It was really cold when we woke up at Steelhead Lake on the morning of day 7. We had this high and exposed lake to ourselves though, and that was worth the cold morning. Although we had passed several people around the lakes along the trail, a short distance of cross-country travel seemed to discourage anyone from reaching Steelhead Lake other than us.
While sucking down my next-to-last packet of Starbucks Via I wandered to the top of the hill behind our camp and found some other nice campsites, and although the views were better than from our measly little spot, the exposure to the wind kept me from wanting to move my stuff. The view across French Canyon to Feather, Royce, and Merriam Peaks was clear and impressive. It may have been a bit colder this morning, but the crisp clear sky was encouraging. Time to bag another peak!
We had vague descriptions about two class 2 routes up Four Gables from Steelhead Lake, and both started with us needing to get ourselves to the far end of the lake, so along the shore we went. There was a bit of rock hopping and lots of stopping for photos. It’s a beautiful deep blue lake. It would be even more amazing on a still day, but today the wind was kicking up some waves.
At the end of the lake we needed to find our way up to the next bench. Two options: talus scramble or wiggling up steep green patches. We chose the green. On the way down we came through the talus. Both were fine. The green spit us out in a place that made the route described by Secor more appealing, so we went up using a chute that was a straight shot up to the summit plateau. Secor describes this as a ‘steep sandy chute’.
Oh my, it was steep, climbing about 1400 ft in half a mile. And it was more than sandy. It was filled with loose talus and scree and gravel and everything I put a foot or hand on wanted to move. I was in 4WD LO on this slope – all hands and feet holding on to something. We went through sketchy sections one at a time while the other stood safely to the side – rocks were tumbling down behind us with almost every step.
Finally it was over and we popped out on a beautifully flat plateau with the simplest mountain terrain you can imagine. We connected with the class 1 route that can be taken from Desolation Lake. From here, it was simply determining the high point on the horsehoe shaped plateau. It appeared to be on the other side so we contoured around, especially enjoying the view of Mt Humphreys. Our hunch was correct and we found the summit register on top of a marginally higher point along the ridge.
We tried to ignore the growing wind gusts and spent some time reading through the register and taking pictures. I don’t know why, but Four Gables is a peak I’ve always wanted to climb. It’s nothing special in terms of profile or statistics, I just always wanted to see that view of Humphreys, Tom, and the surrounding area. It didin’t disappoint.
There was no way we were going to descend that chute, so we decided to return to camp via Steelhead Pass, the other class 2 route. This would be longer in distance but our fingers were crossed that the terrain wouldn’t be as challenging as the chute. We descended along the southwest ridge of Four Gables until reaching Steelhead Pass at the first low point. The ridge got a bit tricky in places, but every time it got gnarly we found that dropping a bit lower on the east side of it got us on some easier to navigate rocks and sand.
Steelhead Pass is described as class 2, and from the top it started off quite easy. There is a point where it almost seems to wall-out at class 3 and 4 rocks. As you can see near 11,700 ft in the track below, we did some wandering and poking around until we found a way to squeeze down a steep section of nice-sized talus with good hand and foot placement. There was some snow that covered what might have been some passable terrain. I’m actually fairly certain it is easier than we made it – we were tired and couldn’t see all of the terrain ahead of us from above. If we’d come up that way I think we would have declared it to be pretty easy.
I practically kissed the flat ground next to Rust Lake, but then remembered we still had to get through some talus on our way back down to Steelhead Lake. My brain was fried from the route finding down the pass, I was tired, and my knees were about to go on strike. Also, it was cold and windy. But you know what? I was still having an awesome time. Even when physically and mentally spent, my brain keeps that loop running: “”Look at that VIEW! Oooh pretty lake! Oh wow, I want to climb that peak! Do I hear a bubbling creek? Oh hi Mr Marmot! Mmm I smell polemonium! Where’s my camera?” It’s hard to be miserable in those surroundings.
Eventually we made it back to camp with just enough time to get cleaned up and make dinner before sunset. This night was even colder than the previous night and I needed every layer I had brought along. Once again I ended the day completely exhausted, but it was a happy, satisfied exhaustion that has me falling asleep with a smile on my face.