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Pasayten 2000

Iron Gate Trailhead to Horseshoe Basin

Sunday, September 3   We awoke to grey skies, and you could tell that it was dark in the mountains. Omak itself is in high desert along the Okanogan River, and while the surrounding countryside isn't outstanding by any stretch, judging from the big aerial photo in the breakfast room of the motel, it is close to some good stuff. We drove up along the Okanogan, leaving the motel about 8 am. It took us about 95 minutes to go the 65 miles to the end of the road, west of the Long Swamp Campground, where we would drop the shuttle vehicle. By end of the road, I mean just that: while the forest service map shows the road turning south and going a few more miles, in fact, it is gated right at the trailhead, and clearly the remaining stretch of road has not been used in a very long time. We doubled back to the road up to Iron Gate, and started up it. The new North Cascades hiking guide refers to the road as atrocious. That's probably an understatement. It is probably at the very edge of what a low clearance vehicle can do, as it is the worse backcountry road I have been on. The drive from the Chewack trailhead to Iron Gate took us 50 minutes, which means it takes 35 minutes to go up the 7 mile Iron Gate Road. Pay attention, and you shouldn't tear up the underside of your car too badly.

Arriving at the trailhead, we all spread out to do our last minute gear adjustment. No matter how organized you put your pack together at the motel, there is always a bit more to do before you hoist. Taking a leak is usually number one on my list. While it was quite cool, I decided to hike in my wind shirt and shorts. We started at 10:39 am, and by 10:41 - no joke - we had stopped to put on our rain gear, because the mist started. I was thinking: this could be a VERY long trip. My pack did not feel onerous - just really heavy - probably because Susie and I had really trimmed our food weight. For 7 days, we were just a hair under 21 lbs, which is right at our long sought goal of 1.5 lbs per person per day. I had my light weight sleeping bag with me, but fleece pants and one of our larger tents more than made up for the diminished food weight. Since the mist was light, I opted to keep my shorts on for a while, as the trail, which is in really good shape despite all the comments in the hiking guides about the huge number of horses, started to climb after it dropped a couple hundred feet. I wanted to avoid overheating, which is tough when you have GoreTex on. It wasn't very long until the rain changed to snow. Enough to whiten things up pretty quickly. Susie and I stopped under a big tree for lunch around 11:45, and attracted George and Ray, who used the dry spot to change into more clothing. Lunch was quick, as I could not find my PolarTek hat, apparently buried in the depths of the pack when I was packing in Knoxville. I got cold really quickly.

The grade of the trail is pretty gentle, so while you know you are going up, it doesn't overwhelm the hiker with a full pack. We made pretty good time, and as we broke out into the meadows below Sunny Pass, the snow changed to plain old fog. Occasionally, the fog would disperse for a bit, and you could see that it was a really spectacular place. By this time, all of the crew was ahead of us. While they do hike a bit faster, I think why we are always in the rear is that we will stop for rest breaks, and to take photos, whereas the others seem to be able to go on forever. The trail from Sunny Pass to Horseshoe Pass is pretty flat, and since I was paying more attention to what little scenery I could see than where I was going, I was a bit disoriented when we saw our friends in a grove of trees, announcing we had made it to Horseshoe Basin. Since it was only 2:30 pm, and George indicated that a guy he had talked to said Louden Lake was dry (which I had been unnecessarily fearful of. Sure it was dry, but there were streams every few hundred meters or so), but that there was better camping beyond Louden Lake, we decided to keep on rolling. We got to a really nice campsite below the trail, just on the north side of Rock Mountain (Zone 11U 283919 Easting, 5430137 Northing), about 3:15 pm. It was great to get to camp at a decent hour. So many times on the first day, we get to camp around 6 or 7 pm, which results in my feeling "cheated" out of my campsite stay. The weather seemed to be a bit improved. Still clouds and fog, but holes in both, just the ticket for a nice refreshing bath by the side of the creek running just to the east of our camp. I headed down to where I thought was a great spot for a bath, only to find that Diane and Tim had decided to camp on the flat spot. Opting not to regale them with my nudity, I headed a bit further down the hill.

The creek being fed by a spring just uphill made for a very refreshing experience. In the process of throwing my wash and rinse water back in the woods, wearing loose boots, I stumbled around and nearly fell in the creek twice. That would have been more refreshment than I wanted. Feeling like a new man, I got back to camp, with everyone looking at me like I was a candidate for the nut house. Perhaps, but being clean makes a long trip pleasant, as opposed to just tolerable. It seemed like the temperature was falling - it had dropped to 37 degrees - , so on went more clothes, and although it was much earlier (4:45 pm) than our usual official dinner time, making dinner and drinking hot soup seemed in order. A&S and T&D opted to start cooking dinner out in the open at a nice fire ring. The rest of us tucked ourselves underneath a clump of fir trees, hoping that all this protection would appease the precipitation gods. It didn't. Right in the middle of dinner (which for us, consisted of burritos with black bean humus and dried salsa), it started snowing hard. We hurriedly erected one of the two tarps that we had decided to carry, to afford the others some protection, but a hurriedly erected tarp is sometimes worse than nothing. The tarp collected lots of snow, which had to be knocked off periodically. The snow quit after an hour, and we could see patches of blue above us, even if we were encased in fog. I walked back up to near Louden Lake and took a couple of digital photos, and got a glimpse of the high rounded mountains surrounding Horseshoe Pass. I seconded Susie's motion to come back here in good weather to drink it all in. We were in the tents before 8 pm. It had been a cold, full day, and we were still adjusting to the time zone differences.

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Roger A. Jenkins, 2000