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PCT day 2: an island in the clouds

I wake up not long after falling asleep to Anoushka sniffing near my face. Then I remember where I am, and am wide awake in an instant — what is sniffing near my face!? But it’s just the sound of cuben fiber rubbing against mesh — my rolled-up tent door moving in the wind. Still, I turn on my headlamp and peer outside for a minute, looking for movement. There isn’t any.

It rains all night. The wind blows and sometimes roars. The forecast called for some wind tonight, but also for clear skies. I wake up a lot throughout the night and toss and turn, feeling anxious and disappointed.

It’s still sort of drizzling when we finally decide to get up around 8 o’clock. I pack up the tent, wet, while Ben gets water for our breakfasts from the spring a quarter mile back along the trail.

When we’ve finished eating, we heft our packs and head back to the PCT. Everything is wet, but it’s not really raining anymore, and yesterday’s mosquitos are mercifully mostly absent. If rain is what it takes to chase them off, then I guess I can live with a little rain.

We march through the forest, slowly gaining elevation. It’s funny to me how much my memory of this section from 2015 consists of a few highlights, with all the regular ol’ forest hiking in between foreshortened into nonexistence in my recollection. Oh well! I like hiking. I feel remarkably energetic, considering how poorly I slept. And we’ve got the Knife Edge coming up today. Maybe the weather will clear.

It seems like it might, for a lot of the day. We get some lovely views here and there, and little windows open up in the clouds, revealing blue sky. The trees thin and shrink and get a little more gnarled. We take a snack and water break in a gorgeous basin full of little rivulets of water and patches of green growth and wildflowers interspersed with snow. The ground is covered in what looks like frozen straw, where snow pushed down last year’s growth and buried it, with small green shoots growing up between the dead plant matter.

As we head up to the next ridge, we watch a pair of hikers glissade down the slope and pick their way across the meadow below us — the first people we’ve seen all day. Soon, we’re crossing a basin I do remember — J. and I camped somewhere near here — and that means the long gorgeous alpine climb up to Old Snowy is right around the corner.

We get some killer vistas as we ascend, and then we’re just below cloud level, and then we’re in the clouds, and our visibility is limited to a small area around us in any direction. It feels like walking on a small, moving island surrounded by nothingness. It feels like one of those old-school video games where you walk around a grid but you can only see the contents of the squares directly surrounding you.

We climb and climb and climb. The snowfields to our left blend into the horizon. We zigzag slowly up the rocky trail, picking up odd rocks and pointing out strange formations to each other. I pick up a small heart-shaped rock and hold it up to my chest, flashing Ben a cheesy grin. He snaps a picture. Later, he picks up a much larger piece of shale also shaped like a rock, and holds it up for me, grinning. “Hold on!” I say as he starts to set it down. “I gotta get a picture of that. How can I get you to smile like that again?”

“Tell me a joke!” he says. I can’t come up with anything, though, and eventually he saves me from myself with a self-deprecating pun and a somewhat sincere smile. We keep hiking, and he looks over his shoulder at me. “Wanna hear a nerdy joke I heard?”


“What do you get when you cross a mosquito with a mountaineer?”

“I dunno, what?”

“You can’t do it. You can’t cross a vector with a scalar!”

I entertain myself giggling at that joke for a few minutes of uphill struggle. We try to guess when we’re at the Knife Edge (in 2015, J. and I didn’t even realize we’d hiked the Knife Edge, expecting a bit more exposure than we found). “This is kind of knife-y.” Eventually we reach the junction with the side trail to the summit of Old Snowy, and the PCT switchbacks downwards. “Guess that was it!”

There’s more snow on this side of the ridge, and the trail criss-crosses snowfields. By the looks of the boot tracks across the snow, it’s been a day or two since anyone passed through. A couple times, I pull out my phone to aim us in the direction the trail should go. At one point, we cross a snowfield that’s wide enough that, standing in the middle, all we can see is white in every direction.

We find a few hikers camped at the first campsite on this side of the Knife Edge. We chat for a few minutes — they were hoping to climb Old Snowy today, but decided to wait for clearer weather. We run into a solo hiker soon after that, and exchange notes. Then we hike on.

The sky is starting to clear as we lose elevation. Maybe soon we’ll get a little sun! The next highlight in my memory is a big split rock just off of the trail, and I keep expecting it around every bend. Instead, we follow the trail past a million tiny, lovely seasonal streams; lose it in snowfields and find it again; and start to see Mount Adams peak through the clouds. We take a break next to a natural rock wall overgrown with small trees.

Almost as soon as we start hiking again, Ben points to the left of the trail. “Is that it?” It is! I ask him to take a silly picture of me climbing the pocketed wall of one of the large boulders, to match the picture I have from three years ago. Then Ben scrambles to the top of other boulder and I wince a little while he carefully climbs back down.

The trail is beautiful through here, wending its way across meadows towards Mount Adams, which is now visible in all its glory against an increasingly blue sky.

We descend back into the trees, but there are still no mosquitos, and I can’t wait for the next thing in my mental highlights reel: Cispus Basin. We’ve set it as our goal for the day, and we’re not too far away.

When we round the bend, I give a little cheer. “See?” I ask Ben.

“Yeah!” he obligingly replies.

The first campsite we pass is only so-so, but it’s the only one indicated in Guthook. I point to a cluster of tree on the other side of the basin. “I remember there being some campsites over there. But, I mean, I’m not SURE…”

“Let’s risk it,” Ben says, and we set off around the basin. The Cispus River pours across the trail just ahead of us, and as I watch Ben cross (in waterproof boots), I know I’m about to get my feet wet. I try to step on the rocks closer to the surface of the fast-moving water, but one of them sinks when I step on it, and water rushes into my shoes. Oh well! I wade the rest of the way across.

Then I spot one of the campsites I remembered. “There!” I say, pointing it out to Ben.

“Perfect!” he says, and we set off towards it. We cross another couple forks of the river and then descend below the trail to the little tent site tucked between some trees. I set up the tent while Ben starts boiling water for dinner. We eat with our backs to the trail, looking out over the basin, and then we crawl into the tent to warm up. Pretty freakin’ good. (Except for my very wet shoes.)

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