Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Surviving Deadman Lake

I've seen it on the map. Talked to a handful of people who have been there. Tellingly, none of them really could describe the route. Information was sketchy. One guy told a bone-chilling tale of having to bivy unexpectedly when caught by darkness in the cliffs. There's really only one way you can go, others said. Unless you take a rope.

Regardless, I was determined. Really, how hard could it be? The lake was only a mile and a half from the trail. It did climb over 2,400 feet, but still... "I'll be back in four hours," I said breezily.

Fresh snow iced the mountains and big clouds billowed like sheets left on the line. It was the first day I had seen sunshine in a long while. The aspens were turning a delicate shade of yellow. I took the first three miles on the trail fast, passing nobody.

 Deadman Lake's outlet tumbles over rocky cliffs, dives into small pools carved out by water and time, and finally ends up surrendering to Hurricane Creek far below. It is a place of avalanches. It is forbiddingly steep.

Unsure of how close I could stay to the creek, I erred on the side of caution and traveled far to the right. Too far. I was stuck in a cliff band with no way out. This was the end, I thought.

And there was snow. Slippery snow that covered the rocks, snow that made me slide and fall. This was September? You gave it your best shot, I told myself. No harm in turning back.

I started picking my way down the mountain in full retreat, when I noticed a possible route around the cliffs and onto a snowy plateau. I'll just go up here a short ways, I thought. See what happens.

You can probably guess what happened next. Sheer stubbornness propelled me forward, up crumbly cliffs and ice-covered rocks and knee-deep snow. I slogged onward, afraid to look at my watch and unwilling to turn back. Clawing my way up a final cliff, I finally saw my Holy Grail:

A wintery wind made me dig in my pack for a hat and mittens. Snow pelted my face. Snow packed inside my boots. The lake's surface was ruffled with whitecaps. It looked like nobody had been here, ever. It was totally worth it.

I'll spare you the heart-clenching trip down, the moment of panic at being cliffed out, again, and having to climb back up. Wondering, for just one second, if I had made a crucial mistake. In the end, it all worked out. Now I can be one of those who have visited this fabled lake. I can sigh mysteriously and give a murky description of the route.

On the way out I passed a hopeful set of backpackers, clad in tennis shoes. "We're going to climb the Matterhorn!" they chorused.

"Well..." I was reluctant to tell them they wouldn't make it. Who am I to shatter dreams? Somebody could have told me that getting to Deadman Lake would be a horrific snowy slog. Would I have listened? Probably not.

"Good luck," I ended up saying. My four hour tour ended up taking eight hours. J was loading up a pack to come find me, and the words "Search and Rescue" were mentioned. I cringed in horror. Maybe this hike wasn't the smartest to do solo. Maybe I should have waited for summer, when the route might be clearer. There are times when my enthusiasm for adventure lures me into situations where prudent people might turn around. But it's always been worth it.

It's been snowing for days now, up near Deadman Lake. I don't think anyone else will make it there this year. In fact, probably less than ten people go there on any given year. Maybe less than that. I'm happy about that. I'm happy that there are places this wild, this hard to get to.


  1. Ah, nice. This post brought a smile to my face. I used to have misadventures similar to this back when I lived in Juneau, and I can relate to the way they leave you emotionally and sometimes physically wrecked, and yet spiritually full. Miss living near wilderness and truly exploring a new place, I do.

  2. Mary: I've been carrying an Emergency Location Beacon the last 6 years because I would do hikes like this solo also, do you?

    1. Hey John. I do have a spot. Honestly I didn't expect all of the snow.

  3. Lovely. Thanks for sharing. And keep listening to that guiding voice in the back of your mind that helps you find the balance between risk and desire.

  4. Very nice! Where's the trailhead for this?

    1. Hurricane creek. About 3 miles up ypu leave the trail.

  5. Ouch on the potential SAR...Generally not a good plan to worry one's significant other. This particular possibility would have caused me to turn around if I had told R "4 hours" and it was likely to turn into 8.
    I'm glad you made it and that you got back safely, and BEFORE J came out looking for you....

  6. I'm so glad to have read this. I just climbed up to Deadman Lake yesterday, August 9,2015. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. My day began as a casual day hike along hurricane creek and I was drawn to the beautiful slick rock creek and what looked like a nice lunch spot a couple yards above the trail. It was. And something compelled me further up, and it was steep. Very steep. And I thought the last thing I wanted to do was to come back down this way. Looking at my map, I thought I'd climb to the ridge and walk the ridge until I caught a trail back down (fall creek). Well, my route kept getting more steep and treacherous. The last 3-400 ft was rediculius - steep, loose rock and rock dust. The big horn sheep were snickering at me clinging to that face with as much of my body as possible. I got to the ridge. It was about 6ft wide and a steeper decent in every direction. I was terrified. I considered how I might prefer to die - jumping off the cliff strait ahead of me into deadman lake or just laying on this narrow flat level spot and letting the elements take me. I didn't like either option and starting back down the way I came. The decent was every bit of strenuous and frightening as I'd figured it would be on the way up. I was so glad to be down on the trail again.

  7. Mary: This brought a smile to my face. A friend and I, on a whim, scrammbled up to Deadman Lake from the HC trail some 20 years ago. It was late August, yet there was still an "iceberg" cap floating in the middle of the lake. Did you find the evidence of early 1900s miners. I remember finding an old shovel, etc., well above timberline. Happy trails! Jeff Walla Walla, WA


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