Kyes Peak, Washington
August 20th, 2004
Though this wasn't the highest nor the longest hike I've done, it was certainly one of the hardest. This was most likely due to my over-estimated sense of what kind of physical condition I was in... along with an under-estimation of how far the peak actually was from the trailhead.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't go in blind and unprepared. I had read quite a few hike reports by others and had studied the topo maps on the net, however, it's one thing to read about it and another to do it.
Alice and I woke up early in our hotel room in Everett and headed out onto the highway before daybreak. After some searching for the right turn offs and then making a NASA-esque miscalculation of distances... (using the metric odometer of my Canadian car rental thinking it was in miles!!) we finally found the parking area at the trail head.
It was about 7:30am by the time we hit the trail. Perfect weather. Sunny and clear. I figured, in my naiveté, that I'd have plenty of time to make it the peak and back, because, you know, all those other trip reports claimed 8 or 9 hours round trip! Well, as I said, reading and doing are two very different things!
Feeling great, we hiked for about 2 or 3 hours, slowly making our way up the endless switchbacks and gradual slopes. At one of the first of many pauses, Alice had suddenly become discouraged. The view both up and down looked exactly the same... just endless evergreens! No sign of the top in sight. It wasn't long before her spirit was back up and we continued on.
After some time we finally came to a break in the tree line and there, in the far distance, calling out to us was our destiny... Kyes Peak! The sight of it invigorated me... and at the same time the distance still to travel was intimidating. I was pretty much sweating every drop of moisture out of me (oh, did I mention I was fighting off a flu as well?) just at that point alone! But the view of that rocky peak drew me towards it. It's no wonder why this website is called "Peak Fever". That's the experience I had staring at that little speck of grey still miles away.
So once again we continued on until we reached that ever so important junction of any attempt at Kyes... we reached Virgin Lake! Oh blessed, mucky, rancid, Virgin Lake! How sweet it was to finally reach you. As the other reports had mentioned we had to cross to the other side to try and find the "hikers path", which wasn't too difficult.
At that point we decided to stow one of our backpacks and continue on up. There was a beautiful meadow we had to cross and unlike the hike up to Virgin Lake, there were a lot of special and spectacular views beginning to appear along the way.
I don't have the greatest memory for details, so it's hard to remember exactly how this trail unfolded, but for the most part it seemed to follow the east side of the ridgeline as it worked its way up. There was one scramble up a steeper section of bushes and trees where the trail disappeared, but we just kept heading up and eventually found it again. But let me make something clear about this "hikers trail"... as it became abundantly clear on the way back down... this is a trail that fades out quite often and isn't always easy to find. Anyway we came to a nice location high up on the ridge and decided to finally eat some lunch... it was probably about 6 hours in at that point. We were both quite dehydrated and quickly realized that our ration of water wasn't going to last us too much longer... but the mountain calls, doesn't it?
Continuing on and slowly beginning to feel the affects of our growing exhaustion, we finally came to a fork in the path high on the ridgeline overlooking beautiful Blanca Lake far below. I stood there for a moment without a clue of which way to go... do I follow the ridgeline on the east or the west side? I couldn't remember anyone ever mentioning this fork in the path. Looking to the left it appeared to head downwards across a steep dirt slope and towards some thick bushes... we tested this route and quickly discovered that the path soon disappeared completely and the going was hard on the ankles. To top it off the thick bushes obscured the view ahead leaving us to make a decision which we had no idea if it was the right one. Tired, Alice lost her motivation to continue on. I convinced her that we needed to turn back and see where the other fork in the path lead to, that we'd obviously taken a wrong turn.
So that is what we did. Ever the optimist, I found the fork in the path and we headed out along this easier, eastern, level route. In the not so far off distance, Kyes peak taunted me with all its majesty. The easy level ground took a sudden climb upwards towards the top of the ridgeline. It was at this point that I realized how damn tired I was. I just kept telling myself to make it to the top of this ridge and see what was there.... hoping to God that by some miracle there would be a nice clear path to the base of the peak.
No my friends. Not by a long shot. Instead, the trail ended at the top of this ridge... and so did all hope that I would ever reach Kyes! I came to find myself at a cliff edge on all sides. Far below was a steep valley, impossible to reach from that vantage point. Across the valley was another steep mountain side like the one I was standing on... and beyond that Kyes peak.
To say I was disappointed is truthful, however I knew what my limits were and I was already close to exceeding them in my mad rush for the top. I knew there was no way I could take the time to search for the hidden trail back on the west side of the ridge, work my way up the other side of the valley and finally climb the exposed peak without putting myself in serious danger due to lack of strength... and even if I did make it, coming back down would have been impossible. I was already spent and there was probably another 2 miles of difficult climbing to go. I may be naive, but I ain't no fool.
Instead Alice and I rested and enjoyed the unbelievable views surrounding us.
I wish I could say the return to the parking area was simple, but in fact, it was difficult in many ways. First off, we lost the hikers trail along the ridgeline and became quite disoriented. It's amazing how different everything looks coming back... all the markers you thought you'd recognize look different viewed from another direction. It took some time and a bit of effort not to panic, but we eventually did find the trail again after some bushwhacking! Eventually we got back to our stashed backpack and took some long needed gulps of water.
Reaching Virgin Lake was a relief. It was probably about 4 or 5 pm at this point and it was the first time we saw another human being. A man was heading up to do some camping at Blanca Lake. From here we figured it would just be a nice, easy hike the rest of the way down. Yes, the trail was clear and easy to follow... only problem was the fact that we were dead tired and our knees were ready to give out on us.
Really, the worst part of the hike was this final leg down the mountain. If I've ever had a sense of eternity in my life, this was probably it. It was an endless descent into hell. Yeah, I'm being a bit dramatic, but as the hours and miles clicked on and the cramps in my legs begged me to stop, I could have sworn that it was taking longer to go down than it was to go up.
It was almost 12 hours from when we began that the slope finally leveled out and headed towards the parking area. The sight of the rental car and the thought of finally having a chance to sit down was a relief I can't describe. It was the end of a hike I had been planning and looking forward to for months. It wasn't what I had expected, but it was still an incredible experience I will never forget. Never in our lives had we ever pushed ourselves that far. We had reached our physical limit for the kind of condition we had been in at that time. We would know better the next time.
Kyes... you may have defeated me this time, but one day I will return. We shall see who has the last word.
Distance: 12 miles roundtrip (approximation following east ridgeline)
Time: 12 hour trip
Elevation Gain: 3450 feet
Trailhead Elevation: 1900 feet
Maximum Elevation: 5350 feet (approximation of ridgeline)
Kyes Peak elevation: 7227 feet
GPS Coordinates for Kyes Peak: 47° 57' 53"N, 121° 20' 04"W (WGS84/NAD83) Topozone map.
Washington Trails Association information on Blanca Lake (driving directions, trail conditions, stats, etc.).