Day 62: Massive Elevation

Saturday 20th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2519

End: Miners Creek Bushcamp, mile 2542

Miles: 23.1

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.

Glaciers all around us

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.

Switchback fun


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.

Milk Creek flowing through the valley
There is a trail here somewhere!

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!

Cresting the mountain at last!

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 lose?  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.

Nature shots


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.

Tall trees. I think they were Redwoods…

Crossing The Suiattle River

We are camped above Miners Creek.  It is raging below us.  It was dark before we got zipped into the tent.  What a massive day.  I hope I pass out now.

 

Day 61: Swim day

Friday 19th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2506

End: Bushcamp, mile 2519

Miles: 12.6

Today has turned out very unexpected.  When the alarm went off at 5:20 it was still dark in the cover of the trees.  We were ready for a big one.  We had briefly sized up the map last night and knew that today’s climb was going to top everything that had come before it.

Cooking breakfast in the dark
I don’t think a beaver did this!

We said goodbye to an elderly hiker camped nearby who goes by the name of Floater (I didn’t ask).  The first couple of miles through the morning cool, we were alone walking through a moss-covered forest.  There were lots of streams, some of them cloudy from the glacial melt.  I also noticed a strong smell of sulphur at one point, and then shortly afterwards a trial junction to a nearby hot springs.

Becoming quite the expert

Whilst taking a photo of the broken bridge at Kennedy Creek we met a Canadian girl called Sarah.  We hiked with her for a couple of miles before I gave up trying to match her pace.  It was uphill.  In those miles of conversation it transpired that she had stayed with Becky and Ed in Trout Lake just a couple of days after we had enjoyed their hospitality.  What a small world.  Sarah’s last resupply box had not arrived, so she was low on food having raided the hiker box.  We gave her a few of our snack rations, hoping that we might not require a full day of hiking into Stehekin.  Either way I guess we are unlikely to starve!

Kennedy Creek
Heavy load!

Today there have been a lot more blow-downs than in recent days, but still nowhere near as bad as in southern Oregon.  It just slows us down that little bit more.  As we tackled a bundle of trees to mount Glacier Ridge, the smell of smoke hit me.  Out on the horizon far away the sky looked pink and hazy.  Slightly concerning.  Yesterday a couple had told us that the darkened sky we could see to the east was likely the Idaho fire, which is still sadly blazing hundreds of miles away.

Pink haze in the distant sky

Useful.

Slowly navigating a rocky decent down Fire Creek Pass, we met a hiker coming the other way.  He had a larger area map, and pointed out the source of today’s smoke.  There is a wildfire ablaze in Buck Creek, which on the map looked close by, just slightly south-east of us.  He assured me that a mountain range between us made it safe.  Phew.  As we continued on at a snail’s pace I kept noticing the copper-coloured hues in the rocks around us.  Maybe it is copper?

Fire Creek descent


We finally reached Mica Lake, which appeared like a mirage from nowhere.  It was tucked into an enclave, perfectly blue, framed by a backdrop of tall jagged cliffs. As soon as I saw the water I wanted to jump in.  We thought a quick foot soak and maybe lunch at that point would be a good plan.  We had done 12 miles so far.  Whilst eating our P&J pita breads, Dan arrived.  He had noticed the same issue as we were just discussing.  From the descent to that point we had seen across the valley were the trail was heading – it was not good.  Imagine someone taking a marker pen and scoring a line sharply zigzagging up a massive hill.  That was the trail ahead.

Mica Lake


The main issue presenting us was the lack of camp options due to this extreme elevation.  There was a place in half a mile by a stream, then nothing for 8 miles on the other side of the ridge.  To get to the second campsite we would have to firstly descend 3500 feet into the valley below us, then embark on the climb up the switchbacks with the afternoon sun on us.

Not a seismic reading but the trail!

Dan said he was 50:50 on whether he would attempt it today.  He planned to hike on nearly 4 miles to a creek, cook, and then decide.  He was assuming that he could find an unofficial place to throw up his tent at the creek.  Just after he left the lake, we jumped in to cool off, still undecided as of what to do.  The water was cold, but not freezing, and felt so refreshing.  As we were redressing, a couple of young hikers arrived coming south.  We asked them about the trail ahead and camping spots.  The outcome of that exchange was that we would not be able to camp at the creek, and it would be crazy at 3pm to start out for the top now.  The decision was made!


