Mirror Mountain (7738′), Tumble Mountain (7942′)
Story and photos by Jim Brisbine
For our annual mid-summer climbing trip this year several friends and I departed somewhat from our pattern of western Cascade and Olympic destinations. We headed into the northern Chelan Mountains for a change of scenery. Seeing as how this was our 13th consecutive year, we probably should have known that Number 13 would present some unfortunate events and special histrionics along the way. We did not. Now we do.
July 30, 2015: We boarded the Lady of the Lake at Fields Point and debarked at Lucerne. The entire lake valley was slightly smokey due to a smoldering forest fire in the Wolverine Creek drainage, several miles north of Lucerne. Apparently, this little blaze was known by many, but it escaped our advance notice. We talked to Lucerne’s resident rangers—as well as the head of a small fire fighting crew that had arrived the day before—and found that nobody was particularly concerned about the fire. We debated options but decided to proceed with our planned traverse from Lucerne to Holden via the crest of the northern Chelan Mountains. Several little-known peaks were on our agenda, including Point 7738, which stands handsomely visible above the Lucerne delta. We dubbed this “Mirror Mountain” due to its proximity to Mirror Lake.
By the time we finished lunch and started up the trail to Emerald Park, temperatures were pushing into the mid 90s. The exposed trail was mercilessly hot–especially where it disappeared in an old burn of jack-strawed trees and black stumps. We eventually regained the trail where it parallels Emerald Park Creek on a steep hillside. Accessible water was scarce along the way; we found it at only two locations (3600′ and 5000′) before reaching the welcome greenery of Emerald Park (6.1 hours from Lucerne). Even the normally reliable water source within the park (mentioned in Routes & Rocks) had dried up this summer. Fortunately, Todd and I were able to find a little creek flowing off Bearcat Peak, about 1/4 mile down-valley. In another month, hikers will likely need to carry water up from the 5000′ source.
July 31: The morning began with clear skies, but smoke soon wafted in and reduced visibility to only a mile. We broke camp and humped packs up the western slope of the valley. Although steep and hot, the hillside provided open travel. If the old Mirror Lake Trail switchbacks up this hillside, as shown on many maps, we never found a trace of it. We topped out at a 6700′ saddle between Mirror Mountain and Pinnacle Mountain.
From the saddle, we loaded summit packs and headed up the south ridge of Mirror Mountain. The ridge was smooth and easy at first but gradually became narrow and craggy. We crossed over to the eastern face and began a long rising traverse, staying 50′ to 100′ below the crest.This face is sufficiently steep and exposed to cause some problems, but a light-colored rhyolite dike cuts fortuitously across the dark gneissic bedrock and creates a continuous series of ledges, ramps, and notches that provide relatively easy (Class 2-3) scrambling.
We popped over a false summit horn and got our first look at the true summit block in the afternoon smoke. It looked daunting from here, but the rhyolite dike continued to provide reasonable scrambling. We were on the summit 30 minutes later (1.7 hours from saddle).
There was a tiny summit register left by John Roper in 1991. We were only the fourth party to sign in, and the first since Grant Meyers in 2002. Despite being highly visible from the upper reaches of Lake Chelan, this is clearly not a busy summit. We left a new register with rainproof paper and added the original paper for historical context.
Thick smoke filled Railroad Creek valley to the north, and the surrounding atmosphere was moderately hazy. Nonetheless, we could see as far as Bonanza Peak and Glacier Peak. Mirror Lake looked enticing below.
We returned to the saddle, collected backpacks, and then began descending into the Mirror Lake / Tumble Creek valley. Our immediate need was to find a stream or spring (we were all running dry), and we hoped to locate the old Mirror Lake Trail on this side of the ridge. We stumbled onto the trail after a short distance, and the trail led us directly into a most magical little larch basin set below the spires of Pinnacle Mountain. Miraculously, there was a babbling stream meandering through the basin. We plopped down in some shady grass and slaked our thirst with bottle after bottle of cold mountain water.
