It’s a Hard Knox Life

Route map here

18.5 miles (from GPS – missed some switchbacks in the Hillmap route)
7000′ gain
7.5 hours car-to-car

French Cabin Mountain – North Peak, South Peak, West Peak (attempt)
French Chin
Hard Knox
Thorp Mountain

After hanging up the skis for the foreseeable future and successful summits of Adams and Baker over the last few weeks, I was ready to return to my main activity: mountain running and peakbagging. The Salmon La Sac area has been on my shortlist for exploration for a long time. Nestled between Snoqualmie Pass and the Teanaway, I had only been through once on the way to an attempt on Mt. Daniel. After consulting Summitpost, I decided to piece together a big loop trying to tag as many summits as I could. As far as I can tell nobody has written a TR on this loop before – now I see why.

The route ascends the Domerie Divide trail (1308) from French Cabin Creek and FR 4308-115, going off trail to tag North Peak and South Peak of French Cabin Mountain before cutting west along the Silver Creek tie trail (1308.1), crossing the south ridge of West Peak and offering a summit of that peak as well. Then the trail drops steeply into Silver Creek basin where it connects with Kachess Ridge (1315) heading north across the pass into French Cabin Basin and offering summit attempts on French Chin and French Tongue. From there, the trail climbs steeply again to gain Kachess Ridge proper, offering easy access to Hard Knox (pt. 5841) and undulating for 3 miles or so until the spur trail to Thorp Mountain, before picking up the Thorp Lake trail (1316) for a gradual 4-5 mile descent back to the car (including a  ~2 mile road run).

Cle Elum Lake

The devil is in the details. I parked my car, loaded with 3L water and survival essentials in a running pack, and promptly soaked both of my shoes in the river ford. Great start. From there, I ran/jogged the road 700′ vertical to the Domerie Divide “trailhead” which is easy to spot as it begins where the road is blocked with a mound of dirt – there’s also a sign tucked back in the trees. The heat was already getting to me not 20 minutes into the trip. This would be a recurring theme.

The ridge gaining elevation to French Cabin Mountain looked gentle enough on the topo, but it was too steep for me to run, so I got out my poles and speed hiked my way through, trying to keep my HR low considering how long a day I was expecting. After breaking out onto the upper ridge, good views of Cle Elum Lake and the boats below were afforded.

Along the ridge to North Peak

From there, the ridge undulates a few times before dropping below the north peak. I left the trail as soon as it was clear the ridge was diverging and navigated forested but open slopes up to the summit. There are little rock steps on the ridge proper but if you stay left (south) it goes at Class 1.

North Peak Summit

From there, I continued along the ridge, dropping down to meet the trail and picking it up easily and following it to forested South Peak which is just 20 yards or so from the trail. The best views aren’t at the summit proper.

The Stuart Range
South Peak summit (lame)

I turned west and picked up the Silver Creek tie trail (signed) but had trouble following it on the first mile as it traverses the south face of French Cabin peak. I ended up off route in crumbly, steep terrain and it took me some time to regain the trail.

Off route on the Silver Creek tie trail

It turned out I had been drawn too low in a clearing and had to traverse back up. This section of trail was generally miserable, with brush, crumbly rock, and routefinding challenges slowing me down about 20 minutes. It’s also in full sun – with the 80+ degree temperatures east of the crest, I was suffering – and praying that Silver Creek was running so I could resupply my water.

The complete south ridge of West Peak

Eventually I reached the south ridge of West Peak and started up the trail – immediately faced with a rock step that clearly goes at Class 3 but… as a solo hiker/runner in a fairly remote area, the mishap potential was high.

Scrambling the south ridge of West Peak

Even the good holds were covered with pebbles of crumbled rock and I gave up in the interest of safety about halfway up the ridge. In retrospect, looking at photos, I think I had already finished the sketchier section of the ridge. Oh well. At least the views of Rainier were good from here. [Edit: apparently I’m not very good at following directions, and the ridge is supposed to be gained higher up via a traverse from the West – per the Summitpost page: map]

Rainier View from West Peak

The descent into Silver Creek was fairly straightforward – I lost the trail once in a missed switchback but that wasn’t too much of a delay. The creek was in fact running and I stocked up on another 2.5 L of water (I had used quite a bit for only 6 miles of hiking!) and was fairly eaten alive by the mosquitoes in the area. Making haste to preserve my blood supply, I filled up and headed north on Kachess Ridge trail. The Silver Creek valley is really pleasant!

“French Tongue”

Reaching the pass, I headed east up to French Chin, which is easier than it looks from most aspects, with one very short Cl. 3 step right at the top. The only other creature I had seen so far was a mountain goat on the east sub-peak but he lumbered out of view before I could get a picture.

French Chin from Kachess Ridge

The heat was really fatiguing me at this point – dropping into French Creek basin I saw the ~800′ of vertical to regain Kachess Ridge in front of me in full sun and I was not relishing it. I had pretty much given up on running for the last couple of hours and was moving at an efficient hiking pace, but the day was dragging on longer than I had originally planned. But as I gained elevation on the ridge, a lovely breeze picked up which made life significantly more pleasant. Finally, a godsend – one lingering patch of snow offered a chance to cool down and pack my hat and shirt with some  natural air conditioning. The snow in my hat dripped cold down my back for the next two hours – awesome!

Snow Angels in June

The gain and loss on this part of Kachess Ridge was frustrating but the views were pretty good. When I reached the southeast ridge of Hard Knox I traversed up the gentle slopes and tagged the summit in no time. I think this summit had my favorite views of the whole day – I even sat down for a few minutes to enjoy the sights and the breeze before moving out.

Chikamin Peak, Lemah Mountain, Chimney Rock, Summit Chief mountain looking imposing
Kachess Ridge opening up

By now the temperature wasn’t as big of a problem and I felt good about going for Thorp Mountain. I ran into my first other hiker of the day who was heading south. The ridge south of Thorp Mountain is the most scenic part of the ridge trail in my opinion, with open meadows and good views of the surrounding forest peaks.

Kachess Ridge view of most of the route

I speed walked my way up the Thorp Lookout spur trail, took a few photos on the summit, and then started the long running descent back to the car.

The view from Thorp Mountain (Chikamin, Lemah, Chimney, Summit Chief, Hinman, Daniel)

Poles were nice to have for the switchbacks and rocky trail, but I put them away once I dropped below Thorp Lake. There are lots of water sources available on the Thorp Lake trail but that represented only the second resupply opportunity on the loop so far.

Descending Thorp Creek drainage

The road run back to the car was… a road run. I was happy to be done. I drove down to Speelyi Beach park on the way home and took a dip in the water which was pretty amazing.

Outrageous dirt line
Speelyi Beach at sunset

Lessons learned:
– There are better ways to spend 7000′ of gain in this state
– Start early or do the loop in late Fall when it’s not so hot
– Much of the trail was too rugged and steep to run (at least for me, a relative newb)
– Bring electrolytes

4 thoughts on “It’s a Hard Knox Life”

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