Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Commonwealth Basin

The Journey BeginsThe scouts have a goal of camping out once a month. It doesn't often happen due to competing priorities and interests. Its especially hard during fall and winter months when the days are shorter and sports are in full swing. We've been blessed with gorgeous clear fall weather this autumn and Paul Currit and I discussed possible locations. I usually choose lakes, because there are so many within short hiking distance of I-90, and I suggested Mason Lake. Given the short days (dark falling around 6:30) Paul countered with the idea to go to Commonwealth Basin because it was closer than Mason and we could build a fire. I readily agreed.

Between the Living and DeadStrangely though I've been hiking in the area for four years I've yet to make it up Commonwealth Basin. I'm not sure why, I've hiked all around the area, often returning to the same places multiple times, but never explored Commonwealth. I usually don't like taking the scouts, or even my family, to a location without having been there myself. I like being able to have done a recon trip before hand, and at the very least having good beta on the area. I wasn't able to get up to the area beforehand, but Paul was able take an afternoon off the Friday before with Eleanor and his son Alan and hike up to the area to scope it out. He found a great campsite and mentioned possibly hiking Red Mountain the day after our campout.

He hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and took the cut off to the Commonwealth Basin. I knew from reading trip reports on that there was an abandoned trail. Some purusing of reports discussed the directions and conditions of the abandoned trail and the two main benefits where around a mile shorter, and with less traffic than the PCT. I also read up on the description of the route up Red Mountain and quickly ascertained that the ascent was beyond the capabilities of the young scouts and especially my 4 year old son Miles. But there was discussion of a trail up to Red Pond, a view point and Red Pass, so I planned on this as a destination.

Crossing the CreekFriday night we met at the Front Street Market and by 3:50 we were off up I-90 with a party of 10. Four adults : Me, Paul Currit, John Gillmore and Kevin Brown and 6 boys : Keagon Brown, Dashiel Johnson, Parker Phair, Stewart Dronen, Gavin Gillmore and my son Miles. We we at the PCT trail head and off by 5:30. Directions to the Abandoned trail are to travel a hundred yards or so until you see the "Most Difficult" sign on the right and then there is a side trail on the left that is the classic grown over logging road; grown over in the sense that the two tire ruts were down to a single track with slide alder and bushes. We started up the trail, which makes its way up gradually before starting up the ridge scattered with vine maple and Doug fir. The higher we climbed the sounds of I-90 eventually faded and were replaced with the cascade of Commonwealth Creek.

The boys spread out as they naturally do, the strong and eager bound ahead and the slower plodders struggle behind taking breaks and complaining of heavy packs and tired legs. We'd instructed the boys before leaving that when they came to a fork in the trail they were to pause and wait for the rest of the group to catch up before proceeding. An adult was with the forward vanguard and we had an adult at the rear to bring up the sweeper position. My goal was to keep Miles moving. Hiking with youngster's is often an exercise in distraction, keeping them talking about some topic to focus on anything other than how far there was yet to go. Miles was a trooper and made the entire hike to our campsite without having to be carried except for creek crossings.

Through the Light HoleAs the trail attains the top of the ridge it flattens out and runs adjacent to the creek. Eventually the trail reaches a point where your at a shallow portion of the creek and you can cross to the left on a line of well placed rocks or continue right on a fainter trail. By this time Parker and Keagon were well ahead of even the vanguard adult. As the rest of arrived at the creek they sheepishly were returning back from the faint trail. They argued that the creek crossing wasn't an obvious fork, so they'd hadn't crossed and had gone up the faint trail next to the creek but eventually it got fainter and fainter so they turned back. Cautioned and warned again, I threw Miles on my shoulders and we crossed the creek and continued up the basin which was wide and flat.

Priming the StoveIn a short while we crossed the creek again, this time the river was deeper, but there were several places to cross : large rocks, or logs. From here the trail enters old growth spared by loggers. A short while further and we crossed the creek again, this time on several well placed logs and a few rocks. Miles made his own way down the main log and with a helping hand across the rocks. A couple of hundred yards and there was a central campground with several campsites among the large Doug Firs. We spread out and hurried to pitch tents and set up camp as dusk was setting in. The fire ring that Paul had seen the week prior had been dismantled with a vengance, I noticed several fire stained rocks strewn about through the huckleberry bushes. This is probably the right thing to do in the spirit of leave not trace, but where fires are allowed and established I am torn about proper etiquette. As we got ready for dinner darkness had fallen. Kevin primed his whisperlite and I fired up my jetboil. Hot water was all that was required for our freeze dried meals. The Spark that Flies John and Gavin attempted to start a fire. The ground and wood was wet from dew and a bit of snow that had fallen a few days before and still littered the ground in places. They must have worked on the fire for an hour and they had a tiny little smoking mass of embers and woood. They had brought up spicy hot links and were dead set on grilling them over the fire. Eventually they worked up enough coals to cook a few, but that was long after everyone else had eaten. After Miles at his beef stroganoff he immediately wanted to get into his sleeping bag. The temperature had dropped down to the mid 30s and he was cold. However when the hotdogs where done he heard there were extras and he sat on the log in his sleeping bag and ate one.

The Warmest GlowTime to stoke the fire. I had the boys go around to the huckleberry bushes and pick up branches that had fallen from the trees and were off the ground resting on the bushes. These branches tended to be dead and therefore much drier than. Though small we were able to gather large armfuls and soon we had a nice roaring fire. We sat around the fire had a Scout Masters minute by Paul. Afterwards we sat around the fire and chatted for a bit and the boys had fun playing with my camera taking some photos. Miles and I headed off to the tent and we got situated in our sleeping bags, I read Outside magazine for a bit as miles slept and I followed him.