Despite both of us being disappointed with our miles today, actually having some of the afternoon to just sit and rest besides a creek has been great.  This is what hiking the PCT was supposed to be like!  If we had made the camp as planned, we could have possibly knocked off a night’s camping to reach Stehekin a day early.  That is not going to happen now, but at least we got to enjoy the rest of our day.  I think we deserve it!

Rare bush-throne with a view

Day 60: Adventure or Torture?

Thursday 18th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2484

End: Baekos Creek Bushcamp, mile 2506

Miles: 22

…is the question I asked myself when in the searing afternoon heat, and on our third big climb an elderly gentlemen told me I was on a “grand adventure”.  I just faked a quick smile and continued on with my slow plod.

Entering Glacier Wilderness


The 5000 feet climb, and 6000 feet descent today was not the killer.  The main issue for us was the exposure.  From the early morning haze I could tell it was going to be a scorcher, and it didn’t disappoint.  Trying to hike, carrying a huge weight, up a massive mountain, with no shade, is not really my idea of fun.  Conrad, with his new feet problems following a recent shoe change argued that this was the toughest day yet.  I am not sure, probably because I currently have heat stroke and can’t think back past today!

Morning break at Lake Sally Ann


Whilst I am on the thread of why today was so difficult, I have to mention those pesky biting black flies.  They are everywhere.  What a menace.  It appears that they particularly enjoy attacking faces, especially eyes and ears.  Deet does not faze them.  We ate lunch in about 10 minutes because we couldn’t cope with being swarmed.  And we really needed a rest.

Foot soak in a tiny stream
Hot and tired
Loving it, at the top of Red Pass

The 3 main passes we climbed today were called: Indian, White, and Red.  The trail was traversing and weaving through valleys heading towards Glacier Peak.  Glacier is the last of the giant peaks shown on our PCT maps.  It is still snow-coated, and we did pass the odd pocket of snow even today in these temperatures.  Otherwise the landscape was very green, with colourful wildflowers and a green shrub carpet on the higher elevations.

Cooling off

We only entered the cover of forest in the last 2 miles, when it had already cooled down.  Lots of tiny seasonal streams are flowing, proving the glacial snow melt continues.

I think I should end on a positive note.  This morning it seemed that our stove had broken.  This freaked me out as most of our food is either oatmeal or dehydrated.  Conrad even asked if we should abort.  But when we stopped at around 5pm to cook dinner it worked!  I am so relieved.

My eyes are screwed

Day 59: It’s a long way to Stehekin

Wednesday 17th August

Start: Stehekin, off mile 2461

End: Bushcamp, mile 2484

Miles: 22.41

I am very happy with the big push we made today – we made a good dent in the 108 miles to Stehekin!  Our last resupply point before Canada.  That said, my feet are paying the price, and my leg strain issue is being kept at bay using ‘vitamin I’.

We were not the only hikers trying to leave Skykomish and get on the trail this morning.  Dan, a strange solo guy who’s name I never got, and an English couple who live in the US were all congregated around the deli besides the highway.  The deli have a readymade hitchhiking sign for hikers to use to get back to the trailhead, so we took it in turns to flash it at cars and get rides.  There was a bit of friction with the British couple really giving our nation a bad name.  Why can some of my fellow countrymen be so stiff?  I think they thought we were going to try and push infront of them, but that wasn’t the case – I went to help the lone guy get a ride (without my pack on).  It’s called being a ride bride as cars stop more frequently for women!

