Day 125: The Misty Mountains

22.9 miles (2480.0 to 2502.9), plus 0.1 from Pear Lake

Rain showers pelt my tent over night and into the morning. I lay in my bag until the rain sounds like it’s letting up, then I begin to pack. When I emerge, the rain has become heavy mist. I talk with Woodchuck and Rooster, the couple who arrived last night, then I hit the trail. I hike uphill out of camp, and I’m warm enough in my regular hiking clothes until I reach the crest and start downhill. Then I need my rain jacket to cut the chill. The air is damp and cool. Views are limited by low, dense clouds. 

As I walk, I fantasize about what clothing I’ll bring into the Sierra. October at high elevation will be cold. I’ll need to switch out some things. Visions of Patagonia R1 hoodies and capilenes in various weights and colors float through my head. 

I reach Pass Creek. I get a little water at the creek and take off my rain jacket. I’m about to begin the next climb, and it’s too warm out to climb in the jacket. A few steps away, however, it begins to rain. I pull out my umbrella.

I climb out of forest and into open views of the surrounding mountains. The rain stops. For a few minutes, it even looks like the sun might come out. I take pictures as I traverse the mountain. I stop for lunch at Lake Sally Ann, then continue on. Clouds darken as I move north. 

Before long I’m hiking under my umbrella again. I stop to talk with two weekenders, and while I’m stopped I put on my rain kilt. From here, visibility declines to less than a few hundred feet. Everything is soaked. My shoes are quickly saturated after hitting vegetation along the trail. I want to stop and camp at the next site in the app, but when I arrive I find it’s on a ridge. The wind is more intense here. Clouds blow through. I need to get off this ridge and out of the clouds. The campsite listed in 3.4 miles should be suitable. 

I walk as fast as I can. I can’t see anything except clouds. There’s no marker at mile 2500. I draw the number on the wet trail and take a picture. I’m soaked but I’m not cold. Yet. As long as I keep moving I’m generating enough heat to get by. 

Zero visibility near mile 2500.
A small opening in the clouds.

I crest the ridge and finally drop down, only to find lingering snow patches. This is obviously a cold basin. This may not be the best place to spend a wet night. When I reach the campsite I find two tents already set up. I pitch my tent fly and footprint first, then the inner, then carefully get inside as the rain intensifies. By the time I’m inside and peeling off my soaked clothing, it’s pouring outside. 

Descending toward a cold, wet campsite.

I’m worried about getting through another wet day. Actually, I’m more than worried. I’m scared. The bottom of my tent is damp from setting up on wet ground. My down sleeping bag is already deflating as I enter a second damp night. When I left Sharon’s house yesterday morning, the forecast predicted rain yesterday and today, with clearing tomorrow. I need to know if that still holds. I text Greg, then Mom, then Jeremy via satellite and ask for tomorrow’s forecast. When no one responds, I discover I can download – for a fee – a forecast directly on the GPS unit. I’ll pay. I need to know if I need to find a way out of here. 

Mom texts back saying Glacier Peak shows clear through Tuesday night. That’s good news. The GPS finally fetches the forecast, but it’s confusing. Ten percent chance of rain. Slight chance of heavy rain. One hundred percent humidity. Jeremy texts back saying tomorrow will be drier and warmer than today, and Monday even better. It sounds as if the rain may taper off tonight. I hope so. I’m not prepared for multiple days of rain. I thought I’d be ok, but I don’t know how to weather this kind of wet weather with the gear I have. 

As I prepare to sleep, I hear movement in my vestibule. I catch a mouse in my headlamp beam. Shit. I’m going to have to bring my wet things inside the tent to prevent them from being chewed on. I don’t want to do this. But I can’t let a mouse spend the night in my things. The air is so saturated that storing the wet things inside my tent may not make much of difference. Everything is already wet, anyway. 


Day 124: A damp day

18.3 miles (2461.7 to 2480.0), plus 0.1 to Pear Lake

Sharon drives me back to Stevens Pass after a delicious scrambled egg breakfast. Along the way, windshield wipers do battle with low clouds and heavy drizzle. There are still no views, this time on account of the dense clouds, but at least today I can breathe. 

