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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!

PCT day 31: fire in the sky

Success! We leave town while it’s still morning. The first five miles are all uphill, first through the woods and then below the ridge we’re slowly approaching. We can see the trail stretch out ahead of us and rise to the ridge, and it reminds us of the trail further north, when we’d see it far away across valleys hours before we’d walk those sections. 

There are clouds coming over the ridge that we’re a bit worried about — the weather forecast calls for potential thunderstorms after 11am for the next few days. The clouds are tinged a beautiful but ominous red. When we’ve almost gained the ridge, Backup starts to ask a group of hikers coming towards us about the weather. Before he can get the question out, they answer him — about the fire! The clouds we’ve been watching aren’t weather but smoke. When we cross over the ridge, the smoke is unmistakable. To our left, the sky is blue, dotted with white clouds; then there’s a crazy seam in the sky where the smoke meets the blue sky, and to the right, the red-black-yellow smoke at cloud level, hazy blue below it.

The trail curves and we get an otherworldly view of Mount Rainier, partly shrouded by smoke. Backup manages to get a text through to his mom, who’s able to call a ranger, who’s able to text Backup. While we sit on rocks on a scree slope facing Rainier, the ranger asks for some information and gets in touch with the Mount Adams ranger station for us — the fire is down there, it turns out. It was started yesterday by lightning but, according to the rangers, the PCT is not in any danger. Phew. 

We walk on and descend back into forest. The smoke has given the day a perpetual evening kind of feeling. The light the sun casts through the trees is golden orange. Golden hour goes on and on — until suddenly we turn a corner and day comes back. There’s no sign of the smoke or fire at all. 

The rest of the afternoon we descend and climb and slowly leave the woods behind. Alpine wonderland! We’re camped tonight just on its edge, not far from a steep glacier-fed stream, protected from any inclement weather (though it’s been clear all day) by a little stand of trees. 

PCT day 30: zero zero

Slow morning, potentially blustery / stormy afternoon and evening: sounds like a zero day to me. We pack up all our stuff and head to the store to move in the direction of getting back on trail, but a few hours later we head back to the motel and get a room for a second night. Well hey. While we eat dinner (spaghetti again), the wind roars through outside, and rain follows. Our room tonight has a DVD player and a selection of movies. We watch an episode of a Discovery Channel sensationalist series about climbing Everest, and then an only-okay moralistic thriller called Rendition in which Meryl Streep plays a bad-guy torture-justifying CIA higher-up. Back to the trail tomorrow morning.

PCT day 29: brownies ‘n’ beer

Another slow morning. We’re just over twelve miles from White Pass. Backup and I pack up and leave together and hike the first few miles thirty feet apart to keep out of the dust clouds that we kick up. For a while we’re following a dry riverbed that’s deep and carved enough that its incredible dryness is jarring and odd; why is this riverbed so much dryer than others? 

Backup almost steps on a salamander that’s hanging out, motionless, in the middle of the trail. He spends several minutes taking its photo and is relieved when it finally demonstrates its vitality by moving slowly off the trail. 

Since we got a late start and we’re not sure what time the store in White Pass will close, I send Backup on ahead. He takes off down the trail; I’ll find out later that he’s doing ten-minute miles with his pack on just for kicks. In the meantime I keep hiking, swishing my trekking poles back and forth, hitting the little lupine and huckleberry plants at the side of the trail from time to time, thinking about a thought Backup had the other day: “I wonder if thru-hikers are a major vector of plant disease.” I think about humans as an invasive species and wonder what I’m doing here. If there’s beauty in the wilderness and no one to see it, is the beauty really there? Do the birds and deer know they live in a beautiful place?

The trail is wide and flat and easy, and I make better time than I really expected I would. In the last few miles, there are dozens of little frogs in the trail, who leap aside as I approach. I hopefully succeed in avoiding squashing them under my shoes. Then I’m crossing a dirt road, and then another at a campsite, and then I’m emerging onto the highway, turning right, and walking half a mile on the wide shoulder towards the store. 

I turn off my airplane mode partway there, and Backup’s sent me a text — he’s at the store chatting with Elroy and Sinbad, and he wants to know if there’s anything I’d like him to have waiting for me to eat. What luxury! I ask him to buy me some chocolate milk, and the next thing I know he’s running towards me, chocolate milk in hand, to walk me the rest of the way in. 

The store is staffed by two very hiker-friendly women, and we linger for hours eating snacks before walking to the inn next door to get a room for the night. We drop our packs and put on ridiculous laundry outfits (me: rain jacket and skirt; Backup: down vest and leggings) and bring our dirty clothes back to the store to do our laundry. While we’re waiting for it, we sit on the bench outside drinking beer. Our room has a kitchenette with a stove and oven, so we also buy some actual spaghetti and pasta sauce and a box of brownie mix. Laundry complete, we invite Sinbad and a nobo hiker, Blue Sky, to come by our room for brownies. Blue Sky brings more beer and we all sit around until way past our usual hiker bedtime talking about this and other adventures and stuffing ourselves full of gooey brownies. 

ElizabethAugust 10, 2015 - 10:18 am

Keep it going!!!! Wonderful.

PCT day 28: a less-than-marathon day

Wellllll we sleep in a bit this morning. It’s 11 by the time we both leave camp. We’re about 26 miles from White Pass, our next resupply stop, but we don’t have another 26-mile day in us, so we may as well take it easy today and hike together. Backup’s Achilles’ tendon is hurting, which slows him down enough that I can keep up. 

The trail is a mix of vaguely alpine rocky dusty, open forest, grassy beautiful-light meadow, stunning I mean STUNNING views of Mount Rainier. 

We’re back in slightly wetter territory, with water every few miles and even a few seasonal streams running that aren’t on our map. We stop at one of these for a long break when we hear some twig-breaking nearby and see the bushes move maybe 20 feet up the slope above us. “There’s something big up there,” Backup says, standing up. It turns out to be a female elk, munching on the huckleberry bushes. She looks up at us a few times, but we don’t scare her one bit. She kind of scares us a little, and when she continues down the slope towards us, we pick up our packs and move on. 

We’re camped tonight near a big creek that could almost be a called a river — it’s like it was further north, when we’d fall asleep to the sound of rushing water almost every night.