Unloading on Highway 2 from Alan’s car
With Dan looking for the trailhead amidst construction

The hike itself was hardwork.  It is still very warm, but I am grateful it is dry.  The elevation changes are continuing, as we weave up and down granite rocks and forest.  A lady with a dog who had camped at the first lake we passed today told us that they had been visited by bears last night!  There certainly were a lot of berries flanking the trail.  I hope they don’t reappear for us!
Bags so full of food that Dan’s urinal is on full view!
Bushwhacking
A couple of horse riders who had overtaken us near the start ran into some issues.  They had dismounted the horses and were walking besides them due to a steep, rocky section.  Just as they had saddled back up, a tree blow-down ended their 4-day trip early.  They tried to go around it, but the cliff was too steep.  For the first time I was happy to be walking as we climbed over whilst they turned back just 5 miles in.  Before they left, one of the horses had the nerve to slap me bang around the face with its hairy tail.  Wham!  I didn’t even see it coming.

We met a Aussie thru-hiker named Sam at a creek whilst having lunch.  We chatted a while, and bumped into him again latter in the day.  He, and our new best friends the ‘other’ British couple are now all camped together besides a small creek.  

Glacier Peak coming into view

I hope that we can push again tomorrow as we have had a few warnings from south-bounders about bad blow-downs in the last 40 miles of this section.  That could really slow us down in reaching Stehekin, and there are only 4 buses a day to town.  We need to make one of those buses in 5 days time or we will be very hungry!  And very sad.

A marmot

Day 58: Skykomish Zero

Tuesday 16th August

Start & End: Skykomish, off mile 2461.6

So there’s not a great deal going on in Skykomish.  In less than a day since arriving here we had exhausted all the local cuisine options.  This included a tour of the gas station minimart!  I was feeling frustrated by the lack of choice.

Our hotel – The Cascadia Inn

This led to our decision (mostly driven by me), to hitch to a larger town to buy food.  Following a bagel breakfast at the Liquor and Deli store, a cardboard sign was made and we were on Highway 2 wearing big smiles.  It took 10 minutes for a local named Bob to stop in his pickup truck.  He was easy to talk to, a university-educated 1960s liberal (how he described himself), who said he will move to Canada if Trump gets voted in!  He dropped us off in the Safeway car park in Monroe, 40 miles west.  I’ve never been so excited to go to a supermarket!

Hitching in Gold Bar

Monroe is another railway line town along the Skykomish River Valley, but much larger.  It is only 30 miles northeast of Seattle.  There is a small historical downtown area which still exists, and posters were hanging for the Evergreen State Fair which we will sadly miss by a week.  We had brunch at the Main Street Cafe, and posted back to California the results of our most recent kit explosion – lets just hope it doesn’t rain in the next 2 weeks!

Monroe’s colourful food scene – next to the fertilizer plant

Following a long browse and small food shop in Safeway, where I couldn’t buy half of what I wanted due to weight issues, we popped in McDonalds for a cold drink and a McFlurry.  I couldn’t believe that this was the first Mucky-Ds visit of the trip, and Conrad didn’t even have a burger!  Maybe he is sick?  We took the local transit bus as far as we could back, which was a small town called Gold Bar.  From there we assumed it would be easy to hitch the rest of the way back.  We were wrong.  Despite plenty of cars, we stood in the heat on the highway for nearly an hour before anyone stopped!  I was beginning to feel panicked.  Thank you to Peggy, who in her Prius drove past her home in Index to take us back.  She also shared a detailed local history, which was interesting.

McFlurries out here are double the size!

My thoughts now turn to the hike ahead.  This last section was the shortest, and stunningly beautiful, with alpine lakes and striking jagged mountains.  Despite this, the elevation change and extreme heat made it the most challenging.  We didn’t break 20 miles once.  This makes me apprehensive for the next leg of our adventure – 108 miles to Stehekin.  How we can possibly carry enough food, and sustain the physical effort for 6 days straight, I am unsure.  But we have less than 200 miles to go now, so the countdown feels on.

Day 57: Easy ride to Skykomish

Monday 15th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2451

End: Skykomish, off mile 2461

Miles: 10.8

We said goodbye early to Paul and Joe.  The mosquitos had made camp particularly unbearable this morning.  I wonder if they have followed us all the way from Oregon?!  At least they forced us to scale the first mountain in the relatively cool morning air.

Early morning shots

We passed through lots of pretty meadows dotted with small lakes.  At the top of our second climbing section we met an unusual character.  A guy thru-hiker who had left Mexico exactly 1 month before we started Oregon (that means he has hiked 1716 miles more than us in that time)!  He had dreadlocks and hikes in sandles and fleece socks, carrying a pack no bigger than a day bag.  No wonder he wasn’t keen on standing around talking to us – he had to get to Stevens Pass for food!

