Last month I spent four days on the north slopes of Mt. Adams stalking mountain goats. Inspired in part by this Portland Hikers trip report, and maybe a bit by this nutty guy, I was hoping to get close enough to the wooly beasts to get some great photos, but they proved too wily for me. I had a ton of fun trying though, and the nearby fire, the sense of solitude, and the awesome sunsets made for an interesting, fantastic trip.
The now 20,000 acre Cascade Creek fire blew up on the southwest side of Adams just a few days before I was due to leave for this trip. Concerned about smoke I nearly cancelled, but then I got to thinking the fire might actually work in my favor if it chased some goats around the mountain to the north side where I’d be looking for them. So Thursday, Sept. 13th, I set out from the Killen Creek trailhead bound for a climber’s bivouac area called High Camp.
As I made my way up the trail a veil of smoke kept the mountain mostly hidden from view, but occasionally I'd get a faint glimpse of her. The afternoon sun was a strange shade of orange-brown, and the smell of wood smoke was quite strong. The air was absolutely silent and still, and it had an odd quality to it I can't really describe. I heard no animal sounds, no insects, no planes, very few birds. Earlier the wind had been about gale force as I drove through the gorge, so I was surprised at how calm it was here. It seemed creepy and strange, as if something just wasn't quite right. I felt a bit uneasy and began to wonder if I should have gone elsewhere.
As I climbed higher on the mountain the smoke slowly began to clear. It was nearly gone by the time I was approaching High Camp at 6900 feet.
There was not a soul to be seen when I arrived at High Camp, and even here in these exposed meadows the air was eerily still. I felt like I was sneaking into a giant candy store after hours.
I found a good camp in the krummholz trees and set up shop. Three backpackers arrived in the meadows just as I was making dinner. They were the only people I’d seen all day. As the evening progressed the wind finally began to pick up. By bedtime it was blowing with some authority.
Sunset at the end of a long day...
At 4am I was awakened by nearby footfalls. I struggled to consciousness for a few seconds, then sat bolt upright in the tent. As I listened to the heavy thuds my mind began to race. Deer? Elk? Perhaps, but up here it was far more likely to be a goat. Then I remembered I'd left my backpack hanging from a low tree limb just outside camp. I started having visions of salt-obsessed goats, half-eaten pack straps, and my iPhone with teeth marks in it. I got up right quick and fetched the pack from the tree. With that sorted I scoured the area with my headlamp, but never found the creature. I lay awake for so long afterwards that I slept in and missed the sunrise.
The wind had died down by morning, and remained in a favorable direction.
A nearby sparrow sent out tweets left and right...
After breakfast I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the surrounding hills for goats. I searched high and low, but found none. I hiked around a good part of the High Camp meadows looking for goat sign, but found little. A bit of dry scat and some old-looking footprints was it. So I put a daypack together and headed up the mountain.
I started up the climber's trail but quickly lost it. It seems more of a suggestion than a trail, with cairns placed few and far between. Being open country I just followed my nose and eventually picked it up again. Then lost it again. Then found it again.
As I made my way up the mountain I noticed an odd-looking mixture of clouds and smoke rising into the sky...
At first I wasn't sure where this fire might be. I thought it might be a new one, as it seemed to be on the east side of the mountain, possibly nearby. The plume quickly grew massive though, which made me think it had to be the Cascade Creek fire, whipped back to life by strong westerlies.
Relieved the fire wasn't close I continued my goat hunt. When I reached the next bench above High Camp I finally began to find some fresh goat sign.
I followed the tracks to a huge snow field, which then led me up to a large, unnamed lake at 7500 feet.
Using my binos I scoured the moraines here for goats but found none. I headed down to the lake to get some water and have lunch. The wind had picked up throughout the morning, but here at the lake it was calm and quiet, the silence only broken by the occasional rockslide high on the mountain.
Icebergs drifted lazily in the late summer sun...
I took my time eating lunch. I don't often eat a PBJ at home, but here in this setting, on this perfect day, it tasted divine. Not sure why that is. One of life's little mysteries. I tried to think of where I might head next in search of goats. Their tracks had led me here, but the lake was surrounded by steep snow fields and rocky moraines. Fine country for goats, but no country for old men. I was disappointed I'd not seen mountain goats yet, and began to wonder if I'd see any on this trip.
A lazy hour passed, but no goats appeared. Finally I decided to go back where I'd first seen fresh tracks to see if they might lead elsewhere. Then just as I was putting on my pack I saw them – two goats, billies I think, that had just crested the moraine on the opposite side of the lake. I put my pack down and got out my binoculars. They'd stopped dead in their tracks, and were staring at me intently. I sat down and watched them a while. I reasoned they might have been headed to the lake to drink, and if I waited long enough they might just continue. Rather than move though, the goats got prone and began to bask leisurely in the afternoon sun. I got out some snacks, slathered on the sunscreen, and pulled out my old, yellowed copy of "The Old Man and the Sea".
