I was half awake at 2am in our camp at Susan Jane Lake aside a retreating bolder covered mountainside that towered a thousand feet above us. Two leaves brushed along the tent fly making semicircular sillouetes for me to stare at while my thoughts went round my head of the days ahead. Everything else in the valley was dead still. Suddenly out of that ocean of stillness came a rapidly approaching rumble.
We had walked out of town after two wonderfully relaxing days of sausage and cider with Jen’s parents in Leavenworth. It was time to get serious with some real hiking in this 70-mile section from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie. We have to move now, we should be doing 20+ mile days every day till November to make it before the snow comes. My feet hurt just thinking about it.
The problem that day was we left late and weren’t far from civilisation when we decided to camp early due to post-zero day laziness, sore knees and a even sorer Washington apple filled head.
As listened to the rumble I wondered if it was truck shifting down gears on the highway we had crossed earlier and remembered living close to large avenues in Mexico City. But there was a whole mountain between us and the highway. Maybe it was a plane?
I started to slip off to sleep again and as I drifted off I heard the same sound again in the distance. This time it was deeper and louder. It came from the west with a dull but rapidly increasing rumble, then the sound got louder and closer, then sharper as rocks shifted on our valley’s walls.
The adrenaline started surging. We were having an earthquake. My body always reacts faster than my own realisation of what’s going on. After experiencing being in large quakes, your body takes over in future situations. Not much time for rational thought, just enjoy the rush and hope you’re in the right spot.
I heard bolders shift, crack and clack together close to us across the water and at the very same time the floor jolted up. My sleeping pad amplified the wave.
Then it was gone even faster than it came and again it was just me again in my rational thought but with my eyes wide, pressed against my pad and the feeling of four espressos inside.
We found out later that it was a 4.8 and close to the trail. It was the talk of the trail the next morning.
It seemed for a minute this Monday morning that we had neither the food nor the energy to do the big miles needed that day to get us close to the highway to town after this past long section.
We stood at the bottom of a long downhill in the fog with our feet soaked from ferns which is pretty common in Washington, wrapped in our filthy runners, our bodies sore and stinking, our garbage bag bulging as the food bags were rapidly shrinking. But happy as Larry, obviously.
I always tell myself when things are down a little bit that the pain and rain are worth it and even then it’s better than the metro in rush hour or the out of hours work messages. But our bodies hurt and we had a long day ahead so even then it’s a bit of a challenge.
We were at the bottom of a long descent from our camp and, despite the descriptions above, were going strongly into a near 20 mile day as we bumped into some other SOBO thru hikers breaking down their camp and were spurred on after sharing jokes and complaints about the weather and our food. A quick change like that and everything looks up. We’d met all of them previously, Amber, Jordan, Black Hole, Poppins and Locahontas who now dub them(our)selves SloBos.
SloBo (noun): Compound of slow-mo and sobo, decided on after a fraught battle between SoboSlomo, SlomoSobo and obviously SoMoSloBo.
Anyway, we might feel a little slow at times but we’re far from it. We’re safely managing bigger and more consistent days now. Every day is in the high teens and we’re slowly creeping towards that magical 20 mile average. This last section marks the time we became actual thru hikers. We can do this.
In the past week we’ve come far in many ways since our last zero day in Stehekin (bakery) 108 miles ago on my birthday.
The day after my 36th (ouch) we packed up our mouse semi-chewed resupply (thanks Stehekin PO) and heaved them on, naively mocking their weight, now a little over 30 pounds (about 14 kilos) with food and no water. Ouch. Some people have heavier, no idea how they manage.
Before leaving, we did last minute chores and spruced ourselves up in one of those quarter eating showers you have to presoap before using to get the most bang for your literal buck.
We did that and hit the trail, via the Stehekin bakery of course. Let me say now, I patronised that establishment three times in three days, and nothing, nothing, beats the chicken pocket. Garden protein bomb delight. Must’ve been 1000 calories. Perfect.
