A Tale of The Mt Gardner Traverse (Attempt)

Looking west into the Gardner massif from Wolf Creek trail

Looking west into the Gardner massif from Wolf Creek trail

A couple weeks back I decided to embark on an adventure. I’d been scanning GreenTrails maps and was curious to know whether I could make a traverse of the Gardner/North Gardner peak complex from east to west, and combine it with an approach from and return to my front doorstep.

Mt. Gardner, while far from being the most striking or oft-visited peak in the North Cascades, has a prominence in peoples’ minds owing to the fact that it sits front-and-center just behind and between Virginia Ridge and Lucky Jim Bluff, easy to spot from many locations in the Valley and always the first to suggest the onset of winter by a draping of snow in late September or October. I see Gardner as an invitation to the mountains, yet hadn’t been up to its base or its slopes. The mission I planned would do that and involve what I imagined a hearty amount of 3rd and 4th-class scrambling across the upper reaches of the peak – if the route existed.

My plan was to leave my house outside Mazama quite early on my cyclocross bike and ride the 15 or so miles across the Valley on Forest Service roads to the Wolf Creek Trailhead. There, I would leave my bike for Alison to graciously come and collect later in the day, and begin running in to Gardner Meadows on the Wolf Creek Trail, a roughly 10 mile approach with about 4000’ of gain. Upon arriving in the meadows, I’d ascertain what looked to be the best route over the mountains and take the off-trail portion of my trip which likely would include snow travel for most of it. Successfully traversing would mean arriving at Abernathy Pass and the head of the Cedar Creek drainage, and I would then run from Abernathy down to the trailhead, another 9 miles. Alison (again, so lovingly…) would have shuttled my bike to that trailhead and I would saddle up and ride the final 10 miles home again. Done.

The course of true adventure never does run smooth…

I hopped on my bike at 5:45am, full of coffee and with some smooth Electronic beats in my headphones to start the day. Not three minutes in, I felt my butt getting soggy. Assuming it had nothing to do with my breakfast, I felt around and realized the hydration bladder I’d grabbed was in fact one from my teenage years with a good leak in the base, serving to shower my nether-side in cold water AND remove my means of hydration from my pack. Setback #1, commence.

Soggy butt and all, I rode on. Ten miles into the ride and at the base of the 2000’ ascent to the trailhead, I flatted. Shits. My confidence/stupidity in packing the previous evening led me to include a 29er mountain bike tube owing to the fact that I didn’t have a real cross tube at home. “Ain’t no thang,” I told myself. “These roads won’t flat me,” As I sat munching those words on the side of the road at 6:30am, I tried valiantly and with achy fingers to jam a huge-ass tube into my cute little racing cx tires. Taking a gamble, I pinched out part of the tube through the sidewall of the tire, inflated it as minimally as I dared, and took off. Riding on essentially a flat tire, I spent the next five miles cursing my ill-preparedness and rapidly crushing my energy levels as I smashed the pedals to ascend the climbs. Running out of curses, I finally decided to abandon the bike and continue on foot. At a broad hairpin turn in the road with a tree at the corner, I was confident that if I hung my bright-white bike in the tree, Alison would see it on her approach, retrieve it, and all would be well. I donned my La Sportiva Mutants (first run for them!) and took off on the Virginia Ridge mountain bike trails, heading straight up for the top of the ridge.

The next hour and a half was pretty boring: I wasn’t feeling great, probably due to a combination of spending the previous three days in the car on a road trip, being dehydrated, and spending 30 minutes gutting out a flat-tire laden bike ride up the ridge. The ten mile run into Gardner Meadows wasn’t quick by any standards but my WTF podcast stream kept me occupied and a little under four hours after I left the house, I was standing in the meadows, looking up at the peaks ringing the skyline: what a view to start the workday. I took a quick detour off the trail to surprise my friend Terry who was camping out with her dog, then began the scramble portion of the day up to the high ridgeline. I wasn’t entirely sure of my route; I assumed that if I headed in a generally west-northwest direction I would alight on the ridge and be able to traverse over to Abernathy Pass, the top of Cedar Creek and my trail intersection for the final leg of the day.

Unbearably-thick downed timbers made for some slow going up the drainage so I moved out of the creek bottom and onto the slopes, making my way to snowline. I brought microspikes and a lightweight ice axe and was glad to have both; the upper portion of the bowl featured a steep headwall with snow still firm from the evening’s cold. Kicking in steps and probing with the axe for hollow spots and undercuts from water runoff, I made decent time to the pass in the distance. I excitedly hopped off the snow at the mini-‘schrund near the top, scrambled the last hundred vertical feet to get a vantage point of…a completely different drainage and a precipitous drop. Shits, again.

I took the completely wrong ascent path and was looking down into Shelokom Creek, an adjacent drainage to Cedar Creek with a steep headwall on all sides and no clear path across. I already took over two hours to get to my standing locale and as I surveyed my other options for retracing and finding a new path, I became a bit wary. Most routes featured steep fourth, if not fifth-class climbing which I wasn’t prepared to do that day. Moreover, I underestimated how long it would take to get to where I was and knew I had at least a two hour descent back to my bike from Abernathy and whatever time in between to get TO Abernathy, I eventually made the displeasing decision to retreat and head back to Wolf Creek. The only obvious variable there was that, if Alison succeeded in her support of moving my bike, I’d embark on an additional ten miles of running (beyond the thirteen I already had to get out) to get back to town and fetch a ride home. Yet more shits.

I swapped out podcasts for some Avenged Sevenfold (yes, I enjoy heavy metal) and hopped into the glissade down from the pass. That part was fun, though it left me with a very wet fanny, having finally dried from its earlier soaking with the botched bladder. No matter; I was rockin’ and with the warm sun from all sides I didn’t mind the damp. The next two hours got gradually less pleasant though, as I had not been very good with eating (actually, I had eaten ¼ of a sandwich and three Kroger-brand “orange slice” gummies, amounting to about 250 calories over six and a half hours. Not ideal). My legs and general fatigue slowed my pace over the distance back so that by the time I reached the trailhead I was rather loopy. I steeled my resolve for the expected long run ahead without my bike to rescue me, and regained the mountain bike trails I came up after ditching my flatted ride. Nearing the spot I left my bike I had a sudden flash of hope that Alison had perhaps not found it, or chosen to leave it and instead deliver another bike to Cedar Creek, figuring I could come back later and retrieve my own. Rounding a bend in the trail I caught a glimpse of a white frame hanging from a tree – praise the Orb! Flat or no flat, I was riding that flabby hulk back to Winthrop. I plopped down, ate another sugary chew and swapped out running shoes for bike shoes. Mounting my trusty steed I gingerly pedaled off down the hill, figuring I would hail down a familiar driver once I hit the roadway and catch a lift into town. Just my luck, I saw all but one car that whole ride, a little VW Beetle with a quite unfamiliar face inside. Fortunately the tire/tube marriage-of-convenience held up and I coasted into Winthrop Fitness on fumes and a foggy mind. Brett graciously hooked me up with a bottle of water (I had been out since noon) and a cupcake from the staff stash while I called the Whah-mbulance to come get me. Another day in the bag.

Beginning up the headwall toward the ill-conceived pass overlooking Shelokom Creek

Beginning up the headwall toward the ill-conceived pass overlooking Shelokom Creek

Heading into the alpine on a cool spring day.

Heading into the alpine on a cool spring day.

Sam NaneyComment