Fire and Ice – PCT III

My cerebral cortex severely lagged as I stared in disbelief that my mom would be here, on the trail… on my trek. After recovering from the initial surprise and assuring her that I was completely alive and well, I gathered an extra pair of socks that she had thoughtfully brought along, and eagerly opened up my resupply package. I stuffed the ziplock full of candy into my pack and gave several pounds worth of unnecessary gear that had been weighing me down (who brings a Kershaw double-edged dive knife on the PCT? Apparently, I did) to my mom to take back. After my mom and my friend left, I jumped into a bath (yes, there was only a bath in the rooms above the Trout Lake General Store) and watched in disgust as first a thin, then a thick film of darkish brown matter covered the water. I couldn’t believe how dirty I could get in only a week of backpacking! After draining and refilling the bath for a second, more cleaner round, I thought back to all the times I had bathed in creeks along the way. Something about bathing in the middle of the wilderness is just so much more memorable than sitting in a tub looking at the increasing dirtiness of the water after each scrub.

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I finished bathing, laundered my clothes, and feeling a bit peckish, I went looking for food. I ran into the girl just as she made it to town, and quickly caught up on our individual endeavors before then. I was famished, so I went to the General Store and asked around for good food places. The lady there recommended the nearby tavern, since it was “Taco Night” and they had the “best tacos anywhere!” I figured that there would be a definite party in my tummy if I ate there (with my tummy exploding shortly after),  so I went instead to a little cafe nearby. My eyes were nearly bigger than my stomach that night as I ordered two massive sandwiches, and two huckleberry milkshakes. I took them both to my room and slowly enjoyed them as only a starving PCTer knows how.

At 6:30 the next morning, I grabbed breakfast with two older gentlemen that had spent the night in the little rooms above the store and the girl (who had camped out at the ranger station down the road). Massive fluffy filling huckleberry pancakes and huckleberry syrup made for an amazing breakfast, and with map spread out, the girl and I plotted the course for the day. First, we’d hitchhike back to the trailhead without the old guys (who had paid a towns-person to drive them there). Then we’d hike up to Killen Creek (WACS2253) which was only about 15 miles from the trailhead along the base of Mt. Adams. Sounded like a great plan. Too bad it went awry before we even reached the trailhead.

We walked out of the diner, and stood on the side of the road for about 30 minutes before someone drove in the direction of the trail. A nice farm lady, she let us jump in the back after saying she’d only be able to take us about 2 miles down the road before turning down her farm road. Two miles later, we stood in the middle of  a road that split at a Y, once again waiting for someone to drive by. After numerous creeper cars went by on the other side of the Y (whew!), an RV eventually pulled up with a super rad elderly retired doctor and his wife. This incredible couple were just touring around in their camper seeing the world, and had spent the last summer up near the Arctic Circle voyaging around on canoes. [Note for future Arctic canoe adventures – don’t go during the summer, otherwise you’ll get eaten alive by mosquitoes].

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They dropped us off at the “nearby” Stagman Trailhead because that was where they were going to go hike around. We wandered around ahead of them, trudged through land devastated by a previous wildfire, got chased by mosquitoes in a clearing, and finally came to a stream flowing with fresh snowmelt and grey glacier silt from the towering Mt. Adams looming above us.

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The couple caught up with us here and then went past, tramping through the stark vibrant underbrush contrasting with the ashy and charred soil as they followed their map. Sadly for us, we had no such map. Instead, our map was for a section more to our north. So after hiking around in the wrong direction along this path, I took a compass bearing and saw that we were, in fact, off-course. We hiked back towards a ridgeline that corresponded with our map, and tramped offtrail. We eventually reached the ridge and realized it was a bit too steep to attempt an unroped climb (especially with packs on), so we continued along east along it until its slope decreased enough for us to climb. Mt. Adams seemed to be staring at us with his unblinking stare of mockery at our foolishness.

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The girl and I climbed up the slope and after a bit more of land navigation with my compass and map, we got back on the PCT. We took a quick break to rest our weary feet and, munching on trailmix, gazed out upon Mt. Adams. We looked at our map and realized  that we either had to push it hard to get to our camping spot by nightfall, or we’d end up camping on the snow somewhere down the trail.

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So we took off at a faster pace down the sunbaked trail and soon were passing along rocky outcrops and glistening snowmelt waterfalls. PICT0196

Snow began appearing as we gained altitude and soon we were able to make snow angels in the deepening snow. The sun was still blazing away and the ambient temperature ranged in the mid 80s, but the snow was cold and the combination made for a delightful journey.

