Saturday, September 28, 2013

I know it isn't Idaho

I know it isn't Idaho
Where the sun goes when it goes
Down, over the river

It is the place that got away. Chances are, I would grow desperate with the ephemeral summer, the population barely scraping one hundred, the avalanches that close the road. I can't help it, though-I love this corner of Idaho.

Strange birds on the fenceline
It's going to get cold tonight
I know it isn't Idaho

A bunch of my friends and I took the long drive, down the canyon, across the prairie, to seize the last of summer in the high country.

Please ignore the blemish on the camera lens. I need to crop this picture, but it was too pretty not to include.

Who could leave it all behind
Metal flesh bone and brine
I know it isn't Idaho

I did not realize how much I had forgotten. On the way to Sawtooth Lake, an entire little lake had slipped my memory. I had forgotten all the sweet little ponds on the way to the North Fork of the Baron. In the White Clouds, I had somehow recalled the hike to Fourth of July Lake as being completely flat, a trail for beginners. Not so much. I went for a run the last morning, confident I remembered where the Nip and Tuck Road took off from the highway. I ran right past it in the early morning darkness.

Things have changed, too. A huge fire swept across the mountains, and everything looked different. In place of the endless lodgepole, hundreds of aspen are emerging.

Horses heart blood and wine
That's the color of the sun when it's dying
Down, over the river, down over the river*

Where I live now, I know it isn't Idaho. Probably the Idaho I dream about really isn't the Idaho that exists. We all have places that tug at our hearts, even if we know they might not be good or right for us. Some of you will know what I mean.

*Jeffrey Focault--Idaho

Monday, September 23, 2013

Holding On

I can't deny it--fall is here. Last week a thin dusting of snow covered the high peaks and the light is vanishing by minutes per day. While I love fall in the mountains, I have a hard time with the disappearance of summer. I want to be one of those winter people, the ones who rhapsodize about skiing, but the older I get, the less enthusiastic I become about the sedentary cold evenings in the house, forced inside by sub-zero temperatures, the white-knuckle driving through blizzards, the long, long nights. Yes, tramping through powdery snow mixed with crystals on snowshoes is fun, and if I viewed winter camping as more than a struggle to survive, I might love winter more. I just..don't.

Neither do I want to live in the tropics, though. I spent six winters in Florida and the unchanging sameness of the hard blue sky was enough to drive me around the crazy bend. I like seasons, I do. But here in the 45th parallel, they are so..unbalanced. Winter is so....long.

And to be honest, the kind of summer I love is the mountain summer, that brief time when the sun lies in a particular way on the peaks, the little bite to the air that comes with high elevation. But with mountains, you only get that for a short time. And nobody loves a whiner, especially a whiner who chooses to live somewhere and then whines about it. So what to do? Embrace the season you're in. And go backpacking while you still can.

Echo Lake is nestled at the end of a steep climb (2,300 feet in three miles) along a no longer maintained trail. You work for Echo Lake, but the reward is an evening to yourself, and because you can't sit still, a scramble up to peek over into the next lake basin.

The air is warm, still warm enough to believe that summer will last forever. With all my heart I wish I could hold on to it, just like I wish I could hold on to being young, even though I know both of those ships have sailed. 

You can stew in seasonal sadness, infecting everyone around you with useless misery, or you can march on and embrace the season you are in, and that's the only real choice to make. So long, summer. I will miss you.

Winter, I approach you with trepidation. We go back a long way, you and I. Let's do this.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

PCT Aftermath: What Worked, What Didn't

I've had three weeks to think about my section hike, which should be enough time to come up with a coherent life plan according to what I learned. Maybe I need a life coach. Oh well. Anyway, at least I can report on the gear I loved and the gear I did not love so much.

First, the numbers:

Miles: 280, give or take
Blisters: ZERO.
Bugs: Nearly zero. Used repellent maybe twice, on first few days.
Injuries: Strained Achilles, cleared up in four days
Rain: Five days out of 17.5
Days cowboy camping (sleeping without a tent): two
Strangest campsite: A trail bridge
Best campsite: Base of Glacier Peak
Trail name: Monkey Bars
Strangest person we saw: Disheveled man hurrying down the trail carrying a stuff sack and demanding to know where the lake was
Most people camped near us one night: Ten
Number of trail crews seen: Three
Number of wilderness rangers who asked to see our permit: Zero
Most pack weight: About 32 lbs
Least pack weight: About 20 lbs
Longest food carry without resupply: 103 miles
Shortest day: seven miles (day one)
Longest day: 21.2 miles (twice)
Fights with trail partner(s): Zero

I don't have a good spreadsheet of gear that I took because I'm just not that organized. Here, though, are the things that worked well:

Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek 1. LOVE. I have probably spent 100 nights in this tent. It weighs two pounds. Sets up fast. Bombproof. What's not to like?

