We wake at six but take our sweet time breaking down camp and eating breakfast. I’m still not hungry, but I find a couple hot chocolate packets in my food bag that sound kind of appealing, so I mix them up and sip on that while Backup eats his oats and drinks his coffee. “I’m not going to carry more than two liters of water at a time today,” I announce.
I set off down the trail around eight, with Backup a bit behind me. My feet are still a little sore from yesterday, but I make pretty good time, and it takes Backup a while to catch me — I see him coming up some switchbacks below as I’m chatting with a couple section hikers.
My left achilles tendon is bugging me. That’s the bad news, but the good news is I’m finally hungry! I eat a bunch of snacks and even manage to convince Backup to stop for a longish lunch break so I can make some hot food and lay my sleeping bag out in the sun to dry out a bit; it got a bit wet from condensation last night.
I’m not feeling super great about our Hart’s Pass goal; that seems really far away. But after lunch we keep on trucking. We hike a bit together but mostly I go ahead while Backup communes with butterflies (I’m trying to get him to start insectsofthepct dot tumblr dot com) or he goes ahead when he gets impatient with my slow pace. We set meeting spots at creeks or tent sites a mile or two in the distance and leapfrog our way there.
I spend a lot of the day focused on my achilles, trying to figure out how to step so I don’t aggravate it. Using my poles effectively and placing my feet carefully helps a great deal, and for a big chunk of the day I’m not in any pain at all.
Five miles or so from Hart’s Pass, the wind picks up something fierce. We run into a hiker who warns us that the barometric pressure is dropping, and Backup is worried about a storm coming in. We try to pick up the pace, but right about now the front of my left ankle starts to hurt. Yesterday at one point I told Backup I was going to “ploddle on”… an accidental combination of plod and hobble, or possible waddle? In any case, I do a lot of ploddling in the last few miles to Hart’s Pass.
My stakes are right where I left them at our campsite of a few nights ago, three and a half miles from Hart’s Pass. Hurray! We grab them and head on.
As we get closer, Backup says that he thinks of distance — i.e., x miles — in terms of his usual run around the Portland waterfront — i.e., the distance from the Steel Bridge to his apartment. So I ask, “could you give me the play by play? Are we going under then Burnside Bridge yet?” He watches the fractions of miles tick by on his watch and keeps me updated: “We’re at the fountain. We’re going up the ramp to the bridge.” When he stops to fill up at the last creek, I ploddle on, and when he catches up again, we’re turning onto his block.
We’re camped at the established campground at Hart’s Pass tonight, reveling in the luxury that is a picnic table to cook at and a pit toilet to shit in. The front of my ankle all the way up onto my shin feels sore and tender to the touch. Maybe this is shin splints? It’s either that or my extensor tendons. I told Backup I want to sleep in and have an easier day tomorrow.
I wake up at six and this morning I’m on the trail by seven. We’re leaving the tent up (with sticks replacing my trekking poles as tent poles) and plan to hike the 11 and a half ish miles to the border and then back to our camp. Last night’s 1000 calories have not been sitting well, and I can’t bring myself to eat anything this morning. I’m just antsy to get miles under my feet. 23 miles is a long day. Backup and I agree to meet at the first water source down the trail and eat breakfast there; he takes longer to wake up and get out of camp than me, but he’s generally a faster hiker, so he’ll catch up.
I walk on the chilly shady side of a valley for a few miles, with a gorgeous view of sunlight hitting morning mist hanging around the mountains in the distance. A couple miles in, I finally round a corner into the sun and it’s immediately at least ten degrees warmer. I meet a couple out for a several-day trip who point to the mountain, Three Fools’ Peak, that they’re planning to climb today. They have a beautiful camp spot in a meadow overlooking mountains and more meadow and forest… the North Cascades are really pretty, y’all.
I continue on downhill, switchback after switchback. There’re a few spots where the trail crosses scree fields, including twenty or so slightly tricky feet that, as I laughingly mention later to Backup, are the steepest part of the trail so far. For the most part, the PCT — at least this far northern section of it — is gently graded.
