A gem in the North Cascades National Park…
Stiletto Lake – August 30 – September 1, 2017
Our initial backpack trip together to Libby Lake was such fun we immediately began messaging back and forth about another adventure as soon as possible. I had already committed to joining my dentist, who is also a good buddy, and a friend of his on a trip into the Oval Lakes scheduled for mid-August, and we have scheduled a backpack into Williams Lake in September hoping that the Young Guy will be able to join us. So Pasayten and I were considering what to do between now and then, looking at calendars and weather reports for the latter part of August, and discussing where we’d like to go.
Don’t really remember how Pasayten and I, the Gnome, decided on Stiletto Lake, but I have been wanting to visit it again, this time in a more relaxed manner as a camper, photographer, and angler. My previous visit was as a ridge-hopping climbing-guide, who simply bivouaced there overnight on a traverse from the North Cascades Highway on the north side of the Stiletto Ridge. I and my companion climbed down into the lake basin and overnighted before rushing down to the Twisp Pass trailhead to meet a group of clients At the trailhead, I jumped into the creek and rinsed off, changed into fresh clothes, resupplied from our company van, and headed back into the wilderness for a five-day sojourn with them. That was more than 30 years ago in the early 1980’s.
I had a few photos of the lake I took during that bivouac along with the ones I took from the summit of Stiletto Peak. I knew it to be a primo spot – a gorgeous lake nestled in a spectacular bowl. Pasayten had a number of pics he had posted on the NWHikers website, had hiked in there several times, and was ready to re-visit, too. So we had our destination – scheduling is next – hoping the Young Guy might be able to join us in addition to William Lake trip later this fall.
As mentioned, I had plans to backpack with others during mid-August, so Pasayten made other plans for that time, and we looked to the last of August as the probable time for our Stiletto adventure. As it turned out, a number of extraneous events prevented me, Gnome, from going on the Oval Lakes trip mentioned above while Pasayten meandered up the Pacific Crest Trail from Harts Pass into Canada. That is his tale to tell, but I do remember him mentioning how many folks he encountered that were envious of his UL chair. I also seem to recall him mentioning that someone who opted to camp close to him one night was aghast at the loud crinkling noise that periodically emanated from Pasayten’s tent during the night.
The days did fly by even though I was not at Oval Lakes or even with Pasayten on the PCT. In retrospect, the time spent around home was probably best for me as I was still somewhat incapacitated from my bout with dehydration – takes longer now for my older bod to recover. But soon it was time to prep for our hike into Stiletto Lake. I had new gear to play with on this trip. A new-to-me UL pack, a new UL bug tent I had bought on eBay, and a new UL Silnylon trap that I cobbled together to provide a fly for the new UL bug tent, a new 4-oz. burner for canister fuel, and a new UL chair that was a present from our Wenatchee kids. Note the extensive mention of “UL” – although I have sought always to carry as light a pack as possible, I was entering the UL backpacking corps – all of the above weighed a mere 7.3 pounds! I have mountaineering boots from the 1970’s that weigh almost that much!
The morning of our departure finally arrived! Because Pasayten likes to be on the trail early, I was awake from the wee hours on, checking the clock periodically, and my mental gear list constantly. After a couple of incidents at Libby Lake unworthy of an extremely experienced backpacker, I was hoping to have a incident-less excursion this trip. As soon as it was light enough to see, Pasayten and I were on our way up the Twisp River Road – the Young Guy opted out of this trip for family matters.
The Twisp River Road actually begins at the west end of Second Avenue in Twisp, my hometown since 1982. Second Avenue simply becomes Twisp River Road a few blocks from my house, and then runs about 26 miles west to Road’s End Campground and the ghost town of Gilbert. Along the main road on the north side of the Twisp River and a parallel road on the south side there are ten trailheads – several of which have branch trails that increase the number of adventures available very close to home. The Twisp Pass Trailhead is on a road fork close to the end of the road. From the trailhead it is 4.8 miles to the pass, and another mile-and-a-quarter or so to Stiletto Lake. The trailhead is 3,600′ in elevation. Twisp Pass is at 6,000′, and the lake at 6,800′. as with many alpine lakes there is a quite steep final section up into the lake basin – on this hike it is most of that final 800 feet up from the pass in the last 1/3 mile or so, not spread out nicely and over the last 1.25 miles. It’s a pleasant walk over to just below the lake and then UP.
Things were going well when we stopped for a breather at Lunch Rock, I felt we were ahead of the pace we had managed going into Libby Lake. Hiking faster than one-mile-per-hour does not really meet speedy bragging times, but it felt good to be moving along more quickly. At Lunch Rock, I felt warm so I zipped off the legs of my combo pants. No sooner had I done that than I got a painful chunk removed from my thigh by a huge horsefly! That critter did not survive to feast on that piece of me though. I had hung out on this rock several times though not enroute to Stiletto without being attacked. Last time I stood on Lunch Rock, another backpacking pardner and I were heading south off-trail from this main track, going crosscountry into Twisp Lake at the headwaters of the Twisp River. That is another tale to tell sometime.
