Location: Methow Valley
Length: 28ish miles RT
Elevation: 3759 feet
Summit: 8957 feet
There are 39 counties in Washington State and each has a high point of vastly varying elevations and difficulty of attainment. I had never really planned on trying to tackle each of the high points (and I’m still not sure it’s a feat I can finish), but my friend Mark was well on his way to completion. One of the peaks still on his to-do list was North Mount Gardner, a rugged peak looming over Mazama in the Methow Valley. North Gardner, at 8,957 feet, is the highest point in Okanogan County, but it’s not an easy access. Crossing this off the list requires a 10.5 mile slog along the Wolf Creek Trail to Gardner Meadow before a cross-country trek at elevation takes you to an exposed ridgeline with a few Class-3 scrambles to the summit. Throw in some inclement weather and you have a recipe for adventure!
For the long Labor Day weekend, we opted to play hooky from work on Friday and make the drive from Seattle to Winthrop over the North Cascades Highway. Our plan was to hike in the 10.5 miles to Gardner Meadow and camp. Saturday would be summit day, and Sunday we’d return to the trailhead.
September 2, 2016: Day 1 – The Wet Trail
We pulled into a completely empty trailhead at around 2:15 and spent a bit getting our gear ready. Once we had our gear sorted out, we hit the trail at 2:45.
The trail begins by immediately dropping about 250 in elevation as its wide tread shoots through the open forest. The going was pretty quick and the trail was rather unremarkable. Nevertheless, it wasn’t without incident. About a mile in, the trail gets brushy. Lots of low brush, mid-level brush, and tall brush lined the way. Of course, it was all wet too. Mark quickly found out his gaiters had lost their waterproofing and when we took a break at the North Fork Wolf Creek crossing about 2.5 miles in, he emptied out at least a cup of water from each boot.
After a change of socks, we forged across the creek and navigated our way through more wet brush and over or under a million downed trees. I really don’t have a lot of positive things to say about the trail other than we were the only ones on it.
After about 7 miles, the day was waning and we were both a bit tired and hungry. We made the call to check out the rumored campsite at the Abernathy Lake Trail junction instead of pushing all the way in to Gardner Meadow. This proved to be a great decision, even though it would make our summit day a bit of a longer trek.
We arrived at the junction a little after 6pm and were delighted to find a great campsite next to Wolf Creek. There was plenty of room for a few tents and we quickly set up camp. Dinner was made (Mountain House Chili Mac, ehhhhhhhhhh) and we were both in our tents by 9pm.
September 3, 2016: Day 2 – Summit Up!
The next day dawned sunny and bright, despite the iffy forecast. Both Mark and I were eager to get underway and, after a quick breakfast, we headed back up the trail toward Gardner Meadow at around 8:45am.
From our camp, the trail climbs steadily for the next 2 miles and leaves the forest as it enters an old burn. By 9:15, the sun disappeared behind a layer of clouds that had rolled in, keeping the air temps down. We fought our way through the encroaching slide alder and other assorted brushy annoyances until we reached Gardner Meadow.
We took a short break at a nice large campsite next to Wolf Creek and filtered water for our ascent. While Mark tended to the water filter, I noticed movement in the creek and was surprised to see three decent sized brook trout swimming in the shallow water. My lack of pole and frying pan meant they were safe to swim another day.
From the campsite, the trail dissolves into the meadow and we were forced to route find up toward our destination. A couple of deer wandered by, paying us the littlest of attention as we picked our way up the hillside.
The weather took a bit of a turn as we climbed out of the meadow and soon we were greeted with a wintry surprise — large, wet snowflakes floated lazily down around us.
We stopped in a grove of trees to grab our jackets in an effort to thwart the increasing snow.
Our route took us to a plateau alpine meadow full of swampy grass and wildflowers and we did our best to tread lightly across it. From the plateau, we entered a large cirque underneath Gardner Mountain and Point 8487. The cirque is filled with fairly fine gravel and climbing up it felt like climbing in snow.
We took lunch break around 1pm in a rocky protrusion under a few trees. Mark had packed up some tuna, pepperjack, and bread and we made sandwiches. I normally just have Clif Bars or granola bars for lunch on my climbs, but these sandwiches were amazing. I’ll have to re-think my lunch choices from here on out!
Reinvigorated by our lunch, we continued up the cirque. I cut steps in the gravel hillside and we slowly made our way to the cirque rim. The snow had stopped by now and the sun and clouds fought each other in a desultory dance of dominance.
