Hart’s Pass to the Canadian border, back and beyond (Mile 30.6 to 0 to 80.7)

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)

Town excitement!

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Off to Hart’s Pass we go!

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.

Our food for the first month.

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!

My gear. You can see it in detail above on the “gear” link on this site

Up to the Blue

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Blue Glacier, Olympic National Park

I’ve seen glaciers before and even walked on one. But the Blue Glacier in the Olympic National Park dazzled me.

 

It was a soaring end to a day that started out low. When we planned the trip to the Olympics, we had planned to camp along the Hoh River at Lewis Meadow one night, then hike to the glacier and come back to stay again at Lewis Meadow the next night. Leaving our tent would allow us to travel more quickly up to the glacier. But Jake woke up in Lewis Meadow with a blister still throbbing from the previous day’s hike. He needed to stay in camp and rest. I didn’t want to go without Jake, but I also knew I would get stir-crazy in camp. I decided I would try to see how far I could go up the trail.

I quickly packed snacks and lunch and started out. The first couple of miles followed the the Hoh River. The trail was fairly flat. Deep in the rain forest, ancient trees were draped with hanging mosses. Even on a sunny day, the air felt thick with humidity. Then I turned a corner, and the switchbacks started. Over the next six miles, the trail gained 4,300 feet of elevation. My legs burned, but I stopped only to filter water and grab quick snacks. I had started out late and wanted to make it back to camp before dark.

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Elk Lake at 2,670 feet of elevation, 4.6 miles into the hike

At one point on a rocky bit of exposed trail I came across two men chatting. Both had separately reached the glacier earlier in the day and were comparing notes. I chatted with them for a moment, lauding the good weather and groaning about the switchbacks.

“Did you hear about the ladder?” one of them asked me.

I vaguely remembered a ranger telling us about some “ladder” when we picked up our permits. That was before the coast and Enchanted Valley. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

“The trail was washed out by a landslide, and there’s a ladder,” the man said. “Follow the purple rope. Then follow the cairns.”

I think I looked a little worse for wear because, as I left, the man shouted after me, “If I can do it, you can do it!”

A few hundred feet later, the trail just… stopped. Instead I saw what looked like a crumbling cliff. I saw a rope, but it was not purple! I panicked for a moment. Did I miss a turn off? Was this a different trail? 

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Rope ladder down a section of washed out trail

Looking down, all I saw were rickety slabs of wood mounted on a wire. This was the famous ladder? This ladder didn’t go up, but instead it went down! I looked around for a moment to see if there was some other option. There wasn’t.

If I can do it, you can do it. The man’s words came back to me.

I inched my way out on the crumbly cliff and grabbed on to the only rope I could see. Hanging there, I examined the rope. It was an orange color with specks of pink. Still, it was not purple. But, again, there was nowhere else to go. Trembling, I edged my way down the ladder. Just when I thought I had gotten the hang of it, I came across a section with a missing rung and a couple of broken ones. I had to balance on the ends of them, shifting my weight and trying not to slip off. After what seemed like an eternity, I neared the end of the ladder.

And what did I find? A purple rope! It led off in a different direction. I shimmied over to that rope, and I was glad I did because it sent me to the spot where the trail resumed. I held on for dear life as I shuffled down the still-crumbling cliff. Then I followed the cairns.

Trails can be tough. Switchbacks can be brutal. But you’ll never know how grateful you are for switchbacks until there are none.

I took a few moments to rest and snack. Then I continued trudging up to Glacier Meadows. I love alpine meadows, and the ones below the Blue Glacier are no exception. The summer flowers were in bloom. There were so many colors and kinds! It was the perfect garden, and it sprung up without tending or weed-eaters.

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Glacier Meadows

The trail continued up steeply through a couple of snow patches. Scurrying over the snow, I saw one of my favorite mammals: a pika. These tiny, adorable creatures are highly susceptible to climate change. They always remind me how important it is to preserve wild places.

After scrambling over rocks and boulders, I came over a rise and there it was: The Blue Glacier sparkling in the sun. I couldn’t help but exclaim when I saw it in front of me. It was so blue! It spread out from the lateral moraine where I stood. The snow-capped ice cascaded down. The glacier moved so slowly, it was imperceptible. But it moved with such power. Giant boulders were carried in its flow. I saw crevasses and ice towers.

All I could do was marvel at this soaring end to a stunning trail.

Enchanted Valley – PCT warm up/shake down

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.

Lots of lovely trail in the Quinault River valley

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.

Enchanted Valley view from near the camp ground with the ranger station

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.

Slugging along

There are many things I missed about the Pacific Northwest. Slugs were not on that list. But after visiting Olympic National Park, I’m rethinking that. Slugs are everywhere on the Olympic peninsula — on the coast, on the rocky headlands and in the rainforest.

Slugs were a near constant feature of my childhood. The memories came flooding back. I saw them as soon as I opened the door. Occasionally the crafty creatures even slipped into our house. The acceptable response of course was to shout “Ewwww!” and prance around until someone had removed the offending intruder and its trail of slime.

But those slow-moving mollusks were more than meets the eye. I remember, as a kid, someone in my class ate a slug. That was big news in those days… with more follow up headlines than the Mueller report. Slug slime apparently numbs your tongue. There were health concerns to be addressed. The kid was OK in the end, but far be it from me to ever underestimate the “common” garden slug ever again.

When I was a kid, the most noteworthy slug was a yellow- or beige-hued creature or as we used to call them “banana slugs.” They seemed less common and so usually required more discussion. The Olympic coast and rainforest has these in abundance. Some slugs are fully beige. Others are more yellow. Others are mottled — like the fruit you might use for banana bread.

I realized, after years living in big cities, I really missed slugs. Each time I saw one over the past two weeks, I wanted to squat down and take a moment. They moved so slowly. They seemed so unhurried. They were not bothered by tides or rain or the passage of time. Sometimes they slithered along unhindered and sometimes their slime picked up the needles of trees — how embarrassing! But they were unfazed. While Jake and I bustled from campsite to campsite, slugs seemed like a reminder to take our time and enjoy the Olympics — from the ground on up.

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Slugging around Olympic National Park

 

Olympic National Park – Wilderness Coast – PCT Warm up/Shake down

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.

Our first hitch this summer from the pickup

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.

Walking along Shi Shi

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.

Jen dragging herself up a headland

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.

Rocks and more rocks

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.

Leaving Mexico

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.

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Confluence Park

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.