The weather was absolutely glorious and we enjoyed the Stehekin river for a while and headed up the way. I was cursing the extra Hershey’s bars I didn’t think we needed as I remembered how a heavy carry out of town feels.
The sun was hot and everything ached after a day off. Days off (zeros) make you weak in the short term but stronger over the long run I kept thinking that as my feet pounded and back ached as we arrived in camp.
Red Feather camped by us that night, a multi-medal winning Canadian Olympic cyclist and speed skater. Just to make us feel strong, you know? Needless to say we didn’t see her again. We saw yesterday that she was already three huge days ahead of us. She’s doing 25-30 miles a day.
We were raided by mice that night, as we are most nights. I deserved it as I had mocked the west coast mice on the Stehekin shuttle to some flippers. The rodent gods were obviously listening and decided to stick it to me by sending their best that eve to chew open the bottom of my lazily placed food bag. Luckily only ruining a bag of peanut butter pretzel bits. Everything else was untouched and the bag now with duct tape was good to go.
Those extra Hershey’s didn’t seem so heavy now we’d lost the pretzels and we headed off over the bridgeless creek, steeply upwards into the thick forest and the ever so slightly encroaching fog.
That second foggy night Jen woke and told a bear outside our tent (maybe) to fudge off loudly practically giving me a heart attack in the process. Might have been a deer or cougar I suppose. Whatever it was it snorted at the tent.
I hobbled out the next morning with a new little injury. My muscle on my shin was tight and “shin splints” was mentioned for a second time. Old Jake would’ve freaked out more but I’ve been through more than my share of tendon and muscle issues so after a minute of stress I figured out the stretches, necked an anti-inflammatory and rolled it out with my pole to prevent it getting out of control.
Jen had a similar experience with her calf and so did much the same with a similar result: other minor injuries that need to be managed on the daily that’ll fade with time. All part of the trail.
I had blocked thru hiking foot pain from my memory and thought I was immune. I’m definitely not, especially on a Sobo schedule. Foot pain is here to stay. Sometimes it is agonising, but usually it is bearable.
The views at times in this section were jaw dropping such as Mika Lake, still mostly frozen. We arrived to shock sunshine and the perfect lunch spot. If it had been sunnier I would’ve had a dip.
Red and White Pass were intense and each time the fog dispersed enough to offer us a view or three. We got glimpses of pure magic before the grey curtain swept in again to cover the mountains. We had a rougher and more typically weather-swept Washington than the last section.
We covered the last 60 miles in three days and that was really something considering how challenging it was with extreme ups and downs, dangerously slippy snow covered passes (read Jen’s upcoming post for a related story) and the inevitable drizzle. The penultimate 19.7 mile day we did ended by 5pm in the blazing sun, our feet weren’t screaming and we had dried our gear and we felt like champions.
A new challenge awaited us though, clouds of mosquitoes and they’re here to stay.
When we arrived to Steven’s Pass, a ski resort on the highway we were very ready for a zero day, possibly a second one or at least a short second day.
We’re in Leavenworth, 35 miles from the trail. It’s a Bavarian themed town… ‘murikuh! Jen’s parents are very generously treating us. We’re here for the sausages and steins, the resupply and the mini golf. Absolutely love it.
We’ve got several things to sort out and buy and clean and send and collect and reorganise and eat of course. Busy as usual.
We now have our new tent – the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 which is bigger and a little lighter. It will help our sanity by having more space and a relative palace to hide from the coming mosquitoes.
Jen also has a new Enlightened Equipment quilt and is very happy. She’s in the bathroom using the tub to find an elusive hole in her pad. Once she’s found that, she’ll have the best sleeping setup.
We said we should hike the PCT in the Black Horse English pub in Mexico City in 2017 on our first date.
We didn’t know each other in 2015, but we had both hiked the John Muir Trail at almost the same time. Jen had gone SOBO and I’d gone NOBO. We missed each other by a day or so at Whitney and would have stopped for a chat as you do but we met a couple years later. We both lived in Mexico City.
Now we live in the woods.