The weather is warm and wet. I’m drenched in a matter of minutes. I can’t tell how much of the wet is from sweat, how much is from drizzle, and how much from condensation. The whole day is like this. I walk through low clouds and occasionally drop below the mist and drizzle, only to encounter the dampness again each time I crest a ridge. 

Still no views.

I see fewer hikers than I expect. After all, resupply stops usually causes bottlenecks. In the afternoon, I pass through places where the clouds are beginning to break up, and finally I can see a little of surrounding mountains. 

Finally, I can see!

At 5:30 I pull into Pear Lake. No one has yet claimed a spot in the campsite. I have time to hike another few miles, but after a few minutes I decide to stay. The clouds are low again. Night will arrive wet and early. I eat dinner and set up my tent. When I’m inside typing today’s blog entry, two hikers arrive. Soon, a third arrives. Shortly after dark, two more come into camp. I won’t be alone tonight, after all. 

Day 123: Twenty-five years later

0 miles

At 7:30, I walk from the lodge to the parking lot to meet my cousin Sharon. We haven’t seen each other in 25 years, but I recognize her when she pulls up. It’s a blast reuniting with family on this hike. I’m lucky they live so close to the PCT and are so excited about my trip. 

Cousins reunited.

Sharon takes me to her house, where I meet her husband and daughter, enjoy a warm shower, and toss my clothes into the laundry machine. At the grocery store, we stock up on my favorite foods: hamburgers, fries, bacon, eggs, and coconut milk ice cream. 

We drive to a private lake where Sharon and a friend home their skills on water skis. I’ve never seen water skiing like this before. I’m impressed!

Go, Sharon, go!

After a relaxing evening, I repack my backpack and prepare to return to the trail. The sore on the bottom of my foot has healed, but I’m tired. Washington is wearing me down. 

Day 122: Exhausted at Stevens Pass 

14 miles (2447.7 to 2461.7)

A pika wakes me with a squeaky “meep!” Morning is marginally less smokey than yesterday. I follow Spiker and Daddy Long Legs up a steep climb. We rest at the top. On our way down the far side, we pass two southbound section-hiking gals who tell us there’s supposed to be a bear on the switchbacks just ahead. They didn’t see it, but a northbound hiker did and warned them. This is the second morning in a row that I’ve been warned about a bear on the trail. I take a few steps and immediately see movement below. Well, there’s the bear. It’s a small black bear (species and coloring). It moves off and we proceed. 

Daddy Long Legs and Spiker

Views are still mostly hidden by dense smoke. We get suggestions of views, but are largely disappointed. Soon there’s another steep climb. At the top, I stop to air out my back and my foot. My chafe is no longer painful, but my gouged foot (from the stream crossing a few days ago) is tender. The little wound is slow to heal. I’m worried that my foot may end up infected. I also have a strange painful spot on one of my toes. I’m worried about infection there, too. My body is coming apart. 

I’m slow. It must be the smoke. I can’t make my legs go. The final climb before Stevens Pass is agonizing. Most of the trees have been cleared from the ski runs, and there’s no shade. I have no energy left. 

I reach the pass and find the lodge and collect my resupply box. The folks here are very friendly, a huge relief in my fragile emotional state. For the first time on the trail, I’m close to cracking. The smoke is miserable. I can’t take much more of this, physically or mentally. It’s only 2:30, but I’m done for the day. I’m going to spend the night at the Mountaineer’s Lodge. I’ll meet my cousin Sharon here tomorrow morning. Maybe by tomorrow afternoon my foot will feel less inflamed. Maybe the smoke will thin. Maybe the next section – Stevens Pass to Stehekin – will be wonderful. 

Day 121: Shadows fail

18.8 miles (2428.9 to 2447.7)

Ash covers my tent. No wonder I woke up choking. Morning feels a little spooky due to the dense smoke. I bang my trekking poles together as I walk, just in case something is lurking in the forest. Less than half a mile from camp, I encounter a southbound section hiker. She tells me that she just saw a bear near the trail. I thank her for the warning. As the conversation ends, I notice a long-tailed weasel running back and forth across a log. I’m lucky enough to capture the little guy on video. My first weasel of the hike! 

