Mt. Daniel Clock Tour
by Andy Dappen
Locally dominating its segment of the Cascade Crest south of Stevens Pass, the Mount Daniel-Mount Hinman massif is a snow magnet. Enough snow falls here each winter to form the largest glaciers between Mt. Rainier to the south and Glacier Peak to the north. Enough snow falls each winter to make these side-by-side peaks popular targets for backcountry skiers throughout the spring and early summer. And enough snow pummels the area to coat not just the summits but to blanket the many alpine lakes scattered around the perimeter of the massif.
In truth, it’s these alpine lakes that have held my attention for several years. If you consider Mt. Daniel and Mt. Hinman to be the center points of an oval analog clock, then the different lakes and tarns circling the peaks are surprisingly well positioned to be the numbers of a clock face. In late May, I recruit Tom Janisch for a three-day tour to rock around this huge clock.
One O’clock, Two O’clock, Three O’clock Rock
We start on the standard skier’s route up Mt. Daniel by following the summer trail leaving the Cle Elum River Valley on the Cathedral Rock Trail (#1345). We climb about a thousand vertical feet with skis strapped to packs before the snow is plump enough to free the boards and skin upward to our one o’clock position (Squaw Lake) at 4,841 feet.
We continue upward to the base of the prominent tower (Cathedral Rock), a feature grander than any man-made church and one Tom takes to calling ‘Saint Daniel’s Cathedral.’ Here we depart the standard route, which traverses to Peggy’s Pond, and descend the steep old-growth forests leading into the crater occupied by Deep Lake (4,382 feet). At our two o’clock lake Tom comments, “I bet only a handful of skiers drop down here each year.”
We work around the edge of the lake to reach the steep avalanche slopes leading upward to our intended camp. From a distance, these slopes have us worried — the bottom thousand vertical feet appear too steep to skin and, if the afternoon heat has mushed-out the snow, we will need to wait for the evening freeze to anchor the snowpack before we boot upward. Surprisingly, we find firm snow conditions. Our boots only penetrate the snow a few inches and we march upward unconcerned about the slide hazard. A thousand vertical feet higher the angle dials back slightly and the skis move from pack to feet for the second half of the ascent. It’s late afternoon when we reach Circle Lake (6,014 feet). The lake is a toilet bowel rimmed by impassible rock walls and steep avalanche slopes. “There are probably only a handful of skiers who have ever visited this lake,” I tell Tom.
Four O’clock, Five O’clock, Six O’clock Rock
The next morning, with skins and ski crampons affixed to our skis, we climb on firm snow to a col above the west end of Circle Lake. The snow beyond the col is still shaded and we are nervous about making the initial 100-yard traverse on the frozen snow underfoot – a slip here would be the beginning of a luge ride over the four-hundred foot cliffs farther below. We shoulder the skis and walk sideways until we reach slopes that will not kill us if we lose an edge. Soon we are on less severe slope. We click back into the skis and traverse to a west-trending ridge leading down to Venus Lake (5,673 feet). We take a few minutes to appreciate the horizontally challenged scenery and the cliffs ringing the lake. Tom looks back at the col we passed through, “It looks implausible that we actually skied here.”
A short climb above the west end of Venus Lake brings us to a new col where a long descent down the opposite side eventually leads to a stream crossing at the 4,400-foot level. No snow bridges span the creek, so we strip down and tentatively wade in. Ski poles probe the creek for shallow waters that do not expose jewels to freezing water. Under way again, we intersect a new drainage and follow its stream uphill toward Lake Rebecca. The drainage pinches down shortly before the lake and we consider different options for safe passage around the constriction. We decide the key to Rebecca is a short, booted traverse on a ribbon of snow that cuts between the rock walls of the constriction to our right and a cascading waterfall to our left. Using our ski poles and tree branches to augment balance, 100 feet of careful stepping sees us past the obstacle guarding Lake Rebecca (4,777 feet).
In nearly no time at all a pleasant stride up the drainage north of Rebecca leads to Rowena Lake (4,968 feet). “Finally an easy one,” I tell Tom.
Seven O’clock, Eight O’clock Rock
We ski the length of Rowena Lake and head west up the massive bowl situated beneath La Bohn Gap. Long, sweeping traverses take us two-thirds of the way before the pitch is too steep to skin. Tom quickly racks up the skis and kicks steps up the final 400 vertical feet. I follow behind, my tongue dangling low, my psyche thankful that I can draft behind my partner on this pitch.
From La Bohn Gap, a short, steep descent delivers us to our seven o’clock position, a cluster of marble-like ponds known as Chain Lakes (5,520 feet). We skin the skis for a short climb up slopes of moderate angle leading to the highest pond in the constellation of bodies known as La Bohn Lakes (5,995 feet). Near this pond a rock slab warmed by the sun tempts us. We shed boots and clothes and use snow to scrub our skin of sweat and sunscreen. Then, we lie like lizards on the slab as sun and stone re-warm us. As the sun approaches the horizon, we establish our second camp nearby.