Reaching the border had been far from easy. Jen’s parents very helpfully drove us to Hart’s Pass through the mountains of northern Washington which rival the Alps. This is where most SOBOs (or southbounders) start from, having to walk north first to tag the border.
They dropped us at Hart’s Pass and gave a hitch back to Mazama to Broken Toe just as he finished his annual section hike to the border and back. He was going to collect his van to set up trail magic at Hart’s.
We, however, first had 31 miles over snow (or so we thought) to the border and then we had to return the same 31 miles, starting our PCT SOBO thru hike on the border. But the views here are so stunning the repeat does not matter. We’re underway now. 10 miles to a campsite today and about 13 tomorrow. Apparently it might rain. Almost glad I misread the forecast, this is a surprise.
(It’s now 1:40am and the rain is pounding down onto our frankly tiny leaky tent.)
We’re 6.6 miles from the Canadian border which we made it to exactly 12 hours ago. I fell asleep at about 8pm and now I’m wide awake listening to the rain outside. Hikers are rarely up much beyond 9pm but my sleep cycles doesn’t really match up at the moment. We hiked in glorious sun with vistas yesterday and the following morning but now the rain is here.
Getting to the Canadian border means we’re now officially southbound thru hikers on the PCT. Previous to that moment we had been northbound section hikers. A strange experience compared to other hikes because you get to see those hikers a day or two ahead of you and behind you. This year is also busier than usual. I’ll get to that later.
The border monument was glorious and unexpected, blasted by the sun coming down into the 10 yard wide border, sliced through the pine forest the length of the Canadian border. This is a place mainly signalling the end of a NOBO’s 2650 mile hike and the start of Canadian land. For us it meant the beginning of the 2650 mile journey to Mexico, our country of residence till just three weeks ago.
We left late after drying everything following a big downpour the night before and slackpacked (just taking the necessary for the day) down to the border by 1pm.
We had the place to ourselves for about twenty minutes and posed for pictures and executed poorly positioned timer shots of both of us pretending we didn’t have about four mosquitoes on each leg. We signed the monument book to register our tagging of the border. Hadn’t really considered what I would say so I said something factual about where I was headed and added a second mosquito to a future trend in that book then we hiked off back to Hopkin’s Lake to camp, contemplating the gargantuan trail ahead of us. An experience that will no doubt shape us in some way. At least in terms of stomach size and calf tone.
Later the next day we stopped to set up the tent to avoid a heavy downpour 8 miles after Hopkin’s Lake and I’m glad we did because it hasn’t stopped raining now for ten hours. Jen’s blog post above beautifully describes all the gory details. Happy not to be walking in it like most surely did as it started at 2pm and camp sites are sparce in these steep hills.
With or without rain though, the land here is nothing short of awesome, in the dictionary sense. Huge crags, lined with snow tower above us at low elevations and we walk alongside them after conquering the switchbacks. Each turn gives you a unique view of the same stunning backdrop of Washington’s peaks. We hike over snow patches, some sketchy though most carefree. I only used my microspikes in one section when it was slushy and was giving way steep above a boulder with my name on it.
Away from the small snow crossings, most sections have steady with long ascents and descents that are a joy to walk on. The PCT is pack animal grade which is luxury for hiking and even in the most challenging sections you can more or less accurately predict when you’ll get somewhere.
Hiking this amazing trail alongside us are a lot of flip floppers. These were northbound thru hikers who didn’t want to go through the Sierra in the insane snow. I’ve heard crazy stories from Sunny and others about the climb up Forrester Pass and so I’m not surprised they changed their hiking plans. Others flipped to Oregon, to northern California, took time to go to San Francisco and then go sobo. This year is a bit of a crazy one I guess. Hikers are spread out all over the trail which should lead to the meeting of many more hikers, hearing of many more tales and reunited hiker parties. 2019, the most integrated year for the PCT?
