Breakin’ Trail to Italy Pass

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 11-30-08

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” — Muriel Stode

The pack was silly, but, then, what else was new? A cold frost had descended on the mountains, the snow line from last week’s storm dusting down to 7500 feet, and I was about to embark on my first solo snow camp. Not knowing what conditions were to present themselves, I simply loaded up for anything. Crampons, axe, snowshoes, zero bag, sub-zero parka, shovel, even a beacon so my body could be recovered more readily from a snowy grave (a bit melodramatic, I suppose). The forecast was promising, and I had a new tent to break in–Merry Christmas a bit early to me…

The Pine Creek Trailhead is fast becoming familiar territory, but being low and easily accessible from B-town, it made a logical choice for the weekend’s adventures. I set off around 0830 Friday morning, clear blue skies overhead but the sun hiding behind the tall ridge to the south and delicate hoar frost clinging to all the of the sage and pine needles. I donned snowshoes from the start, stepping gingerly across the remaining exposed rock of the lower trail which quickly gave way to inches of coverage. I broke the snow along the trail, inching my way ever higher above the Pine Creek Mine but never feeling as if I was gaining anything. The ice of a few weeks ago had been completely covered by the new snow, and tromping with the shoes gave me solid, if not squeaky, purchase. I finally re-entered the forest at 9000 feet, and stopped for a break at Pine Lake , now frozen over but thin enough for me to cut a hole and tank up.

While covered with a new coat of snow, the trail was still easily followed, and above Upper Pine Lake I was even able to discern old snowshoe tracks that followed the route of Rick Lovett and myself from three weeks hence. Even with my shoes on, I was occasionally postholing to mid-shin, especially with the large pack. But by 1430, I was overlooking Honeymoon Lake , finding a perfect campsite between the trees, and sheltered from any possible wind. I set about to work setting up camp, melting snow and scouting out my surroundings. The old tracks had indeed headed this direction, and seemed to continue up and away from camp, presumably to traverse the high ridge and come around to Granite Park to the west, so I decided for Saturday morning to follow their meandering path and see to where they would lead. By 1700 the lights had been turned out, and I read my camera’s owner’s manual for a while before finally attempting to drift off myself.

Saturday morning dawned crisp and clear, the sunlight brightening the tips of the gates to Royce Pass above camp. After rousting myself from my warm bag, donning cold boots, and downing breakfast, I trudged straight up from camp, following the weather-beaten tracks that gained the ridge to the southwest. I was postholing to my knees in the fresh powder, while wearing snowshoes, making for a slow ascent, but the views back into the Pine Creek basin were spectacular in the morning light. I finally realized my slight navigational error upon reaching the base of what was Royce Pass , mistaking it for the gates into Granite Park. I was one drainage too far south, so I changed course to the Northwest, crossing the shoulder of a ridge which led me to the the Park. The snow here looked like melted marshmallow, dripping over rocks and ledges, rolling into drainage courses where water still ran despite the cold. I trudged upward towards the center line of the Park, following the high ridge above the tarns. Views to the south towards the Royce Lakes basin were astounding against the cobalt sky, the southern winter sun casting long shadows and adding depth to the steep spires and ridges. Finally, around 1230, I was at the foot of Italy Pass , looking up at Mt. Julius Caesar, which had been my original intent on this trip. The side trip to Royce Pass had all but eliminated those hopes, and a myriad of conversations exploded in my head as I gazed at the remaining 1300 feet. The peak-bagger wanted to go for it; the photographer wanted to go for it; the feet wanted to go for it; the brain said; “Hey: you’re out here by yourself, it’s your turn-around time, and I want to get back to camp before dark.” For once, the brain won the day, and I turned for home.

In turning, however, I was given a moment in the sunshine and breeze to pause and soak in all below me. Mt Humphreys rose to the southeast, Mt. Tom to the east, the crest joining them. And it was then that I saw them: a single row of tracks rising and rolling with the undulating landscape of Granite Park. My tracks, stretching for what seemed like miles back to the shoulder of the ridge I had crested to enter from beneath Royce Pass. In that moment rose the meaning of this weekend’s adventure: set your own course, see where it takes you, stand with confidence in the end result. With a last glance over my shoulder at Italy Pass and Mt. Julius Caesar, I strode down.

Sunday’s stroll out was uneventful, save for noticing just how much had melted out in the past two days. I continued to wear the snowshoes, even in thinning areas, since the thought of replacing the shoes outweighed loss of time from a slip and fall and injury. I still managed to trip once, landing square on the rocks with both knees while wearing the monster pack, uttering a few choice colorful metaphors. Looking at the Pine Creek Mine is the same as hearing the generator for The Store below Lone Pine Lake: you look at it for the last two hours of the hike and never get any closer. Before long, though, I slipped out of the snowshoes, carrying them the last mile or so down the trail. The TOF waited patiently at the trailhead, a bit miffed at being left out in the cold for a few nights.

I had lamented recently about the fact that I hadn’t been ‘hitting it as hard’, and that my hikes had not been of the same quality as those I was doing over the summer. One of my best friends reminded me: “Your easy hikes are what most other people dream about.” Tonight I’ll dream of snow-covered basins and towering spires, knowing also that I was just there.

A few other moments from the weekend:

Rest of the pics are here .

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.



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