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PCT day 32: on top of Old Snowy, all covered in smoke

I sleep poorly. My knees keep me up. They don’t hurt, exactly, but I just can’t get comfortable. Constants of the trail: my feet hurt and I have old lady knees. The weather couldn’t be nicer, though. When I get up, I pull on my puffy jacket as usual, but I take it off almost immediately; it’s already too warm. 

Nervous about the forecast (which called for possible thunderstorms after 11am), we’re awake at 5am, but it’s eight o’clock before we set out uphill towards the ridge we’ll climb to Old Snowy and the Knife’s Edge. We are definitely back in alpine wonderland, with huge expansive views and rocks and snow-fed streams and glaciers in August. The uphill climb and the potential summit at the top (Old Snowy — there’s an alternate route that will take us past the summit spur trail, and I’m eager to get up there) invigorate me, and I’m far ahead of Backup for most of the climb. This is the only terrain on which I’m faster than him! It’s good for my ego. There are gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, and hazy clouds in the sky, but the wind is mild and the air is warm. 

We’re both slower than expected on the ridge climb, and it’s already ten by the time we reach the junction where we have to choose whether to go for the summit or continue to the Knife’s Edge, a narrow ridge we’ve been hearing about since the border. The whole Goat Rocks Wilderness section of the PCT is supposed to be one of the most beautiful, and the Knife’s Edge is the jewel in its crown. Backup is especially excited about it, but I convince him to climb Old Snowy with me. “The weather doesn’t look foreboding at all really, and we can always drop packs when the alternate joins up with the PCT again, and go back and do the Knife’s Edge!”

The climb is great — steep and full of scree and talus of all shapes and sizes, including a long section of flat rocks that are dinner-plate-sized or bigger and make a loud racket when we walk on them. At the junction for the spur, a third of a mile or so from the top, we meet a father and son who are also on their way up, and we talk about the fire on Mount Adams briefly. “We saw smoke yesterday,” we say, “but today there’s no sign of it…”

The dad points behind him at Mount Adams, which is peaking out from behind Old Snowy and the other nearby peaks, and shows us the plume of smoke rising from the east side of it. Oh, yeah… what we took for clouds is smoke. Why does it look so different from yesterday’s wild red and yellow sky? 

We all reach the summit together, and Backup and I spend a while up there taking photos in every direction and eating snacks. When the wind starts to pick up, I’m suddenly anxious to get down from there, and I start to pick my way back down the scree. Down is always so much harder than up for me. When Backup gets back down to the spur junction, he’s nervous too — we both feel weather rolling in. We hurry down to the PCT and follow it along a ridge. At one point Backup feels some static electricity in his trekking poles, and his hair is standing up — yikes! We hurry along until a nobo coming towards us points out that we’re not actually on the PCT. Shit! He was eating lunch on the ridge, or we’d have gone who knows how much farther before we figured out we’d missed the trail. 

Yes, lunch. The sky looks like dusk but it’s around noon. 

We hurry downhill. The smoke in the sky is changing character again, turning red and black and yellow, darkening half the sky. We never actually encounter rain or lightning, but it’s hard to read the weather when the sky is full of smoke. I pretend I’m a hobbit walking to Mordor as we walk down down down towards Mount Adams on fire. 

Once we get lower and there are more trees, we’re both feeling less anxious. We stop for a snack break at a cool little rock formation where it looks like one giant boulder split into two a very long time ago. They both look beautifully climbable and one of them is covered in pockety holds; I’m too scared of downclimbing to go very far up, but we both do a move or two (ok, Backup does three and I do one) up the wall. 

We wind down around ridges into the Cispus Basin, which is a beautiful area full of steep streams and, whaddya know, mountain goats! We stop to watch them up on the slope above the trail — several dozen at least, including kids, tromping up and down the steep slope, grazing and drinking from one of the streams. The fire is invisible from here, and daytime has returned to the sky to chase the hours and hours of evening away. 

Then — over Cispus Pass and finally down to (another) Sheep Lake, where we set up camp and then sit next to the lake to cook dinner and hang out for a bit. While we’re there, tiny bits of ash begin to fall from the sky and land on our legs and clothes and packs, smearing white when we touch them. A gentle, eerie snow. 

We’re feeling a bit apprehensive about the fire, but reassured by the number of day hikers and overnighters we’ve met today. If it comes down to it, it seems like we’ve got lots of potential bail spots. From what we’ve heard, the fire is all east of Mount Adams and not likely to affect the PCT except maybe in terms of air quality. Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

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