Melty snow, warm weather, partly cloudy skies. It’s been years since I’ve been standing on a peak in the Mountain Loop Highway. Last time was on Vesper Peak and I’ve been yearning to be surrounded by beautiful peaks again. At the spur of the moment, I got a request to go on an adventure to Gothic Peak with a friend of a friend. And I just couldn’t resist that. But, as is with new hiking/climbing partners, it’s good to assess each other’s capabilities and find a suitable adventure that’s neither too boring nor too difficult. You want to be safe and have fun, and sometimes it’s better to pick an easier route for the sake of that. Gothic Peak via Gothic Basin was the perfect route for us.
Gothic Basin has been on my list for a while to visit and I had originally wanted to go on a Saturday. However, my other friends were concerned about the trip reports noting an uncrossable snow bridge. I was dubious – you can’t be certain of a someone’s analysis, whether they do or don’t have the capability to determine the safety of the trail. Anyhow, for Saturday, Gothic Basin was deferred and Beckler Peak was hiked (but that’s for another story).
Couldn’t tell you how thrilled I was to have someone wanting to bag Gothic Peak with me, even with the spring snow. And thus, on Sunday, we set out at 4:30am for an alpine start to Gothic Peak, trying to avoid slushy snow uphill and any potential of snow slide (aka avalanche/rock fall). Luckily, at this time of year in PNW, the sun rises at a balmy 5:30am. So, we got to enjoy some alpenglow on the drive and a well lit path by the time we started hiking at 6:15am. From Barlow Pass, the first mile or so was a good warm-up, on a fairly low grade, unpaved road.
I’d been warned about the difficulty of the trail, but how hard could it be to gain 2840 ft in 4.6 miles? It sounds much less steep than the typical 1000ft/mile rate I usually go at. But, no, it taunts you in the beginning and then it grows steeper and steeper. At least, it rewards you with views of the Monte Cristo area.
Up and up we went, in and out of trees. And as the views widen, we began to approach snow. By our guess, this was the highly anticipated “snow bridge” that was uncrossable. But it really did not look like a collapsing snow bridge. It was thick and sturdy as could be, especially so early in the morning. We thought it could have been other snow patches we’d pass, but never was a snow bridge to be found. The last footprints in the snow seemed to have been a solo ascent, rather than the multiple groups from the previous weekend trip reports.
We continued to follow the footsteps and into deeper and steeper snow. But I just kept on looking back at the beautiful valley and admiring all the waterfalls surrounding us and the ones we’d cross. I could definitely see how this hike would have been hard, especially for backpackers. It was also a bit disheartening every time we thought we had passed the knoll, just to come across another false plateau.
As we approached higher, we could see Del Campo to our right, though we opted to only summit Gothic Peak this time. Sitting above the frozen lake, we took a short lunch break to reassess our route. We had blindly followed the tracks which sat higher than the original path, so we down climbed a snow-free slope and retraced the path. From below, the climb to the peak seemed long. But somehow we had paced ourselves so well, it felt like no time had passed between the short breaks.
Half way up from the lake, we decided to put on our helmets, just in case any snow clumps started to fall. The sun was definitely coming out. Snow was getting softer with each step, but soon enough, we arrived at the summit block. I was glad to have worn my mountaineering shoes, a piece of gear I had recently acquired. My feet stayed fairly dry and I had good traction scrambling up the summit. We quickly scrambled up each ledge and in possibly less than 10 minutes, we had reached the summit.
Honestly, I thought we had more elevation gain, and was mildly disappointed we did not have more scrambling. But, huzzah, we had successfully reached the summit without pushing ourselves too hard, so it was quite enjoyable, rather than the typical sufferfest I’ve experienced before. We weren’t going for a speedy time, and just relaxed and soaked in the beautiful mountains.
At the summit, we continued to scramble to the eastern edge of Gothic Peak, which required navigating a 2-foot wide passage with steep drop-offs on either side. It gets your heart rate up to think about your dooming death if you fell 1500 ft. So, careful as we were, we crossed over to get a better view to the east, including Del Campo and Glacier Peak.
And to the north, we could see Mt. Baker and Mount Shuksan, which I had previously summited and half approached, respectively. In the distance, I could make out Big Four and its surrounding mountains, like Vesper Peak! To the south was layers and layers of mountains spreading from the Skykomish to Snohomish areas. I bet that we’d be able to see Rainier on a sunnier day!
Somehow we had spent a whole hour on the summit before we started down climbing again. I didn’t want to leave! As summer approaches, the snow would all soon melt and there would be fewer opportunities to get out on snow-covered peaks this season. Instead of snow, talus and scree would cover the slopes, which actually makes for a harder climb and a much slower descent. Running down soft snow is by far better for the fun and for your knees. We were continually graced by the beautiful glacial lakes. But with such quick decent, we had to quickly say goodbye to the mountains and views, and the bright blue glacial lakes.
Although the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a beautiful area in the Cascades, it does not compare to sky blue lakes of the Mountain Loop Highway. A good reminder for me to get high on the mountains more often! Just as we went up, down and down we went, like Alice in Wonderland, if you will. And as the snow turned to dirt, our knees felt every impact. But I’d take knee pain for time well spent in the wild.
By the time we passed all the snow, we still didn’t find the snow bridge. My guess is the one above the loudest rushing waterfall. Remember to be safe out there and check the structural integrity of the snow before you cross! On the way down, we met a few other people trying to reach Gothic Basin, and a few who were unprepared for the terrain. I wished the best of luck to these hikers. As the first ones up, we had the whole basin and peak to ourselves, and it’s nice to be the ones headed down as others begin their approach. Solitude in the wilderness brings me such peace and rejuvenation.
Our car to car time was 8 hours of leisurely peak bagging, and it was an awesome way to start the work week refreshed by nature! But, for now, I’ll just sit and scroll through pictures, waiting impatiently for the next weekend to explore!