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.
We heard a voice — very faintly. It seemed so far away — maybe on the other side of the valley. We couldn’t tell how far. Jake and I stood frozen.
We were at the top of Red Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, smack in the middle of what we were told was “the hardest section of the PCT.” We were less than two weeks into the trail, still nursing constant aches and pains. Each little twinge threatened serious injuries like plantar fasciitis or shin splints, but many of which healed after a good night’s sleep or a diligent stretch in the morning.
That day had been punishing. Dense, bone-chilling fog descended on us as we made our way up seemingly endless switchbacks to a mountain pass. After living in Mexico City, I used to scoff at any peak or pass under 12000 feet. But that day, a 6300-foot pass was killing me.
Finally we rounded the last bend and wrenched our wrecked hamstrings up onto Red Pass. I nearly collapsed into a puddle, knowing that wasn’t even the last pass we would need to cross that day. It was barely noon.
We emptied our food bags and began to assemble our lunch of tuna and tortillas. While doing so, we chatted with another hiker who had breezed past us on the uphill. She had hiked the Appalachian Trail the year before and had impressed us with her light pack and carefully chosen gear. After telling us a bit about her story, the hiker moved on. Jake and I both commented that she seemed to be such a strong walker, she would probably be days ahead by the time we made it to the next trailhead at Stevens Pass. We were then quickly distracted by a friendly marmot who ran into the pass, only vaguely afraid of hikers.
Then we heard the shout.
“Jen, be quiet,” Jake whispered. “I think I heard someone.”
We waited, but heard nothing. I was cold on the pass so I packed up my trekking poles and buried my hands in my pockets. We hoisted on our backpacks and started down the pass.
After 20 feet, we heard the voice again. It was the same hiker who we had been chatting with moments before. Then we saw her.
She was perched in the middle of a snow bank, hanging on to her trekking pole.
“I slipped,” she called to us. “I’m stuck.”
Jake and I ran over to her.
Ever since we arrived in Washington, we we heard about the north-facing slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Less sun and more exposure meant those hillsides were more likely to have snow. This year, the snow melt was early in the Cascades— we were able to start our hike a few weeks earlier than we expected. For the most part the snow has melted, but it still remains in sections, especially on those northern slopes. Most of the time, it is quite slushy and there are clear footprints showing the way through. But sometimes the snow is steep and drops off at a sharp angle. For those moments, we carry micro spikes. Micro spikes are like crampons but a little bit lighter and a little bit less grippy.
As we approached the hiker in the snow bank, we saw a trail of footprints. They rose a few feet above the track of the PCT, which was still covered in two inches of ice. Those footprints told us exactly what had happened. Just three steps across the snow field, one footprint skidded down at a chilling angle. Ten feet below was the hiker. She was stuck on the side of the trail, unable to move from her spot. Below her were several hundred feet of slick snow. The bank was so steep at that point, she was wedged up against the icy track of the PCT. She had managed to reach her micro spikes, but her position was so precarious she couldn’t put them on. And she was too far into the snow field to crawl out.
Hurriedly Jake pulled on his own spikes and rushed over. Before he could reach her, he had to knock ice off the trail first. He slammed his trekking poles into the mud, slinging chunks of ice as he went. Meanwhile the hiker hung on, worried any movement would sent her skidding down the bank.
After several nerve wracking moments, Jake was able to reach her, grab her backpack and pass it over to me. At that point I had my micro spikes on as well, but the ledge Jake was working on was so narrow and mucky, he told me to stay where I was in the muddy — not snowy — section of the trail.
Jake inched closer to the hiker, hacking through slush and ice. When he finally reached her, she was able to shimmy sideways. He grabbed her arm to hoist her up onto the spot he had just cleared of ice, first, in a sitting position and then to her feet. We asked how she was. “Cold,” she told us, “covered in mud, but otherwise fine.”
We took a few moments to collect our thoughts, but there was little time to rest. We still had to cross the same snow drift she had just slipped on.
All three of us in micro spikes venture up along the trail of footprints. Jake went first, kicking in steps as he went along. The hiker went next. I followed after her. With Jake’s steps, the micro spikes and my trekking poles, I felt very secure on the snow. We reached the other side, and the hiker doubled over in visible relief. I felt tears tugging at the corners of my eyes in my own relief for her and us.
We removed our micro spikes and took stock. Suddenly the dense fog that had blanketed us all day parted. I won’t say there were blue skies, but the lightest hint of blue could be seen above the clouds. And finally we saw the view: lush green mountain slopes ahead. We continued hiking, the three of us in a row, as the marmots cheered us on with their high pitched chirps (marmot-call). Eventually, the hiker passed us and went on ahead to camp. We only saw her once after that. She’s probably a day or so ahead of us by now.
**I left the hiker’s trail name out of this post.**
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.
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!