Pack: Granite Gear Vapor Ki. Not sure they make this anymore, but it was the right choice for this trip. My lighter pack would have tugged at my shoulders with the heavier weight days. Carries well, not a problem with it at all.

Sleeping bag: Katabatic Gear 10 degree quilt. Yes, it costs half a mortgage payment. But it weighs less than a pound, dries fast and I don't feel constricted. Never felt cold. It has clips that you attach to cords that you put around your pad, so you can either have it snuggled all the way around you or loose. Love this feature.

Water treatment: Sawyer Squeeze. If you backpack, do yourself a favor and get this. It is the best thing ever invented. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Both Scout and I had these and we wouldn't go back to pump style filters.

Sleeping pad: Thermarest NeoAir (short). 11 ounces, comfy, no complaints here.

Shoes: Brooks Cascadias. See "no blisters" above.

Clothes I loved: Smartwool long underwear, even though mine now have too many holes to be worn decently; super lightweight Montbell puffy; Patagonia light rain shell and my duct taped Arcteryx rain pants. Sent my fleece home at Stehekin.

Luxury item: Kindle. I really liked reading at night in the tent. Scout had an Ipod and listened to podcasts. I could often hear her laughing from her tent.

Stove: Scout's, and she carried it. I carried a ginormous fuel canister. We had no issues with her stove except on one rainy night when we left it out. I can't remember what kind it is, but it's similar to a pocket rocket.

Food: Both of us agreed that we could have done without all the freeze-dried food. It did a number on our stomachs. If we had to eat it, the Pack-It Gourmet stuff was the absolute winner. Food we both liked: Idahoan mashed potatoes, Lipton Sides Spicy Thai, and chocolate, lots of chocolate. Scout, knowing that downhills were difficult, also gave me some of her licorice jellybeans and said, "On this downhill, use these wisely." I chomped a lot of Sports Beans, cheese, and jerky. I never really got all that hungry on this trip for some reason.

Guthook App: This was Scout's too. She had it cached on her phone, and while looking at a mobile device in the wilderness felt strange, it saved us by letting us know if there were campsites ahead and how far, and most importantly, water.

Hairbrush: It became our ritual to brush our hair in the morning. Because, you know, you have to look pretty on the trail. Funny and true: I was wearing braids one day and an older couple thought I was a little kid. Ha, ha.

Baby wipes: YES. There were a lot less lakes than I anticipated.

Bladder: Many people nowadays just carry Gatorade bottles and I can see the appeal, but I still think I drink more with a hose right by my face. Would carry it again.

Stuff that wasn't so hot:

Camp/river crossing shoes: Teva Mush. Some people don't carry camp shoes, but I like them. These are super light but I was apparently packing for the Sierra, not the cold and rainy Cascades. You can't wear socks with these and I really, really wanted socks. I'd do the crocs method next time.

Solar charger/phone: Basically useless bricks. There wasn't a lot of direct sun and there was no cell phone coverage except for Stevens Pass.

Hiking skort: Don't get me wrong, I hate pants. HATE HATE. But, it was colder and rainier than I expected. Some quick dry convertible pants would have been a better choice.

Long-sleeved sun shirt: See lack of sun above. Although, I wore this when I did laundry, which beat wearing only a rain jacket.

Tyvek: I carried this mostly to sit on or to cowboy camp, and sometimes I put it under my tent. But it's not waterproof and a tent shouldn't need a groundcloth (good marketing by tent manufacturers make you think you do). Would not bring again.

Dirty Girl Gaiters: I really love these, but I love them on dusty trails. Most of the time we were walking through wet undergrowth or just plain not-dusty trails. Really did not need.

Hat and mittens: Rarely wore these, but they were good to have "just in case". I wore one pair of socks and underwear and carried another set, and washed the ones I wore out at night.

