|July 28, 2004.
I awake early in the canyon, wanting to get a jump on the river-crossings before water levels rise in the late-morning sun. I am anxious today... the prospect of so many river fords makes me uneasy.
Let me quickly step aside to address one thing about fording glacier-fed rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. These rivers bear no resemblance to the crystal-clear streams one might find meandering through the Rocky Mountains on a summer day. I've forded many rivers in the Rockies, some of them formidable, and one key difference comes to mind. Here, I CANNOT SEE what I'm stepping into. I liken the difference to driving in a car along a curvy mountain road, with the accellerator stuck at 45 mph (hey, you can't tell the river to slow down here). On a clear sunny day, the drive would be hair-raising, but manageable, perhaps even enjoyable, as long as you pay close attention to the road. Now imagine that same drive, stuck at 45 mph on a winding mountain road, in an impenetrable pea-soup fog.
Please stop reading, just imagine it for a moment.
Now you're getting the idea. At any given step in the river, in the opaque grey-blue waters, I cannot tell if the current is two feet deep or twenty. I cannot see the boulders or the gravel I am stepping onto, and should I slip in the strong current, I have no idea what surprises are submerged immediately downstream. I can use my trekking poles only to test the waters directly in front of me (much like headlights in a pea-soup fog), and for that I am grateful. I would never attempt such crossings without 'em. Making a long story short, it's hairy business out there (and frigid cold! ), even just doing it once. But now, back to the story...
I return to the area where the water was too deep yesterday, and try again. After two failed attempts (water in the channel was just too deep!), I finally make it across on my third. I must pay close attention to subtle clues in the river-current to get an idea of the best possible path... the adage "Still Waters Run Deep"
has never been more applicable. Upwards I go, crossing again & again, avoiding a deep channel and a deep pool, one after another, making slow progress.
Within an hour, the ice-cold waters have sucked my warmth, and I'm shivering uncontrollably from hypothermia. I shed my wet pants and shirt, don dry clothes, and try to find shelter from the cold, wet breeze coming down the valley. It's late in the morning, but the sun doesn't emerge into these valley depths for more than an hour a day, and it's not here now. I could
wait until the sun peeks over the canyon walls (and warms things up) to progress further, but that would only raise the river levels, which are precariously deep already. So I eat snacks, do jumping jacks, and stretch my muscles until my core temperature is back to normal.
By 10:30 AM, I am standing in waist-deep water, perched atop an unseen boulder in a deep pool. The current in front of me is too deep and too strong, the rocks too jagged to cross. Deep pools prevent me from going upriver, and identical conditions greet me on the other side.
I harbor no strong-headed illusions of "conquering the river" or "defeating the elements." I know that this wild land could take my life in any instant. Should I succeed, it would only be because the river allowed me to, and I would be thankful for that. At this time, in this place, the river grants no such passage. I have no other choice but to retreat, or kill myself in a flash of stupid bravery. I opt to retreat.
Making my way back to Paull Creek (refording everywhere I'd crossed before), I dry myself out & warm up in the appearing sunlight. On to Plan B.
I turn upstream again, scrambling up a slope at the entrance of the canyon, and begin travelling above the canyon, hoping to reach another unnamed side-stream that I've dubbed "Canyon Creek." Canyon Creek (according to the map) leads down into the heart of the Queets Canyon from its west side, almost to the base of Service Falls. If
I can follow Canyon Creek, I just might get there yet. But, after an hour of bushwacking up along the rim of the canyon (which exceeds 300 feet at this point), I find an impossible wall leading down to the creek (my god, must every river form a box-canyon in these parts?
. Even if I got down there, the Creek has a nasty habit of flowing over 20-foot ledges, in a staircase succession, downward and out-of-sight. I cannot use Canyon Creek as a safe route... it is just too steep, the terrain too severe.
On to Plan C. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this.
In the end, I climb up the dry ridge between Paull & Canyon creeks, ascending 3,000 feet through the steep subalpine forests on the way up to the Jeffers Glacier.
