhacking downhill sounded better than bushwhacking uphill.
Overall, the route is not very long, but the terrain is NOT fast and is certainly challenging to move through, as well as route find. The final stats for the trip ended up being approximately 32 miles with 13,500′ gain, broken down as the following:
Day 1: 7.40 miles, 3,600′ gain (this includes summit of Mt. Watson)
Day 2: 11.6 miles, 5,200′ gain (this includes summit of Bacon Peak)
Day 3: 13 miles, 4,700′ gain (this includes summits of both Hagan Mountain and Mt. Blum)
We had to set up a car shuttle from Baker Lake to the Watson Lakes trailhead, which took a few hours on Saturday morning.
|| Trip Report ||
We started at a leisurely time on Saturday morning, meeting at the Ash Way Park and Ride at 7:15 AM and driving up to Baker Lake from there. It felt a little weird to not be either driving up Friday night or at some crazy early hour in the morning; weird, but definitely a good kind of weird. I’ll take a few more hours of sleep!
Driving out to the end of the Baker Lake Road, we could tell it was Labor Day weekend. The road was already packed with car after car camped out in various pull-outs. We knew that we would have our space to play, though, as we were going bushwhacking deep in the mountains above…we didn’t anticipate seeing many, if any, other people once we got past Watson Lakes.
We dropped off Tyler’s car and hopped in with Kyle and Steve to begin the shuttle back to the Watson Lakes Trailhead, driving across the Baker Lake Dam and up the winding forest road. We got stuck behind some sloooooow cars, laughing and screaming at the same time. The parking lot at the Watson and Anderson Lakes Trailhead was packed by the time we got there…there was a line of nearly 20 people just for the toilet! We chuckled, loaded up our packs, and scurried along the few miles of trail we would have for the entire trip up towards Watson Lakes.
We quickly reached Watson Lakes and were amazed at how high the “bang for your buck” was…such amazing scenery, just miles from an accessible trailhead?! We saw hammocks and tents scattered across the shoreline, and I can totally understand why. I turned my head down and saw blueberries, bountiful along the trail. WOW…I felt like I was walking through a storybook. Wild berries, blue skies, what more could I ask for?
We left trail at the far end of Watson Lakes and began to climb up towards the terminal moraine beneath Mt. Watson, where our “high route” would begin to take shape. Low heather gave way to rock, snow, and hummocks. We were in post-glacial terrain now. We took our lunch break at a small pond, filling with water from the snowfields below Watson. Behind us, Shuksan, Kulshan (Mt. Baker), and the Pickets were in full view. Spectacular.
We stashed our packs at the pond and headed up for our first summit of the high route: Mt. Watson. We strapped on our crampons for the upper snow finger, which led up to a short gully to the summit ridge. The summit ridge was bushy, but Steve led the way, thrashing his way through random trees and bushes. We marvelled at how high the glacier had clearly come in this area, once upon a time, carving out large swaths of moraine and carving the deep valleys beneath us.
Steve and Kyle boot skied on our way back down to the pond, where our stashed gear was waiting for us. Somehow I still have not managed to get my boot skiing skills fine tuned…need to change that!
From the pond we continued across the moraine towards a notch in the ridgeline between Bacon Peak and Elementary Peak, where we passed over towards benches above the Diobsud Lakes. This would be our camp for the night, our perch over the North Cascades. It was a perfect vantage for sunset over the Twin Sister Range to the north, with views of Dakobed (Glacier Peak) and the Mountain Loop to the south.
We reached camp around 4:30 PM. I had brought a foam pad and a bivy sack, a light and simple setup for a weekend forecasted to be warm and dry. PLOP…within about 5 seconds my “camp” was setup. Wow…having slept on an air pad for years, this was surprisingly easy…no huffing and puffing required?!? (For reference, my air pad was out for repair…I still prefer an air pad)
With hours until dark to spare, I went foraging around camp, hunting for blueberries. They were delicious, small and tart, truly wild. As sunset started to approach, or rather, as we grew impatient, we climbed up to a shoulder above our camp, our lookout for dinner and sunset. We laughed, stuffed our faces with our dinners, and snapped photos until dark, the sun falling beneath the Twin Sisters.
I noticed that my stuff sack that I had used to bring my things up to dinner was wet with dew as I began to head back to camp. Could it be?! Oh s*&#t…there was NIGHT dew?!?! Our sleeping bags were soaking wet, condensation had managed to build up in the hour or two that we were up watching the sunset. What the heck?!?! I had never experienced anything like this before. Oh well…the overnight low was only supposed to be in the high 40s and I had brought a 35 degree bag. I would be fine.
I woke up the next morning warm and a bit sweaty…the dew had just been annoying, more than anything else. I did remember, though, how much more comfortable an air pad was than a foam pad. My hips were a bit sore…I’m a side-sleeper.
Our mission for the day seemed straightforward, by the numbers, but we knew it would be anything but: we planned to traverse down to the Diobsud Lakes, climb up the drainage to Bacon Peak, then descend from Bacon down towards the saddle between Bacon and the Hagan massif, up slightly from the saddle to a bench around 5,400′. By the numbers, it was only supposed to be around 7 miles in “straight-line” distance, but there was shwacking, glacier travel, and scrambling galore.
The morning dew made the descent down the heather slopes to Diobsud Lakes a SUPER SOAKER. My pants were sopping wet by the time I reached the Diobsud Lakes, not to mention the knee high brush we pushed through at times. Once past the Diobsud Lakes, we chose to contour from the Upper Diobsud Lake towards the drainage, rather than drop to the valley floor and climb from the bottom…a mistake in hindsight. Steve pushed through high brush in the front, slipping and sliding on wet grasses, heather, and other foliage, and we ended up having to descend to the valley floor anyway. Oh well…adventure.
