As I gaze out at another grey and rainy London day it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to jet off to the Californian sun! Find a beach, eat lots of ice cream, work on our tans… except this time my husband Conrad and I will be loading our lives into a backpack and hiking through Oregon and Washington states along the Pacific Crest trail up to Canada! Continue reading “Setting out to hike the PCT”
Saturday 3rd September
We finished hiking a week ago today. It is amazing how quickly the time has past. Since then we have been to Vancouver, then south to Portland, and are now on an overnight train back to California. But not much has happened. We have mainly eaten, rested and felt a bit lost.
The city is a world away from the trail. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I miss it. I miss the daily exhilaration. Being physically challenged, and rewarded by nature. Maybe we got complacent on the trail. I have also realised that having endless choices (like what to eat) is stressful. And that there are way too many people around.
Having now had some time to reflect on the experience, there are some things I have learnt:
- There are some very kind people in the world who want nothing in return.
- Being fearful is a waste of time. I learnt this after the first couple of nights sleeping in dark forests listening out at every single sound.
- Hiking as a couple will really test a relationship to its limits – there are times I could have pushed Conrad off a mountain, and I know he felt the same!
- Because we survived 48 nights of camping I no longer need to feel like an outdoors novice when in REI
- To appreciate simple things I used to take for granted, such as a bed, hot water, and carb-based foods.
- Camping for days on end is tiresome, but allowed us to discover special places a car wouldn’t reach.
- Modern life has made us often too precious. It is OK to be a bit dirty, and to just get on with it.
- I really like oatmeal.
So who knows what is next. I know that this experience has left something in us. And I know that when we do return to London the mountains will be calling.
Saturday 27th August
Start: Bushcamp, mile 2635
End: Manning Park, Canada, off mile 2659
We enjoyed our last trail coffee and oatmeal sat in the dark. Both of us were contemplative. I am aware that during this trip we have both complained incessantly, but it still felt bittersweet. We agreed that we will miss being out here. The sense of freedom, and daily exhilaration cannot be matched. We have craved amenities like a bed so often, but stripped of modern choices does make life simple.
As we left camp with Mark the sun had yet to rise and it felt cold in the wind. For the first time I was hiking in the thermal bottoms I sleep in. We winded up to Rock Pass with pink hues above us. After descending down a scree slope we had another longer climb up the valley wall to Woody Pass. Once we mounted it we stopped and looked out at the new range of mountains ahead. They must be Canadian! Our first sight of Canada. Also visible was an increasing number of clouds; surely it wasn’t going to rain on our last day?!
We hiked on through a path of noble fir trees, which made me think of Christmas. A ranger (the only person we seen on the whole hike), passed and asked to see our wilderness permits. Luckily Mark had bothered to fill one in!
From being on a pinnacle with 360 views down all around us at Hopkins Pass, we began to descend and enter forest cover. The next miles felt slow as I was eagerly awaiting arriving at the border. The closer we got, the more excited I felt. I thought the forest was rather unremarkable, but Mark pointed out how rare it is to see pine, Douglas Fir, cedar, and blue spruce all growing together. So I will take his word that it was amazing. Instead I was caught up dealing with around a dozen blow-downs, one of which scrapped up my knee. A parting gift from the US.
Finally, after some switchbacks down, we could hear voices, and as the monument came into sight a small group of hikers were gathered there. The boarder was not what I was expecting – where were the Mounties to greet us, or a fence or something? Instead, a PCT monument stood next to a silver American-Canadian goodwill obelisk called Monument 78. Probably the most striking part was the impact of a missing row of trees running up the hillside in both directions, enabling the physical boarder to be seen by air.
We took some photos whilst being awkwardly observed by the other hikers. They told us that we looked too clean to have walked all the way from Oregon! I would have loved to have had a sly dig about how easy it is to have personal hygiene standards, but instead just smiled. They eventually left, having to turn around and walk back the way they had come – I didn’t get the full story but for some reason they didn’t have permission to enter Canada. If I had to guess, it was probably something to do with the pound of pot in their bags!