The other miscellaneous stuff I carried: headlamp, toiletries, matches, rain cover, etc, all were fine and unremarkable. Scout carried the trowel, which became a necessary item. People who say they can "dig a hole with their shoe" aren't doing it right. I also had three stuff sacks, one for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner. That helped keep bulk down and helped me organize my food better.

So what incredible conclusions did I come to? There have to be some, right? Sadly, many of my thoughts varied on the mundane:

This is hard.
This is beautiful! 
Why can't I get Joan Jett lyrics out of my head?
Why can't I just do this all the time?

So what's next? I may do another section next year, and it's a toss-up between south to the Washington border, the Trinity Alps in California, or north from Yosemite. Anyone done these? What would you suggest? I'm looking for a bit of a shorter distance next year, maybe 150 miles this time, maybe 200.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hiking the PCT North: Days 15-18: A Sound in the Night, Busting Out Big Miles In Spite of Ourselves, and CANADA!

We crossed the last highway at Rainy Pass under lingering fog, which happily broke through just as we ascended to glorious Cutthroat Pass. Perched at over 6,000 feet, we munched on our hummus and tortillas and enjoyed the sea of mountains around us. A massive scree traverse led us down to Granite Pass and then across a high slope to the place we had planned to camp. But it was early and another tent was set up, the occupants none too pleased about company, so we climbed the last 500 feet to Marr Pass, a flat bench, before dropping into another 3,000 foot descent. Along the way we ran into Cherry Pie.

"I thought you were only going to hike fourteen miles," he said. At that point, 21 miles into the day, I felt like a walking zombie. Only his claim that a good campsite lay .7 miles away was enough to keep me plodding instead of lying distraught in the trail. And a nice campsite it was, nestled in the forest, all peaceful and still...until...


I sat bolt upright in my tent. I knew in my bones that sound was our food bags falling, prey to a bear. But the light of my headlamp had been slowly weakening and I was too afraid to wander into the darkness. "Cherry Pie!" I hissed. Slowly he emerged from under his tarp and agreed to walk with me to where the bags hung undisturbed.

Feeling sheepish I returned to my tent. The huge pile of bear scat we saw early the next day only alleviated my guilt a little bit. Cherry Pie whistled off up Brush Creek, and we assured him we would not see him again. No way were we doing 21 miles again.

We aware of what our map referred to as a possible 21 mile waterless stretch on our route ahead. There were so-called seasonal creeks, but we had no way of knowing which would be running. The only option was to camel up with four liters of water at the last small spring we could find. Our previously light packs hung heavy on our shoulders and we puffed our way along a gorgeous traverse with mysterious blue-green lakes shimmering far below.

We had thought to camp at Hart's Pass, fifteen miles in, because there was an actual campground! With toilets! but as we hiked, the unwelcome thought crept in: if there was water at the campground, why did our map warn us of a waterless stretch? It can't be, I decided. All campgrounds have water! Don't they?

We started to see day hikers, a sure sign we were getting close to a trailhead, though the fire tower and gleaming cars in the distance seemed very far away. Dark clouds flirted with the mountains as we speculated whether one was Mount Baker, finally deciding it was. A day hiker lectured us on the washouts ahead. "You HAVE to take the detour," he said. We had heard about this supposed detour, adding three and a half hours to our trip. No way, we thought, pressing on. How bad could it be?

At Harts Pass, pickups laden with camping paraphrenalia drove past as we wilted in the heat. There was the campground. There were the toilets. There water. The only decision was to move forward. If we were truly in a waterless stretch, it would do no good to sit here at 2 pm and drink all of the water we carried. We trudged on, entering the Pasayten Wilderness.

The sky sprinkled lightly as we traversed through open alpine areas and up a slope feathered with young tamarack trees. We had come 21.2 miles. Again. And there was Cherry Pie in a sweet campsite right below Tamarack Peak. With a seasonal stream! "Are you going to eat all that?" he asked in wonder as we unwrapped a large chocolate bar. Yes, yes we were.

Tomorrow, Cherry Pie said, was his last night on the trail. He wasn't sure where he would camp, but wherever it was would put him in striking distance of the border. Scout and I studied the map carefully. Eighteen miles away lay Hopkins Lake, and I was possessed with the idea of a Lake Day. At this point in our trek, 18 miles was nothing. We'd be there by two! And get to swim! And lounge in the sun!

