Friday, September 26, 2014

A Week on the Pacific Crest Trail

I had a feeling that if anything was to go terribly wrong, it would be the smallest, silliest misstep. I was going to backpack by myself for 100 miles, and I was far more worried about twisting an ankle than getting mauled by a bear or coming across guys with guns.

I was also worried about snow covering the trail, as it was still a little early (end of July-early August) for this section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north of Stevens Pass. I knew there was some snow to some extent above 5,000 feet, but it was impossible to know exactly what that would look like until I was there.
A big thanks to my dear friend Max who drove me to Stevens Pass bright and early before his work day. I sat at the trailhead eating breakfast feeling a little apprehensive. I had never backpacked more than a night by myself. I was really excited but didn't quite know what to expect. 

The plan was to follow the PCT north, walk along the western flank of Glacier Peak, around to the north near the Suiattle River, and then meet a friend at Cloudy Pass before hiking out at Lake Chelan.
Glacier Peak from the south
I was signing the trail register when I noticed a man sitting in the shade, with a solar charger in the sun. He had long grey hair under a cap, and dark hiking clothes, and for some reason made me think of a trucker. Yet, upon closer inspection, I noticed his hot pink nail polish, hot pink USB cable, and pink flip flops dangling from his backpack.

We started chatting, and I discovered that he had started the PCT at the Mexico border in April, and had done most of the trail, with a couple gaps here and there. He had a tall, wooden walking stick that he had made in the seventh grade, with grip tape wrapped in- you guessed it- hot pink. He was taking advantage of the access to data at the pass to watch YouTube videos. I started hiking, knowing he would probably pass me soon.

The first day was HOT. And my pack was heavy. I established a routine that day of an afternoon break at either a lake or river, to soak my tired feet in cold water. That night I camped on Grizzly Peak, where there was one campsite at the high point. I made dinner, though the mosquitoes were so bad that I couldn't sit still to eat it. I ate pacing back and forth on the trail as the sun went down.
The second day sent me down low into a river valley. I passed two separate south-bound through-hikers, and a father and son hiking a small section.

I stopped at Pear Lake to filter water, and had the worst mosquito experience of my life. The cloud of mosquitoes at the lake was so thick it looked like a plague. I put on a long sleeve shirt and bug net to pump, and still got eaten alive.

In the afternoon, Big Stick caught up to me. It was great to have company and we climbed back up a couple thousand feet onto an exposed ridge trail and toward Lake Sally Ann. It was another sweltering day, and all I had wanted all day was to swim in the lake. When we arrived it was early evening, and there was still sun on the water. But the lake was about half frozen so there was ice as well!
Campsite on Lake Sally Ann
There was a nice spot at the edge of the lake with good access, and I hung out by on the rocks with Big Stick and two older Canadian couples backpacking together who were hiking the whole length of the Washington PCT in sections over two summers. People were chatting convivially, soaking feet, rinsing socks, pumping water, and debating an icy swim.

I decided to jump in, and the two Canadian guys followed. It would be one of my favorite evenings of the trip, with a friend to eat dinner with, warm evening air, sweeping views, and a stunning lingering sunset.

The third day was when the trail started getting seriously beautiful. I was already up fairly high, around 5,000 feet, and the trail stayed high on a ridge traverse all day. Even though I haven't been to the Alps, that's what I kept thinking of, with the rolling expanses of alpine meadows and big peaks in the background.

I passed a Forest Service/Washington Trails Association trail crew, a Boy Scout troop, a handful of weekend hikers, and a woman who is a photographer and writer for the Mountaineers. I also got a striking view of the Chiwaukum Creek area forest fire smoke.
I had never heard the term Pyrocumulus cloud, but that's what it was- a huge cloud formed from the heat of the fire. It can also happen with volcanic activity. At one point climbing up toward Red Pass, I just stood and stared at the plume along with the writer lady. She said it reminded her of seeing Mount Saint Helens erupt in 1980.

We parted ways and I finished the climb up to Red Pass at 6,300 feet. I crossed from the south-facing ascent to a north-facing descent, hitting patches of snow on the trail and getting a new view of the smoke as I started dropping into the White Chuck Cinder Cone valley.
It was about that point that I realized how sunburned I was, especially the back of my legs. The first couple days had been mostly in the shade, but the beautiful ridge traverse of today meant a full day of blazing sun.

I descended a few thousand feet that evening to the Baekos River. There were a handful of great campsites, but I was the only one there. It was time for some self-care- I soaked my burning legs in the icy river, tended to blisters, and made myself drink a ton of water. I kept expecting more hikers to show up or at least hike by. But it was eerily quiet. Little did I know that I would go two more days without seeing another human.

