4 am wake up to the soft rumble of the falls, and up at 5 to strike camp. (Another common theme of our time here, actually a welcome one for me.) I walked back down the trail to immerse myself in the waterfall one more time, and then rejoined Kirsten to break camp and head out ahead of the group.
The trail went up smoothly through the pine forests, past great walls of uplifted seabed decorated with a light green lichen that gave the layered cliffs an appearance like that of rows of cuneiform writing. The Artist's signature, perhaps?
An unhappy discovery -- my smartphone battery was exhausted. All photographic records of our travels would have to wait for others to share what they had captured.
Onward over open meadows with hundreds of brightly colored flowers! Kirsten photographed them all. (Yes, I will post them as soon as she sends me the link.)
The trails grew narrower, the vistas more awe-inspiring.
We clambered carefully over a number of trail-blocking snowdrifts and skirted a few others (common theme number 3). The others began catching up with us while we were eating lunch at a campsite just below the climb to Strawberry Ridge.
Based on reports of more snowdrifts ahead, the team changed plans to amend our self-contained status and include us in their climb to the summit (yet another common theme, numer 4!) We emptied our packs of nonessentials and followed them up the trail.
Just short of the ridgetop, the trail switchback disappeared into a large snowdrift -- impassable for our gear and experience level. Prospects for summiting the mountain looked grim.
Keith and Tom, our crew's mountain goats, went around the snowdrift and straight up the slope to the ridge, then called down from a few hundred feet above that the trail was clear on top of the ridge. Mary, the group's informal leader, declared that she was going to make the climb and invited us along (ct #4).
Several team members gifted with less adventurous and more sensible spirits declined, but Kirsten and I looked up at the open slope and then accepted her invitation. Neither of us wanted to leave the summit unclimbed. Excelsior?
So up we went following Mary's lead, bushwhacking our way across loose earth and stone, around rock outcrops topped with scrub, and finally -- with a helping hand or two -- through a break in the snowdrift at the ridgetop.
Then, a mile-long march along an exposed slope with the early afternoon sun beating down on us and a final ascent over shattered stone plates to Strawberry Mountain's summit at 9042 feet!
We sat in the sun, posed for photos (yes, many photos which I will share as soon as I receive them), and looked down on trails we had walked and on trails yet to come ... which brought up a concern.
The gear that Kirsten and I needed to set camp for the night, which we had originally planned to bring to the ridge, was down below the ridge and effectively beyond our ability to retrieve before sundown. Also, the plan to continue on was threatened by reports of more trail blocking snowdrifts ahead on the team's planned circuit through High Lake and Slide Lake. The party that had accepted us could be left with no option other than a long retreat back over the way we had come.
Keith proposed that he and Tom could lead us on a run down one of the rivers of shattered rock plates leading off the mountain, followed by a bushwhack shortcut to the location where we had left our gear. We were to camp there overnight, and then return refreshed and ready to ascend the slope one more time.
With our full packs. On our own. Why not?
While we were struggling up several hundred feet of loose scree, Keith and Tom would reconnoiter the trail to High Lake and find alternate paths around any impassable snowdrifts. We would meet on the ridge, then, continue to High Lake, camp, recover, and forge onward to meet Mary and the remaining team members at Slice Lake. Thursday, then, we would hike out to the trailhead and successfully complete the full Strawberry Wilderness circuit that the team had planned and that neither Kirsten or I had expected to do.
In for a dime, in for a dollar ....
Running down a steep slope of loose rock turned out to be more enjoyable than it sounded, although more exhausting. When we reached the bottom without stumbling and rolling downhill with an avalanche of stones, we limped after our team mountain goats as they pushed over and through obstacles straight back to the site where we had cached our gear. It saved us a considerable amount of time, they said.
Kirsten and I set up our tents and avoided the mosquitos by resting inside. Partly recovered, we managed to get through the evening rituals of filtering water, making dinner, and retiring before hikers' midnight (sundown) with the mountain looming above us.
Looking up at the summit the next morning, we agreed that it was hard to believe we had been at the top just a day earlier, and had completed a total of about 5000 feet of ascents and descents in one day. But we did, and there were more adventures yet to come!