Nine O’clock, Ten, O’clock, Eleven O’clock Rock
In the morning we intersect the standard climbing route up Mt. Hinman. We’ve seen no evidence of people since we dropped into Deep Lake, but on the slopes above the largest of the La Bohn lakes we encounter the day-old footsteps of climbers who accessed the area from the Foss River/Necklace Valley trails starting near Skykomish. We follow the footsteps uphill for about 800 vertical feet before leaving this ascent route and descending a gentle lobe of the Hinman Glacier leading to our 9 o’clock tarns (6,440 feet). The tarns overlook Lake Lepul (5,910 feet), a secluded pond with a spectacular aerial view of the Hinman Glacier.
Returning from this side trip and regaining the normal ascent route, we see two day skiers on the ridge leading to the summit. We meet the pair on the summit and chat awhile. Before leaving one of them mentions the weather forecast calls for very warm afternoon temperatures and an absence of an evening freeze. “The snowpack might turn to mush.”
True to these words, when I make my first turn off the steep east-facing snow slopes capping the summit pyramid, the soft snow snowballs and sloughs. I see the moving snow in my peripheral vision and make each successive turn off the fall line of the previous one so that the snow I’ve set in motion won’t over take me. A half dozen turns lower, the slope dials back and stops the sloughing snow. Tom descends the swath of snow that has slid and then we ski together in a northeasterly direction making large, lazy turns down the Foss Glacier. The terrain scrolls by effortlessly on a magic mile of snow leading to the twin tarns (5,919 feet) sculpted into the dark bedrock between the upper and lower Foss Glacier.
Below the Foss Glacier we transition to skins and ski crampons once again before traversing onto a broad west-facing bowl accented by a stream of foaming water cascading over smooth granite slabs. Forty minutes later we crest the bowl and step onto the snow-covered surface of Pea Soup Lake (6,224 feet), a pod-shaped lake ringed by the rock towers of Mt. Daniel’s satellite peaks. Adding to the drama of the lake is the shadowed Lynch Glacier, which flows down Mt. Daniel’s north side and plummets into the lake.
Twelve o’clock Rock
We stride across Pea Soup Lake and then make a gradual, upward traverse onto the Daniel Glacier, the bulldozer that has scoured the mountain’s northeastern flanks. In the middle of the glacier we stop to discuss the trip’s finish. Should we follow terrain we’ve both skied before by traversing around to the east side of the mountain and descending the standard skier’s route leading to Peggy’s Pond (5,587)? Or should we descend the Daniel Glacier and the cliff-riddled slopes below it to reach Hyas Lake (3,448 feet)? Hyas Lake is, geometrically, closer to the 12-o’clock position of our imaginary clock and the route to it is entirely unknown to us.
The pull of the unknown wins the contest and we point skis down the grand amphitheater sculpted by the Daniel Glacier. Rock bands with waterfalls tumbling over them keep pushing us to skier’s right (southeast) where we are lucky to find threads of snow skirting the impediments. Below the glacier, rock impediments keep pushing us to skier’s left (north) to skirt cliff bands. Eventually the combination of steepness, vegetation, and chunky snow has us racking the skis and booting down the final thousand vertical feet to the Cle Elum River Valley. At the river, we study the slope we have descended — our meandering route looks to be the only weakness in the mile-wide hillside above.
We reach Hyas Lake in early evening and find the trail returning us to our starting point. While walking I tell Tom that designating Peggy’s Pond as the 12 o’clock lake would make for a better skiing route. “I agree,” Tom says, “but it sure was fun coming down the stupid way.”
Details Details: Mt. Daniel Clock Tour
Access: From Cle Elum, follow Highway 903 to Roslyn and beyond to Salmon La Sac. Then follow Forest Road 4330 for about 10 slow, washboarded, pot-holed miles up the Cle Elum River to the Tucquala Meadows Trailhead. Here, start up Trail 1345 leading to Cathedral Rock.
Special Note About Access: Roughly 3 miles before the trailhead, the road makes a water crossing of Static Creek. With spring runoff, this crossing can easily be knee to low-thigh deep and is sketchy for passenger cars (and even urban-styled SUVs) to cross. We parked our vehicle, waded the creek on foot, and walked the final 3 miles of the road to the trailhead. A higher-clearance SUV, Jeep, or pickup truck are recommended for the creek crossing.
Best Times: Timing this trip is tricky. The access road is not plowed and, on an average year, usually melts out around the middle of May. You’ll want to go soon after road access is available so that you can ski (rather than walk) the lower portions of the route. On top of this detail, you need a consolidated, stable snowpack (almost every col along the route is a potential avalanche slope) and a good weather window (much of the route is at or above timberline).
Time needed: A very fit, competent team could do the circuit in two days. Because the route has some complex route finding and because Mt. Daniel and Mt. Hinman are desirable peaks to ski along the way, most teams will want three or four days for the circuit. The route is quicker (and offers better skiing) if finished via the Peggy’s Pond variation (see map). That being said, the original finish is wilder and more adventurous.
Special Equipment. On top of the normal ski-touring and overnight kits, ski crampons, ice axes, and boot crampons (or Microspikes) are recommended.
Lands and Permits. The route is almost entirely within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (administered by the Forest Service). A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the trailhead.
Leave it Better You Found It. Carry out all your trash, dispose of your human waste properly (i.e, bury excrement in soil in a six-inch-deep cathole), and carry out other trash found along the way.
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route. You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.