On Day 4 the trail and the hike completely changed. 

It went from maintained and well-trodden to rugged and solitary. First of all, there were a lot of creek crossings. These were either crossable on logs or rocks, or if that wasn't possible, I would have to change into sandals to walk through the water.
There were also bridges, but some of the bridges were in rough shape, damaged or completely washed out from earlier avalanches and fast, rushing melt out.
Uh, is this safe to cross?
This bridge has clearly seen better days
Also slowing me down was the endless fallen logs and debris on the trail.
It was always a question of whether to go over or under the log.
Sometimes neither were possible.
I think the trail is in there somewhere...
Log and branch obstacle course
Brushy trail through thimbleberries
It got harder to cover my daily mileage because I was constantly crossing creeks, climbing over logs, and bushwhacking. Oh, the fourth day was also the day I came across the snow. At that point, since I had seen little more than patches of snow here and there, I had stopped worrying about it. But as I climbed up toward Fire Creek Pass at 6,400 feet, I was hitting way more snow than I had seen so far, and kept losing the trail.
It was a beautiful view from up there, and the sun shone warmly. But it was nearly 5pm and I still had five miles I wanted to cover. And the descent dropped steeply before flattening out above Mica Lake. I looked at where I needed to go with trepidation. What would have normally been a switchback trail on a steep slope was covered in snow. The snow wasn't soft enough to plunge step, yet the very top layer was melty enough on top of the hard snow that it was really slippery.

Should I even attempt this? I wondered. I stood staring between my map and the landscape I could see. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I would have liked to have an ice ax and crampons. But I certainly hadn't wanted to carry those things if I didn't need them- and why was this section so much worse than other passes of the same elevation? Red Pass had been no big deal at all.

For the record, descents are much scarier for me than ascents. I didn't grow up skiing or snowboarding, so steep snow is still fairly unfamiliar. Plus, the situation was compounded by being alone. I wanted to be very conservative in my decision-making, considering I was so far out with so few people passing by. This is not the place to break a leg, I told myself sternly.

In a patch of bare dirt before the descent, I could see the words "Big Stick :)" etched. On the snow, I could also see the fat indentation of his walking stick, a distinct quarter-size impression that was different from the tiny dot of trekking poles.

I felt comforted knowing that he had gone down this way in tennis shoes and a wooden stick. I also felt comforted knowing I had some mountaineering skills under my belt from the basic mountaineering class I took this spring. Honestly, if I hadn't taken that class, I would have seriously considered not continuing. 

Instead, I took the snow basket off one of my trekking poles and shortened it, getting ready to use it like an ice ax. I put away the other pole, tightened my pack, and began crossing the steep snow toward the exposed trail, kicking steps. It was tiring. I self-belayed with the pole, and hacked into the hillside with the toe of my boot on step at a time. I was just five feet from reaching the bare trail when I slipped. I started sliding but quickly self-arrested with my pole. From there since I was already below the trail, I just continued down the basin on the snow. It was slow-going as I was very cautious. Finally I got to where I could see Mica Lake, but I wasn't positive where the trail went. 
Looking back to what I descended on Fire Creek Pass
I was getting pretty tired, and briefly considered just camping on the snow and continuing in the morning. But I realized the snow would be harder in the morning. Plus, I was meeting a friend on Cloudy Pass in a couple days, and I couldn't just forgo those last five miles of the day, as it would be really hard to cover the extra miles later. 

I pressed on, walking to overlooks to scout out the route, and reconsulting my map. One section I ended up down-climbing the rock because that seemed safer than the snow. One part by the lake I followed a trail that ended up dead-ending at a campsite. 

I finally made it below the lake and the trail was snow-free. By that time it was around 7:30pm and I had covered probably 3/4 of a mile since the pass. I was so relieved to be able to walk on a trail though. I descended on the steep hillside on endless switchbacks down toward the next river. 

There were more gnat-like bugs in the air than I have ever experienced anywhere. I ate about 10 and probably 15 flew into my eyeball before I finally pulled out my mosquito net to protect my face. Now I was cruising! It was just getting dark, so I pulled out my headlamp and walked as fast as I could.

I skidded to a halt as my headlamp illuminated a hole gouged in the middle of the trail. Like, there was no trail, just the remnants of a landslide and rocky scree that dropped off to 40 feet below. The section of missing trail was probably eight feet wide- impossible to step or jump across. I stared at the empty space in disbelief. 

This wasn't fair! A rough trail is one thing... but no trail at all? I backed up, and climbed up into the brush and small trees above the trail. It was incredibly steep, and my heart was pounding as I crossed uphill of the hole, holding tightly to saplings and shrubs in a "veggie belay" method.