Moving on up the trail which in places is in a ditch with loose rocks along the bottom, Pasayten asked if I was OK? I said I was feeling kind of weird. Whatever was going on with me, I made it to the pass where we had a sitdown snack. After some water and my traditional first trail lunch of a PB & raisins half-sandwich, I stretched out in the shade and “listened to my bod.” Though usually insect bites are simply irritating, the spot where that horsefly bit me was kind of throbbing, was actually swollen. I wondered what kind of stuff it had been feeding on before it nailed me. Anyway, I applied some first-aid cream, and held one of my water bottles on the spot to cool it down. I began to feel much better and after about a quarter hour, I was ready to head on over, and up, to the lake. Pasayten was very patient with me though he didmake extra mention of how little it took to affect the progress of the senior hiker.
Stiletto Lake sits in an alpine bowl – a cirque – surrounded to the north and west by the rocky cliffs and buttresses of Stiletto Peak with rolling flats to the south and east. The trail climbs up the last 350 feet or so from the south. It;s a beautiful spot, kind of Sierra-like with rocky domes, some clusters of conifers here and there, and mostly tundra with some gravelly spots and clusters of heather – this is the area just south of the lake where we chose to camp. The cirque is almost completely in North Cascades National Park and therefore a permit is required to camp here, but the park boundary actually wraps around the lake cirque and cuts across the plateau before it drops off to the east. It is possible to camp on the lower eastern-most flat without a permit because it is outside the park and in the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Area. Pasayten likes to be close to the fishing, so we are permitted this trip.
Upon arrival, Pasayten offloads his pack, opens same, removes and sets up his Helinox UL chair. He sits down looking very pleased that we have made it to the lake. I ask if that’s where he will pitch his tent?
”Looks good to me,: he says, “I like my head to be a bit uphill.”
I mention that I need water. Is his pump-filter at hand? Since my high-tech water-purifying UV apparatus had failed on the Libby Lake hike, Pasayten had graciously offered the use of his filter. I offer to pump water for both of us, but he says he will do it.
“Are you sure?“ I ask, adding, “I can do it. I’m feeling pretty good and it’s easier for a Gnome to hunker down by the lake, even an older one, like me.”
In the midst of what seemed to be some grumbling about smart-mouthed geezers, I look for the 3-oz. Platypus water tank I brought along in my new-to-me UL pack which is a sweet $5 deal from the Methow Valley Senior Center Thrift Store. The 2.8-lb Osprey Exos 58L pack – $220 online – is near-new with one small repaired spot on the top flap. Using it for the first time is like learning to drive a new vehicle. Just as having to consciously think where a particular control is a new vehicle, I need to think a moment about where I had the item being sought. Finding it, I unroll it and walk to the lake where I submerge the mouth filling it to about the 6L mark. I return to our campspot where Pasayten has been sitting in his chair while getting his pump and water bottles ready to carry down to the lake. I set the water tank down next to his chair with the mouth open.
“Here,” I said, “you can just pump water from here. You don’t even have to get up and exert yourself trying to get down close to the water”
Which he did, filling his bottles. While he was doing that, I set up my new Tillak UL chair – not as UL as Pasayten’s but plenty UL for me. I pumped my two bottles full sitting in comfort while once again thinking about how many gallons of untreated water I have swallowed over the decades. I was also thinking about how clear and clean the water in Stiletto Lake appears and the fact that I had more than likely already swallowed several untreated quarts thirty years ago on that flash trip. Anyway, I drank most of one liter bottle and refilled it via Pasayten’s filter-pump.
Rehydrated, and now with enough filtered drinking water for the rest of the day, I begin the process of selecting my actual tent site. First thing noted by me is that there is a pretty constant breeze – I am hoping to sleep in my new bug tent open to the sky, therefore I’d like to have a bit of shelter from what I perceive to be the prevailing wind direction. Experience is a great teacher – if one notes and remembers its lessons – I have been chilly even cocooned in a great sleeping bag by constant air flow over me.
Site selection for me requires pulling out my 3/4-length Thermarest pad and sampling the possible spots while honoring the area Pasayten seems to have claimed. He is already sitting in his UL chair. To be fair, he is not just sitting. He is emptying his pack, setting up his tent, inflating his crinkly air mattress, and unstuffing his sleeping bag. I am amazed that he can accomplish so much while sitting, but notice later that he has to actually get up to install the fly on his tent.
