Three o' clock came quick under a perfect starry morning. We donned headlamps and started up the Baker River trail for a half mile, crossed the swinging bridge to join the Baker Lake trail and proceeded another maybe 75 yards to right before the Blum Creek footbridge, turned left off the trail and half trail detective/half B3 grade brush bashed our way along the flat until reaching the beginning of the ridge where a nice boottrack was stumbled upon and followed to a rocky knoll at roughly 3,000'. The ascent through that first mile of trail was pretty nice in the cool morning with headlamps. We reached the rocky knoll just as Mount Baker was seeing first light and stopped to eat and take some photos. Beyond 3,000' the trail started to disappear and we decided to travel up the center of the ridge to the 4,900' mark and make an east traverse through thinning woods (B1-2), after a few talus bands we got clear sight of the middle lake, hiked down and crossed the outlet before settling for a snack at 8:30am.
From the middle lake we hiked counter clockwise to meet a gully that gave fine access over talus & scree to the upper lake cirque. About 2/3rds from the top we spooked a pretty large Mountain Goat who gave Gimplilator his second "North Cascades Goat Sighting". Upon reaching the upper lake the normal route started to come into view, a traverse counter clockwise around the lake to reach a steep snow gully leading to a snow bowl below the south ridge. Usually preferring steep rock to steep snow , I suggested we ascend the polished slabs to the north of the lake and traverse east to meet the snow bowl above the gully, this proved to be an excellent choice and as we reached a rocky outcrop above the gully we stopped for lunch part 1 and made plans for gaining the final ridge. It was to our understanding the usual route was to come up the center of the bowl, ascend over some scree and then follow a class 3 ridge to a broader final summit ridge, but while eyeballing, it seemed the ridge above the bowl was knife edged and the ridge scramble from that point was more than a class 3 ordeal, Gimpilator scanned for alternates just west of the ridge while I ate some more trail mix and wondered whether to descend 100' into the base of the bowl or scramble above a couple cliff bands to meet the saddle above the snow bowl.
Deciding to try for what we understood as the 'normal' route, we descended into the snow bowl, kicked steps up to the top and scrambled up onto what turned out to be a knife edge ridge. A beautiful rock spire towered just to our south and the steep east face was definately interesting, the ridge above provided sound rock but after ascending 15' we ended up scaling class 4 rock on the east face about 80' above the glacier for another 30', we weren't on track. A quick decision was agreed upon to traverse leftward through cliff bands in search of another route, and after about 2 hours of prodding through uncertain chimneys and funny ledge systems we discovered a quick, kinda loose but direct route onto the final broader summit ridge.
"How's it goin' y'all?" I ask. Turned out to be two guys from Bellingham with the same idea as us, only with a later start and some route finding issues, after discussing what lie ahead if pushing for the summit they break for food while I found a nice spot to wait for Gimpilator to reach me and harrass these gentlemen about their knowledge of the existence of Grizzlies in the North Cascades. Deciding a summit push wouldn't be feasible without a few hours of bushwacking in the dark, the two decide to descend but not before informing us they found our stashed water filter, re-stashed it and now had to climb over a ridge above the lowest lake (I said they had routefinding issues) to grab it and meet us at the middle lake to give it back. Not really a big deal, they were nice enough to mention they found a stashed filter and return it, a miniscule bummer returning to the lakes waterless and waiting for them, nice guys though.
Anyways, the two started their descent while we pumped water and soaked in a few last views and photos before opting to change our route by maintaining 5,000' on a traverse out of the lakes and onto the crest of the wooded brushy ridge. Again, no trail to follow, we pushed through B2 brush before reaching the talus bands (crossing maybe 700' lower than on the way in) and re-entering the woods. Once onto the broad and steep ridge we started a zig-zag descent in hopes of finding traces of the trail to no avail, the brush slowly got worse as the gradient steepened further before becoming an honest B4 bushwack to the 3,000' rocky knoll. From here the trail was easily followed through the evening light with orangish skies on the horizon, the bugs during the bushwack, the worst I've seen this year, had died back by the time we found the trail and after a casual descent we reached the bottom of the ridge in almost total darkness, deciding not to use headlamps we found ourselves in some B5 brush for what seemed like 300 yards. I have read about old pioneers fighting through the dense undergrowth of the pre-settled/logged valley floors and this felt right on par with their experiences, sometimes climbing over 10' of old blowdown only to stumble into the direct center of an enormous Devils Club patch, I started to remember Fred Beckey's account of a trip to the Pickets in the early 1940's and his return through the trackless Goodell Creek valley, "The brush challenged us to a duel which we accepted with Bulldozer force". Ya, thats what we were doing alright and in the now total darkness, me and Gimpilator had split up to forge our own thrash path in a fight to meet up with the Baker Lake trail, what would feel like the Interstate after this last section. Finally we emerged out of the woods, thouroughly cut from head to toe and a Bald Face Hornet sting to level out the Devils Club barbs. Nine o' clock and we were dropping our gear into the bed of my pickup feeling pretty clever about the days travels, I am certain we could have completed this journey much quicker but in an area so beautiful it's hard to rush oneself.
Also it was pretty steep.