I finally set up camp around 10pm and was too tired to even eat dinner. I had a couple piece of beef jerky and crawled into bed.

Day 5 took me back up and out of the that river valley. There were patches of snow, but nothing like the day before.
It was another hot, sunny day, and I got gorgeous view of the glaciers on Glacier Peak.
Late that afternoon, as I descended into the Suiattle River valley, I stopped on a log to have a snack. After two days of expecting to see someone, I was completely started when a man came around the bend.

He was a south-bound through-hiker from Kentucky named Cowgirl. We were both happy to have some company. He joined me on the log, and we chatted and rested and swapped trail info. Because the south-bounders start from Canada and it's still a bit early-season, they expect snow in a way the north-bounders don't. He had an ice ax and I gave him a heads-up about Fire Creek. 

I asked him about the upcoming trail junction- there was an old PCT trail that crossed the Suiattle sooner, but it was questionable how defined the old trail was, and how safe the old crossing. The new trail added five miles, but went across the new and huge Suiattle bridge. He had actually taken the old route, but he said that even with GPS it had been pretty hard to find. 

While we were sitting there, thunder rolled a couple times. I did notice that it seemed darker than usual for that time of day, but I thought nothing of it. I wanted to hang out longer, happy to have a friend, but we both wanted to cover a few more miles that evening. I had about three more miles to the river. So we said farewell and I bounded on.

No more than five minutes after leaving Cowgirl, something hit me on the head. Ouch! I thought, thinking something had fallen out of a tree. Then in an instant of thunder and a whooshing noise, I realized I was getting pelted by large hailstones. I was so shocked at this sudden change from the hot, dry weather that I didn't know what to do. I had barely even seen hail this big in western Washington. The hail turned to sheets of rain as lightning lit the trees. Should I set up my tent now and take shelter from the storm? I wondered. 

But again, I really wanted to cover my miles so that I didn't get behind schedule. I quickly stopped to weather-proof my pack. I stuffed my sleeping bag into a dry bag, put everything on the outside of my pack inside, put my iPod and camera in a ziplock, and threw on my pack cover. Then I pressed on.

I was pretty wet, but it wasn't too cold as long as I was moving. The rain retreated to a drizzle, then a sprinkle. I was now on the new section of PCT that had just been built along with the new bridge. It was completely flat, wide, and free of fallen logs. I could walk blissfully fast and unimpeded. Old growth cedar and hemlock rose up around me like titans, wrapped in the post-storm mist and glowing with the grey-silver of the sky. It was probably my favorite hiking experience of the whole trip. The only other place I had seen this much old-growth in a river valley in Washington was on the Hoh River trail in the Olympics. It was stunningly timeless and beautiful, and I felt supremely happy to be there, even alone and soaking wet.

The next day was my last day alone. I left the Suiattle River and started the steady ascent up toward Suiattle Pass. I passed a large group in an adult Outward Bound mountaineering class, as well as young south-bound French couple who planning to make it all the way to Mount Whitney. 

There were breaks of sun in the cloudy sky, but in the afternoon I heard thunder again. This time, I wouldn't be caught unprepared. I again battened down the hatches on my pack and put away my electronics. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, the downpour and lightning started. By the time I got to my trail junction, it had stopped. Right before Suiattle Pass, I exited the PCT and headed toward Cloudy Pass.
Leaving Suiattle Pass, crossing scree field to get to Cloudy Pass
And there was my friend waiting for me, just as we had planned. It was so surreal to hike for nearly a week, then one day just come across a friend on a pass in Glacier Peak Wilderness. We had planned to camp there, but with the lightning storm decided to get off the pass and head to Lyman Lake about a mile down below.
View of Lyman Lake from Cloudy Pass
We set up camp, then went to hang by the lake. He had brought two beers, which were chilling in the water. It was so nice to be with a familiar face, sip a beer, and just be able to sit and enjoy that beautiful alpine lake. What wasn't so awesome though was the number of mosquitoes. The temperature was mild, not cold but not warm, but I had to completely cover up. Even though it wasn't hot out, I couldn't resist taking a swim in lake.
Enjoying a beer with maximum mosquito protection
The next day we hiked out, covering about a dozen more miles. It was sunny again, as we passed waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and more lakes.
I had had a fabulous week, and was really proud to have done it mostly on my own. I had made it without any catastrophe, and felt good about my decision-making, from packing to route-finding.

I caught a ride back to Seattle from Chelan, and started getting ready for Phase 2 of my summer vacation- climbing Mount Rainier! To be continued...

1 comment:

ama41 said...

Sounds like an epic hike. I really should do an overnight backpack by myself! I read through the entire post, which kept me intrigued and mesmerized with your journey! Kudos!