A sad thing occurred in the morning. Left out in the rain, Scout's stove would not start, and she was forced to forego her morning coffee. This disaster did allow us to begin hiking early, though, into a foggy day. We climbed up and down to an underwhelming pass. Two hikers going the opposite way stopped to tell us that we had "quite a climb" ahead of us and that the washouts were "treacherous." Not feeling cheered by this news, we nevertheless stopped to enjoy the best meadow we had all trip, long and wide and perfect. From there we topped out on a pass where the sun came out long enough for us to dry our gear and for Scout to finally have coffee. Life was good.

After switchbacking down through the talus, we encountered the dreaded washouts. We had been hearing about these for weeks, and they were often referred to as impassible, dangerous, or treacherous. While concentration was needed, Scout and I both agreed that it wasn't any worse than some of the scrambling we've done off trail. Relieved, we continued on a steep climb up Woody Pass and a traverse through misty rain. At this point we reached our highest elevation of the trip--a measly 7,209 feet, accompanied by a single clap of thunder. "Oh great," I screamed, convinced that a major storm was brewing. All it did was rain, though, and thoroughly soaked, we pounded down towards Hopkins.

Scout, not intimidated by the washouts.

At this point I was forced to admit that I had acquired an overuse injury, most likely an inflamed Achilles tendon. I hobbled along behind Scout, fuming because our Lake Day was fast dissolving in a rainstorm and because my body sees fit to remind me that seventeen days without a break is too much.

We got to the junction to find a note from Cherry Pie indicating he had gone to the lake, and despite the rain we found a sheltered campsite for our last night on the trail. Our last night. I could hardly believe it. For the first time on the journey we built a campfire and huddled close, shivering in our wet socks.

Fifteen miles. That was all that lay between us and Manning Park. Popping Vitamin I, I hobbled down the trail, each step a starburst of pain. The trail, as promised, was brushy and laden with moisture. Our stuff was soaked...again. Then we rounded the corner and there it was..Monument 78.

We had done it.

We still had eight semi-boring miles to hike out to the road. We had logistics ahead of us--how to get to Seattle when we were four days early? We had only hiked 1/10th of the PCT, probably not enough to get very excited about. But it still felt like an accomplishment. We had covered 280 miles in some long, hard days. We had done it without drama, without group dynamic issues, and without major injuries. It was something to be proud of.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hiking the PCT North Days 10-14: We reach a new low, Stehekin, and Cherry Pie

My feet. My feeeet. Sometime on the ninth night as I lay in my tent, the tingling and burning in my feet increased until it felt like someone was holding a match to them. It was true that in the first few days while hiking my feet would be sore, but not like this. Was it a nerve thing? Insoles too stiff? It was hard to know. Since it would subside a few hours into lying down, I decided to ignore it and hope it went away entirely.

Otherwise, I felt fine. I leaped out of the tent to begin a difficult day. It would involve a deep dive down to the 3,000 foot level, a rolling walk through the forest, and ascending Fire Creek Pass at about 6,600 feet. We tentatively pinned our sights on Mica Lake, fourteen miles in the distance, and began to walk.

Though I had dreaded losing the elevation only to gain it again, the walk was pleasant, testing only our balance skills as we skipped across several rivers and one barely functional bridge. Our guidebook had told us we would be "struggling" upwards soon, and it was right. We huffed our way up to a gorgeous pass, where the wind whipped steadily and we could see a whole new set of mountains.

Okay, this bridge still works.
At 5,900 feet Mica Lake was a perfect jewel, but a chilly wind blew. There would be no swimming only huddling in puffy jackets. Besides, it was too early to stop and the specter of Milk Creek hung over us. We had heard about this climb for months. Swathed in thick vegetation, it was a jungle of horribleness. Our guidebook insincerely mentioned a campsite by the river, prior to the climb. Our guidebook had been wrong in the past. We trudged on.

Lovely Mica Lake. Would have loved to camp here, if it had been warmer.

As we maneuvered over huge dead trees and lost about five feet of elevation per switchback, the dull roar of the river not getting any closer, I edged towards a full-fledged bonk. Going downhill is not great at the best of times, but with perhaps not enough food and water taken in, at the end of a nineteen-mile day, I could barely sustain the pace. Scout trotted merrily down the trail, looking strong. It seemed like we would never reach the bottom, but finally we did. To find...


Ten Sierra Club tents.

And no room for us.