Reaching the monument, and the effective end of the PCT soon felt anti-climatic. We had nearly 9 miles further to hike just to get back into the world. Why couldn’t there be an air-lift service at this point? We sat and had some food at a nearby river. It was a beautiful spot. From there we were on a mission to Manning Park, and didn’t really stop. The sky had cleared and it now felt hot and humid. Conrad was popping painkillers for his feet like they were going out of fashion. I was stumbling a lot due to tree roots, crumbling trail, and mostly because I was tired. The last 4 miles led us down a stony jeep road.
At around 5:30pm we resurfaced back into civilisation. Well, it was a paved road at least. We started walking along the road towards the lodge when a car pulled up with a smiling lady in it. It took us a few seconds to recognise Roberta sat in the driver’s seat – I think we were all just zoned out. I have never felt so happy to see someone! As we piled into the car and finally took a seat it dawned on me that we were done! The hike at that point was officially over.
Over dinner in the lodge it still hadn’t fully sunk in. I was grateful for Mark’s company in this last section, it was amazing how our little chance reunion happened. I also felt a little sad at Dan’s absence from the group. I had been half expecting to see him sat at the monument waiting for us, our hiking buddy from Kentucky. Would we ever see him again? He had kept us entertained with his stories and road-walking escapades since southern Oregon.
Tonight we will get a bed and a shower.I think I need some time to decompress and to let it all sink in. I do feel a sense of achievement and triumph, but mostly right now I feel at a loss. The trail had become our daily routine, and I will miss the wonderful people out there who enhanced the experience so much. I am so thankful to the many who supported our efforts along the way. Oh, and I should probably now think about monitoring what I eat!
Friday 26th August
Start: Bushcamp, mile 2613.8
End: Rock Pass bushcamp, mile 2635
As I go to bed tonight I am overwhelmed by the huge day we have had. We are close to Canada and the end of our journey. We are exhausted, but exhilerated, and camping-aside I think I will miss being in the wild.
In our meadow camp this morning we woke to a perfectly pink sunrise. It warmed me and made me think that today would be a good day. I was happy to finally capture a picture of a pika. We had completed the hardest part of the climb to Harts Pass yesterday, so the initial miles were largely skimming along a ridge with views of the sun slowly hitting the mountains.
At Harts Pass Conrad and I took a wrong turn and hiked the wrong way for 10 minutes (uphill) before realising. Thanks goes out to the GPS for that mishap. This meant that we were separated from Mark, who probably thought that we had ditched him. It took us a long time to catch up with him, but the trail on that section was incredible – skirting along and over a number of passes, and a section called the Devils Backbone. We could see for miles, wide valleys below and changing foliage with the elevations.
For most of the afternoon we have been inside the Pasayten Wilderness area. Each time we went over another pass I half expected to ‘see Canada’. Will it have a giant maple leaf flag to welcome us? The hike got tougher in the afternoon due to tiredness and another late climb to camp. This one was only about 2.5 miles long from Holman Pass, but felt much steeper than yesterday. Mark has been suffering with his back, and Conrad with his toe blisters. I popped some ibuprofen to feel part of their gang – that and because my feet were crapping up.
Because of the miles we have pushed to make yesterday and today, it should be possible to finish tomorrow, half a day ahead of schedule. And more importantly with one less night in a tent! I am trying to keep cautiously optimistic though, as to achieve this will mean a nearly record day.
Our (hopefully) last camp is situated near a small spring surrounded by a large open meadow. We are sandwiched by Holman Peak and Powder Mountain towering above us. I am disappointed that Dan didn’t join us here for a final campfire, instead deciding to hike on. Mark lit the fire which had a mesmerising effect on all around. He then generously proceeded to give away his camp stove to a couple of [in my opinion standoffish] young south-bound hikers.
It feels surreal that this would be our last night out here. I was emotional as the sky illuminated an epic rose lightshow right infront of us. Looking around at the expansive grandeur of nature surrounding us all I could think was: How does one come back to real life from this?
