7/10 – 7/20
(From mile marker 2620.9 slightly above Harts Pass to Stevens Pass 2461.6)
Total miles hiked to date: 197
I reach Dolly Vista campsite 121 miles south of the border, cold and wet with the higher peaks shrouded in cloud. My feet are in agony but I decide to push on 2 more miles to a single campsite and settle in for the night on a wooded ridge near 5500 feet. After dinner and setting up the tent I walk out to an overlook a short distance down the trail. I’m amazed at what I see. The Milk Creek Valley is below me with more ragged and sharp peaks thrusting above the stratus clouds on the other side. Looking down 3000 feet into the valley below I realize that Glacier Peak, Washington’s 4th highest, still rises another 5000 feet above me!
The North Cascades are BIG mountains with steep rugged peaks and deep narrow valleys. Everything not covered with snow is verdant green. Other mountains reach higher elevations like the High Sierra and Colorado Rockies but the North Cascades have few, if any, rivals in terms of prominence and sheer majesty. I haven’t seen any roadside views that compare to what I’ve seen on the trail. The Glacier Peak Wilderness is fairly remote and the best scenery is in the heart of this glorious landscape at least a day’s hike from either end along the PCT.
These mountains are no joke and I am amazed at how much punishment they can dish out, even in mid-July. I guess I’ve received a North Cascades baptism as a memorable start to my southbound PCT journey. I never expected to see prolonged hypothermic weather here on par with what we’ve experienced in Alaska’s coastal mountains and the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle on our many wilderness trips there. What I like most about being out here is that one’s social-economic status means nothing. In the wilderness we are all equal.
I see on the map that I indeed will need to be on the peaks I’m looking directly across at. I will have to plunge 2500 feet down and climb 3000 feet up tomorrow to 6200 feet. There are some narrow breaks in the heavy cumulus clouds with splashes of sun. Maybe in the morning I will get some decent light. But again it never comes.
I begin my hike early the next morning and reach Mica Lake about lunch. Here I find a privy with quite possibly the best throne view ever. Of course I had to use it. No newspaper required. Just gaze out at the scenery.
Unlike the mostly high traverses from Rainy to Hopkins Passes, the Glacier Peak section, one of the longest between supply points at 108 miles, is characterized by steep climbs and descents, one after another. The highest and most stunning section to me was the high traverse between Red and White Passes. Once around Glacier Peak and entering the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, the trail mellows out with more gradual climbs and descents.
There is a serendipitous convergence of 8 SOBOS here on the shores of the mostly frozen Mica Lake. We are about to begin crossing the highest sections of the Glacier Peak Wilderness and the snow crossings of Fire Creek Pass, followed by Red and White Passes the next day. The weather closes in. Rain, hail, wind, and obscured peaks define the conditions I will see during most of my time in the high country. Again, we are dealing with a near constant hypothermic environment. I’m a bit disappointed in my $300 Outdoor Research Axiom jacket as the pounding rain quickly soaks through it and I begin to get cold. This is not condensation as I am not moving. This is simply failed performance of expensive gear that is supposed to perform in conditions like this. This is why I spend this kind of money on quality rain gear. Liam has an umbrella and he has convinced me that might be a worthwhile investment.
Despite the continued driving rain and hail I am too cold to continue standing around. I cross Fire Creek Pass with little fanfare in 2 inches of new hail and driving wind at the pass. I camp that night in the woods near Kennedy Creek with a short break in the weather.
I reach Lake Sally Ann at mile 159 after another 17 mile battle with hypothermia across the highest section, over Red and White Passes. In fact I had to duck into some trees for an hour due to very close and frequent lightning to where I’m the tallest object around. I am shivering and most everything is wet. I get the tent set up in the rain and fog. Liam shows up a short time later and decides to stay here as well. That night I cook in my tent and dive into my bag before dark. It rains all night and my plans to get up at 5:30AM are delayed by the continued morning rain. At 7 I get up and quickly pack up a soaked tent, again. Since starting, there has been only one morning, in Stehekin, where I packed up a dry tent.