The forest is dry, and I sweat profusely, running low on water. Another thousand feet up (according to the map), and I should
be able to safely traverse over to the upper reaches of Canyon Creek, which I've been parallelling uphill for two-thousand feet. I get my first glimpses of Mt. Queets, Meany and Noyes across the valley, and my first views south of the river I've been following the past 5 days. Eventually, I reach the steeply-sloped creek and drink my fill. Camped on a small shelf close to the creek, I treat myself to a cheesecake dessert and ponder my situation. I hope that I can get up to the Jeffers Glacier tomorrow. I hope I can cross it, and find a safe way back down. I hope I can get upriver and find safe passage out of the Queets River Valley. I hope I can get home to my beautiful wife and see her face once again. There are no certainties anymore for me... "I hope" is the best I can do.
I am exhausted tonight, both mentally and physically, and quickly fall asleep under clear skies.
July 29, 2004.
Today, I take the long way around
. In order to progress roughly 1½ miles up the Queets River, in order to avoid the impassable Queets Canyon, I must haul myself nearly 4,000 vertical feet up, cross a glacier (solo, mind you, with no substantial equipment), and find a safe route down an uncertain glacial canyon back to the valley floor. That is, if
it's passable at all.
With a considerable amount of huffing and puffing (and frequent map-checking for the best possible route), I finally edge myself up a scree gully and over a rocky ledge, emerging onto a wide rocky plateau, where I leap for joy at the sights I see. Visible for the first time, I see the jagged spires of Hermes, Circa and other innumerable points abutting the backside of Mt. Olympus. I have 360° views of the upper Queets Valley and Mounts Meany, Queets and Noyes on the opposite side. I take some pictures, but don't want to tarry too long. This is a land of rock & ice, where the laws of stone and glaciers rule. I need to get off this exposed plateau before nightfall, and I've got my work ahead of me.
Yesterday, in a greenhorn-esque moment of misjudement, I lost my sunglasses (right off my hat!) during the steep uphill bushwack through the forest.
Today, while crossing the adjoining snowfields of the Jeffers Glacier, I regret that mistake.
In order to avoid squinting and eventual snowblindness (a temporary but painfully dehabilitating condition), I sink my brimmed hat down low over my brow and cover my cheeks with a black bandana, bandit-style. The theory is to reduce the sunlight & glare finding its way into my eyes, and sure enough, it works! I'm sure the look isn't very stylish, but after seeing no one for 5 straight days, I doubt I'll find any fashion-critical company on this glacier today. I don't have
to look pretty here.
After passing several lakes on the snowfields and avoiding the discolored & pocketed snow, I finally reach the glacier proper. A crevassed icefall reveals itself ominously to me, and further down the valley I can see the frothing waters pouring out from under the glacier. Looking at the terrain, it's obvious I'm gonna have to cross this beast... it's much too steep to safely scramble down on this side. Regrettably having no ice-axe along, I carefully look for the narrowest, shallowest part of exposed ice. It looks solid, but I know that looks can be deceiving (glaciers have an uncanny habit of trying to eat you
), and I pray to god that every step I take won't be my last. Luckily, the slope here is gentle, and enough pea-gravel coats the ice for traction. Within twenty minutes, I'm across the worst of it.
The route down the canyon alternates between snowfield and rockfield, and I amble downward, trying to avoid the worst of the snowbridges still arching over the river, melting away in the hot July sun.
Eventually, rocks & snow give way to flowers & grasses, and even trees begin appearing once again as I continue further down the canyon. By 6:00 in the evening, I'm camped on a ledge (still ~800 feet above the river) exhausted again after another nerve-trying day. Looking at the map, I'm not far upriver from Service Falls, and I know that tomorrow, I just might
have one last chance
to get there. After what I've been through, I have
to... I'd regret it for years if I didn't try.
So tonight, the nagging question remains... will I reach Service Falls tomorrow? Or will I be turned back once again, denied by the powers that be? My time is running short... it's already day 6, and I was hoping to reach the Upper Queets Basin (still several days off) by day 7 or 8. Tomorrow will be my last chance.