We scrambled up the drainage, finding gullies that led the way up towards Bacon Peak. The route was not straightforward, dropping off at times and leading us to route find and check our map every hour or so. Eventually, we managed to make our way to a tarn beneath the final ramp up to Bacon Peak, where we ate lunch around 11 AM. We had managed just 3 miles in around 4 hours…slow progress but the terrain made it so. In hindsight, dropping to the valley floor and just following the drainage up would have saved us time.
Once we began climbing up from the tarn, the route was much more straightforward: we climbed up towards the glaciers on Bacon and traversed around to the southern slopes of the peak, where a gradual ramp led us up towards the summit. We were surprised to find people, PEOPLE, perched atop of Bacon. Whaaaat?!? We weren’t alone! We chatted with the couple, who was halfway through their own Watson-Blum Traverse, or rather, Blum-Watson Traverse, doing the route we were doing in reverse. They remarked that we had great terrain ahead of us, clean slabs down the way towards the Hagan massif. We chuckled and told them unfortunately we could not say the same, as they had the loose rock gullies and bushwhack down to Diobsud Lakes that we had just came from.
The glaciers high on Bacon Peak were impressive! I snapped a picture of a large serac, clinging to the summit block.
We made our way back across the north side of Bacon towards the post-glacial moraine, which led us to the saddle above Green Lakes. The hummocks and slabs were much faster than the slow shwack we had for the morning. Once off the slabs, we re-entered blueberry heaven, and every few steps was met with a lean-over to pick a few, shove them down the hatch, and continue walking, only to feel the urge to stop again and repeat.
After 11.5 miles we made it to our planned camp, perched on a bench near a tarn below the Hagan massif. WOW…that was a long and slow day, but truly marvelous with such varied terrain. We went from thick brush to icy glaciers to hummocky moraine; that’s the Cascades for you! Our dinner view was once again amazing, as alpenglow set on Bacon and Canadian Bacon to its east.
The dew was not as bad the second night, but it caught Steve, his bivy wet with condensation. By 7 AM we were moving again, our last day up and over the Hagan massif, to Mt. Blum, and then down the steep slopes to Baker Lake, thousands of feet below. The heather slopes up to Hagan were not nearly as wet as the morning before, and this time we were climbing UP heather, rather than down it…much better.
Wind whipped as we crested a col just below Hagan Mountain, and we dropped our packs to tag the summit. 3 peaks in the book…now for the fourth, Mt. Blum. The traverse over to Blum looked more intimidating in reality than on the map, and we had to problem solve on the fly. Crossing the glacier on the Hagan massif, we peeked through a notch in the ridge which continued over to Mt. Blum. This notch, however, led to steep and loose dirt, or as Steve called it, “vertical death,” now doesn’t that sound enticing! We decided to traverse around to the west of the ridgeline and climb up and over a shoulder to the Upper Blum Lakes, where we would decide if we would climb Blum or not.
Around 10:30 AM we reached the Upper Blum Lakes and agreed to head up to Blum, the final summit of the route and a true ending to such an amazing traverse. We lightened our packs and stacked rocks atop our gear and began to head up, crossing another party on their way down. The scramble up to Blum zigged and zagged across slabs to the wider, open ramp up towards a snowfield below the peak, where we kicked steps to the summit. Blum was one of the best view of the North Cascades I have ever had…the views of Fury, Triumph, and of the entire Picket range were unbelievable. Turn around and there was Kulshan (Mt. Baker) and Shuksan, turn further and there was the Olympics poking up in the skyline, turn further and Tahoma (Rainier), Dakobed (Glacier Peak), and the rest of the Cascades fell into view. Unreal!
The day was hardly over, though, as we knew we had a long and steep bushwhack down from Blum Lakes to the Baker Lake trailhead. We estimated the 4 miles might take us 4 hours to get out…and we were very nearly right! From Blum Lakes, at over 5,000′, the “route” descends all the way down to 800′ in nearly 3 miles…do the math and that’s a lot of descent per mile. The descent follows a ridgeline that is flagged, at times, and includes numerous blowdowns and steep tree belays. Needless to say, our knees felt it. Every now and again we would miss a flag and end up bushwhacking downhill, only to regain a footpath and rinse and repeat. Eventually, around 2,000′, we were able to stay on the climber’s trail all the way down to the Pacific Northwest Trail, where we crossed the inlet to Baker Lake. PHEW!! That was quite the descent. The sun began to fade below the high ridges above as we made it to the car and drove back to the Watson Lake Trailhead, this time much emptier than before. An amazing Labor Day weekend with 3 amazing people in such an amazing place. Can’t say that word enough for this route.
|| Notes ||
- I really like the direction that we chose to traverse this route, from Watson to Blum. You enter the alpine quickly from the Watson Lakes trailhead, rather than having to bushwhack for nearly 5,000′ up to Mt. Blum.
- Forego trying to contour from Diobsud Lakes and just drop to the valley floor and ascend the drainage up towards Bacon Peak. It’s simpler…trust me.
- SOOOOO many blueberries on this route in late summer. YUM!
- Water sources are plentiful along this route from all the snowmelt from the snowfields and glaciers above.
- Really try to do this route in good weather; I know that can be said for all trips, but traversing steep heather and polished slabs of rock in wet conditions doesn’t sound too appealing to me.
- Three days left us plenty of time for route-finding and enjoying the scenery. We left camp around 7 AM on the second two days (we started the first day around 10 AM) and each day ended around 4 – 6 PM. The route is pretty much all off-trail, so do not be off-put by the low mileage and elevation gain of the route. It’s not simple trail to follow and is not fast. That said, your results may vary.