The weather breaks finally. Near 11AM I reach Saddle Gap with a large area of dry grass in the sun. I strip down naked unload my entire pack and spend the next hour drying everything and soaking up the sun. I didn’t care if anyone came by. I’d just smile and say hello. As it turned out I didn’t see another hiker until later in the afternoon.
Most of the talk among section and thru hikers alike has been the snow crossings in the high passes. I did all of them without batting an eye and without traction devices or an ice axe. I guess if you are a skier and have mountaineering and glacier travel experience, the snow crossings even across steep slopes didn’t phase you. You just take it slow and trust your ability and footing. My biggest concern was crossing literally hundreds of downed trees across the trail. We are not talking about your 8” Alaska birch. We are talking about your 80” Washington Douglas firs, hemlocks, and ponderosa pines strewn across the trail They were mostly wet and slippery and full of potential thigh puncturing or srcotum ripping protrusions. Some involved going over, taking the pack off and going under or way around, usually on a steep slope.
I did meet a PCTA trail crew near the Suiattle River who just spent a week clearing sections of trail with all hand tools. That’s a lot of work. I am grateful for what they do and will up my donation to them. As far as I’m concerned they walk on water and I hope other hikers express gratitude for what these volunteer trail crews do for us.
I seem to meet more and more hikers as I progress south, mostly section hikers, or fellow SOBO’s with whom I am either leapfrogging with or who have passed me and kept going. Liam is from Scotland, who quit his job and is doing the PCT without any defined timetable. Then there are the 4 20-somethings from France, who were all roommates and like Liam, quit their jobs to do the PCT together. Then there is the couple from San Francisco. It’s good to see couples doing an adventure like this together and make me miss Lauri all that much more. I’ve met some “vintage” section hikers, but so far I’m the oldest SOBO out there.
I’ve also met my first NOBOs who are within a few weeks of finishing. Some of them are up to 25-30 miles a day. A delightful young woman, who’s trail name is Hummingbird, meets me on the south side of Grizzly Peak. She is finishing the PCT northbound having been stopped last year near this point by fires closing the trail. A film major from Boulder, CO she is full of wanderlust and PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), embracing the simplicity of living out of a pack. And her pack is half the size of mine. It was fun to chat a little photography with someone who might make a career in the business. She is more than happy to let me take a few pics of her for the blog. But I am still struggling a bit with the performance of the A6300. I fumble a bit switching the focus to continuous and changing the focus point. Not wanting to hold her up I completely space out getting my shutter to a suitable speed for action, even walking. So I shot some nice images of her walking down the trail but the images have motion softness since I only shot them at 1/80 of a second instead of at least 1/250. Such is life. Even seasoned pros slip once in a while. I am still appreciative to Hummingbird for her patience and willingness to be photographed.
Being in old growth forest is beautiful but I still am claustrophobic and much prefer the alpine even if it means being exposed to harsher and colder weather. I have been out of phase with the few good weather windows I’ve had since starting. My sunniest days have been deep in the valleys where hard sun is terrible for forest photography and with no clean sweeping views with first or last light. All my attempts to camp and photograph high were characterized by rain, flat light and obscured mountains.
It wasn’t until my last night before reaching Stevens Pass that I had somewhat decent, though not stellar views and nice light on Grizzly Peak at 5500 feet. Though cold I played around with sunset getting some decent images. I woke up early the next morning to fog. But this time, the fog was shallow and the sun would shine through it making for wonderful shafts of light and a now distant Glacier Peak rising above it in blue sky. I delay breaking camp and spend some time making images. I still manage to leave shortly after 7AM.
I complete my last 15 miles by 3PM and meet Lauri at Stevens Pass. My plan is to take a zero in Mukilteo and see some friends and enjoy some spicy hot tikka masala and to give my agonizing feet a well deserved break. Well, one zero turned into two. I decide to listen to my body and rest one more day before hitting the trail through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It looks like summer will finally return.
I think I can average 18 miles a day now. I’m OK with that given my age and that I have been hiking less than 2 weeks. Just look for me, trail name: F-Stop, the old guy with the big (but custom fit) McHale pack. I start early, finish late, go slow (average 2mph) but I get there.