Miles to Canada: 14.7
Miles to Finish: 23.5
Thursday 25th August
Start: Rainy Pass, mile 2589
End: Tatie Peak Bushcamp, mile 2613.8
This morning I was sitting on a wall in the trailhead car park cooking oatmeal when a white car pulled up. I felt conscious as I probably resembled a hobo trying to keep warm infront of a stove. It was only 6am. The car window went down and our old friend Mark who we had last seen in Trout Lake appeared! I do love a trail reunion.
Mark was dropped off by his friend Roberta to join us for this section. He came bearing the gift of raspberry pie, so he was instantly in! It was good to have some fresh blood with us today, even if Mark was carrying a new ridiculous ultra lightweight kit – his bag is only 15 pounds with food and water. My bag must currently be at least double that.
We timed it well because the early morning hours took us up to Cutthroat Pass. The views were expansive and incredible, with dramatic sculpted peak surrounding us. I love mounting a pass, because on the other side is a whole new set of mountains and views to take in. On the other side we descended down briefly through Granite Pass, then was on a steady climb once again to Methow Pass. The trail was visible for a long way infront of us as we could trace it skirting up and around the mountain.
Not long before we stopped in a shaded forested area for lunch we passed a 2600 PCT sign. OK, so we haven’t personally completed 2600 miles from Mexico, but it reminded me that we are on the final countdown. The lunch of cinnamon rolls (ridiculously heavy but impossible to resist) was one of my trail favourites. Less than a mile after we continued on and a frightened-looking French guy hurried past us. He said a bear had caught him by surprise right next to the trail a few minutes ago. I wonder if it was the cinnamon rolls that attracted it?!
I kept my eyes pealed but was glad not to see any bears. By early afternoon some clouds had come over, providing the perfect hiking weather – warm but overcast. Unfortunately, and what we in England would call ‘sod’s law’, by the time we started our long afternoon ascent the sun was beaming. At already 18 miles in, we commenced a big 13-mile climb up towards Harts Pass.
Harts Pass is the last road that we will cross before Canada. It is unpaved, but for many PCT hikers unable to cross the boarder, it is the exit point from the trail. We made it 7 miles up the mountain in the strong afternoon sun. I don’t know how I made it, because with the exposure and the constant uphill I was really struggling. It felt like it took an eternity to reach camp. It was particularly tough because we had been told conflicting information about the reliability of the stream there, so was hauling litres of extra water. It turned out the stream was flowing fine.
Tonight Conrad and I are camped in a meadow at 6500 feet, with imposing cliffs above us. Both Dan and Mark are nearby. We are surrounded by a landscape of scree and rocks, so the stream and small meadow is a little oasis. The local deer are rather put out by our presence here, as they nervously watched us whilst trying to graze. There is also a flurry of noisy critters in the rocks right behind us. I saw a number of pika, which are a rare tiny mammal with round ears and no tail. For the first time on the trail we rewarded a massive days hiking effort with 2 dinners – mac’n’cheese followed by chocolate oatmeal. Well why not?!
Miles to Canada: 36.3
Miles to Finish: 45
Wednesday 24th August
Start: Stehekin, off mile 2569
End: Rainy Pass trailhead, mile 2589
Although Stehekin is a wonderfully charming place, we were ready to get back onto the trail today. This is our last section, and we want to finish it. Canada is nearly within reach – something that I’m not sure I ever really imagined I would be saying at the start.
The bus made one final stop at the bakery where we piled out and stocked up. Maybe we should have left the oatmeal and dehydrated food out of the bag completely and just brought cakes for this last stretch. I was so happy for the last espresso. Joining us on the bus was Dan, and our new friends from Portland Leslie and Denis (aka Cartwheel and Neander-Tall). There was a really feeling of camaraderie as we all have the same goal in sight.
