No. Gardner peak ranks as the 20th highest in the State of Washington but it is relatively unknown to but a few. Only those who chase those mountains that are among the 100 highest or those who are trying to get all of the Washingtons County highpoints, are apt to know of this mountains existance. But Dennis (fellow SP'er) and I knew where it was so we headed north from our homes in order to see this mountain close up and personal.
West of Winthrop, the TH starts at 2900 feet but heads almost immediately downhill, losing a couple hundred feet before it starts going uphill. However, the first few miles contains several other downhill stretches which I truly hate because it means you have to regain the elevation lost twice. Once on the way in, and again on the way out. It is the kind of trail you'd like to forget as it plods endlessly for 11 miles on its journey to Gardner Meadows, located at 5650. On a hot day, these miles can be brutal so it is best to tackle them in the early morning or evening when it is cooler. Fortunately, the trail does come to water on a couple occasions and gives you a chance to tank up or to soak your feet or your hat, you decide.
With the temperature climbing steadily, and my speed declining in direct proportion to it, we made it into Gardner Meadows after 5 plus hours from the TH. Why 5 plus? Well, we left at 7a.m. and it was after 12 but I didn't look at my watch when we reached the end of the trail at G.M. So I have to guess at the time and if I'm guessing, I'll err in my favor to make it
sound more like I can still hoof it up the trail with the best of them younger folk. Seriously though, we were in the range of 5 1/2 to 6 hours and thats a good time on a hot day when you are toting a pack full of high priced and fancy gear. GI Joe tent, G.I. Joe sleeping bag, G.I. Joe pack, G.I. Joe food and even G.I. Joe TP(very rough indeed). Nothing but the best unless you get your high quality gear at Wal-Mart.
After setting up camp (we found two campsites there close to running water), we had some lunch and a little nap, since we had arrived at the TH in the wee hours of the morning. There was just room for one tent which worked out fine since that's all we had. My two man Stephenson tent that I bought in 1970 and it is still in fine shape. Downed timber is all over the place as a big fire went through this area at least a decade ago and so we tried to find a spot with no widowmakers that would nail us in the night.
We used the afternoon to nap, filter water, explore and to eat. My plans for doing the summit on the same day went out the window with the heat. Fortunately it was cool in the area where we camped since the trees provided wonderful shadeand we spent most of the evening watching the deer frolic in the nearby open area.
At 5 a.m., we were up and moving, heading directly up the slope across from where we camped. Thinking that we headed in the right direction, we ended up on top of Gardner Peak's main ridge which really wasn't our goal but up seemed the way to go although in retrospect, we should have gone up about a thousand feet and then countoured to the west to hit an upper basin. Whatever, maybe in our hearts we wanted Gardner too but that was never one of my goals, only No. Gardner. The slopes up were a real pain as the last thousand feet to the ridgeline was mainly loose scree. It was often two steps up and one step back and was tiring to say the least. We were very close to Gardners summit and it was a mere walk to go over and grab it. I found it distressing to look across the big gulf of space over to where No. Gardner was as that meant we still had a lot of work to do.
We made our way down the ridgeline and it was slow going as you kind of had to pick your path, sometimes going up and over a gendarme, and sometimes skirting them when possible. Finally we made the correct ridge and started on our way to No. Gardner. I have no recollection of the time at this point as I had become totally engrossed in making careful steps and maintaining proper balance with my trekking poles. I even forgot to take pictures, which always haunts me after I come home from a trip and realize how many picture opportunities I let slip by.
It was slow going but at least it was upward toward our goal. Once again, there is no real path much of the way but it is relatively easy to pick your own way. Sometimes we'd clamber over the top of a gendarme, sometimes we would be able to skirt them. I finally started taking some pictures and before long Dennis was well ahead of me. I looked up towards the summit and there he was, shooting pictures of me laboring upward. Believe me when I say I do labor in the heat. When I finally joined Dennis, he had already been up on the loftiest point for a good 20 minutes. At this time I looked at my watch and it was just past 11 a.m. so had taken almost 6 hours to get here, granting that we had a time consuming detour over to Gardner first.
Wonderful views were to be had in all directions although a haze was pretty dominant towards the south west where we found out via phone call from the summit that a fire was going near the Icicle Creek area. To the southwest we could still see Glacier Peak and to its left (east) Bonanza peak. We thought of Bob Bolton being on top of Bonanza and found out via a phone call to a friend that he had summitted on thursday. Today it was Bob Packard's and Edward Earl's turn to do so, both of whom are county highpointers. It was interesting to think that ten years had gone by since John Roper was the first to do all of Washington's county highpoints, and then two Bob's complete the state on the same mountain two days apart.
I made the usual phone calls from the summit, first to my wife to let her know I was successful and then a friend in Twisp, and then I tried to get ahold of Bob B. and then, and then and then....
Yeah, I'm one of those irritating guys who uses modern technology from every summit. It is important to call my wife as this is the way she can share this activity with me when I'm away from her. We had lunch, read the register (which is buried fairly deep in the cairn so don't give up looking for it) took pictures, rehydrated with what water we had left (three quarts were barely adequate) and at 12:30 started back down. I enjoy a leisurely summit if no storm is threatening and on this day we had superb weather, even though it was hot, about 85 degrees on the summit. We had the company of tons of insects, so many in fact that many of my pics were ruined by them. Still, it was nice to look north into Canada, west to Baker and Shuksan, Silver Star, and more than I can name. The beauty of these north cascade mountains are breathtaking because they are rugged and so numerous.
Reversing our climb up, we carefully made our way back down. Now understand, there is nothing technical about this mountain, mostly class one or two, but you don't want to twist or break an ankle nor make an unplanned rapid descent. It took as long to get back to the ridge line as it did to get up to the summit. From there we were looking down on a high plateau where we counted over 35 mountain goats. A great scree slope that allowed us to boot ski 1100 feet was a welcome way to lose altitude quickly.
This is what it looked like from below, our tracks are to the right of the snowpatches
After getting back down to the green area, we made our way along a nice stream for awhile as we dropped another thousand feet of elevation. The last thousand feet was the worst as we had put our selves into the burned area where trees were down everywhere. It was slow going but eventually, around 3 pm we made it back to our lone tent in Gardner Meadows. Taking some time to pump water and tend to getting our camp packed up and put aboard our suddenly heavy backpacks, we left Gardner Meadows at 4pm. Amazingly, it took us 4 1/2 hours of non stop effort to get back to the TH and our vehicle. The trail is BORING and I had a sense of deja vu over and over again as one spot of the trail looked like the previous one. However, eventually we hit the last uphill and tired but happy we headed down to Winthrop to try and score some dinner.
The next day, thunderstorm activity would have put the Gardners off limits to us so we picked a great day, heat or no heat. Also, some could combine a climb of Abernathy if they add another day to their time up there. Abernathy is also one of the top 100 in Washington.
Final stat's: 28-29 miles RT and nearly 7000 feet (including ups and downs of the trail and doing Gardner.
Special gear needed: None at this time of year. Earlier in the season Ice axe / crampons may be necessary.
Also, a HUGE thanks to Jay and Roberta who sent info, maps and provided us with a place to stay after the hike when we were tired and hungry. Thanks to both of you, you are angels