Cirque of the Towers

The day began with a scrumptious breakfast: breakfast burritos, an egg, potato and sausage bake, French toast, sausage links, fruit salad, juice and coffee. What a delicious spread to start off the hike. I had to refrain myself so as not to start the hike too full.  We met the other couple, Rodney and Julie Moore from Georgia, and had a nice social time with them and Shroomer and Katie. Rodney and Julie were horse-packing into a lake for a fishing vacation; the lodge also provides horse packing trips! Natasha gave us all our bag lunches and we got ourselves packed up and said our goodbyes. Hope to see Shroomer and Katie at ALDHA WEST in Colorado come September.

Yeti and I drove over to the campground and trail head for Big Sandy Lake. Holy moly – we were not expecting the crowds. We just barely found a space to park the car. But we did and soon headed off.  The trail to Big Sandy Lake is fairly moderate with a 600 foot elevation gain over the six miles to our trail junction. It’s a very pretty trail with terrific scenery. First it starts in a woodsy stretch ambling along a fast moving creek. Gradually, the dramatic peaks of the Winds begin to show through the trees; these mountains are very distinct with jagged tops and unusually eerie shapes. Many people were coming out and most had fishing poles. Fishing and climbing seemed to be the dominant activity for folks here.

We took it steadily and Yeti seemed to be doing well. I was a bit anxious that he make it through the hike after our unsuccessful trip to Clark Fork. But, all seemed to be going well – the real test would be the climb when we changed to the trail to Jackass Pass leading to the Cirque.

The CDT route uses the Big Sandy Lake Trail and we soon came to the junction where the CDT peels off. There is also a connector trail to Big Sandy Lodge.  Soon, we came to open mountain meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Both Yeti and I are on a kick to get to know the flowers. It seems that I can only remember one or two new names each time and I have to look them up repeatedly before it sinks in!

Several CDT thru-hikers passed us; it was fun to bump into them. We had a nice snack break and got to the main part of the lake. Many people were camped along the lake; it’s a popular spot.  Around noon or so, we got to the trail to Jackass Pass and started the big climb. Twenty or so switchbacks take you way up over the lake – great views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Soon the jagged peaks of the Cirque become visible. Yeti and I took it slowly to ensure that he’d not tax his heart and lungs too much. We really wanted to finish this hike.

Lots of people were coming down from the pass, too. Most were day hikers who were base-camped at the lake; though it would be possible to get to the pass from the campground parking lot in a day for a strong hiker. After the switchbacks, you come to a flattish meadow – again filled with wildflowers. Then the trail descends to a stream, where we had lunch. After the stream crossing, you must climb and negotiate a boulder area following cairns to find your way among the huge house-size rocks. Next comes North Lake – you descend to the lake walking around its eastern edge to climb again to Arrowhead Lake.

The trail stays high above Arrowhead and you can’t even see it until you get to its northern shore. A long snow field connects the upper parts of the trail. When the snow isn’t there, you would continue to descend on the actual trail (mostly snow covered now) and then ascend the other side up to the pass. We started over the snow field first without micro-spikes, which was doable without traction. But part way over by a big rock, we stopped and put them on. It did make me feel more comfortable and secure. I went very slowly over the snow.  Once over the snow, it was a short climb up to the pass, which is signed. We whooped and cheered: we made it! Can’t take it for granted anymore. Yeti’s determination and our careful progress got him through.

At this point, we had already decided to camp as high as possible. On the other side of the pass, you would descend into the Cirque to Lonesome Lake. You cannot camp within a quarter of a mile of the lake shore, so we thought we’d go part way down and then find a flat spot. As it turned out, we found many spots right by the pass so we decided to camp there. We even found a spring-fed pool of water – what a great spot. Jackass Pass is at 10,800 feet. The Cirque looms up before you. What a panorama! It’s hard to describe how stunning this area is – a truly sacred place.

We dropped our packs and went a little further down the trail to take in the full view of the Cirque. A cirque is basically a “circle” of mountain peaks with a big basin or bowl beneath. A tent was set up further down trail off to the side on a prominent place – what a view they’d get! We found Texas Pass on the other side of the Cirque – still quite a bit of snow over there. Originally, we were going to go over Texas Pass and loop back to the parking lot via the Shadow Lake Trail. That entailed a cross country trek over the Pass (no trail) and bushwhack over to the other trail on the north side of the Cirque. But, we had changed our plan and decided it was best to hike out the way we came in. It would have been a difficult slog for Yeti with his current health issues.

Once we set tents up, we were hungry and cooked dinner. People kept passing, most were climbers, however, a CDT section hiker named Claire came by and we chatted. She had originally planned to go over Texas Pass but was warned by some folks she’d talked to that the pass would be covered with tons of snow…..a bit exaggerated. There was snow but the pass was doable. Anyway, she had set up her camp at Big Sandy Lake and walked up with a day pack. I think she regretted not coming up in spite of the warning once she saw she could have gotten across. Oh well.

Later, two more thru-hikers came by our camp (visible from the trail – no trees). They were still trying to get over Texas Pass that evening. The woman was named Fainting Goat! That’s an original trail name.

Hope they made it okay. It was already 7pm and though they were probably in typical thru-hiker condition, it seemed a bit tight. At one point, I could see them down by the lake, but was not able to follow them up the pass. Binoculars would have been nice. Not sure it they went for it that night or camped and continued in the morning.

Yeti and I read our e-books for a while and turned in. I think I got about two hours of sleep when rain pitter-pattering on the tent woke we up. Yeti said he’d seen lightning in the distance, but I couldn’t see any and did not hear thunder so I wasn’t too worried. We were totally out in the open and a big thunderstorm would have been very scary. The rain didn’t last more than a few minutes, just enough to wet the tents! From then on, however, I could not get back to sleep. It seemed that I was tossing and turning all night. And, I had a headache, which was most likely because we were at almost 11,000 feet. Anyway, I rested though I did not sleep deeply.