I collapsed in the path, close to a tantrum. What to do? Surely we couldn't ascend the 4 miles up from the creek today. There was absolutely nowhere to even throw down a sleeping bag--the terrain was too thick and steep. The Clubbers had even brushed out their site to fit their tents, a surprising decision for a group that I thought was more Leave No Trace in nature.

Then I saw it. A trail bridge. It was flat. It was our only option.

We put our sleeping bags out on the bridge, feeling a bit like zoo animals as the Clubbers took pictures of us, came to chat, and even bore whiskey to our makeshift camp. It was true, the bridge was comfortable, although I didn't sleep at all. I listened to the water pass underneath, watched the bats swoop low and a full moon graze the shoulders of the peaks.

"At least we're not sleeping UNDER the bridge," Scout observed.

This was true.

Scout with one of her Sierra Club visitors.

In the morning we rose stiffly and packed our condensation-soaked bags. To our delight, though, an intrepid trail crew had brushed out the former jungle that was the Milk Creek climb. Though steep, it was sweet, with views of a glacier-clad mountain as we ascended. At the top as we dried out our stuff in the sun, a forty-ish thru-hiker named Diesel passed by, telling us that he had "only" done thirty miles yesterday. He shook his head in disgust.

We rolled on through open alpine country, populated with fat marmots, back up at the 6,000 foot level. This was of course going to change, as we plunged another 4,000 feet down to the mighty Suiattle River. A few years ago a log crossing washed out over this river and now the PCT is five miles longer, as you walk downstream for a flat, huge cedar-lined 2.5 miles and back up again on the other side, ending up where you would have crossed in the first place. We easily covered 17 miles, camping at Miner's Creek.

View from Fire Creek pass, showing switchbacks.

The next two days took us back up 3,000 feet and all the way down to 1,500 and the Stehekin River. We covered the last 9.7 miles in three hours and clambered on the 12:00 bus to town. There we were faced with town chores: get resupply. Sort through resupply. Exclaim in wonder over all the food we had packed. Shower. Laundry. Since there was no room in the campground, the Park Service directed us to a lawn in front of the visitor center, which wasn't as bad as it sounded.

Stehekin is a cute little town, a place I could imagine living. Funky houses nestled in the trees and the sunset was amazing. Unfortunately I suffered from food poisoning here and couldn't fully rest and recover. I was definitely operating at a calorie deficit, but staying another day wasn't too appealing. There still wasn't room at the campground, and if we were going to sleep in a tent, we might as well sleep in a tent on the trail. We boarded the bus with a high-energy section hiker named Cherry Pie, who was hiking 20-28 mile days. No way, we reassured ourselves. This last 90 miles was going to be a stroll. Fourteen mile days only, we promised ourselves.

The twenty miles before Rainy Pass are all in North Cascades National Park, and we had to say where we were going to camp for the night. This annoyed us because often where you stop is a function of the weather and how you are feeling. But since we had to, we picked a spot. Though our guidebook had promised us a viewless hike, we were entranced by the Sierra-like vistas and deep canyon. Chatting with Cherry Pie, who was finishing up a project of hiking the PCT from Northern California to Canada, the miles went quickly.

As we cowboy camped at Hideaway Camp, the sparks from the other campers' fire rising into the air, I realized we had very few miles left. Eight miles to the last highway we would cross, and then s
eventy miles, which in the beginning had seemed to far, now seemed like nothing. Our hike was coming to an end.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hiking the PCT North, Days 5-9: The Dangerous Ford, Secrets of the Locals, A Garnet Thief, Creepy Woods and the Best Hiking Day Ever

I always like Day 5 of a backpacking trip. Long enough to completely surrender to the current of the wilderness, yet not so long that you start dreaming of salads and beds. We awoke determined to have a Lake Day, the kind where you roll into camp early, swim, rinse out all your salt-stained garments while wearing your rain gear. Glacier Lake, a paltry eleven miles away, seemed to fit the bill.

But first there was the "Dangerous Ford" to conquer. We had been hearing about this the entire time. Signs warned of dire consequences and urged us to take a lower bypass route. Hikers in the other direction spoke of its slippery nature. Quaking in our Cascadias, we pressed on to find....a stream of no consequence, punctuated by boulders. "This can't be it," I puffed as I regained the trail. But it was, and if you picked your route carefully, the water barely reached my knees.

Scout looks pretty intimidated by the Dangerous Ford.

