It’s a vertical world

Posted by Ken Campbell June 22, 2008 0 Comment 477 views

I drove out the night before and car-camped in the weeds at the end of the road. Anything to get an early start. It used to be that you could drive to the Constance trailhead but flooding in 2002 claimed a 300-foot section of the roadway, effectively cutting off five miles of gravel road, two drive-in campgrounds and a summer ranger station. There was only one other car at the road end when I arrived, not long before dark. I had a supper of chili and cheese, washed down with a good beer, went to sleep and didn’t wake up until the morning.

I get underway at about 6:00 am. There’s a new trail that’s been built to bypass the washout that brings me down to the old river road, on the other side of the break. It seems strange to be walking a road that I have driven in the past, a road that will, in all likelihood, never be driven again. A ghost road, still with mile markers and reflective signs on its bridges, warnings and information posted where no car will ever see them.

After a half-hour of easy walking I come to the Elkhorn Campground, one of the drive-in campgrounds that is now in the process of being reclaimed by the forest. I stop for a snack and a pull on the water bottle in an old campsite near the river. The picnic table is half buried in silt deposited here by the last big flood. It only seems likely that one of the big floods of the future will finish the job.

From Elkhorn, the road starts to climb noticeably, but the roadbed is solid and the hiking is still good. There are rabbits in the underbrush along the way, balls of buff-colored fur, little black tips on their ears. At one point, I come across a spruce grouse with three little grouslings, and as they scurry under the protctive bushes, I can hear the mother thrumming and cooing directives to her young, warning them to stay out of sight until the menacing intruder passes.

I cross a wooden bridge and I am at the trailhead. A sign at the side of the road warns of the steep terrain to come: 3,400 feet of elevation gain in two miles makes the Lake Constance trail the steepest in the Olympics. For all practical purposes, a climb of Mount Constance begins not at the cirque or somewhere high on Avalanche Alley, it begins right here.

The trail is easy to follow, for the most part. When I am not exactly sure of the way, I just look for the steepest, most difficult area to traverse, and I pick up the trail again fairly quickly. The route is marked in places with red metal tabs hammered into selected trees. In other spots, white paint blazes adorn rocks and tree trunks. It is not hard to find my way.

About halfway up, the brutal vertical angle of the path gives way for a few paces. The stream, which has been a roaring cascade off to my right as I’ve climbed, now wends through shallow riffles and deep pools on this small patch of level ground. There is an alder here with the marks of previous travelers carved into its bark. Most of the inscriptions are fairly recent, but there are a couple at least that were made in the 1950’s, according to their dates.

There is a huge rock not far from here, a little higher up the draw, that allows me to get out from under the forest canopy and out under the clear, blue sky. The view across the Dosewallips valley is majestic. To the south, the massive peak of the Brothers dominates the sky. All around me is forest, giant trees stuck as if by magic to the steep sided mountains.

The climbing gets harder as I get higher. There is one spot where I am clawing at the rock as I ascend, a fifty-foot angled climb with poor footing and handholds. When I get to the top of this part, the level steps that follow feel wrong somehow, too easy. It’s then I realize that I am at the lake. The climb is finished, for now.

Lake Constance is a jewel, one of those perfect mountain ponds that, regardless of the effort expended to get there, is always worth the trip. Snow still covers the ground and the lake itself remains half-frozen, but there are signs of the changing seasons all around. The higher points, places that are more open to the sun, are free of snow by now; soon the entire basin will be thawed. For a few months anyway, until next season’s snowfalls begin.

I sit on a rock and eat my lunch, unable to take my eyes off of the high peaks that make up the Constance circle. I can’t see them all from my perch, but I can see a few. Desperation Peak, to the northwest, the Thumb, a rocky protrusion on the east side of the basin. Views of Mount Constance are partially hidden by the face of Peak 7022, just to the north of the lake. (There, if I have ever seen one, is a mountain crying out for a more lyrical name. May I suggest Campbell Peak, perhaps, or Mount Ken, maybe?)

Lake Constance sits at 4,664 feet above sea level. The summit of Mount Constance is only 3,100 higher, less than I have already come. The surrounding peaks seem close enough, but I know that this is an illusion. Interpreting scale is a constant battle in the mountains and what looks close enough to touch can be completely untouchable. I am at the end of my climb today, I will not be going any higher. But I will be back, and right soon, at that.

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