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Ascent of Alta Mountain on 2014-10-19

Climber: Cindy Lin

Date:Sunday, October 19, 2014
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Peak:Alta Mountain
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:5400 ft / 1645 m

Ascent Trip Report

Shortly after I began formally taking ballet classes, at the ripe age of 21, I had a harrowing experience in an intermediate level class. In the middle of a combination involving a step I had never done (assemble back), I focused so hard on how to execute this step that I forgot a fundamental rule of dance (and life) - to land on your feet. I fell flat on my face in front of the whole class, a humbling reminder that no matter the level, certain fundamentals always apply.

My failed ascent of Alta Mountain reminded me that the same principles apply in any endeavor, including my aspirations to become a skilled mountaineer. Note, this is a report about how NOT to climb this (or any other) peak, and I write it more as a reminder to myself of the importance of common sense and basic thinking, even in the midst of ever evolving goals.

The forecast for the day was “mostly sunny,” the last forecast for sun in the next ten days. Coming off the high of summiting Mt. Kyes with James the week before, I wanted to make the most of the day with something I considered challenging but doable. Mt. Alta was a reasonable choice. Not to mention the beautiful fall colors featured in recent trip reports.

The trip started off as well as it could. Rachael and I were at the trailhead before 9 a.m. We ascended through gorgeous forests teeming with yellow “leaf plants” and up muddy and rocky paths to Rachel Lake in good time, and were confident about our ability to summit Alta Mountain in less time than the Washington Scrambles book recommended. At Rachel Lake, a group asked if we were trail runners since apparently, we looked (or acted) like we had just run up the trail. (We said no, though oddly, the very same folks referred to us on our descent as the “trail runners,” a random but funny moment).

As we continued on the trail past Rachel Lake, I had my eyes on a peak that looked very familiar, which I assumed was Alta Mountain, given our planned destination. The Washington Trail Association trip report said to stay right at an intersection ½ mile from Rachel Lake, which would be marked by a sign. The trail to the left of this sign was intended to lead to Rampart Lakes, and we were to follow the trail to the right to Lila Lakes. No problem. We never saw the sign, but we stayed to the right, heading in the general direction of the peak I had identified as Alta Mountain.

However, approximately 2 miles past Rachel Lakes, as we passed an incredibly beautiful set of lakes that we now know were Lila Lakes, we realized that we had missed the climber’s path to Alta. We retraced our steps, back toward the ridge of Alta, to an intersection marked by a cairn. At this point, our information indicated that the trail to the left was supposed to take us up the ridge of Alta. Oddly and inexplicably, we ignored that trail (I don’t think either of us even acknowledged its presence!). Instead, we backtracked for a little while toward Rachel Lake before determining that we must have been on the right track after all, and turning back and hiking toward Lila Lakes once again. We assumed that we had missed the climbers trail on the way to Lila Lakes. Again, we passed Lila Lakes, further in this time, and again, we were confounded about how this would lead to Alta. Before our 2nd descent down to the lakes, I did notice a trail to the left that was rather faint. I suggested we ascend (again) and perhaps that was the climbers path to Alta. As we reached this intersection, Rachel spotted a cairn several yards from where I had seen the original path. Happy with this affirmation, we proceeded down this new path, which led upwards toward the peak I had deemed “Alta.”

There were several signs that we were not heading in the right direction though. First, this is a relatively busy area, and despite being mid-October, we had run into at least a few groups at Rachel Lake destined for Alta. None of them were on our path. Second, as we ascended what we believed to be the climbers path to Alta, we noticed a few people walking along the ridge above us, toward another peak. And finally, all descriptions of the Alta Mountain path were that the trail would be fairly easy to follow, and would generally follow the ridge to the summit. Our scenario was different. We were on a bootpath that came and went, and that did not seem to be a “ridge” of any discernable mountain. It also seemed odd that as we neared what I thought was Alta Mountain, we saw no people, despite the crowds that we ran into at Rachel Lake.

After climbing and scrambling past Lila Lakes, and observing the folks on the summit of the peak above us, Rachael and I decided that we must have missed the trail to Alta. We didn’t know where we were, and at this point, I was worried about our ability to find our way back. I also didn’t know what peak we had been walking toward, but at this point, it was clear that it was NOT Alta Mountain. I had cautioned Rachael to pack her headlamp that morning, but given the muddy, wet and slippery conditions on the trail to Rachel Lake, I really didn’t want to have to rely on those. Rachael had reached the point of suggesting somewhat absurd routes (i.e. “let’s just climb from here (the base of Alta) up to the summit”), and responding with a rather despondent “I don’t know” whenever I asked where she thought we came from. So, with the only shred of common sense I had left, I insisted that we retrace our steps and work our way back to Rachel Lake, if only to see where we had gone wrong.

It turns out, as we came back to the intersection marked by the cairn, that we had completely missed the climbers path up to Alta’s ridge on the left. I don’t know how we missed it, other than the fact that we were focused on heading “right,” and toward the peak I had my eyes on (which turns out, was not Alta, but Hibox Mountain). The fact that such a simple mistake had been made just picked up all my mountain confidence and threw it to the floor! Yes, just as putting your feet back down is absolutely essential when dancing, knowing your destination, the geography and the directions of the mountains relative to each other is critical in climbing. We may have been able to summit Hibox had we known that this was what we were heading toward. But we didn’t. By the time we realized how to get up to Alta, we were tired and concerned about a slippery hike down in the dark. We were so close to both peaks, but didn’t bag either. This was a humbling experience. A reminder that there is so much to learn, and understanding your surroundings is absolutely fundamental to this wonderful world of mountaineering.
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