Two miles down the valley, Mirror Lake glimmered in the hot afternoon sun. Farther away, the Wolverine Creek Fire was building up a smoke tower.
We dropped to the valley bottom and then ascended talus to a 7200′ saddle closely south of Point 7942. We wandered up to the summit and dubbed this “Tumble Mountain” in reference to nearby Tumble Creek. Grant Meyers had left a register in 2002; there were no other signers since then. This summit is much less impressive than Mirror Mountain, but it gave us a front-row view of the Wolverine Creek Fire. We watched gnat-sized helicopters and airplanes flying back and forth across the burn zone, occasionally dropping water on flames.
The wind appeared to have shifted, such that it was blowing toward the south or southeast. A large smoke plume floated over the top of Mirror Mountain.
Southwest of us, the air was remarkably clear and blue. It was very reassuring to see many nearby and distant peaks so vividly, since our main concern about the wildfire had been lack of summit views. It now seemed obvious that the fire would not be an issue for the rest of our trip.
We hurried back down to the 7200′ saddle, then descended several hundred feet westward to 6800′ “Tumble Lake” (11.3 hours from Emerald Park). This is truly an alpine gem and a high-laker’s prize. We all took a dip in the cool water before setting up camp on the heathered shore.
August 1: It had been a mild and clear night, and we awoke to more blue skies. Our goal for the day was to traverse the ridgeline westward to Dole Lakes. We packed up camp with our normal, unhurried pace. Only when we were finished packing did we glance up to see a huge, billowing, roiling tower of smoke closely to our east. It was shocking to witness this seemingly living beast appear out of nowhere–and it looked to be only one ridge away from us! Todd, one of our companions who had worked several summers on a fire-fighting Hotshot crew, explained that this was called a “blow up.” Those of us who hadn’t worked on such crews instinctively knew that a “blow up” was not a positive event.
For the first time during our trip, we all felt a sense of urgency — an atomic-mushroom-cloud of smoke will do that to a person. We headed west out of the lake basin and traversed over a mile-wide talus field in what had to be record time for us. We didn’t stop until reaching a grassy saddle at the head of Klone Creek. Every time we looked back, the smoke monster seemed to be following us.
At the grassy saddle, we rested and pondered our options. Obviously, it was not reasonable to return to Lucerne, and we suspected that even Holden Village might have been evacuated. Our best option seemed to involve descending due west to the Entiat River Trail and then hiking out to the trailhead at Cottonwood. That left us far up the Entiat River Road without our vehicle, which was parked at Fields Point, but we planned to figure that out later. Thankfully, the 2000′ descent through old burned forest was relatively easy, and we set foot on the river trail in early afternoon.
Descending into Entiat Valley on Day 3
The trailhead was about 10 miles down-river from where we first hit the trail, and it was nearly 7:00pm when we walked into the empty parking lot. Nearby Cottonwood Campground was also eerily deserted. It became clear to us that the Entiat River Road was closed somewhere farther down the valley. Some trailhead signage indicated that it had been gated about 7 miles before Cottonwood. We pulled into Three Creek Campground for the night and had a potluck dinner with our remaining food.
August 2: The Entiat Valley was filled with smoke when we awoke, and a red smoke-filtered sun shone weakly through the quiet morning air. We walked 5 miles before passing the roadway gate and seeing other humans. Thankfully, the ranger station at Silver Falls was open, and a helpful ranger offered to drive me over Shady Pass to retrieve our vehicle at Fields Point. Forest Service rangers take a lot of criticism for being too bureaucratic, but these folks really saved the day for us!
As information became available, we heard that the Wolverine Creek Fire had tripled or quadrupled in size during the night we camped at Tumble Lake. Also, both Lucerne and Holden had indeed been evacuated. Without question, we had made the correct decision to bail out via the Entiat River Trail — despite having only limited visual information. All ended well, but none of us will ever forget Mid-Summer Climbing Trip No. 13!
Stats (approximate): 32 miles traveled; 11,000 feet gained; 9,000 feet lost.
This article was originally posted on 08/09/2015.