Yellow Astor Butte and Tomyhoi Peak (8/21 – 8/22)
The past three summers have involved multiple backpack trips, but this was the first for the summer of 2017.
I went with my friend Doug, and it was his first backpack trip in 40 years! We chose Yellow Astor Butte for it’s ease of access, short distance, and familiarity. Both of us had day hiked it a dozen times, and I had previously backpacked there with my kids, so I had a good idea of where to camp. Plus, climbing nearby Tomyhoi Peak was on the agenda for day two.
Stats on Yellow Astor Butte
LOCATION — Off the Mt. Baker Highway, 542, 46 miles east of Bellingham. Take Twin Lakes Road (FR 3065), just past Shuksan Maintenance Facility. It’s 4.5 miles to the trailhead. DISTANCE — 7.5 miles, give or take. ELEVATION GAIN — 2677 feet (to the top of the Butte) REQUIRED — NW Forest Pass. NO PERMITS REQUIRED TO CAMP — but get there early, it’s a popular spot!
The Hike in
Typically for us, we didn’t get an early start. After accomplishing all the details of packing up, we finally hit the trail early afternoon. With such a short distance to hike, we weren’t worried. The day was gorgeous, the trail straightforward and, as always, spectacular. Yellow Astor Butte is a favorite of mine, as views unfold magically and continually once you leave a short forested section, and it’s guaranteed that your jaw will drop seeing Shuksan and Baker in all their glory. I’ve done many hikes this year featuring those two mountains, but it never gets old!
Camping at one of many Yellow Astor Ponds!
At the junction with the butte, we gazed down at some of the dozen, ponds, or tarns, trying to decide where to head. One in the distance caught my eye, far enough away from close-in campers. Even on a Monday, I knew it would be busy! We wandered past the closer ponds and campers, and found a spot. I dropped my pack, peered over a rocky outcropping where we’d cook…and saw that there was a couple not far below that. The guy was clearly unhappy that we were going to camp there, even though we couldn’t see them from our selected spot and could give them visual privacy from the rock. Momentarily, we hesitated, as the last thing I want to do in the mountains is piss someone off or have them feel encroached upon. Many times, I have felt my space invaded, especially on last summer’s solo JMT hike. Doug and I discussed it, and decided to camp there anyway, as it was a good size for our two tents, and enough distance away from the party below.
After setting up camp, we took a swim in the nearest tarn, cooked dinner, and settled in for the night. The best part of all this was Doug’s supreme enjoyment of the whole experience. Instead of putting words in his mouth, I will share his write-up on our trip:
Doug’s take on the trip…
Kathie and I did a backpacking trip to the tarns at Yellow Aster Butte (4 miles, 2150 vertical feet) on Monday, 8/21, then the hike up Tomyhoi Peak (5.5 miles round trip from our camp and about 2900 vertical feet–nearly all of it coming in just 2.2 miles) and the return to the trailhead (4 miles again and about 400 vertical feet) on Tuesday, 8/22, for a two day total of 13.5 miles and 5450 vertical feet.
Kathie and I had previously been on a day hike to Yellow Aster Butte on July 24. It’s a short, straightforward hike that quickly breaks out of the trees, runs through meadows full of wildflowers, crosses a snowfield, and at the end, climbs straight up to spectacular views. We’d gone late in the day and had the top to ourselves for more than an hour. This time, instead of climbing we turned left and descended to the tarns, 12 shallow ponds left by melting snow, most of them three to four feet deep, a few deeper. Another magical place. From the heights we counted at least three occupied campsites, and as we walked through the rocky, rolling terrain down on the ridge, we found we were racing two other couples also looking for places to camp. We found the perfect spot, not far from two tarns, sheltering behind few trees and a small mound of rock with a full view of Mt. Shuksan and a partial view of Mt. Baker, where we’d spend most of our time.
