“Maybe we should just bail” I muttered under my breath as we pulled off the highway and entered a wall of clouds. It was the last day of 2018 and I was returning to Source Lake, the route we completed a year prior on the first day of 2018. A year ago, clouds had settled in the valley, obscuring all views beyond 100′. I took wrong turn after wrong turn, and ended the trip half a mile past the trailhead after bushwacking my way out. I should have recognized it as the 2018 metaphor it would become.
For much of the year I felt like I was walking through a fog layer, trying to reach a big-picture perspective but unable to see past my immediate bubble. Questions about my future appeared and while I knew I was in a valley of hope, with picturesque peaks above me, all I could see was the debris path at my feet that needed navigating.
When I returned to this trailhead for a new year’s eve snowshoe this week, there was another low fog layer. I was sorely tempted to bail and find a peak that didn’t sit at the base of an inversion layer, to learn from my previous mistakes. But as we geared up, the clouds began to fade, and by the time we reached the lake, there was a stunning view all the way down the valley.
If the foggy valley we maneuvered on the first day of 2018 served as a symbol for the rest of the year, a sunny day with views that go on and on seems like the perfect ending. It took a year to walk out of the fog and feel the sun illuminate the valley, but it was worth the journey.
Source Lake Valley
Source Lake has become a bit of an annual tradition. It was my fourth year visiting this route for New Years Eve. The first year was with Andrea and featured glorious sunshine, the discovery of a surprise waterfall and a lovely picnic. Ever since that first trip it felt like I was desperately attempting to recreate the perfect day. The second year, I failed to find the waterfall. The third year, I found the waterfall but snowshoed in a large fog cloud, unable to see down the valley.
Apparently the fourth time’s the charm because conditions were excellent! Sunny skies, soft, powdery snow, and a great sidetrip to the waterfall. We pulled into the parking lot to meet Kaelee and Andrew, while the fog we drove through was beginning to lift. We strapped on our snowshoes, maneuvered the stream crossing and began the walk up the groomed segment.
Before too long we left the compacted trail and followed a snowshoe path along the creek. We wandered along various routes before reaching the small side trail to the waterfall. I had been watching my GAIA app religiously to make sure we didn’t miss it!
After a small detour we reached the stunning falls. I love the way the red rock seems to glow against the white of the snow. We spent a few minutes admiring the view and then continued on to the lake.
We pushed up and over the waterfall, gaining quite a bit of elevation with some steep switchbacks then rejoined the main trail. Eventually we reached Source Lake, which had not completely frozen for the season yet. While Source Lake is pleasant enough, the real joy comes from the gorgeous valley surrounding it. Craggy peaks covered in snow rose above the valley, bathed in sunshine.
We debated whether to stay put or cross the avalanche zone to get to some sunshine, and ultimately determined we could cross safely. Unfortunately, shortly after we reached the sunshine it dipped behind the peaks again and it was quite chilly. That signaled that it was time to head home, so we packed up, headed down the slope and back on the trail.
Instead of following the steep switchbacks, we opted to follow the long and slow slope to the side. Jury is out on whether it was an easier or more difficult route, but it did provide some variation. Before too long we met with the groomed path, now filled with enthusiastic sledders. We reached the parking lot and headed home, ready to say farewell to 2018 and greet 2019!
Our group did this route on a moderate avalanche risk day, following the winter route. It is in a region with very high avalanche risk. There is one route up the center that avoids the run-out area unless the slide was catastrophically large, but moving slightly off from that route puts you directly in avalanche terrain and often navigating avalanche debris fields. Slides in this area are very common, and can be quite large.
It is also a very popular location for backcountry skiers, snowshoers, and shares a trailhead with a popular summer route. As a result, there are nearly a dozen different boot paths through the snow, some of which are well-established. When I first started snowshoeing, I assumed the more established a path through the snow was, the more likely it was to be safe. Over the past few years I have realized that this concept is rarely true. Well-trafficked does not mean safe in the winter and you never know the training or knowledge of the person who came before you.
All of this to say, don’t look at snowy locations on social media and assume they are safe because someone went there. Avalanche terrain changes dramatically from day to day in Washington, and can change from slope to slope. If you are nervous about it, find routes that don’t have avalanche slopes and stick to those until you learn enough to venture further. The mountains will always be there when you are ready.