Meanwhile, my search for the perfect tent location continues. I like a level, pretty flat spot where my feet can be just ever-so-slightly downhill. I don’t mind a bit of rolling ground underneath me if it is similar to a reclining chair in which I have been caught napping. My perfect tent location will have: Protection from possible storms — important, but that has to be balanced against the view from the sack, ease of entry and exit from the shelter, how early the sun will shine on the spot on cooler hikes or how long will the spot be shaded if high temps are expected, and enough flat close by to cook and eat comfortably. These considerations come into play after, of course, selection of the general camping spot based on access to water, fishing, climbing route, privacy or room for companions, and basic safety and comfort protocols. Safety issues can include proximity to possible rockfall or snowslide, presence of widowmakers and general overhead items, exposure to storms, and other possible injurious and/or life-threatening objective items. Comfort, of course, involves sleeping spot, living area, climatic concerns, and a few other items such as these. Ambiance is very subjective – a beautiful “room with a view” can be dangerous if too close to a dropoff, especially if the shelter exit is downhill and will be needed while half-awake in the wee hours. Did I mention safety?
There is a sweet flat, grassy spot a bit closer to the lake that seems protected from most of the breeze as I recline there on my pad, Shutting my eyes helps me experince the spot, and visualize exactly how I might pitch my new bug tent here. A forceful gust of wind interrupts my thoughts and my snoring just in time for me to be able to grab the baggie from a snack before it gets blown into the lake! Hmm, maybe it would be batter to be a bit further away from the lake and closer to the low hummocks to the south – they should provide some relief from what has become a constant breeze from the south-southwest with intermittent gusts. Not really that pushy of a breeze, but the gusts do have enough force to flip UL chairs over when left unattended – I note this after Pasayten vacates his chair for a moment – my chair is also upside-down.
OK, I need a spot further from the lake and hopefully more sheltered than even Pasayten’s chosen spot. Final selection is close to the base of a hillock with a cluster of low dome-like rocky slabs and some patches of heather. I’m hoping that as the prevailing wind comes in from the SSW it will basically flow over the top of my site. I momentarily consider just laying out the silnylon tarp I made as a groundcloth and not bothering with the new bug tent because, at least so far, we haven’t been bothered by any – bugs, that is. But I do like tents and this one is new, purchased especially to use when a full-bodied tent is not needed – or thought not to be needed – but protection from flies and moskies is, uh, needed. So I pitch the new tent using 7-oz. of vintage Gerry Alu pole sections I opted to carry instead of using my trekking poles. I chose to carry the extra weight of tent poles since my trekking poles will be needed if we go dayhiking to the remains of the old lookout up on the peak as discussed during planning. I realized after setup that I could just remove the trek poles, collapsing my shelter while out hiking and save carrying the weight. Next time I will do this. Maybe.
The new 1.75 lb. A-frame bug shelter is sweet, has a waterproof bathtub floor and a full mesh canopy with two zippered doors, one on the side that opens one whole side like a Baker-style tent and one in the end triangle for egress if sides are covered by a rainfly or tarp. However, even pegged down and ridgelined with a taut cord the no-see-um-mesh billows quite a bit in the wind that seems to be gathering strength. No wait, it’s abating – No, it’s building up again. OK, we got wind to deal with.
I set up my camp and decide to take a short nap. The sun is warm so I just lie on top of my Thermarest pad, pushing my sleeping bag down below my feet. After a few moments, I retrieve and spread the sleeping bag along the windward side inside my mesh tent to create a windscreen. This does not quite do the job, nor does laying my backpack along the outside of the tent, so I decide to pitch the silnylon tarp over my new bug tent. I figure I can double the leeward side back over the top so I don’t lose the sunshine or the view.
The wind is now strong enough to really billow the rainfly even though it is guyed out as tightly as I dare and doubled back on itself it is even worse, so I just set up my shelter for the duration – my a-frame bug tent under the tarp, staked and guyed out as tightly as I can. And I retire from wrestling with tent configurations to nap in the sun, back turned into the wind in my new UL chair.
While I was working at resolving the shelter situation, Pasayten sat quietly in the sun next to his REI Quarter Dome Plus tent. I am amazed and grateful that he did not offer a single bit of advice. I am, hpwever, just slightly disgruntled at his chuckles and snorts as I worked, and his repetitive picture taking of my progress.
After a snack and quick nap restore my spirit. It is now time to go fishing! Fishing in this beautiful lake is great! The catching is fine, too, with nearly every cast bringing some action. Weary from tent-wrestling, I had just snapped on the black Bangtail I had, emulating Pasayten. We both caught nice Cutthroat trout. No tackle-busters or especially large, but each released fish is a beautifully-colored amazing creation. Sometimes, for me at least, the catching come too easy and I get bored just tossing a spinner and reeling it back in with a fish almost every cast. The wind does add some challenge to casting – though it mostly blows in from the southwest behind me, it seems to swirl around the cirque after encountering the steep rocky walls across the lake – but it doesn’t seem to matter where or how far I cast the lure.