Goats have no sense of time I think. Or if they do they don't care about it. An hour went by with no movement from any party. Then the hour became an hour and a half. I finished my book and put it away. The day was fading fast. The walk home would be long. I grew restless. I packed up my things and headed out. The goats had beaten me at my little waiting game.
As I hiked back down the snow field I briefly chatted with the first person I'd seen all day, a climber headed up. He asked me if this area was called High Camp. I told him no, he was at least a mile past it and 600 feet above it. He seemed quite happy to learn this, and quickly turned and hollered the update to his two companions coming up well behind him. The commotion spooked a trio of goats not far below us. I raised my camera and grabbed a couple quick shots as the nanny and kids scampered off the end of the snow field. In no time at all they had disappeared up the adjacent ridge.
From here I took a much different route back to camp, and along the way found an area just above High Camp that had tons of fresh goat sign. It looked to me like a bedding area. This was an interesting find, and I began hatching a plan for the next day's hunt.
Back at camp I enjoyed a fine meal of smoked salmon and cream cheese on tortillas. Yum. Then the fun began. Big, puffy clouds had been building to the west all day, and now as the sun dipped low they had morphed into a thunderstorm. Luckily I could sit back and enjoy nature's fireworks from a distance.
Mt. Rainier got in on the light show too.
The clouds alone were stunning.
The sun slowly set over the Dark Divide and Mt. Margaret country.
I slept like a baby that night.
The next day dawned with a smokey haze. I looked for goats at first light and found one grazing in the upper meadow a quarter mile away. I grabbed my camera and slowly made my way toward the snow-white beast, but it was not to be. He or she was quickly on to me, and moved up the moraine with haste. It reached the top in a matter of minutes, and remained there for most of the morning.
After breakfast I hiked back up to the high bench where I'd seen the nanny and kids the day before.
I figured the nearby bedding area was likely theirs, and they might regularly travel across the snow field where I'd seen them. Sure enough I found plenty of tracks there. It looked like a goat highway. Near their path was a patch of stunted krummholz trees. I hunkered down under one and made myself comfortable. Nothing to do now but wait, and enjoy the amazing view.
An hour passed by, then two. A concerned chipmunk checked in on me from time to time. A noisey Camp Robber stoppped by for a minute. Butterflies passed through. But there were no goats. Like old Santiago from my book, I guess I was just "salao", unlucky. I grew antsy after the third hour and decided to see if I could follow the goat highway farther up the mountain. Their path quickly faded though, the tracks becoming few and far between. I continued up the ridge just the same.
Cirrus clouds tickled the sky as I made my way up the hill.
Before long I'd made it up to the next bench. From here I could see into the next drainage east, and beyond to Red Butte and the Yakama lands.
There was some goat sign up here, but not much. I found a good spot for a break and dug the binos out. I glassed the hillsides for a good long spell, but found no trace of the shaggy ones. This was disappointing as it was my last full day here. Oh well, so much for this trip. Maybe next time I thought. It was getting late. I headed back to camp.
As I ate dinner that evening I felt disappointed that I hadn't gotten the kind of wildlife photos I'd come here for. Later, as I sat in the meadow grass watching the sunset, I took solace in the idea that sometimes the journey is better than the destination. That often in my life the search for something has brought me more joy than the actual finding of it anyway. I may have been "salao" with the mountain goats, but my visit here had been amazing nonetheless.
My last day dawned with with the thickest smoke I'd seen yet. I thought about making a quick trip back up to the goat highway before leaving the area, but decided against it. Instead I broke camp and headed down to the bench below High Camp to check out a collapsed snowfield a half mile or so away.
I remembered something like that from ras_pdx's trip report, but this looked different somehow. And it was indeed strange.
What you can't tell from the photos is the scale of the collapse. It's big! I'd guess about 150 to 200 feet across, and maybe 40 or 50 feet high. I'm pretty sure it didn't happen all at once, but the memory of it will certainly haunt me the next time I find myself on a snow field.
Rather than climb back up to High Camp, I opted to hike down to the PCT cross-country from here, then follow the PCT north to the Killen Creek trail. It was a bit of a gamble, but it worked out. I had to detour around huge, steep snow field at one point, and deal with a couple of scrambly bits, but mostly it was a pretty straight forward walk through open meadows.
Looking back at the snow field I had to detour around...
The meadows that would take me the last half mile to the PCT...
Map of the cross-country route...
A final look back at Old Smokey from the PCT...