Once atop the ridge, I was enveloped in a sea of grey as the mist rolled in again. I could see the route we came up but the path ahead lie shrouded in secrecy.
The going got a bit easier on top of the cirque as the incline up to Point 8487 was much milder than the cirque. We continued up the open ridge, catching slight hints of the surrounding peaks as shadows in the mist. I was moving a little faster than Mark and, upon reaching Point 8487, I stopped to wait for my compatriot. It started hailing. A lot.
From Point 8487, it’s a little over a half mile to the summit of North Gardner, which of course, we couldn’t see at all. The ridgeline we were to traverse looked like a craggy asteroid and had no clear path apparent. Nevertheless, we pushed on through the hail.
Once on the actual ridge, a boot-path became very apparent, and we followed it along the serrated ridgeline. The way looked way more technical than it really is, and we only had to deal with a few sections of Class 3 scrambles. There is a bit of exposure on a few sections so this route is not for the inexperienced.
I made a note that I need a leash for my ice axe after having to throw it a few times so I could use both my hands to navigate the rock.
We continued on the ridge, alternating between finding the correct route, backtracking to find the actual correct route, pulling some Class 3 moves, and just treadding on the boot path. As we inched closer to North Gardner, the sun began to win its battle with the clouds; it was as if the mountain saw our plight and was allowing us to reach our goal.
I reached a sunny summit at about 3:30pm and Mark was close behind. We were both ecstatic that the weather cleared and gave us some views; Washington Pass and Silver Star Mountain to the west, Mazama down in the valley to the north, the Methow Valley to the northeast, the Columbia Plateau in the distant east, Bonanza away to the south.
We stayed about 30 minutes on the summit, celebrating our accomplishment. Mark was able to get reception on his Verizon phone so we sent messages back home to let our gals know we were safe. We took pictures and signed the lightning-scarred summit register, and then prepared to head back down.
The way back down went much, much faster as we were no longer fighting gravity. We hurried along the ridge and back down to the cirque. Once we reached the cirque, Mark dropped into it and began his descent. The gravel felt so much like snow that Mark began plunge-stepping and dropped the elevation in a matter of minutes. I dropped in soon after (so as not to kick any rocks down upon him) and did some fancy jump turns on my way down. What took us 45 minutes to climb equated to about 10 minutes to descend. Definitely a fun time!
Once we entered the upper alpine meadow, we decided to keep high along the hillside instead of dropping back down into Gardner Meadow. This would allow us to catch the trail out further down and avoid the elevation drop into the Meadow.
We motored along our cross-country route quickly and finally reconnected with the trail. And the brush. Man, seriously, that trail needs some maintenance! We ran into an older gentleman (the first person we had seen since we left the trailhead) with very wet boots who was headed in to camp at the Meadow. He had a bow on his back and was hunting for buck. I doubted he was really hunting and figured he was just looking for an excuse to have a nice solo trip into the wilderness. I mean, even if he were to take a buck, there is no way a man of nearly 70 would be able to pack out that much meat the 10.5 miles back to the trailhead!
Anyway, we bade him goodbye and continued to push through the brushy trail. Most of the way required me to push aside wet branches and resulted, more often than not, with a good dump of water down my back. My tiredness mixed with frustration and I became very grumpy and wanted the brush to end. I was VERY happy once the trail re-entered the forest and the crappy brush slog was done.
We rolled back into camp, tired and hungry, and happy to be ‘home’ at around 7:30pm, 3 hours after leaving the summit.
Mark had some fun with a string of LED lights and made a Christmas Tree in camp. We even hung his wet socks on the branches for stockings!
After our fun and dinner and drinks, we were both in our tents by 9pm.
September 4, 2016: Day 3 – Let’s Go Home
I awoke around 7am and got up to make some coffee. While I was standing around, I listened to the nearby Wolf Creek and realized it was making a lot of noise. A quick investigation revealed a substantial cascade not 30 feet from our camp!
After exploring the waterfall, making a quick breakfast, and packing up camp, we were on the trail back by 9:45am.
The going was quick and we passed a couple of other camps on our way out. We reached the parking lot 3 hours later, happy to have had a successful summit.
While we didn’t bag Gardner Mountain during the same trip, North Gardner Mountain was a feat in itself. The long slog in coupled with the weather made for a pretty robust adventure. We both got to knock off another County High Point and Mark got to find out his gaiters are worthless.
On to the next!