Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kendall (I Thought It Would be Steeper) Katwalk, Nov 22, 2008

I've been wanting to do this hike for years, but was always put off by stories about it's popularity and overuse. I don't mind encountering a few kindred spirits on any given trail, but due to it's proximity to Seattle and the appeal of the views and the Katwalk itself, I just couldn't get stoked about meeting as many as a couple hundred hikers on an typical summer/fall afternoon.

Finally, the timing was right as it was raining in the city, with cold rain and warm snow forecast for the mountains. As it turned out, we had just a little rain at the end of the hike, with occasional dry snow showers the rest of the time, and a bit of clearing thrown in here and there. Anyway, the strategy turned to perfection for as soon as we hit the Kendall Katwalk spur trail, we were breaking through virgin powder and didn't see another soul until we were merging onto the freeway.

The trail starts off with a couple mild, but fairly long switchbacks. With me were friends Adam and Jody, two avid hikers from Seattle who were braving the warmish beginning of the hike, at least, in just their long sleeve shirts. After 2.75 mostly uneventful miles, one can continue straight into the Commonwealth Basin, popular with snowshoers, or hang a right to the Kendall Katwalk. The trail becomes steeper and more interesting now, with occasional switchbacks through old growth forest and open views. On this day, the weather was highly unsettled with temps in the mid-to-upper twenties, light to fairly moderate snow falling and mostly overcast skies, with a bit of blue sky sometimes showing through.

Numerous creeks are crossed, some of which could be an issue during times of warmer temperatures and higher runoff. One creek in particular was very picturesque with a wide ribbon of water falling over a solid sheet of rock a couple hundred feet above (more about that later!). At 4700' the trail reaches a saddle and flattens briefly, offering views to the east and north to Kendall Peak. After a short while back in the trees, views open up and rock fields are traversed as the trail switches back up the west face of Kendall Peak. At this point we were postholing through 12-18" of dry snow and as we were now nearing 5000', the temps were dropping considerably. Finally Adam and Jody had their jackets on. It was snowing hard.

At 5400' and nearly 4.5 hours and 5.5 miles from the trailhead, we reached the Katwalk, a quarter mile section of trail blasted out of solid rock. The trail is amply wide with steep, but not sheer, dropoffs to the west. Views might have been spectacular on a clear day, but today about all we could see through the snow swirling up from the valley were a couple frozen ponds far below and the hazy outline of a steep ridge across the valley. We lunched at the north end of the Katwalk, where because my precious beef jerky was frozen and inedible, Adam insisted that I take his store-bought wrap. I declined his generous offer and moments later he was heard telling Jody that he thinks the wrap had gone back and asking her if it smelled funny. I found that quite amusing.

After a 20 minute lunch break, just long enough to bring on a serious chill, we headed back across the Katwalk, fingers freezing as I tried to take a few pictures. In fact, my fingers became so numb that I somehow lost the grip on the camera case I was holding and without realizing, totally dropped it. Even though it was probably just 30 or 40 yards back, I had absolutely no ambition to go back and look for it.

Back into the relative warmth of the deeper forest, Adam suggested we cut a long switchback, which the GPS showed should save nearly a mile of hiking. Seemed like a good idea and as we headed cross country things were going great until we came to the same impassable cliff over which the previously mentioned waterfall was flowing. As it was now getting fairly late in the day, we were reluctant to backtrack to the trail. Luckily, Adam was able to find a quite sketchy way down a very steep, but passable, section of the 200' face, hanging on to tree roots and bushes the entire way.

Finally we were on the trail and a couple hours later, in total darkness and with flashlights blazing, we were back to the parking lot, tired but exhilarated from a 7-hour walk in the mountains.

Logistics: Drive to Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90 (east) and get off at Exit 52. From the exit, turn left and cross under the freeway onto Alpental Road No. 54. In a short distance, follow a spur road on the right (should be signed PCT) a few hundred feet to the main parking lot, restroom and PCT trailhead, elevation 3,000 feet. If the trailhead is inaccessible due to snow, look for a wide, plowed pullout along the road, usually about 1/4 mile from the freeway. If there are no safe pullouts, you can park on the south side of the freeway and walk to the trailhead, or so they say.

Trail data: From the trailhead to the overlook it is 11 miles round trip with 2,700 feet gain, plus 300 feet gain on the way out From the trailhead to the crest of Kendall Ridge it is about a 1,700-foot gain. From the trailhead to Commonwealth Basin, it is about 6 miles round trip. Don't forget your parking pass and don't attempt the Katwalk in winter--there's way too much snow and the area is prime country for avalanches.

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