Monday, September 2, 2013

Hiking the PCT North Days 1-4: Hurty hail, the things people carry, and a trail name

The inevitable pack comparison. Mine's second from right. It weighed the most, at least on the first day.

The Snoqualmie Pass trailhead for the PCT bustled with activity. We fiddled with our packs and future resupply boxes, well aware that the forecast was for intense downpour and flooding. "It's only 40%," one of us said with a hopeful look.

My companions were clad in pants and I second-guessed my choice of hiking skort. I was not the only one. When I was out of earshot, a woman advanced on my Alaskan hiking partner. "She's hiking the a skirt?" she asked, incredulous. Alaska Girl shrugged. "A lot of people hike in them." (Apparently, this fashion choice has not made it to northern Washington.) The woman considered this, and said, "Isn't hiking in a skirt like going on the monkeybars without underwear?"

And just like that, I had my trail name, Monkeybars. On long trails, people are often known not by their real name but by a nickname that comes from something associated with their behavior, something that happens to them, or something they are just known for. People sometimes give themselves trail names as a preemptive strike, but that is pretty lame. During our 17 days on the trail, we crossed paths with people named Bambi, Lorax, Diesel, Lint and Cherry Pie, to name a few.

As we headed up the trail through thick rain forest, day hikers streamed down. Apparently they had all been to a place they called the Catwalk, and as we hiked this place grew in significance and mystery. It must be incredible to draw such crowds, we mused. Especially up this steep trail, which did not give an inch. We could hardly wait.

Thunder rumbled in the distance as we climbed. With a sinking heart I realized that we were going to intersect violently with it. Lightning flashed across the sky and the peaks we could see were draped in dark, threatening clouds. We fumbled for our rain gear as more day hikers pounded down the trail. Each one had a different story of how far the lakes, our destination, were. Some said right around the corner, others said a couple of miles. Pelted by rain, we trudged on to...the Catwalk.

To be fair, the Catwalk, a short stretch of trail bounded by a steep drop-off, is probably better viewed in sunlight than in dense fog and lightning. At the time, swathed in sweaty rain jackets and pummeled by the storm, all we could think of is..hype. We had all walked across much greater knife-edge ridges than this. But there wasn't much time to ponder, as the storm was right overhead. We bolted for a small, strangely warm lake called, imaginatively, Ridge Lake, and hastily set up our tents in the rain. Dinner was a hurried affair spent under dripping trees. We had gone seven miles, with 273 to go. Later we were to hear that this storm was somewhat legendary, washing out the trail farther north and causing a highway to close.

The next day dawned foggy and serene. We were in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which lives up to its name. Lakes were everywhere. We skirted far below Alaska Lake and several others that looked nearly impossible to get down to, all alluring but unapproachable, just the way I like my wilderness. Mid-morning during a sunny break we exploded our packs to dry everything out, a hiker yard sale. Everything had been soaked, our rain covers collecting water underneath the packs, a sad reminder to line our packs with trash bags in this wet climate. We were still climbing in earnest, but the views of the sawtooth mountains made up for it once the fog lifted. It was my first inkling: the North Cascades are tough.

After a high point we faced a 2200 foot descent, and as we wound down through an old burn area resplendent with fireweed the trail struck again, proving that this would not be an easy stroll. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed again, along with torrential rain. This was fine enough but soon hail began to fall, increasing in size until it approached golf ball realm. We huddled under a skinny tree, the sounds of "Ouch! OUCH!" filling the air. Fortunately the hail did not reach softball size, but coated the trail in a slippery, ball-bearing way that made it difficult to navigate. Soaked to the bone, we trudged on, discovering a large river with the bridge out. Normally we would have put on flip-flops to cross, but could we really get any wetter? No, so we plowed through, discovering another trick of the Cascades. The terrain makes for limited campsites, and the only good one was occupied by J & K, another couple doing the same trek as us. We were forced to march on until we found a marginal site where all of our tent stakes nearly touched.

The next day the phenomenon known as "hiker wash" became apparent as we trudged through tall and brushy vegetation soaked with rain. Totally wet, I pondered the fact that the next two weeks might be rainy and cold, and the willpower that it takes to keep going in those conditions. Since Alaska I have become a fair weather hiker and I was feeling a bit grumpy as we tackled the 2200 foot climb to Escondido Ridge. This part of the PCT is thought to be more difficult than even the Sierras and every thru-hiker we talked to verified this. Skinny trail, much elevation change, rocky terrain, downfall and lack of available campsites all contribute to this.

The Three Queens, with Spectacle Lake below.

My mood began to lift as we gained the ridge and sunshine, where we once again had a yard sale and I was able to swim in a chilly tarn. The hiking improved too as we contoured across the ridge and past many small jewel-like ponds. Even the resulting 2200 foot descent did not deter my happiness at being out on the trail, or the extra miles we had to put in once we reached the Waptus River and saw J & K and several others ensconced in the only campsites there. Our campsite, right next to the trail, was marginal again.

Determined to beat the campsite competitors, we took off the next day before any of the herd could pass us. It was a nice rolling walk through forest, intended to fool us into submission before the next 1500 foot climb up Cathedral Pass. Scout and I hustled up the switchbacks, handily keeping ahead of two young men in red shirts, but stopped dead in our tracks when we saw a young guy with a cello sitting on the trail. Yes, he was carrying a full sized cello. Let me say this again: HE WAS BACKPACKING WITH A CELLO. "Spanish or Italian?" he asked us, and played us an impromptu concert as we nibbled our gorp and gazed out over the mountain cathedral. I have to say, that was a first for me.

We dropped down to a creek crossing where we decided to camp. It was early, only 2:15, and we had only covered 11 miles, but the rumors had spread of a "Dangerous Ford" ahead. We had even seen signs telling people that in early season they should detour for nine miles to avoid it. Rumors also abounded that there was limited camping for miles after the ford. Picking caution over valor, we stopped and watched thru-hikers bound pass us, headed for Canada. We would get there too, we thought, eventually. Maybe. It seemed too far away to even consider.


  1. I love this!! Sounds like some tough weather so far. I wonder if cello guy had a waterproof case for his instrument.

  2. The cello guy! I don't remember his trail name, but remember reading about him earlier this season, when he was giving concerts as he bopped north in the southern Cal portion of the trail. Sounds like a fun trip! :)

  3. Actually this wasn't Cuddles, the guy doing the whole PCT..I asked. This guy was only doing a section. They had a waterproof tarp for the cello. We ran into them again...on Day 5...I guess cellos are the thing to have on the trail this year.

  4. Okay, that's crazy and somehow seems odds-defying! :) That's just awesome. Looking forward to part 2! Of all the sections of the PCT I've hiked, northern Washington is my favorite - I so enjoy getting to vicariously enjoy it through others!

  5. Glad for the first report...looking forward to days 5-17! Congratulations on making a dream come true...awesome effort...and for sharing with those of us who won't get there. (I have a friend who formerly lived in Washington and said she wished she could meet you on Hart's Pass.

  6. Monkeybars! LOL. I still can't 'get' the appeal of hiking in a skirt, but there you are.
    All that rain sounds really miserable, I hope it improves after day 4!
    Glad you are home safely. I'm dealing with an achilles issue too, going to a PT next week.
    I hope it quits raining here soon...


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