Vast, Calm Measureless Mountain Days – PCT V

My breath caught in my throat as a dark shape came around the path towards my tent. I called out again. This time, the girl responded. I let out a sigh of relief and set the bear spray back down. Darkness had begun to fall around the forest and as the temperature dropped, the clouds too sunk down around our tents. Morning came with the familiar hum of mosquitoes and aching joints. I brewed up some oatmeal and tea and we set off to climb up into the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

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One aching mile later, we reached an exposed portion of the trail that offered glorious views of the forest below. The clouds had taken shelter over Walupt Lake as the fiery rays of the sun began to dissipate them from the rest of the valley, and from behind Lakeview Mountain, Mt. Adams brazenly looked towards us from almost thirty miles to the south.PICT0287-2

We climbed on and the wind began to pick up. Grizzled and bare pines around us began to sway as the breezes began gusting through their upper tiers. With a tremendous roar, we watched as one of the pines crashed to the earth about forty yards away. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it still make a sound?

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We crossed the first of (unknown to us) many rivulets of icy snowmelt. Slushy pockets of snow and waterfalls abounded everywhere, and then dissolved into vast greenery.

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Wildflowers bloomed in abundance, and we paused to take a short break on an overlook above us. We set our packs near the trail and climbed up a seemingly invisible animal trail, marked with mountain goat droppings and hoof marks. The view at the top was incredible and the hills truly seemed alive.

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Downclimbing was a bit of a challenge (as it always is) but we managed to get down without event, and set off with renewed vigor down the path with our packs snug on our backs. Soon we arrived at Cispus Pass. Cispus Pass was our first major encounter of steep, slippery snow and palm-sweating, horrible runout. Without an ice axe or trekking pole, this pass would be nearly impossible to (safely) get over with snow on it. We took numerous photos and stood in awe of the majesty before us. A valley stretched far below, waterfalls flowed everywhere, and like cake frosting, snow was lathered everywhere. Steep, spiky peaks loomed down at us.

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Hearing several voices behind us, we turned around and saw that the gentlemen we had passed the day before had managed to catch up. We all began to cautiously pick our way along the snow, trying not to think of the exposure and what would happen if we slipped in the snow and couldn’t self-arrest.

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With a shout, one of the older men let our a primeval scream as he lost his footing in the rapidly slushing snow. We watched in heartdropping fear as he began to slide down toward the void. He kept attempting to self-arrest, but the axe wouldn’t stick in the melting snow.

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Finally, as time slowed down to almost a standstill, he managed to get a good placement and stop his rapid descent. By this time we all had starting moving to help him, but he managed to get back on his feet before we reached him. Crazy how, in the blink of an eye, the fragility of life becomes all the more real. We shook off the scare and concentrated even more on our placement. Slowly, we made our way along the pass.

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The girl and I paused and let the two men go on ahead. I had noticed a cave at the top of a pinnacle above us and, prompted by nothing other than sheer adventure, left my pack with the girl and climbed to the top to take a peak into the cave. The slope was greatly steeper than it had looked from below, but I (albeit, foolishly) kept tacking up the steep slope until I arrived at the mouth of the cave.

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The cave went back about ten yards or so, which was a bit disappointing. As I peaked my head in, I had the rational thought that maybe, just maybe, an animal might live in there. Movement caught my eye. A furry marmot was staring at me from the corner of the cave. I whistled at it and grinned. It grinned back, baring it’s beavery teeth and made slight whistling squeaks back at me. I carefully backed out of the cave and, filled with adventure, carefully downclimbed back to the girl and my pack.

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We kept trekking along the ridge and eventually finished crossing over the pass. On the other side, another valley launched out below us. The sound of birdsong and rushing snowmelt met our ears and after crossing several more snowfields, the snow gave way to that solitary, dusty path.

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We spotted the two gentleman on the opposite side of the valley, hiking along the winding trail etched into the side of the mountain. Not too much farther were several glorious waterfalls where we decided to hike to and eat our lunches. Upon arriving there, we broke bread with the older hikers before they parted ways and then we sat back and enjoyed the vibrant beauty of the valley below. I climbed up one of the falls behind us and filled up my water bottles from the clean, icy clear waters pooling above before setting out again. PICT0363-2PICT0364-2PICT0365-2PICT0366PICT0368

We planned to camp with the two gentlemen above Snowgrass Flats and after more elevation gain and trudging through more melting snow, we found their camp and put our gear down. It was still early in the afternoon and I was full of energy to go exploring. One does not find himself in this magnificent environment every day! So I set off back down the path toward a pack trail I had found on my map (see yellow).

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Along the way, I came across a man about my age lying down in the middle of the path. His hat was pulled down over his face, and he was wearing a worn out, weathered forest green shirt. On his feet were Vibrams. I greeted him, and he woke up. Taking his hat off of his face, he blinked at me with a confused look on his face. Never before had I seen such hungry eyes and hollow cheeks. As I write this post, I seem to have forgotten his name, but he was a recent graduate from the Colorado School of Mines, and he had set out from Mexico and was going up to Canada on the PCT. He was almost out of food, but refused to take any from me. In fact, he ate his last Hershey chocolate bar as I looked on in awe. He was doing around 25-35 miles a day, and was hoping to make it to White Pass the next day (I had given myself three more days before getting there). He apparently was just “taking a nap” when I had nearly stumbled upon him (literally). I remember that he suspiciously looked at me when I said that I too was hiking the PCT, seeing that the only thing I had with me was an ice pick (in case I got attacked by a bear) while on my exploration trip. I hastened to explain that my campsite was back up the trail a few hundred yards or so, but he mentioned that he was in a hurry and needed to get on. He put his pack back on and set off in his Vibrams.

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After my meeting with the thru-hiker, I bounded eagerly along the trail until I came to a field of flowers and a fast, flowing stream. I followed the stream up to a large waterfall cascading from above, somewhere to the west of where we had set up camp. I took a few photos before I noticed several large coyote prints on the ground and decided I better head back to camp before sundown.

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I hurried back to camp and washed my sweaty clothes in a rivulet of snowmelt about fifty yards from my tent. My feet and toes began freezing in the evening air and I made my way back to the group. Warming up over a cozy dinner of tea and instant mashed potatoes, I turned in for the night.The howl of coyotes and the burbling of snowmelt lulled me to sleep.

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End of Part V. Continue to Part VI.

-JC

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