Last summer I had a failed attempt of Freel via Armstrong Pass from Oneidas Street – we started too late, it was very hot and we were running out of water, my sister was tired and not having fun, and my boyfriend was stopping frequently to make photographic art. We turned around about 2 miles past Armstrong Pass and I was quite disappointed since summiting Freel is supposed to be “merely” a day hike. Unfortunately, I had to add Freel to my list of summits that would bug me (that list includes Whitney’s mountaineers route and Ecuador’s Cotopaxi).
This summer I struggled with an unusually protracted recovery from a mountain biking accident. After cancelling my trip to Denali and enduring two surgeries, my peak bagging obsession was becoming all encompassing. Last weekend I hiked up Mt Rose by myself and really enjoyed the high winds, cold temps, and moonscape caused by hoar frost. I was determined to come back to Tahoe and finish off Freel before snow would double the length of all the approaches.
Having been unsuccessful with the long Oneidas approach, I decided to try the Horse Meadow approach as I was attracted to the directness and the ability to plunge step back down instead of a long slog. However, there were several inches of fresh snow that fell on Saturday and I wasn’t sure what impact that would have on the steep sandy slopes. Instead, I elected to follow Dave’s alternate route of Horse Meadow to Armstrong Pass. This has the advantage of avoiding nearly 2 miles of relatively flat hiking from the Oneidas TH and joining right up with the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Dave’s directions were perfect and my boyfriend, Shawne, and I made our way in a Nissan Xterra up Road 51 to the unmarked Armstrong Pass TH. Hard to believe any passenger cars even attempt this road – there are quite a few unfriendly rocks along the way. We hiked up to Armstrong Pass and marveled at fresh mountain biking tracks in the snow up and down this section. It took less than 30 minutes to meet up with the TRT at the top of the pass.
Beyond the sign “Star Lake – 5 miles”, there were no tracks at all. It was pretty exciting to be the first to break trail after the snow and any concerns I had initially about being able to find our way were alleviated – even covered in snow, the trail was very easy to pick out. Soon we saw many tracks in the snow, all from a wide variety of animals – chipmunks, rabbits, a bobcat. In fact in one section we believed we saw the evidence of a chase. There were rabbit tracks very far apart with bobcat prints along side that were obvious the bobcat was running at full speed. We never saw anything that indicated the bobcat caught the rabbit, but it was a strong reminder that the animals reign when we are not around.
As we approached the saddle between Fountain Place and Freel, we saw three women ascending the Trout Creek approach on the sandy slopes. We arrived at the saddle at nearly the same time, which was particularly funny as they were the only other people we saw all day long. We followed them up the last mile to the summit. Thankfully they were there because this last section of trail would have been much less obvious without following their tracks. The final traverse to the summit was pretty tough. The wind was howling as this area was exposed. The temp without wind chill dropped well below freezing, and we sank to our knees postholing in a few windblown sections. We had the summit to ourselves and enjoyed the views on a crystal clear day. I eyed Jobs Sister to the East, but with the whopping 4 hours it took to summit Freel, we determined we should head back down.
Descending was easy and we rocked on down to what I called the double switchbacks (the long Z about halfway between the Fountain Place and Armstrong Pass). We froze in our tracks as we noticed a new set of prints sauntering along the trail along side the bobcat, rabbit, and our footprints from earlier that day. There were huge feline paw prints that we believed belonged to a mountain lion. You could see each claw in the print.
I wasn’t so nervous, taking faith in the fact that actual mountain lion attacks are extremely rare, but Shawne just about fainted. He wanted to run around but there was no practical way to get back to our car except to proceed. We began to sing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” (what else can you sing for 2 hours straight?) and I banged my hiking poles together. Unbelievably, the mountain lion tracks NEVER deviated from the trail. This cat was taking the same hike as us!
After two full rounds of 99 bottles (I kid you not) and getting out of breath from walking and singing, we began to yodel periodically. I kept thinking either the mountain lion or other hikers would think we had lost our minds if we met them. The tracks continued all the way down to the trailhead near our car, but thankfully no sign of the mountain lion. So ended our adventure on Freel and I got to cross that unfinished summit off my list!