Due to the bus schedule it was a relatively late start, so I think nearly 20 miles was not too shabby. The day took us mostly through The Northern Cascades National Park, and predominately uphill. The climb was not too steep, but relentless in the sun. We wound up and through a valley on the verge of Fall, traversing around the base of Frisco Mountain. The views were not very far-reaching, mostly looking down into a valley, or surrounded in trees. Sadly those pesky black flies were out in mass!
At Maple Creek we enjoyed a delicious lunch of turkey hoagie, crisps and cookies (all from the bakery of course). Whilst sat virtually on the trail for lack of shade, we met the first two park rangers we have seen on the entire trail. They asked where we intended on camping (the Park runs on a permit system), and seemed disappointed when we said we would be out of the boundary in time for bed. They are on a 4-day ‘foot patrol’, out hiking and getting paid for it. Seemed like a sweet gig to me!
Upon reaching Rainy Pass trailhead I was sad to think that we had turned down probably the best offer of trail magic we had received. Yesterday Loren, who we had met on the trail back in Oregon, had offered to meet us here and take us back to his house for a meal, shower and a bed. It would have been amazing. Sadly we had just gotten back on the trail and couldn’t loose another day, as Loren and his wife Becky live over an hour away. I hope we are able to see them again one day.
Our camp for tonight is not a glamorous one – our tent is sitting behind the Highway 20 trailhead toilet block. We did intend to hike on for a few miles. But after we had cooked dinner we had lost momentum. Dan is also camped next to us, so we had to keep him company. I just hope we don’t have a load of trucks driving up and down with their air brakes on all night…
Miles to Canada: 61.2
Miles to Finish: 70
Tuesday 23rd August
Start & End: Stehekin
It’s been a leisurely day. There are lots of hikers around who we seem to know, so a lot of the day has been passed chatting on the hotel’s deck overlooking the lake. We checked out the National Park’s visitor centre right next door to get an update on the weather – it’s looking good. Only a small chance of rain on Saturday, but hopefully it will hold out for us one more day!
The bike ride itself was a very scenic jaunt along the banks of the lake. There are odd little log cabins dotted around that look like they belong in a fairytale.
Personal admin and resupply tasks completed, we then finalised our return journey from Vancouver to California for next week. I can’t believe that we are only days away from completing this mammoth expedition! It’s just starting to sink in. Only 4 camps left!
Monday 22nd August
Start: Bushcamp, mile 2564
End: Stehekin, off mile 2569
I barely slept last night. At one point I looked at the clock hoping the alarm was about to go and it was 23:30! Maybe it was the anxious excitement of finally getting to ‘town’. We woke at 5am especially early in order to cook oatmeal. The stove issue we thought had been resolved was in fact a gas canister issue that has made boiling water very difficult for days. After 40 minutes of trying Conrad went and borrowed a canister from another hiker named Tower. I was so thankfull for the coffee and hot food to get us going.
A team of other hikers were dotted around nearby at the creek 5 miles from the Stehekin bus stop. We all had the same plan in mind – get the first bus at 9am, and get to the famous bakery enroute for breakfast. There was an almost tangible buzz in the air as one by one people left all heading towards High Bridge. It felt like a race mentality had taken hold of everyone even though they had plenty of time to make the bus.
It was the fastest 5 miles we have ever hiked. The valley continued to undulate along the river. The first hint of Autumn seemed to be creeping in, with leaves of orange, yellow and red in same places. There was a lot of morning wildlife activity to be heard. Woodpeckers were working away, squirrels were darting around hauling their nuts, and chipmunks were squeaking. I bet it is truly stunning here in the Fall.
We reached the stop outside the historic ranger station building an hour before the bus was due to leave. We were probably the sixth people to arrive. Most of them were familiar faces. We all sat around chatting, and the time passed quickly. When the big red vintage-looking bus appeared just before 9am, more than a dozen hikers were waiting. We got near the front with Dan, eager to get into the bakery first when we made a quick stop there.
The Stehekin bakery is a PCT institution. Everyone we have met on the trail mentions it when Stehekin is discussed. I now know why. We grabbed coffees, 2 massive cinnamon rolls, 2 cookies, and a carrot cake. And I am regretting now getting more. We must somehow go back there to try out their pies and icecream. It’s only 2 miles or a bus ride from town. The cinnamon rolls were delicious – I would go as far as the say the best I have ever had. And I have had quite a few!
