March 28, 2012
When you can’t beat winter, better join it and take advantage of the lingering snow! This past weekend I went on one last cross country ski trip to test my newly regained skills on Methow Valley’s Sports Trails near Winthrop and stayed at the rustic Rendezvous Huts. I can’t say that I passed the test with flying colors, but I did enjoy the very decent late season conditions as well as spring’s clear skies and mild temps.
I certainly had my doubts about driving 4+ hours to ski several miles to a hut that was “official closed” for the season. Was there any snow? The man on the phone said locals were still going out and that the conditions were good considering how late it was AND he’d let us stay at the cabins for a fraction of the price. The catch was we wouldn’t be able to get any freight (i.e. food, water, gear) hauled up there for us. Okay, so now I’m not only skiing up to a cabin, I’m doing it with a 20-30 lb pack on. Of course, this was my wilderness partner in crime’s plan, who I can rarely say no to, so I thought, “We’ll see how this goes. It will be an adventure either way.”
Early on Saturday morning we hit the road. While long, the drive was scenic, taking us over snow-covered Steven’s Pass, festive Leavenworth, and a desert-like stretch along the Columbia River. When we finally reached Twisp and then Winthrop I was truly excited, not only because it was clear there would be decent snow, but also just to be away from my everyday life in Seattle, doing something totally different.
After grabbing gas and ski trail permits in the wild west town of Winthrop, we headed to the Cub Creek parking area and ate a quick lunch before packing up. A few seasoned skate skiers were out at their cars, talking excitedly about how great the conditions were. I was already stoked, but now my doubts were completely melting away. I was rearing to get going. So much so that when we got to the first fork I completely ignored all the obvious signs to go left and instead relied on my mental image of the map, which told me to go right.
So we started off our day accidentally doing a semi-backcountry ski on an ungroomed road. After a while, we realized we weren’t on exactly the right path, but thought we were still heading in the right direction since the road followed the same contours as a different trail that also went up to the huts. Who cared anyway? The weather was gorgeous and warm with us in only short sleeves and the views that rewarded us with each climbing curve distracted us and led us on. However, after two hours of steep skiing and still not reaching any forks, we knew we weren’t in the right place.
My friend pulled out her iPhone to discover not only were we not on the right trail, we weren’t even on a trail. We somehow managed to get on a forest service road only faintly marked on the map with a dotted line. We had covered over half the distance to the hut, but on the wrong slope. To get over to the right path we’d have to go truly backcountry skiing down a steep valley, up the other side, and then down again all without any trail or road to guide us.
Wisely, we decided to just head back and start again, knowing we’d cover the distance downhill on skis pretty quickly. I couldn’t help but curse myself all the way down, especially since the steep, winding road had lots of ski and snow mobile ruts that made it difficult for novices like us to maneuver. We had our share of impressive spills. Getting up was all the more hilarious with our heavy packs on. At one point I was trapped on my back like a turtle and had to unclip my chest and waist straps to get up.
Finally we reached the original fork, where the little wooden sign saying “All Huts” with an arrow pointing to the left seemed to mock me a bit, especially since we would have been at the hut by this point if we’d avoided my long detour. From here, though, it was easier skiing — still a climb, but groomed just that morning, better graded, and well marked. We followed steep Cub Creek Trail for about an hour before making it to Cow Creek where we turned left and found a moderate grade tracing the contours of the hills with views looking east over the valley. We continued on for about an hour and a half with only quick breaks for a sip of water or to take in a view.
Finally we reached the turn off to Gardner Hut on the far end of the Cougar Mountain Loop with the sun slowly moving down the horizon. The golden evening light cast beautiful shadows on the snow and I could feel a nice sunset coming on. We only had a short way to go to set down our packs. I was a little nervous, since it was on a black (or most difficult) route, but we cruised up on what I’m guessing is an intentionally mellow path to Gardner Hut, which couldn’t have been a more welcome sight.
If you can sprint on skis, that’s what we did. We were positively giddy (though that could have had something to do with mild dehydration). Inside the hut there was a large breakfast nook with seating for 8, double bunks, a propane stove, and a very efficient wood stove with a pile of dry firewood already stacked up next to it. A large loft held several more sleeping pads and outside the hut there was a rack to store skis in, shelving for coolers and gear, a woodshed, and a large, clean outhouse with TP and hand sanitizer. They really thought of everything, including games, puzzles, coloring books, hot coco, tea, plateware, and all the cooking utensils, pots, and pans you could need. We unpacked our gear, rehydrated, and had a snack while we watched a picture perfect sun set over the mountains to the west.
That night we got a fire going to melt snow, had a huge meal, and some celebratory box wine that I’d lugged up the mountain. We reminisced about the day and our round about journey. Fortunately, my friend is an endless optimist and while she needled me a bit for leading us astray, finally said, “If we just came straight here, it would have felt too short. I mean we came here to ski, right?” That was quite a relief. Most people would not have the same attitude about getting dragged 3 hours out of the way and potentially getting lost if we’d tried to find a shortcut from the road to the trail. That’s one of the reasons I count her as my wilderness partner in crime. That and she’s EMT trained (which really comes in handy with all of the trouble I always seem to run into) and is just an all around fun person to hang with.
The next morning we slept in and took it slow: ate breakfast, napped, read, and did some cabin yoga to stretch our sore muscles from the previous day’s 6-hour adventure. At 1pm we ventured out to explore the trails around our cabin and pay a visit to Rendezvous Hut. It was not as clear, but the clouds were thin so we still had views. I was pretty stiff at first, but eventually warmed up and we horsed around a bit on some of the easier trails. About two hours later it started to drizzle, so we returned to the shelter of our hut.
That afternoon we worked on a puzzle and caught a few wildlife glimpses: a brave little pika, a raven, and an eagle. For the rest of the evening we snacked, prepared dinner, melted snow, read, and had sips of whiskey by a toasty fire. The clouds rolled west just after sunset, revealing a clear sky full of stars. We couldn’t feel luckier. It was going to be hard to leave the next morning and head back to the real world.
On Monday we woke to freshly groomed snow and started making our way back down around 10am. With light packs and a gradual descent, we made good time to the junction of Cow and Cub Creek Trails, passing a few locals along the way. Once there, we decided to take a little extra time to explore Cougar Bait Trail, which is a little longer and less steep than Cub Creek and easier for newbies like us in the slightly icy conditions. We had a mellow, but fun ski all the way down to our car and hit the road a little before noon. To celebrate our awesome weekend we stopped in Leavenworth for a late lunch and a round of Basil Daisy’s at South. While we had a few bumps in the road, it definitely was the adventure I was hoping for — and we even had some time to relax and enjoy the scenery. I can’t wait to get up there again next year!