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TR: Chair Peak Lake

Posted by gck Monday, September 22, 2014

Distance: 13 miles?
Elevation gain: 4000 ft?

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Left: I-90
Center: Denny Creek
Right: tree fungus

I spend a lot of time looking things up, and over time, I’ve accumulated a list of hiking destinations that I “stalk.” These are all hikes that are beyond my current ability, many involving off-trail navigation and long distances. Chair Peak Lake is one I’ve watched for a few years. The difficulty was a big factor: it was a giant boulderfield past Melakwa Lake, which wasn’t a short hike on its own. The lake doesn’t get much sun and doesn’t even melt out completely every year, and I didn’t want to do the long slog just to see a snowfield. This year, the stars aligned. I was in the right condition to manage the hike, we had an unusually warm summer, and I had a sunny Saturday available. Sure, I had to run a 10k the next day, but tomorrow is another day?

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Left: Keekwulee Falls
Right: Melakwa Lake

Started hiking a little before 8, which is super early for me, but it’s a good idea for the busy hikes on the I-90 corridor. I got a good parking spot (cars were parked way down the road when I got back) and the trail was very quiet. I made good time up to Melakwa Lake, reaching it around 10. The Denny Creek waterslide and Keekwulee Falls were nice sights along the way. The steep switchbacks heading up to Hemlock Pass still kick my butt. The water color was really nice in the morning, definitely the prettiest I’ve seen it. I walked to another solo hiker at the lake, and he said he was heading towards Melakwa Pass, so it made me feel better that someone would be ahead of me.

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Upper Melakwa Lake

I walked around the side of Melakwa Lake and found myself looking at Upper Melakwa Lake almost immediately. This was my third time at Melakwa Lake and I never realized that the upper lake was like TEN STEPS away. Grrrrr… it’s a smaller lake, but very beautiful and not nearly as popular. I followed a trail around the west side of the lake. It quickly disappeared, and I found a way up higher to a route that went through a boulderfield. There was occasional pink surveyor’s tape that reassured me that this was a indeed a route, but it wasn’t fun. I also hit some patches of trees that I had to shove my way through. Once I got to the other end of the lake, I looked over and saw a real trail on the other side, and I swore loudly.

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Left: heading up to Melakwa Pass, Kaleetan on the left, Chair Peak on the right
Right: One of the very few cairns I saw

I was higher than the trail, so I decided to keep going toward the pass instead of going down to meet the trail. This led to some extra tree hugging because I wasn’t able to get to the creek path through a tree section but otherwise wasn’t a big deal. The endless boulderfield was slow and tedious. The reason I was doing this as a solo hike was because no one would agree to go with me! On my way back, I saw two guys come from Upper Melakwa Lake, take a look at the boulderfield, and turn around. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be much elevation gain until near the pass. At that point, there was a cairn and a nearby path that went into the trees and steeply upwards. Kaleetan Peak towered above me on one side and Chair Peak on the other.

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Left: Chair Peak Lake
Right: Snow Lake

The view from the pass was amazing. The deep blue color of Chair Peak Lake stood in contrast with its rocky surroundings, and Glacier Peak and Gem Lake were visible in the background. The descent to Chair Peak Lake was REALLY steep with loose rock, especially at the beginning. There were still a few snowfields remaining. I poked at the first one with my pole, and it was hard ice, so I walked around it. The lower snowfield was unavoidable, and it was a direct slide into the lake if I slipped, but fortunately the snow there was soft enough to walk on without traction. I talked to a few solo hikers here, both doing the full traverse through to Snow Lake. One guy had received bad advice to stay high when going around Chair Peak Lake, and he was having a hard time up there. Walking close to the lake, as sketchy as it looked, was certainly the better route. It was easy to hear where people were because everyone would trigger small rockslides every once in awhile. One guy told me that going through to Snow Lake would probably be quicker than heading back the way I came, and he offered me a ride back to my car if I wanted to go out that way, but I decided that I’d save that for another day when I’d done more research on the route.

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Left: Creek “trail”
Right: Steep ascent to Melakwa Pass

I walked a little further to get a view down to Snow Lake. Apparently Harvey Manning described the Melakwa Pass route as “the connoisseur’s route to Snow Lake.” Between this and his insistence on taking the Snow Lakes route into the Enchantments, I’m pretty sure this guy is a masochist. Anyway, it was a far more peaceful way to see Snow Lake. I had complete solitude in my lunch spot, with a view of Chair Peak Lake on one side and a view of Snow Lake on the other. Incredible beauty and the feeling of wilderness on an I-90 hike.

Chair Peak Lake (Melakwa Pass in the back)

It was a long way back. I had to climb back up the pass, do the endless trek across the boulderfield, then hike with all the dayhikers from Melakwa Lake back to the trailhead. I took the correct path around Upper Melakwa Lake this time, and it was much easier. Talked to two guys who climbed Kaleetan that day (sounded like a fantastic view… maybe next time?). Made it back to the car by 6, way before sunset. It felt like a satisfying accomplishment to finish this hike, possibly the first time I’ve felt like a “serious hiker” for taking on a challenging route and maintaining a respectable pace. I’m also concluding that I’m a lakebagger over a peakbagger – seeing 5 lakes in one day was awesome. Now back to stalking bigger destinations! We’ll see what comes next…


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