While I walk, I think about my trail name, which I chose for the obvious learning-to-fly metaphor, for the maybe slightly less obvious beginner’s-mind connotations (start again…), and in part because it was the name my ex-husband and I used for our not-really-a-thing folk cover duo, and I guess I just don’t feel done with it — with learning to fly. I think about the last big trip I took, how he was with me for half of it and we called ourselves “Team Slow and Unsteady” — a trail name of sorts too. I think about my life and how I would maybe like to be a part of a team again. I wonder what that means.
There are a couple other thru-hikers camped with their dog at the spur trail to Hopkins Lake, and I ask them to keep an eye out for Backup. I also scratch his name and an arrow in the dirt at the turn-off and hope for the best. The lake is beautiful and sunny, and I lounge by the shore for 45 minutes before Backup finally shows up. We eat our oatmeal and filter out water, and another hiker, Paint Your Wagon, arrives. What with all the chatting and the water filtering and the lovely sun, it’s 11 by the time we move on, and I’ve been at the lakeshore for an hour and a half. All right. Time to crush some miles.
A mile or so past the lake, the trail starts to be overgrown, mostly with huckleberry bushes sadly lacking ripe berries. After a long stretch without much water, there is suddenly water everywhere — gurgling creeks across and under the trail. I’m carrying four and a half liters, my max capacity, anyway, for god knows what reason. I need to learn to feel comfortable carrying less water!
Backup likes to stop and take pictures of insects and frogs, but I like momentum, so I often hike ahead of him for a while before he catches up. So I beat him to the monument at the border and spend a few minutes reading the register, checking out the sobos who have come before us this season, before he arrives. We both sign and then take the requisite photos before the bugs chase us away.
Southbound now at last. I’m getting a bit footsore, but we’ve got to get back to our camp. The trail is up and up and up. We stop at the last creek before the lake to fill up on water and then head up some more. Backup hikes ahead of me and I plod on. The light is getting extra-beautiful as the afternoon wanes.
Backup waits up for me every once in awhile, and we’re hiking together when we walk past the couple I met this morning, back at their beautiful camp spot. They had a successful climb and have been exploring the nearby area all afternoon. “We didn’t expect to see you back here this early!” I’m pretty impressed with us, too. After our long stop at the lake, I expected to be arriving back to camp in the dark, but we’ve got at least two hours of daylight left and only two and a half miles to hike.
A mile from our tent site, Backup, who somehow has energy to spare, decides to run (like, actually run!) ahead and meet me at the campsite. I continue slowly by but surely over Woody Pass and down to camp. We sit and tend to our feet. I can’t bring myself to cook. I eat a bar instead, then look ahead in the maps towards the new terrain we’ll be covering after we pass back through Hart’s Pass. We’re hoping to be back there tomorrow night, and to Stehekin a few days after that.
I wake up at 5:30 and then roll over and wake up again at nearly 8, when I am suddenly desperate to dig a hole. I dig in my pack for my trowel and then rush to the spot where I tied my Ursack to pull out my little baggie full of TP and hand sanitizer. I dig what I hope I will eventually remember as the sorriest cathole of the trail.
I meet another sobo thru while I’m eating my oats and protein powder out of a plastic bag. He’s on his way south again from the border. I introduce myself as Fledgling, which feels odd, but by the end of the day I’ll have done it several more times and more or less gotten used to it. One hiker gets really excited and shows me a video he took on his phone of a mama grouse and her baby, tells me he’s been seeing tons of fledglings on the trail.
I leave camp at 10ish, a bit ahead of J, who after meeting a few hikers going by trail names is willing to adopt the one I gave him: Backup. Last night I borrowed his backup headlamp ’cause I’d forgotten to lock mine and the battery had run down. As I write I am lying in my tent, pitched with his stakes. But I’ll get to that.
I hike for an hour or so by myself, stopping to chat with a few other hikers going the other way, before Backup catches up. The North Cascades continue to be just ridiculously pretty. We’re going up and down passes all day, but the PCT is graded for horses, so it’s mostly a lot of long but not very steep switchbacks. We go from rocky alpine slopes to meadows full of wildflowers to pine forest and back again a dozen times. We stop to filter water and eat something resembling lunch at a creek, and then keep on walking.