Topping up on our radiation
So so sweaty! Lucky you can’t smell us.

Stevens Pass is another closed ski resort.  The only sign of life was a handful of hikers, and a small open giftshop.  We picked up our resupply package there, and enjoyed a toasted sandwich.  Whilst polishing off an essential icecream and chatting to a retired hiking couple, a young guy dressed in black approached us to offer us a ride!  Easiest hitchhike ever!  I really wasn’t looking forward to standing on the highway in the heat with my little cardboard sign.  Turns out that Spider completed his PCT hike 6 days ago and was in the area collecting some of his gear.  We were so grateful for the ride.

With Spider, our trail magic
The South Fork bridge entering Skykomish

We got dropped off outside our hotel in the tiny hamlet of Skykomish.  The place consists of an active train line, and a few historic wooden buildings along it.  That is about it.  The trains are also by law required to honk their horns when entering ‘town’, so it promises to be a fun night!  The Cascadia Inn is simple, but fine (there is nowhere else).  My biggest disappointment was that they had sold out of pie.  What a blow.

Historic Great Northern Rail road train parked in town
Knotty Knitters art project

Day 56: More Climbing

Sunday 14th August

Start: Deep Lake, mile 2432

End: Bushcamp, mile 2450.7

Miles: 18.5

When the alarm went off at the all new early time of 5am this morning it was still pretty dark.  The idea was to beat the heat.  But there was a snag.  As amateur campers we didn’t realise that when erecting a tent on a lakeside plot one should use the waterproof tarp to prevent condensation.  Hence, we packed up a wet tent and sleeping bags, adding yet more weight to our bags!

Cathedral Rock in early morning
It was much cooler than yesterday as we immediately began our first ascent up Cathedral Rock.  The switchbacks gave us views of our campspot fading away far below.  The pinnacle of Cathedral Rock got closer and closer.  Not far up the trail I had a personal issue – heat rash caused yesterday was giving me chaff up my skirt.  The only solution was to go commando!  Guess it will save on washing.

Creative PCT marker
At the end of the descent into a steep valley, we tackled a particularly challenging ford crossing.  Signs had warned of a dangerous ford from a couple of miles back.  The water was thundering all the way from the top of the mountain into the creek below.  It would have been dangerous to ford it because of he flow.  Luckily we were able to get creative with a number of boulders and deadwood to slowly hop across.

Upon finally reaching Deception Lake outlet, we came across Dan who was filtering water.  Conrad hung a clothesline and the sleeping bags went up to dry.  Feet went in the creek to cool off.  Sadly we finished the last of the Pringles.  Today we are really mindful of staying hydrated, so we downed all that we could and carried heavy loads – all this climbing in the sun is thirsty work!

Deception Lake
Mmm – Nutella and crackers! Gets old.
Apex the dog travelling in comfort
After lunch we had a hot climb up Surprise  Mountain (surprise – it’s steep!) in the afternoon sun.  It felt brutal, but the views across showed a spectacular mix of alpine forest, unforgiving craggy rock drops, and a carved out lake perched up high in the distance.  

Over Piper Pass and Glacier Lake appeared below us.  The very rocky black and white granite path led us down steep switchbacks, making my knees shudder.  Another climb followed, this time up Thunder Mountain, which had the steepest gradients we have faced so far, and right at the end of the day!  It nearly finished me off.  I was staggering up, barely conscious.

Glacier Lake with Glacier Peak just visible in the distance
Just over Piper Pass
Switchback fun (not for the knees)

We made camp at around 6:30pm next to a small stream, a few miles short of where we intended.  Above us squeaking marmots are making a racket.  After we arrived another 2 solo male section hikers set up camps nearby and chatted.  Plus we met a young girl named Flower who is attempting to break the south-bound PCT record for fastest unassisted hike.  Basically she will reach Mexico in less time than Conrad and I hiked the smallest 2 states!  She is averaging 45 miles a day.  I cannot comprehend this. 

Jerky-tastic!