Today I will be diligent about stopping and taking off my pack every few miles to prevent my painful back chafe from getting any worse. The first stop occurs at the crossing of Deep Lake’s outlet. I boulder hop across the stream, then sit on a log and eat two bars. I’m still carrying a massive amount of food. I can eat until I’m full, all day long. 

Looking toward Deep Lake.

Broad-leaved plants are speckled with ash. Even thin fir needles have captured ash in their bristles. Views are extremely limited. As I climb, I can barely see Deep Lake down below. The surrounding mountains, which obviously should be spectacular, are blurry at best. Late morning is dark as dawn. No shadows are cast through the dense smoke. When the sun does break through now and again, it casts orange light. 

The views would be even more magical without all of this smoke.

At the top of the climb I meet Spiker and Daddy Long Legs, two hikers I met last night during my search for a campsite. We talk for a bit, then I head off. In a few miles there will be a creek crossing, and it may be difficult. In fact, there’s even a wooden sign nailed to a tree warning of a difficult ford not suitable for stock. I tell myself it can’t possibly be too deep to wade across, not this late in the year. By now I’m comfortable wading through streams. I’m going to be fine. But my anxiety level increases as I approach.

Half a mile before the stream, I pass two southbound weekenders and ask them about the crossing. They suggest crossing where the last switchback approaches the stream. That’s what I end up doing. The stream is flowing fast, but I find a relatively calm, shallow spot and walk through. Other hikers use a log downstream, but I don’t even bother looking at the log. This little ford is easy. On the far side, I sit among a group of hikers and eat lunch. I ask if anyone has seen Wang. No one has. Less than five minutes later, Wang appears! She crosses the stream, hangs out for a few minutes, then continues on. Shortly after, I follow. 

From here the trail climbs again, all the way to Piper Pass seven miles away. Washington is nothing but climbs and descents. Halfway up, I stop for water at a spring and see a shrew dart across the trail. It pauses for the briefest moment to sniff my backpack’s hipbelt, then scurries into the vegetation. 

I climb to the pass through dense smoke. These steep Washington climbs are even more exhausting when I can’t get a good breath. I drop over the pass and see Glacier Lake far below. As I make my way down, a breeze picks up. Is it blowing smoke in, or away, or just mixing it around? Impossible to know. 

Hiking down to Glacier Lake.

I pass many squeaking pika. Less than a tenth of a mile from the spur trail to the lake, I see movement in a tree. A pine marten! I reflexively reach for my camera. Amazingly, the marten remains in view, grasping the tree trunk, staring at me. I get a few photos and a video. This is the third marten I’ve seen on the PCT, but the first I’ve been able to capture with my camera. So cool. 

Pine marten

To my great surprise, I’m the first person to arrive at the lakeside campsite. I quickly select a tentsite. Spiker arrives next and pitches his tent near mine. Wang and Daddy Long Legs show up and settle in. I hiked less than 20 miles today, but I’m ok with that. I completed two long, smokey climbs, which exhausted me. I stopped frequently and managed to prevent my chafe from getting worse. Last night, I feared I would have to quit the trail; the pain was that intense. Tonight I’m feeling ok. 

Glacier Lake in brown smoke.

After dinner, when we’ve all retreated to our tents, another group of hikers shows up. They talk until after dark, apparently unaware that others are trying to sleep. Mice crawl around my tent. Mice crawl over my tent. I see one squirm above me on the mesh ceiling. Please don’t chew into my tent. 

Day 120: Luck fails

23.5 miles (2405.4 to 2428.9)

Smoke covers all. Nearby mountains are barely visible. I climb, then drop into the next basin and make my way toward Lemah Creek through an old burn. Here, the smoke is strangely striated. 

Striated smoke

The Lemah Creek bridge is gone, and apparently has been for years. I cross in my socks and all goes well. On the far side, I gouge the bottom of my right foot on rocks. When I put on dry socks, I notice blood. Crap. I squeeze antibiotics ointment into the wound, then open a bandaid. The bandaid falls into the stream. Crap again. Today isn’t going well. 

The bit of good luck I had is long gone. The smoke thickens. Visibility drops to less than 1/2 mile. As I climb, I can’t see Chimney Rock on the far opposite of the canyon. I can’t see anything on the far side of the canyon. Only the white snow patches (glaciers?) show up, but barely. This probably should be a spectacular view. 