Round the SmokeThe next morning I set my alarm for 6:15 to wake and maybe get some photos of the sunrise from the basin. I woke up to gray skies and after wandering down the trail for 5 minutes or so I could tell the morning was going to be gray, so I climbed back into my tent and sleeping bag to read and stay warm. 30 minutes or so later I smelt fire; Gavin and Paul had resurrected some embers deep under the ash more small dead fallen branches. I got up and we started priming stoves for breakfast. John's famous breakfast burritos, he'd stepped it up a notch. First some red onions, sauted in butter then add in the sausage, then eggs with some milk, and cheese before wrapping them in a tortilla that we'd warmed over the fire. Delicous. My SonJohn's wife had also sent up a package of bacon so we fried that up and everyone got a piece. After cleaning up, some of the crew began breaking down camp, they had morning commitments to return home early for while I wanted to stay and hike up to Red Pond. We did a sweep of the campsite for garbage or any man made trace and after the boys had scoured the adults checked and any piece of garbage required a push up by each boy. We only found 1 item and they only did a push up a piece. John then left with Kevin, Keagon, Dashiel and Paul and I stayed with Parker, Stewart, Gavin and Miles. We poured buckets of water on the fire and then head up the trail.

How Long Will I Carry You?After leaving the campsite the trail quickly starts up the lower ridges below Red Mountain. The trail switches back and forth on the eastern side of a drainage and breaks out with views of Lundin Peak and Snoqualmie Mountain and what must be an impressive waterfall when there is water flowing. Miles by this point was getting tired of hiking and so he wanted me to carry him. Usually he prefers the sit on shoulder position, but since I am doing the carrying I now bargain that if he wants to be carried I get to use the fireman carry, its much more comfortable and besides he weighs 55 lbs now. As we paused for a break on the switchbacks, Gavin threw a small softball sized rock down the slope. Two hikers below yelled "Rock!" as it tumbled down the slope, luckily missing them. Gavin and I talked about why we don't ever kick or throw rocks down slopes and I told him he'd have to apologize to the hikers when they caught up with us. Gavin told them he was sorry as they climbed into view, they were understanding. The trail climbed up the ridge line and crossed over the drainage above the waterfall and then eventually came to a small shelf below the rising peak of Red Mountain.

Red Pass from Red PondHere the trail split to the left and right, one of the hikers said the left led to Red Pond and he though the right climbed the ridge a bit and then cut back west towards the pass between Lundin and Red Mountain. We started up the right fork, but after a couple of hundred feet it was clear this boot path was making for the summit of Red. We stopped for a break and then headed back down and took the left fork to Red Pond. The southern end of the shallow pond had a gray thick sheet of ice. The two hikers were above the pond and said the trail to Red Pass was just to before the Pond. However a large talus field stretches above the pond and since Miles loves climbing rocks we scrambled up the talus till we reached the trial and then headed up across the rock to the small stand of trees at the top of the pass.

Red PassRed Pass is a knife edge ridge on one side with sheer drop offs and views down across Burnboot Creek, the Middle Fork of the Snoquamlie and Mt. Thompson. I hadn't really seen such great views of Thompsons its profile is impressive with its dark gray horn of rock sticking up. Clouds blowing across the mountain tops caught on Thompson's peak. A couple of other parties came hiking up. A hyper active lady tried to tell me that Red Pass was still at least two miles away. She got cold and her party left to find Red Pass. The other party had a dog with them and his name was Miles as well. We laughed as both my son and their dog got confused as each of us gave instructions. Me telling my Miles to sit on the rock and stay away from the edge and them entreating their dog with snacks. We took a few photos from the pass and then set off down the trail back to camp. Miles made it most of the way down before wanting me to carry him again, luckily this was pretty much near the bottom and the flat bit before camp.

CrossingWe broke down camp and then scoured the camp one more time for garbage. We poured water on the fire one more time, scattered the few remaining sticks far and wide and then swept up some needles and dirt from under a few of the large trees and spread them over the fire pit remnants leaving no trace. Threw on our packs and started back down the trail. We made the creek crossings with no event, other than me getting my feet wet while trying to get some shots of the creek. The last 1/2 mile as we tromped along the logging road Miles really wanted me to carry him again so I threw him over my shoulder, but it really hurts the neck with my pack on as well. As we were almost to the Pacific Crest Trail here came the boys from a side trail that led to the horse parking lot for the trailhead. They had taken the wrong fork again. Once again we reiterated the importance of waiting at forks and made our way down the last few hundred yard to the trail head.

We got back to Issaquah around 3:30, after dropping off the boys Miles and I went for food. First we stopped at McDonalds where he got 2 plain cheeseburgers, fries, apple juice and chocolate chip cookies and then we headed to Chipotle where I got a chicken burrito bowl.

In doing research after the fact I was happily surprised to learn of the history of the trail up to Commonwealth Basin and Red Pass. In the early 1900's, Fred Cleator supervisor of Washington and Oregon region, laid out a trail that followed the spine of the Cascade range from Canada to the Columbia River. This was known as the Cascade Crest Trail, this eventually was linked together to form the Pacific Crest Trail. In the 1970's the PCT route was changed from Snoqualmie Pass around Kendall Peak with its infamous Kendall Catwalk and the Commonwealth Basin trail and Red Pass were abandoned and were dropped from the USGS topographical maps. You can still find Red Pass on the Green Trails maps though. Others have told me about trips on the trail as late as 2004 through Commonwealth Basin to Goldmeyer Hotsprings. A journey I'd love to explore someday.

Stats :

2 miles from PCT trail head to Commonwealth Basin where we camped with 1091 foot elevation gained.
1.5 miles from our camp to Red Pass with 1846 foot of elevation gained.

Total 7 miles

Commonwealth Basin from mbgriffi on Vimeo.

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