Thinking that fly selection and manipulation might add some interest for me, I retire to my chair and consider rerigging with a bubble and fly combo. While thinking about it, I settle back in my new chair to enjoy the view from the protected lakeside nook I found. When I woke up, I decided to do some exploring around the plateau rather than rerigging and fishing more.
There are a numer of really excellent camping sites arouns about the plateau. The flat just outside the park boundary is neat. Though not close to water or in sight of Stiletto Lake, the view towards the North Fork of the Twisp River, Copper Pass and Twisp Pass is worth the short walk to the lake. I note this little basin seems more protected from the wind as well as it feels vaguely familiar. I had one of those “deja vu all over again” feelings as I walked around the little bowl and realized that this is where we bivvied years ago when we climbed down off the peak above.
Back at camp, I wake Pasayten from one of his numerous naps as I arrange my kitchen and begin to think about dinner. But first, let’s enjoy a bit of high-country weather. Our bright sunny day has been usurped by low clouds blowing into the cirque. Lying in my shelter, I am looking out through a veil of misty rain at the rocky cliff face across the lake. I lay back and wonder if I will be making dinner in the rain. However, the squall is short-lived, and as the sun sets, the cloud lifts and the peaks take on that alpenglow that makes my heart sing. Soon the evening shadows engulf the cirque as the sun drops behind the western horizon of ridges and peaks. Pasayten and I enjoy our meals in the evening light, cha about the day’s events and laugh a bit. Soon it’s time to sack out and dream about a possible climb to the ridge above and visit the remains of the old lookout tomorrow
After breakfast in the morning, catching and releasing a few Cutts, and taking care of morning ablutions, I decide it is time to reconfigure my shelter for our second night here. It did function pretty well when a rain squall blew through. My gear and I stayed dry even though both ends of the a-frame shelter are open. The eaves of the tarp extend far enough beyond the bug tent to keep the rain from blowing in though the wind is swirling around the cirque. My setup sheltered me pretty well during that squall, but a night of flapping tarp, snapping in the breeze like a slack sail was not restful.
I packed up the bug tent as there are no insects to worry about and began to explore possible shelters I can make with the tarp I made. Several configurations later, I believe I have a doable setup. This is number five according to Pasayten. I wasn’t keeping score so I will take his word on it. Anyway, I created a wedge-shaped shelter with the point into the wind. The two alu poles are set as an A-frame at the entry with one guyline out to tension the rig from where the low end is staked down. The excess tarp is fold underneath my sleeping pad and bag. Inside the wedge it is cozy as the wind blows over the top. It worked good until the wee hours – actually 2 AM – when the wind took a 180-degree shift, blew into the open end of my wedge shelter and blew a corner grommet out of my tarp. The flapping shelter corner slapped me in the face a couple of time before i grabbed it, located the stake where the corner had been pinned, and just stabbed it through a couple of layer of nylon into the ground. It held. I rolled over and tried to sleep between the moments when my wedge seemed like it wanted to be a hang-glider. I did catch a few zz’s after the wind died down toward morning. I think this is teh last closed wedge I will pitch. I also think I like my 1-lb coated nylon tarp better than this UL silnylon item.
September 1 – Labor Day weekend – time to head on out of here. Being retired, and with pretty flexible bligations, we are blessed to be able to pack in when most folks are packing out and reverse the process to avoid any crowds. After breakfast, both Pasayten and I finish our packing. After taking a quick walkabout to make sure we have left naught but footprints and a patch of flattened, but recovering grass, we point ourselves down the trail. And it as steep going down as it was coming up. I am estimating the slope of that first section below the lake basin at about 75 degrees – if I were older, it would be steeper.
Down off the steep and headed over to Twisp Pass, we are confronted with Andy & Jennifer, my son and his wife. They decided to run up with their dog, Neko, to check on the old timers and had hoped to surprise us at the lake. We shared some hugs, a quick story or two, and they went on to check out the lake after taking a group selfie. They were to catch up and pass us less than halfway down to the trailhead after spending some time enjoying just how gorgeous Stiletto Lake and it’s location is which should give readers a clue as to the speed Old Guys hike. I told them that downhill trails are harder and therefore Old Guys rightfully take more time and care negotiating them as they flashed by us.
We did catch them for a few moments at the bridge crossing the Twisp River North Fork as they cooled off, rehydrated, and replenished their water supply. We followed their example before continuing on down the trail behind them – way behind them — to the trailhead and the truck.