Stehekin isn’t so much a town, as a community. 70 people live here. There is no cell phone reception. We are lucky for the hotel wifi. Conrad was sad there are no TVs in the rooms. It is situated on the north-eastern shore of Lake Chelan in the Northern Cascades. And despite being on the US mainland, it is only reachable by foot, sea plane, or by ferry. This isolation gives it an old-world charm.
The bus followed the raging Stehekin River, before touching the northern tip of Lake Chelan. The lake is over 50 miles long, but narrow in shape, and as we drove down it’s eastern side huge mountains towered over us on the opposite shore. We were dropped off right outside our hotel, North Cascades Lodge, opposite the boat landing. All the buildings are wooden and rustic-looking, in keeping with their surroundings.
It struck me today on our short stroll to the post office how many people we had met along the way. In the 200 yards, we were reunited with Zelda and Tarzan, who were about to board the ferry with their dog. Next up was Aussie Sam, then Canadian Sarah, both about to board the bus heading back to the final leg of the trail. Then the M&Ms, who had busted a gutt and just about made the 6pm bus here last night. It was great to see so many familiar faces. We finally picked up our last resupply box from the world’s slowest USPS – thank you to the Marshmeiers for getting them all out on time. Laundry, lunch, then a brief nap followed.
We decided to visit the only other real hotel here for dinner tonight. The Ranch is on the bus route back to the trail, probably 15 minutes ride away. It is billed as a ‘cookout’, with a different special each night. Tonight was flank steak. Not good for me, but they also had chicken a la carte. A nearly full bus all arrived at the ranch. It was a self-serve line, with ‘deconstructed’ pad thai and salad accompaniments. The cinnamon raisin bread was my downfall. I went a little crazy, drunk on the ‘real’ and wholesome food. The dessert options were a slice of pie or cake, with so many to choose from. I had the largest chocolate cake, and Conrad the blueberry pie. I didn’t feel well getting back on the bus. What a gluttonous fool!
Sunday 21st August
Start: Miners Creek Bushcamp, mile 2542
End: Bushcamp, mile 2564
I have enjoyed today’s hike. Following a gradual, but long climb up to Suiattle Pass first-thing, the hike became far less physically challenging. I was able to admire and soak in my surroundings without focusing on my own pain! Conrad on the other hand was in pure misery. His feet are causing him to stop frequently and pop painkillers. I think he is now low on supplies. There really is very little we can do to find a solution.
A few miles from camp this morning I spotted a bright fire closure sign pinned to a tree ahead. For a few moments I think my heart stopped. On further study it was the connecting trail to Buck Creek that was closed due to fire. The fire zone map showed that we were camped last night about 2.5 miles north-west of the impacted area. Lucky for us Fortress Mountain shielded the PCT from the blaze – if it still is burning?
We are starting to see more north-bound thru-hikers from Mexico now. I would guess a handful a day. After over 2500 miles they must be able to almost taste Canada. They overwhelmingly have a distinctive look about them. It says, ‘I am malnourished and haven’t washed or groomed my hair in months’. A lot of them take pride in this ‘authentic’ hiker look. I was observing a very tanned thru-hiker earlier and noticed that he just scooped up water from the creek and drunk it straightaway. What a time-saving not filtering our water would be! I’m not going to risk it though. I cannot think of a worse situation than to be out here with the trots!
From the top of Suiattle Pass the sky was vividly blue and the rock formations striking. We have been so fortunate with the weather in Washington. It is a state usually associated with rain. We started weaving down into a deep lush valley, whilst gazing out at the Northern Cascade peaks in the distance. From time to time we would stop to pick blueberries, a habit we have been doing the last few days. I told Conrad he needed the fructose for energy. I couldn’t help but wish the berries were soaked in sugar and baked in a pie though!
