True to prediction, I haven’t seen a single northbound thru-hiker since crossing into Washington. Thanks to the trail register at Panther Creek, though, I know that Jen, Mike T, and Ultrabrite are all 1/2 – 1 1/2 days ahead of me. (Remember Ultrabrite? We rode the bus together to the start of the PCT in Campo oh so long ago and we’re still hiking closeby each other!) Voyageur and Yeti are 1/2 – 11/2 days behind me and NoCar, Optimist, and Stopwatch are 2-21/2 days ahead. This is not to say I haven’t seen people. Friday the 17th and Saturday the 18th were good people days.
On Friday I ate my dinner with a man and his son who are both section hiking. Section hikers take on the trail bit by bit over several seasons as opposed to thru-hikers like me, who bite off the whole thing in one year. This man started the PCT 17 years ago and is only 400 miles from finishing. What will probably only take me 2-3 weeks to finish will likely take him a few more years. That evening, after dinner, I moved on to Steamboat Lake to camp. As I had my ipod on, I didn’t hear the revelry until I was a few hundred yards from it. Being Friday night, I was not surprised to see a crowd at the lake. They were definitely drinking with the intent to drink more. Thus they fell into one of two categories, which are as follows: CATEGORY 1: Crowd happy to see hiker invite him over for and share laughs (and perhaps a few beers?) becoming more and more fun as the night wears on. CATEGORY 2: Crowd not happy tp see hiker, perhaps shouting obscenities his way and becoming more and more belligerent as the night wears on. I moved a bit closer and caught shouts of the f-word, saw pickups trucks and tents parked in the same places, and heard Lynrd Skynrd at full volume. Definitely a category 2 crowd. I moved on.
The next day I met a father and (presumably) his two sons. They were wearing camoflauge and said they were hunting for bear. By “hunting” I assumed they were just looking to spot a bear in its natural habitat. I turned around to adjust my pack and when I looked back over I saw that they all had shouldered rifles. So, by “hunting” they were shooting with the intent to kill and make BBQ sandwiches and rugs. Apparently bear hunting season started August 1st. I spent Saturday wandering around the lower west slopes of Mt. Adams, the third highest Cascade volcano behind Rainier and Shasta. I became increasingly annoyed as a cloudbank rolled in, obscuring good views. To the west, thick rain clouds hovered as far as I could see. I set up my tarp that night as rain started to gently patter in the forest.
The next morning I awoke to a mix of light rain and drizzle. I knew it was going to be a wet day in wet shoes with more obscured views. A glance at my thermometer showed 44 degrees, so a chilly day as well. Adding to my woes, I glanced at my map and noticed I had planned on spending the night at 7,040 ft in one of the PCT’s few shelters. It would be cold, although I would have protection from the wind and rain. The day dragged on and, except for my feet, I did a good job staying dry. Avoiding sweat was important and I often stopped to take off my down vest for the uphills. The biggest challenge facing me (at the time) was going to be getting water boiling for dinner. Remember, I now carry a wood burning stove so getting a fire going when most of the nearby wood is wet can be tricky. Three miles from the shelter I began looking for a place to cook, sheltered from wind and rain. I found a nice dry patch near trail and and a stream and quickly got busy looking for suitable wood. Even on rainy days, there’s always dry wood to be found and I ended up with with a handful of twigs from under some pines and hemlocks as well as a collection of dry needles. None of it would light. Even the driest wood was still moist from the damp air. Sitting still, even out of the rain, I was starting to chill rapidly as the air temperature was still in the low 40s. About to give up on a hot meal, I remembered my emergency tinder, a collection of extra dry pine needles and twigs I had stored in a small ziploc baggie for rainy days. I added a few wood shards and needles from the baggie and with a few clicks of the lighter had a fire going. Hot food and warm hands on the way! Fueled with freeze-dried beef stew accompanied by black bean and corn chowder, I bundled up and headed for the shelter, three miles and 1000 vertical ft away.
The climb was steep and as I breached 6,500 ft the trees and grass fell away in favor of rock and snow patches (glaciers too!). With no trees to cut the moisture, the fog and drizzle were both intensified and visibility was limited. I attained and passed 7,040 ft without sign of the shelter. I blamed it on my altimeter being off as the trail continued to climb and 7,040 ft was supposed to be just about as high as the trail got through this section. The grade steepened and I passed 7,200 and 7,300 ft before seeing a sign perched atop a small ridge. Surely, this must be where the shelter is! On arriving at the sign and 7,400 ft there was no shelter and the sign was blank. I was lost. It was growing dark and the temperature was starting to dip below 40, so I ducked behind a 6 ft pile of rocks, which provided a windbreak, quickly put up my tarp, and got into my sleeping bag and bivy. My conclusion, as I lay in my mostly dry sleeping bag, was that I was definitely off the PCT and on some other trail towards an unknown summit. The steep climb and altimeter reading just didn’t jive with my PCT map. The wind shifted a few hours later, hoisting my tarp like a sail and leaving me exposed. I was too cold to reset the tarp, so I moved it aside and anchored it with a rock. I zipped the bivy all the way up and prepared for a cold night. Despite temps being around 34 and gusty winds, I stayed fairly warm if I kept myself in the center of the bag. My feet were the only cold parts and putting my mittens on over my socks helped to take the bite away.
By morning, the rain had increased and began to permeate my sleeping bag, chilling me quickly. It was 5 AM and I lay propped up on my elbows, waiting for enough light so I could get moving. I rehearsed my plan mentally, “Sit up, put on jacket and dry shirt, put on shoes, toss everything in the pack and go!” At 6AM I was on my feet and with pack on in a matter of minutes with temps in the high 30s. The rain had abated, but there were strong wind gusts. I rounded the corner of the rocks I slept behind and looked down to see a massive dark green basin below me dotted with snowfields and glaciers. I was atop a steep slope of boulders on a ridge part way up a peak. Clouds and mist wafted through various pointy and sawtoothed peaks near me and across the basin. It was a spectacular view, but my priority was to get moving and locate the PCT. Looking down to my right, I saw a faint trail winding across the top of a glacier, which traced back to a place where my trail intersected. I had found the PCT and had somehow managed to take a wrong turn last night in the fog and mist. I was thrilled and enjoyed the views over this region known as Goat Rocks. The views lasted only an hour or so before fog and drizzle returned, lasting through the end of the day, which took me, thankfully, to Washington Route 12 (White Pass). Here, at the Kracker Barrel store 76 gas station I could dry out everything out and get out of the miserable weather. I booked a room at the nearby Village Inn as I was quite exhausted and sleep deprived.
I’m adding a few trash bags to my pack in addition to my pack cover to keep things dry. The northern Cascades are just ahead and rain is often in the forecast. I’m also going to be more careful about where I camp and will seek forest cover as I’m not really set up for alpine camping. Stage 1 of Washington is over and tomorrow morning (after coffee of course) I start the relatively quick 99-mile stage 2 stretch to Snoqualmie Pass.