CDT Day 64: Pixley Creek to Island Lake via Knapsack Col Alt. – Cougar, Bear, or Moose Camp to Was it Worth it? Camp
Miles hiked: 19.2
Total miles: 1092.2
What a wild day. What an intense day. We are in the mountains now, my friends. That is certain. We encountered perhaps our most challenging day on trail yet on an exciting alternate route over the incredible Knapsack Col. Too much excitement? Maybe.
The morning started off easy enough. Hands in pockets for the cold meander along the Green River for a few more miles. One porcupine spotted. The sun finally appeared over the tall valley walls as we switchbacked up and out, deeper into the mountains.
The raspberry picking was good on the way into a tight valley of jumbled granite boulders. A passing backpacker described me to Spice, rather accurately, as the “rare, short, paisley, mountain man.” I’ll take that. The trail disappeared into the middle of this disordered crumble, but was rediscovered above and to the left, traversing along with surprisingly good tread. A couple of jigs up and over revealed a ridiculous view of green grass, bright wild flowers, a shimmering lake, and towering granite spires. This place didn’t even have a name, but it blew me away. Cube Rock Pass (10,738ft) did have a name as did Peak Lake, wide and violently blue with glacial silt.
It was instantly apparent to me that I was in a place as special as any I might find on this trail. It was an arena of peaks. In every direction my gaze rose up shear walls to where they terminated at tortured ridge or impossibly thin needle. Vibrant blue below and above.
But there was still so much to do. The mood was light as SpiceRack and I circled the lake and began our ascent up a valley towards the col. The use trail was easy to follow through the meadows, but disappeared entirely as we climbed above the realm of living things, a few camouflaged cairns our guides now. My breathing became labored as the steepest of climbs brought us past 11,000, then 12,000ft.
Good views were a good excuse to stop, catch my breath, and look around. We were level with some mountains now, like old Squaretop, and a big glacier was over there on the side of some mountain. I worked my lungs, legs, and arms hard for the final push up to Knapsack Col 12,287ft, easily the highest point for us so far on the CDT.
A new, incredible view was our reward. Titcomb Basin, huge. We huddled behind a boulder, out of the wind for the moment. I enjoyed the views and scouted our descent. Either a short slip over a cornice of snow to some rocks, or a scramble down a chute to the left. Neither looked totally safe, but we agreed that solid rock was better than a slide on snow.
The style of our down climbs was not flattering, but we each made it safe down the roughly 20ft of near vertical rock. Turns out that was the easy part. The next few hundred feet of scrambling was a mega sketch-fest over some of the loosest rock I’ve ever encountered. No trail. No way. Not up here. Rocks the size of tires, rocks that should have been stable, sometimes shifted with a slight touch. A fall on a slope this steep would hurt a lot, but it would be the rocks falling on top of you that would do the most damage. Getting down safe required a subtle touch and a mentally taxing alertness. Progress was slow.
I was relieved to reach the top of a snowfield, sit on my butt, and glissade the rest of the way to flattish ground. Spice had a harrowing descent of her own. I had at least a little bit of fun coming down, but she was well beyond finding enjoyment. Happy to be alive maybe, but not happy. And I couldn’t blame her, that was sketchy and dangerous. Both of us pooped, we stumbled off of the snow and sunk to the rocky ground with our backs against a massive boulder.
Tired legs, dazed mind. We wandered down the valley on a crumbly moraine to the faint trail through Titcomb Basin. I was disappointed. Disappointed because of how amazing this place was. I saw elements of my favorite corners of the Sierra, all represented here, combined and amplified. The Winds. I had heard about the Winds, heard the rumors, but never thought they would challenge my home range. But I get it now. The Winds are legit.
The walking was fortunately easy once on the floor of the basin. Giant lakes scrolled by as the sun disappeared behind a ridge, then set the opposite ridge aflame with alpenglow. We made it to Island Lake and could go no further, finding a rocky point on which to cowboy camp. Sunlight faded, stars poked through the dark. Burritos made, burritos eaten. What a day. Who saw that coming? I should have because everything others told us was true. That was no joke of a day. Was it worth it? Too tired to think about that now. Tomorrow…