Sometimes Backup stops to take many photos of a mushroom or a bug, and I walk on ahead by myself for a bit. On one such stretch, I stop to pee and put down my pack on poop. I guess deer poop? We’ve been seeing deer all day, sometimes walking on the trail ahead of us. They turn and stare at us and let us get very close before bounding away.
Anyway, I’m peeing and I see this poop on my pee rag (which is usually clipped to the outside of my pack). So a few minutes later Backup comes around the corner and finds me desperately searching for the source of this mystery poop, which by now has shown up in small smears on two of my water bottles and on my arm. What the hell! It’s Backup who spots a whole chunk of it on my pack and solves the mystery. I clean everything up as much as I can and sanitize my hands probably a half dozen times. “I’m covered in poop!” I complain.
“In a couple months you’ll look back at this and be like, remember that time I thought being covered in poop was a big deal?”
I dunno, man. It’s pretty gross.
Still probably not the worst mistake I make today, though. We walk on (and on, and on) with our goal being a tent site at the top of Woody Pass, about eleven miles from the Canadian border. I am getting kinda tired and am having trouble convincing myself to eat, which means I’m also getting a little cranky. But then we emerge from pine forest into a beautiful meadow with rocky mountains rising up on every side, and, you know, would I really rather be at work?
Up till this afternoon, every “seasonal stream” identified in Guthook’s app has been flowing, but now we’re crossing dry stream beds and heading uphill and chances are we won’t see more water between here and camp. Instead we head towards one of the only patches of snow we’ve seen anywhere near the trail and melt some using Backup’s stove.
At camp half a mile up the trail I pull out my tent and realize like the proverbial anvil drop that I left my stakes, in their little oh-so-well-camoflagued earth-toned bag, at our tent site this morning. Sooo since my tent is the bigger, Backup and I are sharing it tonight, pitched with his stakes, and tomorrow night until we walk past that site again and I can hopefully pick them back up. Or else we’ll be sharing all the way to Stehekin and I’ll hopefully be able to pick up some new stakes there… though to be fair, I probably could use rocks.
I make a 1000-calorie dinner and manage to get it all down. “Which is the bigger accomplishment, walking 16 miles today or eating 1000 calories in one sitting?” I don’t know!
Tomorrow we’ll tag the border, and then we’ll be flying south.
I wake up bleary and underslept at five in the morning when my alarm goes off. The past few days have been incredibly busy and stressful. I spent my birthday sorting plastic baggies full of snacks, labeled by calorie count, into USPS flat rate boxes. I spent the next day cleaning my apartment, dropping off bags of stuff I don’t remember wanting at Goodwill, and trying to find nooks and crannies in my closet in which to shove enough of my stuff that my subletters have some space to move into. Then, in the afternoon, I photographed a wedding. I got five hours of sleep, woke up yesterday morning, cleaned, edited photos, ran errands, added two things to my to-do list for every one thing I checked off. Went to sleep at 1am and now I’m waking up at five.
I am completely burned out on logistics. I couldn’t get it together to invite folks out for beers to celebrate my birthday or my impending trip. I’m just disappearing for a month or so, before I’m back in Portland to resupply.
I put on my thru-hiker costume, carry my last load of stuff to my borrowed car, and pick up J. With last minute chores, it’s past eight by the time we finally roll out — me, my mom, her dog Rush, and J, who is joining me till Cascade Locks or until we can’t stand it anymore, whichever comes first. The first several hours of the eventual eight hour drive are uneventful, but increasingly beautiful as we leave I-5 and head east towards the North Cascades. In the little town of Mazama, we turn onto a dirt road that winds up and up, along some scary edges and over some scary rock. Mom’s feeling pretty anxious about the drive down by herself, so we’re all counting down the miles to Hart’s Pass… which we accidentally drive right past. There’s a confusingly labeled little turn-off, so we end up one more mile down the road at a beautiful campground, where we pile out to orient ourselves and let Mom head back down the long dirt road.
We’re not quite on the trail. Hart’s Pass is a mile north — back the way we came — on the road. J repacks his pack and then we set off with seven days of food crammed more or less into our packs. At Hart’s Pass we both intend to cache a bear canister in the woods. Instead, we give our cans to the very nice older couple who live at the guard station. (What a gig!)