Can you see the glacier across the canyon?

The switchbacks are well graded and the footing is good. At first I go quickly. Then my nostrils begin to burn. I don’t feel well. The smoke is far too dense for this level of exertion. I slow until I don’t have to open my mouth. Still my nose burns. Finally I sit and rest and put on the dust mask I’ve carried since entering Oregon. The white snow patches across the canyon vanish and I’m climbing through a brown wall of smoke. 

After seven miles and a few hours, I gain the top. I make my way to a pond and find four guys eating lunch here. I eat my lunch a short distance from the others and watch pika run back and forth across a boulder field, harvesting and storing vegetation. My back burns from continued chafing. Bright red dots spread across my low back. I don’t know what to do. I can’t stop to let it heal. I have to keep moving. 

Afternoon is a slow seven mile descent to Waptus River. Ash floats through the air. At the river, I collect water and choke back tears. My back hurts. This chafe is getting worse, and so is the pain. I don’t know how much farther I can hike. 

Campsites near the river are packed. A few miles later, I find a spring-side campsite where I’d hoped to stay already packed with four tents. The next campsite is over three miles away. My back is on fire. I walk away on the verge of sobbing and finally let out a few tears. I don’t want to keep hiking. I’m in terrible pain. I come upon a tiny semi-flat spot beside the trail and burst into tears. Finally, I can stop. 

I spread my tent’s footprint in the little space. The spot is so slanted that I won’t sleep well here. I have to keep walking. Dusk comes early in this dense smoke. It’s only 7pm but looks later. I see a flat-ish spot between a rotting log and a crumbling stump. My tent will fit. I pitch it and throw my things inside. This is better than that other tiny spot. From here, I can hear a creek. Some luck at last. 

Day 119: Alpine Lakes Wilderness

14.8 miles (2390.6 to 2405.4)

Jeremy and Tawnya deliver me to the trail at 10am. I face a climb of several thousand feet – several climbs, actually. Today is going to be tough. This is Labor Day Weekend; the trail is stuffed with hikers: day hikers, weekenders, section hikers, thru hikers. I can’t go three minutes without passing someone. 

When I enter Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I’m greeted by a sign declaring that much of the wilderness is closed due to the Jolly Mountain Fire. The PCT remains open (for now).

Smoke from the Norse Ridge Fire.

After several hours of climbing I reach Ridge Lake. This seems to be the main attraction for day hikers and backpackers out for the weekend. I eat lunch, then continue. After the lake, the crowd all but vanishes. I climb again, reach a ridge, then drop toward the uninspiringly named Joe Lake. I can see several miles of PCT from here as it wraps around the basin and exits over the far ridge. 

Alaska Lake
Joe Lake, with PCT traversing the mountain in the background.

This is going to be a beautiful hike. I haven’t yet seen the High Sierra. Most of Goat Rocks was hidden in a smokey haze. Alpine Lakes Wilderness is the most beautiful section of PCT I’ve set foot on. The trail repeatedly turns to loose rock, making walking difficult, but I don’t care. This may be my favorite section of trail. I love it at least as much as I loved Three Fingered Jack. I’m thrilled to make the long, exposed, ankle-twisting traverse across the basin. This is gorgeous country. 

Mount Rainier in the far distance.

At last I crest the ridge and drop into the next basin. There’s another lake here, framed by more spectacular mountains. There’s also the Jolly Mountain Fire. Huge clouds of smoke billow up in the not so distant distance. Thankfully the wind is blowing such that the air here remains mostly clear. I hope my luck holds. 

Smoke from Jolly Mountain Fire on far left.

I scout for a campsite as I hike. The sites I pass are occupied by backpacks and tent footprints. I assume this means the sites have been claimed. It looks like I’ll have to hike for a few more miles, until I spot a flat spot off the trail on a little knoll. Perfect. As evening progresses, more hikers arrive. I hear voices from every direction. The area is swarming with people, possibly because there’s a pond nearby and not much else in the way of water. I’m practically in a campground. 

With only 250 miles until Canada, I’ve suddenly developed my first case of truly painful chafe. The small chafe spots I had before were mild compared to the burning red mess across my low back. I have no idea why this happened now, so far into my journey, when I haven’t changed a thing. I hope it’ll be gone by morning.