20 miles of hiking • 5000' elevation gain • 2 nights
I write this trip report with great relief. The lakes were remarkably serene and gave off a naturally high-contrast visual that reminded me of Instagram's Lo-Fi filter. But....it's a month or two too early to make this a casual backpacking trip, as I found out the hard way.
To give you some background, my 16 year old sister-in-law, Malinda, is visiting Portland from Missouri and she wanted to go backpacking in the beautiful Northwest. I thought the Mt. Margaret Backcountry would be a unique experience with the 30 year old bushy green saplings growing up and choking out the naked and bleached, broken top old growth tombstones still resonating groans from the volcanic reset button being pushed. I faxed in my permit request for Panhandle Lake the first night and Dome the next. Being pressed for time, I called the Monument Headquarters in Amboy and spoke with someone to see if my request would be processed in time. They asked about where I was parking and the route I had planned. They didn't tell me about the ice on Bear Pass or Whitter Ridge being washed out, or the lack of maintenance on the Lakes Trail. I had no idea about how challenging and treacherous these three days would be.
Starting at Norway Pass, we hiked up past Meta Lake to a nice view of St. Helens behind Spirit Lake. Once we came to Bear Pass, the trail quickly disappeared under steep ice, forcing us to bushwack down and back up to the ridge overlooking Grizzly Lake. We found the path again and crossed several sketchy ice slopes and waterfalls before arriving at Obscurity Lake and Camping at Panhandle. The next morning we thought the worst of our trip was behind us, but the trail continued to deliver safety compromising situations. Every ice slope we came to, I would just turn around and say, "Malinda, I'm sorry" She kept it together at first, just focusing on stepping in my foot prints and not looking down, but eventually she started to unravel and I could tell that her trip was turning into a bad dream. I became extremely frustrated by the endless cycle of hiking for ten minutes and looking for evidence of the trail for twenty minutes. We finally came to Whitter Ridge Trail and after a short time and sharp increase in elevation, we realized that it was washed out right before it turns the back East.
At this point, our spirits were pretty broken. We couldn't finish the loop back to our car, I refused to put Malinda back through those dangerous situations we came we had already come through, and I didn't have any faith that the trail leading out to Coldwater Lake was any less dangerous. For the rest of the day we were in a state of shock and contemplated waiting to be rescued. I was trying to think honestly and clearly enough to determine if waiting for a helicopter ride out of there was a necessity or a fantasy. At the time it felt like both. After sitting next to an ice field in the blazing sun the rest of the day, we didn't want to waste another one just sitting and waiting. We looked at the Coldwater Lake trail and realized that it gradually descends and is entirely on South facing slopes, and if we couldn't make it out, we would at least be on a trail if a search team were to start looking for us. We decided that the next morning, we would get up early and try to make it to the ranger station at Johnston Ridge by the time it closed.
The next morning, we woke up, unzipped the door of our tent and found ourselves to be in a fog, limiting our sight distance to about 75 feet. Our optimism was crushed. We made our way down the trail, past Snow Lake, stopped at every snow field we couldn't see the other side of, Malinda would wait while I would scout out where the trail picked back up. That lasted for about an hour before the fog lifted and we made our way to the opening of the Coldwater Creek gorge. It was a relief to be out of fog but the trail was difficult to track under the overgrowth of Alder and fallen logs. There were also rock slides obscuring the trail every hundred yards. For a while we unknowingly followed a game trail before realizing we hadn't seen any sawed logs, and we were ascending rather than descending to the river. After an hour of back tracking and log crawling down to the trail, we finally maintained a direct course out to the Coldwater Lake Recreation Area.
We met a chatty lady and her husband on the last few miles of the trail and told them what we had been through and they eagerly gave us a ride up the the Observatory. Malinda and I walked in with three days of bushwacking grime on our clothes and penetrating stares of trauma on our faces. The head ranger, Todd, took one look at us and made a face like he had seen a ghost. We must have stood out among the crowd of care free tourists wearing unblemished Chacos and pedicures waddling around obliviously or inspecting the souvenirs. I told Todd what we had been through and he responded with, "You came through WHERE!?!, you should have been warned about taking that route." He apologized on behalf of the forest service and got on the phone immediately to arrange a place for us to stay for the night and a ride back to our car the next morning. Ranger Todd, if you're reading this, you have multiplied my faith and trust in the integrity and servitude of the forest rangers. You and all your staff are exceptional examples of public servants.