Flipped hikers are easy to spot. They’re a more rugged and permadirty bunch than we currently are and in considerably better trail shape. I think most sobos were initially a little shocked by the number but after a couple of days everything is nicely spread out and they’re all lovely, they just have a bit more of a been-in-‘Nam-too-long look, more leg muscles, experience and stories to share. It felt like the first day in primary school and it now feels like highschool.
We felt the difference the first time at Hart’s. Broken Toe now had his trail magic set up. He had his van and a hot fire and tea and veggies, a hiker box and a good focal point for flippers and SOBOs, fresh and bordered all together. Broken Toe hiked the Appalachian Trail the same year as I did (2012) and he now hosts the official SOBO kick off (my words) magic at Hart’s and I think he’ll be going back earlier next year.
It’s perfect stop over with lots of good stories and a good group were hanging out sharing advice, weather reports and talking about tales of the 16 hour rain storm the day before. He hosted around 15 hikers round his camp fire, saving many from soaked and literal frozen misery. We missed that night in a tent covered in snow but we’ll hear those tales in Stehekin I’m sure.
After leaving Hart’s, the next two days were fantastic. The view coming up out of Hart’s was amazing and took our breath away. You just have to see it.
It was totally unexpected and then was our view for the next couple of hours as we sailed down the switchbacks to the valley floor. The hike stepped up a notch in terms of elevation gains and losses but it’s still smooth sailing on gentle sweeping trail.
We did 16 miles after a late start out of Hart’s Pass full of energy and enthusiasm after spending some time at Broken Toe’s. Then we did 18 to a site just north of the North Cascades National Park and tomorrow morning we get up at 4am to try and get the 12:30pm bus 17 miles from here. We’re going to hike with Sam and Ben, two SOBOs and Sunny, a Dutch flipper who had egged us along to do it. It’ll be worth it though.
Tomorrow (or today when I publish this) we get to Stehekin where we have our first zero and also mail drop waiting for us (I hope!) We will have to clean ourselves and our gear, sort what needs to be sent home, what needs to be ordered online (new tent for us, quilt for Jen and new Lone Peaks for me)
Tomorrow morning we head off to Hart’s Pass to start the PCT SOBO.
Jen’s parents have been wonderful hosts and have gone out of their way to help us get ready for this hike. They’ve filled us with pizza and Snowgoose icecream, taken us to Costco and much much much more. Thank you.
We’ve spent the last four days post-shakedown hike mixing the mad purchase and preparation of gear and food/resupply boxes with relaxation with Jen’s family and friends on Samish Island, WA. It’s a beautiful little spot on the Puget Sound right on the Pacific Northwest Trail (the PNT) near Anacortes and I had the highest honor of attending the event of the century at the Samish Island mass garage sale as well as a delicious spaghetti dinner cooked by a family friend Jan yesterday. Delicious.
Much of the last couple of days has been spent repackaging an assortment of meals and snacks into the first five stages of the trail: Harts to Stehekin, then to Steven’s, then Snoqualmie, then White. We will be sending these packages to ourselves at post offices and hotels down the trail for the first 30 days or so. After that, we’ll see.
There’s not a great deal of choice in these places and we’d rather have a decent food selection than scraping by on Sour Patch Kids. I’d never done this so thoroughly before, so it was a good learning experience and one we don’t think we could have done without doing our 12 day jaunt in the Olympic National Park first. We hope our food is varied enough we won’t want to throw it into the nearest hiker box.
This evening it was great to see all my gear for the PCT all in one place at one time. This is the first time it’s happened as on our Olympic National Park hike I had most everything I do now, but I’ve since made a few tweaks and added in some clothing especially as it’s forecast to have highs in the low 30s (around 0*C) and a few days of snow in the next week where we’re heading. Then we have my birthday in Stehekin in 85* sunshine. Perfect.
It’s so nice to not have a bear canister anymore as I was lugging that 3lb bad boy around for almost two weeks. That weight’s gone, but now I have a set of Hillsound Crampons Ultra that I’m pretty excited about. Even though it’s almost a pound of weight, they’re super comfortable and seem really sturdy and should help out quite a bit on the icy sections we have coming.