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Dusk was fast approaching as we rounded a corner of rock and came out onto a snow-pocked, gravelly area. The snow increased the farther along we went, causing us to occasionally have to backtrack to the last known trail location before continuing on in our wild quest for the right path. As the elevation increased and the temperature decreased, the snow deepened to the point that we were constantly postholing each step. A sign marking a trail turnoff was nearly covered (thank God it wasn’t, or we’d still be out there somewhere on the wrong trail!).

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The sources of the Lewis and Adams rivers soon flowed in front of us and the thin snowbridges that had grown over them had nearly melted in the day’s bright sunlight. We were faced with two options. Do we camp on this gravel, rock strewn snowfield? Or do we risk crossing the melting snowbridges at dusk and continue on to our original objective?PICT0241

We scouted up and down the river, looking for sturdier snowbridges to cross, but failed to find any.

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So we doubled back and  slowly crept across the bridges while anchored to each other. After several gutwrenching moments in which the snowbridge trembled and threatened to collapse into the rushing frigid, flesh freezing waters of the Adams, we made it safely across. After hiking up the bank, we came down into a small gully where several other hikers were setting up camp. They were heading south (while we were heading north) and wisely were waiting to cross the river in the morning before the ice and snow had melted again in the daytime sun. They warned us about a vast snowfield where they spent countless hours following various other lost hiker tracks before getting lost themselves amongst the tangle of footprints. They eventually found their way to the path, but with the snowpack still covering most of the trail, it took them nearly an entire day. I looked forward to this upcoming test of my navigation skills and eagerly set off along the path toward this immense snowfield, but the quickening shadows made the girl and I recalculate where we were to camp that night, since our planned campsite was still another 7 miles away.

We arrived at a decent sized snowfield, but quickly got past it and I began to laugh inwardly at how long it took the previous hikers. Soon we entered a forest barren of snow, and then we plopped right out onto the snowfield. The trail simply vanished into that white suncupped granular blanket of snow.

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We slid down an embankment into the snowfield and decided to set up camp right there. The girl opted for camping in a thicket of small evergreens that held a pocket of warmer air, while I wanted to test out some of the theoretical knowledge I had gained from various outdoor books, and I decided to set up my tent in the snow. I dug down about a foot with my ice axe, smoothed out the snow, and set up my tent. Then I dug a small spot for my stove, boiled some water for Ramen, and proceeded to have one of the most memorable meals of my life. Mt. Adams to the east, floating above me, bathed royal lavender and gold in the evening-glow, while the North Cascades stretched far ahead to the north with Mt. Rainier a faint shadow protruding through the dusky light.

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I stood upwards as an eerie calm settled over the snowscape. The wind had died down, and the stars began to shine above. I crept down toward a trickling stream of snowmelt with the feeling of forest eyes watching me from the various thickets nearby. I refilled my Aquamira filter bottle and postholed back up toward my tent. Tossing my food into my bear bag, I grabbed my paracord and went into the thicket where the girl was. She had finished eating dinner too, and together we climbed a scraggly pine tree and tied a loop of paracord to it, clipping our bags in with carabiners.

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The calm had truly become slightly unsettling and as I climbed into my tent, thawing out my frozen toes and fingers, I looked out upon the glowing snow around me with relief. Anything that tried to eat me would be visible within the 50 meter radius around me. I began rummaging through my Kelty 85 Lakota for my Metolius gloves. After checking every pocket twice,  I remembered that I had set them down shortly before crossing the Adams River. There was no way I was going back to get them! The sinking thought of how a little mistake could prove fatal (if not merely downright dangerous) out here in the wilderness kept coming back to me. What was I thinking? Sleeping out alone in a snowfield without gloves? But the books said…… and I fell into the deep sleep that only backcountry hikers and long distance runners know. Freezing, I awoke with a start at 2 o’clock in the early morning. Hands shivering. My Mountain Hardwear Lamina 35 was keeping me decently warm, but my feet and legs were frozen.

Once again, I felt like something or someone was watching me. Stuffing my foil survival blanket into my sleeping bag as a liner and wrapping it snugly around me, I groggily realized that somewhere in my subconscious mind, my inner wild man had recognized some type of danger out there on that snowfield…

End of Part III. Continue to Part IV.

JC

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One Comment

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  1. Byron Abnett Feth December 3, 2014 — 7:12 pm

    wow, great write up! Keep it up.

    Like

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