Buoyed with confidence and several liters of unnecessary water because we had mistakenly heard that the route ahead was dry, we pressed on over several "passes" in the woods and past lovely Deception Lake, where a trail crew was laboring on the tread. Along the way we passed three thru-hikers going southbound. Two of them had flip-flopped from Sierra City hoping to beat the snows and one was just starting on his trek to Mexico. "The North Cascades kicked my butt," he moaned, but perked up enough to state, "I'm carrying a soccer ball with me!" A cello, now a soccer ball. What next?

Okay! Guess we won't go there!

The long drop to Glacier Lake.

Glacier Lake, serene and turquoise, lived up to the hype once we were finally able to find a campsite. In the morning it was hard to leave as we meandered through several lake basins. At Hope Lake a local came wandering up and informed us that there was a trappers cabin just off the trail that we had to visit. While reluctant to take extra steps, I soon scouted out the trail and hiked down to the cabin, to find that it was being fixed up with a new door and other "improvements", with "Keep it Secret" spray-painted across the door.

The Murderer's Lair.

My companions pattered down the trail uneasily. "What's the safe word?" Scout hollered. Unbeknownst to me, they had seen the local hiking out without me in tow, and had concluded I had been murdered (or just tied up) in the woods. I realized I have lived in a small town way too long. For the rest of the trip we referred to the harmless local as "The Murderer", as in, "There's the Murderer fishing over there."

After all this excitement the rain began to fall softly as we sped over a pass and down to Lake Susan Jane. Within sight of the ski  lift towers, and drenched in further torrential rain, it was not our favorite night. Shivering in wet shoes, we still appreciated the pika-occupied talus slopes of the lake. Glumly we packed up the next morning, knowing that two of our group were leaving here. Stevens Pass has a downhill mountain bike park open on weekends and bike riders in body armor watched curiously as we spread our wet gear, occupying a large portion of the patio.

Scout and I were now on our own for the next 210 miles. It was with a feeling of trepidation that we put our resupply in our packs and hiked into the unknown. The Glacier Peak Wilderness is renowned for its toughness and we soon found out why. The trail clings to the side of mountains, climbs steeply and swoops down, is littered with downfall and rocks. Over it all the snow-clad peaks of the mountain dominate. It takes your breath away in more ways than one.

We passed the deep bowl of Lake Valhalla, too early to consider camping, and pressed on to Lake Janus, its less beautiful sister. Mist rose off the lake like someone lifting a curtain to reveal our twisted route for the next day. It was a rollercoaster of steep climbs to high meadows and down through the forest past lakes and back up again. At mile 2496 of the PCT we stopped to admire the view. A camo-clad man with an empty backpack wove into view.

Stabbing at the map with a finger, he showed us our route: down through the forest and back up along an alpine slope. We could see the switchbacks in the distance. Scout, always friendly, wanted to know his destination.

"I'm just going over here to collect garnets," he replied nonchalantly, heading purposefully off the trail. Scout and I looked at each other. Collecting semi-precious stones in the wilderness? Wasn't that illegal? And why did people keep showing us questionable stuff? We must look harmless, we decided.

About that time a god appeared, in the form of a bare-chested thru-hiker in skimpy running shorts. (Note to husband: I like you better). Beaming with the knowledge he would be in Canada on Thursday (!) he mentioned he was hiking 40 mile days and inquired about us.

"Well, about fourteen to fifteen miles a day," Scout replied. The hiker was taken aback, but recovered gracefully.

"That's nice," he said. After he was out of earshot we howled with laughter, imagining the thought process: fifteen miles a day? I do that before lunch! 

Descending and ascending more switchbacks than seemed necessary, we dropped down into the only camping area for some time, which I immediately dubbed the Creepy Woods. Similar sore-footed souls had come to rest there as well, although a perky couple tried to encourage us to continue on up the next pass. Hike five more miles? That would be a 19 mile day! No way, we thought. No way could we ever do that.

The next day we regretted our decision as we climbed to a long, sprawling traverse and the best day of hiking ever. The trail rolled through alpine tundra, past the jewel that is Lake Sally Ann, and each step revealed a new set of mountains. Climbing over two passes,  imaginatively named Red and White, we chose the best campsite ever, too, high on a hill with a view of Glacier Peak. We had come 17 miles on a perfect, perfect day. Things could only get better from here, we thought. We imagined more gentle traverses, blue-sky days and incredible campsites. How wrong we were...

Lake Sally Ann

Best site ever, even though we had to climb a hill to get there.

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.