I’m not sure what my base weight is because honestly I couldn’t care less about the exact number, just as long as I’m lighter than the AT and I know I am. I just go lightweight and don’t fret about it too much. I might ask the post office worker tomorrow to let me throw it on the scale and see where I’m at. I know I could drop my cotton camp shirt and a couple little bits here and there, but for now, I’m just fine and my backpack packs down small even with 4 days of food in. Let’s do this!
After a night in a “cheap” motel in Forks and plenty of town food and hygiene, we hopped on board the 50 cents bus to Amanda Park via the Hoh Indian Reservation and then hitched up to Graves Creek Trailhead with a Colombian family whose friends happen to be hiking NOBO this year: Lupine and Happy Bear. Anyone got a picture of them? It would be cool to see them as we sail past each other in Oregon, high fiving with a picture to send our friends who drove 25 miles out of their way to drop us near the trailhead.
We started a little late and smashed out the 13.5 miles up to Enchanted Valley in about 7 hours. It was very easy terrain and we’re far from going at thru hiking speeds yet, yet it felt great to do some decent miles with a full pack on without the interruption of seaweed covered rocks to slow us down. Our (mainly my) feet were still sore from a long road walk the previous morning but we were feeling stronger than before.
The Enchanted Valley is a truly beautiful spot. A ranger station is inside a huge building on the edge of the Quinault River and checks everyone’s permits coming in to camp. It was a busy Father’s Day weekend so quite a few people were camped out, but the camping area is huge and there’s plenty of space so we felt like it was our own.
The view was stunning, and for the first time in quite a long time I had huge mountains in my face towering over us. Streams crashed down the peaks above us in almost continuous skinny waterfalls. I’d secretly packed out a liter of wine and surprised Jen with it at the camp fire. We slept for almost 12 hours that night, full and tipsy and rose later than most to enjoy our breakfast and lunch in grassy meadows below the majestic view.
Wishing we had reserved two nights on our permits to enjoy the valley more, we walked back out to camp at Pony Bridge. Gliding past a big herd of what I initially thought was deer, then as I wondered why they were so big and ugly, realized they were in fact, elk. We got down to Pony Bridge and camped just above a deep gorge. My photography skills don’t do it justice, but here it is:
We got out very early the next day, had a slow and road walky hitch and headed over to the Hoh Rainforest to hike up to the Blue Glacier. Getting some biscuits and gravy first. Obviously.
Once I got to Seattle I was glad to hang out with a good friend there I know from Mexico City for a few hours. He hooked me up with a place to crash as I got in so late. We visited REI the next morning and got some great biscuits and gravy at Five Points Cafe. After a stroll down 3rd that made the Denver addicts look like amateurs, I said cheerio to Grant and headed off to Amtrak to meet Jen and her mum on their way back from Portland.
Once we got to Samish Island, we spent the evening eating, catching up chatting planning and packing before our short night’s sleep. The next morning we took a ferry to Port Townsend. It was a short trip across the water but we could see the mountains of the Olympic National Park across the way and suddenly everything felt quite real. This adventure was actually going to happen!
We spent the next several hours traveling bus to bus along the northern Olympic coast, stopping via the Wilderness Information Center and got our passes and information from ranger Brenden.
As soon as we arrived in Neah Bay, a guy from the Makah Reservation stopped in his pickup and offered us a lift without us even sticking out our thumbs. We jumped in the back and he drove down the dusty road that diverted us around a small forest fire, stopping at key spots so we could take shots of the beaches an stacks from his pickup. He dropped us off at the Shi Shi beach trailhead (pronounced Shy Shy) seemingly pretty excited about the fact that I was English shouting to some other hikers “He’s English!” and in return the Russians shouted less enthusiastically that they were Russian.
We set up our tent on Shi Shi beach and we contemplated our coastal adventure of about 50 miles ahead, struggling to cook efficiently, being disorganized with our gear and feeling a bit untested in the outdoors. That’s what this trip was for though – let’s fudge this up and learn from it for the PCT.
