Trip: Gamma Peak backpack - Gamma Ridge
I'd heard whispers about some semi-mythic hotsprings on the north side of Glacier Peak, but there seemed to be precious little information available online, especially anything recent. The only thing I could be sure of was that it was going to be a long walk in with some bushwhacking and off-trail navigation, probably not the sort of thing I was going to want to undertake solo. So I just needed to convince some poor sap to join me for this suffer fest. I knew just the guy:
Years ago, I convinced Greg to do a month-long bike tour in the Australian outback. He made the mistake of letting me plan the menu, and I starved the poor bastard half to death. Turns out riding a bike all day burns a few more calories than being a desk jockey. How was I to know? But I digress. Greg’s usually game for an adventure, even if we don't get out as much as we used to. Between family and job responsibilities, I knew we would have to make this a relatively short excursion. I tried not to make it sound too bad when I emailed him:
You interested in backpacking into some hotsprings later this season? It's in the glacier peak wilderness. Suiattle River Road has reopened, reducing trip to one long day each direction, or maybe a day and a half to be safe (15 miles and 4000 feet elevation).
He took the bait, and we planned for a "leisurely" 4 day trip.
In the lead-up to the trip, I called the Darrington ranger station to ask about conditions, the PCT re-route, current maps, etc., given the dearth of information online. I had the distinct impression that someone was trying to dissuade us from undertaking this trip. “You know, I gotta be honest with you,” the ranger said. “I don’t believe the hotsprings are actually there. They’re not on my map. Image Lake is pretty nice. Maybe you should go there.” This only added to the mystique.
Friday morning before Labor Day, found ourselves at Sulphur Creek Campground and hit the trail. The going was easy for the first 10 miles or so, until the Vista Creek crossing. The trail beyond this point is not maintained, and the bridge washed out some years ago. But there were good logs for crossing the creek, and the trail beyond was easy enough to follow, if a little overgrown.
Arriving at the base of Gamma Ridge, the GPS said we’d gone 13 miles. We knew the trail would be harder to follow beyond this point, and there were reportedly some pretty heinous blowdowns to deal with. Given that it was now late afternoon, we weren’t sure we wanted to commit to ascending the ridge, and ending up bushwhacking in the dark, so we made camp. There was water here too, in a small creek just uphill from camp. Interestingly, the entirety of the creek flow basically disappeared into the ground though the creekbed… like a reverse spring.
Next morning we found some flagging tape marking a trail up the hill out of camp. The trail was not as established as the one we had been on the day before, but was still easy enough to follow. We followed it up for about 800 feet of elevation gain…
…only to have it fade to nothing. Taking stock, it appeared we were some distance to the north of the main trail. So, we bushwhacked up the ridgeline and intersected the main trail around the 4500 foot level. This is the point where the blowdown is at its worst, but honestly it didn’t seem that bad.
The Gamma Ridge trail at this point clearly still gets some traffic. Not a lot, but enough to help keep the path visible. And, someone has recently flagged the route through the blowdown and up the ridge, which made life easier. After a couple of hours hiking from camp, we finally hit the meadows atop Gamma Ridge.
We continued up the ridge through occasional fog, and had lunch with what would turn out to be the trip’s only view of Glacier Peak, and only a glimpse of a glacier’s toe at that.
We continued up Gamma Ridge, passing some great views and a few marmots along the way.
We dropped into the Gamma Creek drainage at more or less the earliest opportunity (which is somewhat earlier than some sources had suggested).
There were a couple of scrambly bits and mud slopes to deal with, but all in all the descent was not that bad...
We arrived mid-afternoon and from the condition of the springs, we might well have been the first visitors this season. There was no sign of a pool having been built this year. So, we set about building our own.
The water is HOT, and although we had creek water coming in, the hot and cold were not mixing. The result was that one end was scalding, the other was cold, and the only solution seemed to be to constantly stir the tub with my flip flop. Not quite what I had envisioned, but workable, barely. Something of a mix of comical and a complete pain in the ass.
For a second attempt, I diverted the creek flow about 15 feet upstream so that the cold water flowed in at the same place as the hot, which helped but didn’t totally resolve the temperature management issue. Right before departing, we discovered that some prior visitors had stashed a large blue tarp inside a hollow tree on the west side of the creek, just downstream from the springs. There was also a shovel with a broken but still usable handle, and a small length of hose. I think we could have engineered a much better pool if we’d known this when we started. Doh!
Heading out, we decided to follow the main branch of Gamma Creek up, as this appeared to be the recommended route and we figured it might be easier than the way we had come in. Far from it! We were constantly forced to climb up the slimy rocks in the creekbed...
...or to take our chances on the chossy banks.
Being the "climber" in our group (though I use the term loosely) I was torn between warning Greg to watch out on the loose stuff, and trying not to unnerve him. He handled it all with aplomb:
In retrospect, I would say that the route we took in, which was down one of the more easterly feeder gullies, was much easier going.
Continuing up, we found ourselves in a maze of steep-sided gullies. Eventually we hit a little snow, and then at last we got above the deep gullies and angled back up to the ridgeline, where we regained the Gamma Ridge trail.
We made a quick run up to Gamma Peak and enjoyed the views. (Ha!) Good thing I shelled out $16.99 for those shades at the gas bar in Arlington; I really needed them!
Then it was back down to camp right at treeline on Gamma Ridge.
The last day was a long walk back down the ridge and out the trails to the parking lot. We were happy to find that no one had stolen our beer from the creek:
It was pretty a wet trip, and despite waterproofing my boots right before we left, my feet were totally soaked on day 3 and day 4. They felt as good as they looked:
All in all a great trip with a great partner. Thanks, Greg!
* there's a good trip report on the Gamma Ridge trail here: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/trip-reports/trip_report.2015-07-07.7909269972
* The only serious navigational issue we had was picking up the wrong trail out of camp at 3400' at the base of Gamma Ridge. Use some care here and you should be fine. We moved some flagging tape to better indicate the main Gamma Ridge trail
* In everything I'd read in preparation for this trip, there was a lot of talk about the blowdown and overgrowth on the Gamma Ridge trail. But the toughest part was definitely the scrambling between Gamma Ridge and the springs. Shitty rock and slippery surfaces.