There’s also a trail register. I sign in with the trail name I’ve chosen for myself. “Fledgling — flyin’ south (but first, north).” Then we are finally on the PCT, with our sights set on a campsite three and a half miles north.
It’s just too damn pretty and I stop and take too many photos.
We set up our tents, cook dinner, clean up. Deer visit. When we startle them, they make this whoomp-whoomp noise as they bound away. I tie my Ursack to a tree and then we spend much too long agreeing but thinking we’re disagreeing about how to hang J’s food bag. It’s late. He got even less sleep than me somehow. A deer watches us while we haul the bag up a tree and eventually manage a marginal PCT-style (when in Rome…) hang. Now it’s time to sleep. And oh, we will sleep.
A little past six on Friday, Sara arrives at my apartment, and my cats charm her into petting them while I shove the last few things into my pack. Lindsay shows up soon afterwards, and we swing by J’s place to pick him up, then hit the road, due north, away from Portland’s triple-digit forecast and towards Mount Rainier. We’re meeting more Pikas in Mount Rainier National Park tomorrow morning, where we’ll all climb Unicorn Peak, and then, the next day, Castle and Pinnacle.
It’s dark when we reach the first campground on the short list Josh sent us, and we drive the loop slowly, looking for an empty spot. Every site has a “reserved” tag, but the host is still up and points us towards a site reserved by a no-show. We set up our tents, sip some homemade pineapple rum courtesy of Sara’s generous boyfriend, and hit the hay. It’s warm enough all night that I never zip up my sleeping bag. In the morning we repack our packs for the umpteenth time—mine has too much food and not enough water—and then get lost on our way to the trailhead.
We hit the trail a few minutes past nine o’clock. It’ll be just past seven by the time we get back to the cars. Ten hours to cover just five miles! At first the trail is well-built and easy, meandering past a pretty lake, with sweet views of huge Mount Rainier and tons of wildflowers everywhere. Soon enough, the maintained trail ends, spitting us out at the beginning of a big ol’ boulder field, which we pick our way across and up.
For the next couple of hours, we alternate between talus scrambles and short stretches of something resembling trail, with a little bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. Then there’s a fourth-class scramble that we carefully follow each other up. The holds are big and easy, but there’s loose rock everywhere and some real exposure. It’s exhilarating and a little scary, and I’m relieved to top out at a pretty spot covered in greenery.
Then it’s onward and upwards, just a bit more hiking and scrambling to the bottom of the summit block!
Sharon leads the fifth-class pitch up to the top and sets up a fixed line. We follow, tied in with prusiks. The route isn’t hard, but there are a couple of spots where I struggle a little to find secure footing in my hiking boots. I top out and Sharon’s lounging behind a bleached tree at the rappel station. We gather at the high point and celebrate our summit. The view, of course, is incredible.
We rappel twice on the way down. The first rappel, down from the summit block, is a little tricky at the end. I pendulum to the left away from the little saddle I’m trying to hit, and have to walk my feet along the rock back to where I want to go. I’m learning today that down is harder for me than up—and I’ll have a lot more to learn about that before the day is up.
The second rappel lets us skip downclimbing the fourth-class scramble we climbed up, thank goodness. We land next to a small, steep snowfield and start across it, intending to zigzag our way down. Halfway across our first traverse, I slip and nearly fall, but I’ve planted my ice axe effectively and I’m able to hold onto it. After that, though, we move off of the snow.
The next bit quickly becomes a sort of choose-your-own-adventure as we all find our own way down and across the steep scree. Sara ends up stuck in limbo, not sure how to move further down the slope without falling, and I work my way over to her, pointing out a potential route over towards where Sharon and a few others crossed. There’s a steep gully in our way that we’re trying to cross when Josh suggests we head down instead, and gives us a few pointers. “Expect the rock to move,” he says. Just last weekend at the Mount Hood Scramble, I’d taught my mom how to “plunge step” down sandy slopes, and I try to follow my own advice in this steep scree, concentrating on trusting my feet even as the rocks slide beneath them. We surf our way down slowly, putting our hands on the ground as necessary, until we reach another patch of snow. Then Josh shows us how to ski down in our boots—a standing glissade. By the time we reach the rocks again, we’ve almost gotten the hang of it.