By the afternoon clouds had begun to form above us. It was a welcome relief from the sun, as long as it didn’t bring rain! Following lunch and an akward foot soak in a bug-infested creek, we crossed the South Fork Agnes Creek over a series of fallen-trees. I was so happy I didn’t have to take my shoes off.
The rest of the hike took us through the valley floor, over undulating terrain of ferns and berries. At one over-grown point I noticed on the GPS that we were exactly 100 miles from Manning Park, our final destination! Hurrah! We made camp right next to a loud creek under tree cover incase the grey clouds turned into a storm. We are only 5 miles from tomorrow’s Stehekin bus!
Saturday 20th August
Start: Bushcamp, mile 2519
End: Miners Creek Bushcamp, mile 2542
This morning we set the alarm for 5am. It was dark as I cooked our oatmeal. But within a short window I watched the bright moon just above Mica Lake, and a pink sky beginning to illuminate the range opposite. In that moment of wilderness splendour I pinched myself and wondered how often in my life I will wake up to such a scene.
I thought we had done a lot of climbing so far, but today was something else! 8400 feet of elevation loss, and 6000 feet gained. Our feet are throbbing. It started with a large descent into the valley that we were camped up high in, all the way down to Milk Creek. It was a long stretch, with great views up top, but becoming increasingly covered in dense jungle towards the bottom. The trail was very overgrown, and my legs got truly ‘bush-whacked’. I look like I have been in a cat fight.
We were desperately trying to beat the sun hitting the side of the mountain for the big climb. Those zig-zag switch-backs visible from camp last night were standing between us and Canada. We began the climb at 8am. It took us 2 hours to go 4 miles to the top. I thought that wasn’t bad considering. Even better still: I didn’t collapse halfway up! Slow and steady was our strategy.
Almost an hour into the ascent and a pretty blond girl came down past us. She told us that there were 24 switchbacks from there to the top. The countdown gave me something to focus on for the remaining hour, although the closer to the top we got, the further apart they seemed to get. And turns out she mis-counted – there were 25! I was outraged.
Amazingly at one point we actually overtook two people. The M&Ms, were two young sisters who are also hiking Oregon and Washington. Their packs were about the same size as them, so our over-taking was probably not a surprise, but it made me feel good anyway!
From the top of Vista Ridge, we descended down towards Vista Creek. It was a very long, slow stretch. At the start we traversed around the rocky crest, with many seasonal streams flowing down into the canyon below. The sun had risen and was full-blown beaming on us by this point. Looking ahead, a dazzling string of mountains seemed to surround us, which must be The Northern Cascades. They looked high, and in our way. But glorious. Entering a meadow of grass, The Sound of Music sprang to mind.
The trail become very narrow as it snaked down into Vista Creek. Just like the first ascent and descent today, it seemed to go on forever. How much elevation did we have left to loose? We were walking through no more than a channel weaving in thick plantation. I guess nature had decided to reclaim the land. It was impossible not to keep tripping on roots and stubbing toes on hidden rocks. I was concentrating so hard. A man I spoke to later in the day said he actually slipped off the mountain edge in that section because he couldn’t see the path.
Large parts of the trail today were overgrown, with countless blow-downs. We completely lost the trail at times. Ironically, we bumped into a PCT maintenance crew down near the flattish area by the Suiattle River. They appeared to be clearing an already pretty decent section of trail which was nice and wide. Dan and two other people also commented on this strange logic. I am just relieved that the undergrowth didn’t contain poison oak, otherwise my legs would be screwed right now!
Shortly after lunch we attempted to trace a branch of the Old PCT route which crosses the grand Suiattle River more directly than the new route. This would have saved us 5 miles, after the PCT was re-routed to the west due to a series of washed out bridges. We failed. Vista Creek was too fierce to ford, so we had no choice but to turn back. That little adventure wasted us about 45 minutes in the afternoon humidity. Luckily for a couple of miles after that the elevation eased up through a grove of giant redwoods. Just one more mountain to scale up in the late afternoon and we made it to camp at 7pm.