The Larch Marathon – Oval Pass and Eagle Pass: Trails and Climbs
by Andy Dappen
The spousal ace had been played — his weekend plans were trumped and he was expected to serve mother-in-law duty on the West Side of the mountains.
And then a miracle. His wife was assigned end-of-the-week work on the West side. She headed off on Thursday and said she would carry on to her mother’s without him.
When I called with a weekend project, he had just received his get-out-of-jail-free card.
I tell him it’s the Leavenworth Marathon weekend but, given that we’re both too lazy to train for such distances and too cheap to spend money on an event confirming our mediocrity, I have a mountain larch marathon in mind. I give him the details.
“Sounds perfect. Especially the bits about cross-country travel, bushwhacking, and scrambling,” His wife, he says, “will think she’s escaping torture rather than missing out.”
Saturday morning we’re on the trail by 10 a.m. Quickly we move six miles up Oval Creek Trail before breaking to study the map. We decide it’s time to travel cross-country up to the col on the south ridge of Oval Peak. The brush ahead proves slow with branches to push through and fallen logs to climb over. By Northwestern standards, however, it’s soft rock rather than screamo.
Up higher on the south ridge of the peak, we climb nearly 2,000 vertical feet along a barren ridge formed of huge angular blocks stacked precariously on top of each other like crushed automobiles in a junkyard. Most of these blocks weigh several tons yet many creak or vibrate when we step on them. We move slowly being sure not to topple any of these improvised squash devices. “She’d probably hate this,” he says thinking of his wife who would be sitting safely indoors at this moment.
It’s 3:30 p.m. by the time we summit Oval Peak and the traverse I had planned along the Buttermilk-Courtney-Gray ridgecrest, while non-technical, involves at least two miles of travel over similar tipsy blocks. We’re daylight shy for that plan. Instead, we descend the east ridge of Oval and contour through a lost land of yellow larches as we make our way toward the West Buttermilk Trail. We crawl over and weave around scores of toppled trees before we intersect the trail and follow it to Fish Creek Pass.
Around 6:30 p.m. we reach Star Lake and set up the tarp tent. The lake is already in shadow and the cold air makes our fingers taffy thick. As light spills from the day, he pulls out his sleeping bag – a ten-year-old, Cat’s Meow – while I heat water. The bag is as fluffy as a cat that’s been flattened by a truck. “I’m probably going to freeze tonight,” he says with a grin. “She’ll be happy about that.”
We’re moving again by 8:30 the next morning and climb Gray Peak along its easy SW shoulder. Then we follow the ridgeline north and west to the highest peak above Tuckaway Lake. Next, some loose exposed scrambling leads to Eagle Pass. An easy plod along the Eagle Creek Trail will complete a loop back to the car, but we don’t want to waste daylight hours so we keep following the ridgeline northwest of Eagle Pass to Battle Mountain. From the summit, we follow the east ridge and east-facing gullies downward. A little more cross-country travel through larch glades has us re-intersecting the Eagle Creek Trail.
It’s my belief we have 9 miles of trail left. We shift into motor mode and are surprised to reach the trailhead at 5:30 p.m. some 40 minutes sooner than expected. That means our final hump was probably seven miles rather than nine. “Had I known the trail was that short, we might have managed another peak,” I say.
“She’ll be happy she wasn’t under the whip of such taskmaster,” he says.
On the drive home he laments that he didn’t bring a camera, “She took it to get pictures of her mom.”
“That’s OK, I’ll send you a selection on my pictures.”
There’s a touch of panic in his voice, “Send them to my work address,” he says. “If she sees how gorgeous it was, she’s going to know she missed out. Then this won’t count as a free pass from jail.”