I’m slow and not entirely steady as we continue picking our way downhill. We take a long break at the top of the last big boulder field / talus slope, at the bottom of which we’ll finally be back on maintained trail. The scene at the top is idyllic—a stream runs down, with plant life and wildflowers in abundance, rocky peaks on either side of us and Mount Rainier above. We filter water and re-up our bug spray, then head down.
I’m slow. These rocky descents are hard for me. I stay low to the ground, keeping my knees bent and my quads engaged. They’re tight and achy and I’m slow, slow, slow. Sharon and Celia very kindly walk with me, but everyone else fades quickly in the distance below. They wait for me twice. I’m embarrassed, and I want to be done. When Josh ask if I need a break, I say no and we move on.
We reach the trail and walk out. On trail, it’s easier for me to trust my legs. At the cars, Sharon gives me a box of coconut water, which has never tasted so good. We eat an absurd quantity of chips and salsa, then gather ourselves and caravan to our campsite for the night. The park’s campgrounds are full up—it’s a beautiful summer weekend—as is the campground where we spent last night, so we drive to a pullout Josh knows about and set up there, cooking our dinners around a small LED lantern in lieu of a campfire.
castle & pinnacle
In the morning we drive into the park again, stopping one trailhead before the one we parked at yesterday. We walk steadily up the 1.3-mile section of maintained trail, and my sore quads warm up and release a little bit, thankfully.
We head to Castle, first, to scale the Castle wall (har har). There’s a Mazamas group ahead of us, and one of the climbers is our friend Brian, a.k.a. Pocket Waffle, who joined the Flaming Pikas at Horsethief Butte for our BCEP outdoor climbing session! They’re on their way down, and while they finish up their rappel, we head up. Anne leads—her first trad lead. There’s much less room at the top than there was at Unicorn. We stay prusiked to the line or clipped in at an anchor and wiggle around each other as we traverse along the rope to the highest point and then back to the rappel station.
We rappel off and hike over to Pinnacle. The Mazamas group is still ascending their fixed line when we get there, so we chill out at the bottom and eat lunch, crowded into a small amount of shade. They generously offer to let us ascend their line, which we do. It’s a fourth-class scramble, in theory, but with enough loose rock and exposure that I’m glad for my prusik and harness. A young foolhardy couple with less fear of heights than me follows us up without either.
We feel a couple of raindrops, but they’re few and far between so far. We scramble up to the highest point of the large summit block to enjoy the 360-degree view. After a little while, the bugs are buggin’ me a bit, and I’m surprised to find that despite the solid, horizontal-ish ground I’m sitting on, I’m getting a bit nervous about being up so high. I scramble back down to the spot where we topped out, and watch the Mazamas group begin their slow downclimb on their fixed line. A little while later, the rest of the group comes down, too. Sara felt her hair get staticky and everyone’s a little nervous about the storm that seems to be brewing. But we can’t throw down our rope or start our rappel until the Mazamas group has finished descending. The rain never really gets going, but the longer we sit there, the more nervous I get. I’m surprised by my own anxiety level, and I concentrate on breathing evenly and fakin’ it in hopes of makin’ it.
Josh strings everyone’s belay devices on the rope, ready for rappelling, and we all wait for the Mazamas below to reach safety, listening quietly for their leader to shout up to the last climber, waiting at the top to clean the anchors on his way down. Finally, they finish, and one by one we complete the long, single-rope rappel down. We wolf down some snacks and put on layers—rain is threatening again—while Josh coils the rope and carefully downclimbs, and then we all grab our packs and hike out.
The rocky bits are hard, again, and again the group has to wait for me. I guess I know what I need to practice. Finding sure footing! Trusting my legs! Once we hit smoother trail, I stay right on the group’s tail despite my sore quads. By the time we reach the trailhead, the sky is gorgeously blue and sunny again. There are eight of us and eight cans of Rainier left in Josh’s cooler. Perfect. Cheers.
a couple bonus photos from J
on top of Unicorn: