Hello, All. We're back for another week of Brian Connell winter forty-sixer-ing!
This was Brian's last kick at the can for 2023, since the official winter 46R climbing season ends on March 21. We chose the best weather day (Monday, March 19) out of a rather unappealing stretch of clouds and precipitation. And, wanting to close out the winter season with a relative bang, we chose a more interesting and scenic -- and fruitful, from a W46R perspective -- itinerary: a loop over three peaks in the Great Range: Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong and Gothics.
Gothics especially was going to be the star of today's hike, what with its open top and snowy ridgelines, but even Armstrong and Upper Wolfjaw offer some scenic gems.
Because this was a longer and more rugged hike (than the previous four winter outings for Brian thus far this year), we elected to start much earlier, arriving at the Garden parking lot before 6 a.m. We therefore started off by headlamp, heading up the main arterial trail (known as the Phelps Trail). The trail was pretty packed out so we elected to use microspikes, at least for the time being.
It makes most sense to do any part of the Great Range (which we were doing today) as a loop. Today we decided to do that loop in a clockwise direction, and that meant heading up to summit Upper Wolfjaw first. The connector trail from Johns Brook Valley up to the col between Lower and Upper Wolfjaw starts on the south side of Johns Brook, so we had to get across to that side. There's a now-abandoned connector trail that branches not far up the Phelps Trail from the Garden Trailhead.
Seeing as it was still dark, we came upon this trail junction by headlamp. A mish-mash of backcountry ski tracks went off in that direction, so we knew it was being used to some extent, and therefore also meant that the crossing of Johns Brook itself was likely still in winter condition. The snowpack and the ski tracks were firm enough to allow us to bareboot it along this connector trail, all the way down to the crossing of Johns Brook itself. Although there were several areas of open water that had already melted out with the approach of spring, there was still a thick snowpack and in several places it extended unbroken across the brook. The ski tracks traced a path across these snow bridge and we crossed easily and without issue as well.
On the far side, we joined with the South Side Trail. Somewhat surprisingly, it had been recently used only by backcountry skiers - there was no indication of foot or snowshoe travel at all. Still, it provided a good track - if a little tedious and boring - for us to follow upvalley.
By a quarter to eight - about an hour and a half after setting out - we arrived at the first of the junctions with side trails leading up towards the Lower and Upper Wolfjaws col. Since getting up into that col was the first step to getting to the top of Upper Wolfjaw - our first peak for the day - this is where we turned uphill.
There was a snowshoe track, but it had not been used recently, and was slightly drifted in. It was still helpful, however, and we were glad to have it.
The snowshoe track gradually became more drifted-in as we ascended. After some uneventful climbing, we reached another junction - this one being the point where the two different approach trails from Johns Brook Valley meet up and join into one trail that then leads up into the Lower Wolfjaw-Upper Wolfjaw col. Surprisingly, the snowshoe track we had been following turned..... downhill here, heading back down via the other approach trail. This meant the trail up to the col was completely unbroken, which was quite unusual, I thought. On a Monday after the last weekend of winter, I would have thought that most trails leading up to the Range Trail would have been broken out.
The next hour was a tiring slog - uphill along the unbroken trail with a snowpack that was firm-ish, but not firm-ish enough to support one's weight - meaning you expended effort on the first part of your footfall and then, as the firm layer gave way under your weight, a second shot of expended energy. Thus went the tiring and slow plod up towards the col. We were sweaty but quite glad when the terrain started to level out and the Range Trail junction sign came into view.
Even though the temperature was only a few degrees below freezing, a chilly, fairly strong wind blew through the trees at the col. This portended fairly strong winds above treeline later in the day, and we were glad that we had brought a good complement of winter mountain clothing with us.
Turning right at the Range Trail, we continued our climb. The trail had (mercifully) been broken out, although it was not super fresh and there were periodically spots where snow had drifted in. Still, the footing and the traction were much better, and the effort required much lower. We enjoyed the next bit of trail as it wound around in a sporty manner, finding the best way up the steep slope to Upper Wolfjaw's eastern sub-summit.
The weather, which had been a bit misty and mostly cloudy this morning, cleared up nicely as we ascended Upper Wolfjaw's eastern subsummit, and by the time we topped on it, right about at 4000 feet of elevation, the skies had cleared nicely and it was mostly deep blue above us. Impressive were the views of the nearby summit of Lower Wolfjaw.
The next bit of hiking along the Range Trail offered more pleasant and easy hiking. We were mostly on the level with only small ascents and descents as we made our way long the ridgecrest towards Upper Wolfjaw's summit. A very thick, fresh snowpack made for beautiful winter hiking conditions. The only downside was that this year's extra thick snowpack meant our heads and torsos were up in the branches. Normal hiking for the lower half of one's body, but a bushwhack for the upper half.
After passing through a pleasant bit of open meadow, we began a short little climb up to the summit of Upper Wolfjaw, which is located a few yards off of the Range Trail on a small bare patch. Even though Upper Wolfjaw is a treed summit, this little patch (a bedrock ledge in the summer) offers a suprisingly nice viewpoint. Even more so today with the five or six feet of snow we were standing on.