Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tatoosh Buttes

On my map of the North Cascades and Pasaytan Wilderness–in the lonely northeast corner where the wilderness trails off the page–lie the Tatoosh Buttes. I noticed the exposed bumps and long ridgeline about 3 years ago. The long approach down the Middle Fork of the Pasaytan River kept me from exploring. I needed a 3 day weekend to go there. Labor Day weekends passed. 4th of July is always snow laden at 7,000 ft. Finally, I decided to just go. If I didn't have time to travel the cross country ridge of Ptarmigan Peak and Dot Mountain, then so be it. With a departure from the NW looming I felt the Tatoosh Buttes were a lingering piece of unfinished business for me.

I got sidetracked with wine and friends on Friday night. Oh well, I'll just drive over in the morning. It's only a 21 or so mile hike in....

I started hiking at noon on Saturday from Slate Pass. It was hot. Hot, like 90 degrees hot. I loved it. The wind whipped my hair around my face (since in my rush I'd forgotten a hair band) and my skirt around my thighs. I felt like a bird soaring on the updrafts as I descended into the wide, u-shaped valley of the Middle Fork. Thick forest carpeted the valley below me as I floated through boulders and scree, banking wide around the cirque and then plunging below tree line.

The trail along the Middle Fork is wide and gently undulating as it gradually descends toward the confluence in the north. I sailed along, passing the way points, widely spaced 5 miles apart, in what seemed like effortlessness and in an impossibly short time. The trail narrowed and became more overgrown as I cruised northward until I veered off toward the Buttes. I followed brushy trail as it wound through a massive burn. I forded Lease Creek and began climbing.

Climbing...up and up. The late afternoon sun was intense. The landscape was littered with the carcasses of  burned trees. I could see nothing except the hill I was climbing, until–near the top–I rounded a corner and came face to face with the panorama of the Buttes, Tamarack Ridge, Ptarmigan Peak, Dot Mountain, Mt. Largo and Mt. Carru.

Snow tinged and bald, the ridge beckoned me ever upward. I reached the Tatoosh Buttes near sunset and enjoyed the alpine eve. I threw my bivy down on the ridge where I could simultaneously watch the blood red sunset and the full moon rise. As I dozed off in the bliss of being solitary in the wild I heard a faint clanging of metal and what I thought sounded like a whinny. Apparently equestrians were camped somewhere in the krumholtz below...


I sat bolt upright in my bivy. The wind had died and darkness had fallen. The full moon illuminated the world in silver and I stared around.


I quickly dragged my bivy behind some krumholtz and lay quietly trying to figure out what the invisible was. The metal clanging punctuated by very animal like sounds had me stymied...and scared. I briefly thought of packing up and hiking down by light of the moon, but I made myself stay put.

"Heather, there is nothing out here that can hurt you. There is nothing out here at night that wasn't here in the day."
Yeah, but it might not have been awake.


After I dismissed the outlandish: ghosts of miners, drug traffickers, sasquatch...I turned to the likely: not bear, or cougar, or wolf, or coyote. Maybe elk? But what is the clanging? Wild animals don't have metal...

Forget your context...identify the sounds.

I lay quietly and listened. The clanging and animal noises came again, much farther away.

That...sounds...like...a cowbell...


And that was definitely a cow.

I began laughing–A COW!

The incessant yapping of a coyote awoke me just as orange tinged the sky. I rolled over and drank in the early light on the mountains. I packed quickly to get away from the annoying barking. As I walked I studied the myriad horse hoof prints on the trail and discovered, blending in with them in the thick dust, cow tracks. I hadn't noticed them the day before, but now they were obvious. A cow, complete with bell, had managed to find it's way deep into wilderness and well over 7,000 ft.

The miles passed quickly and soon I was ascending up and out of the valley. The trees thinned and opened and I flew upward, driven by the sun, and wind, and sight of the snow patched pass above me. I paused to look back and smiled.

Good luck, cow.

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