I hadn’t been backpacking in decades, not since I was 24 and hiked in 12.5 miles to the Chinese Wall in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness with my brother Rick and his ex-wife Susan. I remember my pack had an external aluminum frame I was proud of and it weighed in at just under 50 pounds. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to the campsite the first night and camped in rough terrain just off the trail. I slept in a small gully under a tarp in a heavy sleeping bag that featured flannel. Air mattresses were not yet the thing, so I made do with a ground cloth. I wore a wool shirt and jeans–what else?–and army boots that were shredding my feet. The second day we got to the campsite and set up, but because my feet were so blistered, I didn’t go on the hike we’d planned using a paper topographical map we’d happily bought at the Power Horn. 6-12 (or was it Off) kept the mosquitos at bay. We searched for springs where we could fill our steel canteens. Toward the end of the day, we gathered “squaw wood” to build a fire for warming, make coals for cooking (how could we have lived without tin foil), and after a restless night we plunged into freezing temperatures to build another fire to start the coffee in a steel coffee pot so we could stop shivering. There was dried food, sure, but only raisins and oatmeal–and in those days, nuts meant peanuts–which may account for my aversion to them all today. On the third day, we hiked out. I was hobbling for a week or more on those feet. That was the last time; is there any wonder?
This time, everything had changed. It’s true, I’d dropped a grand and Kathie had borrowed a tent to make it so, but I was COMFORTABLE. I ate well, slept well, made tarn water potable with Sawyer and Platypus filters and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
For this I have Kathie to thank. She’s an inveterate backpacker–two summers ago she did all 215 miles of California’s John Muir Trail plus several peaks along the way over 17 days (13 mile days if you don’t count the side trips), but that was with a friend, so last year she did the same thing alone. Kathie and I love hiking together and have done a dozen high-country day hikes so far this summer. She was determined to share her joy and take me to the next level.
Which she did. I loved watching the light ebb and flow over the mountains as night settled in.
Day hike to Tomyhoi Peak — Doug’s report
The hike up Tomyhoi Peak was a real treat: I’d seen it from the top of Yellow Aster Butte and it didn’t look like much, but boy was I ever wrong! I knew Tomyhoi was a rectangular block only about a mile and a half south of the border with Canada and its summit required technical climbing skills (way beyond me), but what I didn’t know was it had at least three false summits, was topped by a glacier, and had incredible views from the top, even on a-little-less-than-clear day, which we had. The trail was up, up, up, sometimes demanded hands to clamber over rock, offered long traverses across scree, and at one point skirted a 200 foot drop-off. Only five rocky steps to be sure, but exposure enough to shiver my timbers. The “top” where we stopped above the glacier was exposed as well. Had we had our minds set on summiting, we would have had to make a 30 meter crossing of the top of the glacier–which didn’t look all that hard–but a slip would send one sliding into the crevasses below and would likely have been fatal. Reports I read afterwards recommended crampons and ice axes, and that was just to get to the technical climb. No, I was happy just where I was.
After Tomyhoi, Kathie added probably another two miles and 800 feet to her total as she climbed over a series of knobs on a boot-beaten trail to check out the long-rumored connection between the tarns at Yellow Aster Butte and the end of the High Divide ridge hike at Welcome Pass. She’s a mountain goat at heart with rock climbing in her past, but the going was tedious even for her, a steep scramble much of the way. I’m glad I opted to cool my heels and make (potable) water.
The connection does eventually lead to Welcome Pass. I almost made it, but turned around because of time and fatigue with the rocky path. After Tomyhoi, another 1.5 hours of steep up and down on sometimes very sketchy, nearly non-existent “trail” was more than enough!
There were so many, it’s hard to list. But here are my top four:
- Doug’s excitement of his first backpack in 40 years. I love to share the experience of backpacking with another, and what a great customer he was!
- The day hike to Tomyhoi Peak. I’d done this twice before, but forgot how challenging and interesting of a hike it was. I loved doing it again with the very enthusiastic Doug!
- Our campsite. Despite our crabby neighbors, it was pretty much perfect!
- Being out backpacking, finally. I have missed it so much since returning from the JMT last summer. What a great joy to be back into the mountains again for an overnight!
My backpacking excitement renewed, I have a three night solo backpack trip planned at the end of this week to Copper Ridge/Whatcom Pass loop. I can hardly wait! Hopefully, smoke will abate. A tough year for forest fires.
Enjoy the remaining weeks of summer!