We settled down as a misty haze rolled in and the sun turned it a dark yellow during sunset. The next day we woke up to an overcast sky that burnt off in a couple of hours and glorious sunshine and beautiful views across the beaches came through. The forecast was basically the same for the next five days: glorious and hot. We looked at our maps and studied the tidetables for the 14th time and decided we had a nice relaxing 8 miles to our next campsite North of Ozette.
We headed off down Shi Shi and hit our first headland with ropes up the side of slopes way too dangerous to climb without this helping hand. We ascended and descended about three of these immense challenges on the first day. The last being the steepest and craziest, jumping off into a new environment. We settled down, feet and body sore and realized this wasn’t going to be a cake walk in the sun we had naively figured.
The pattern of challenging but really enjoyable and fun days continued with gorgeous sunshine, making this normally wet and grey coast into something that could easily rival Mexico for beach beauty. Each part of the coast is distinct from the last: hard climbs over headlands using ropes, ups and downs to rival any part of the Appalachian Trail, hopping from seaweed covered rock to seaweed covered rock, soft gravel beaches where each step felt like three and easy hard yellow sand where you had to find the sweet spot of give and sink – just above the peak reach of the last wave.
The northern coast Wilderness Trail was hard, really hard at times. We successfully spent 24 days on vacation of beer and food and sightseeing and now my arse was getting kicked by the trail. My swollen Achilles kept badgering me but I was getting it under control with stretches and clearly I didn’t bring enough snacks.
We took it slow, getting used to the daily routine and doing each step slowly. Walking to get water and filtering it at a painfully slow rate. Washing up and not quite hitting the mark, doing it again. Trying to light a fire and having to start again. Each time things got a little easier and we laughed at our amateurish selves just hours before. Each day got more comfortable and our mileage increased a little. We started at around 8 miles a day and that increased steadily.
The Wilderness Coast is wild and has zero development. I hiked alongside a deer for a while, thousands of crabs dart away as we progressed, an otter came to see us at a water source before diving in two yards away, seals played in the waves next to the shore and we saw at least 50 eagles perching atop of trees and fishing in the ocean. There was even, unfortunately, a washed up and very bloated stinky whale on one beach that looked like it might explode. We had planned on camping right there, so carried on down wind not quite enjoying the aroma.
Further down the coast, we picked up a hitch from the very lovely Maureen and Kate who took us to a store and waited patiently for us before taking us to our trail head. Eventually reaching the end of our line at the Hoh Indian Reservation, after a grey and rainy day before, we were very ready for our motel room and cheeseburgers in Forks.
The next day, resupplied and laundered, we headed back to the trail, this time to the valleys and rainforests of the centre of the park.
I set off from Mexico, having said goodbye to most folks over the previous week and boarded an early morning plane to Seattle via Denver. Jen was already in Washington/Oregon.
I was relieved to take off, having got through the last weeks in Mexico without a major hitch. I was leaving behind a country I know and love having lived there for 11 years and will really miss my peoples but also happy not to have to deal with a lot of things in the city I no longer have the patience for.
I had high hopes for Denver, knowing Colorado was full of nature and hikers. I had 12 hours there before my connecting flight and figured it would be a good opportunity to visit a city few have that I know. I had built it up to be some kind of strange capital of these nature lovers with quirky bars and stores and a bit of an adventurous spirit and an edginess.
I was only in the city itself for about 7 hours so obviously I can only speak for first impressions of LoDo, RiNo and along the river. The people were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. I had some really nice interactions with them, though any taste of what Denver is/was in downtown has been razed and replaced with big open streets with literal blocks between shops punctuated by the worrying intrigue that surrounds clearly troubled drug addicts. They were everywhere and that was the edginess of the city I found.
The river, a couple of little parks and REI saved the day, people were hanging out, jogging and strolling. I went for a nice long walk down the river trails and watched the world go by. That was cool but I was very eager to move on. I suppose I should’ve ventured further afield and no doubt there is cool in Denver, somewhere, I just didn’t find it.