The End of the Trail – PCT VI

The day started with the return of birdsong and the whistling snowmelt as it burbled by. I glanced at my watch. 9:05 AM. I jolted upright, hitting my head on the low mesh roof of my Eureka 1-person tent. We had planned to start “late” at 7 AM, and now it was already 9! I hurriedly peeled out of my sleeping bag, tossed on my clothes, and scrambled out of the tent. I glanced around the campsite and saw that the two older men had already set out on their journey to Canada. After a steaming hot breakfast of strawberries-and-cream oatmeal, I stuffed my tent into my pack and began cleaning out the the campsite. The girl had woken up late too, but by 9:30 AM, we were back on the trail.

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We had two more passes to get through today and with a late start, melting snow could pose a major problem on the slopes. About a mile from where we camped, we stopped for a quick water break and to stretch out our aching joints. The view of Mt. Adams far behind us was utterly spectacular.

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We were both running low on food and with White Pass two days away, we definitely did not want to get stuck! On the way up toward Old Snowy (elevation: 7,285′), we met several dayhikers who, like us, had never been in this area before. Together, we managed to not be lost (at least, not for very long) on the immense snowfields we encountered. We primarily just followed the rocky scrambles and tried to avoid the snow altogether.

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The mountainous splendor enveloped us as we began our laborious climb up toward the summit of Old Snowy. Numerous furry marmots wrestled around on the snowy slopes to our west and I paused to watch them in their tussle with my binoculars. On we went, postholing in the deep snow, following mountain goat tracks and the occasional human footprint until we came to a cairn, confirming that we were, in fact, on the right path.

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Slowly we climbed up the side of Old Snowy, pausing every so often to take in the surrounding wilderness views and to catch our breaths. We reached the top of the McCall Glacier, and as I peered over the edge into the white abyss thousands of feet below, I could feel my palms begin to sweat.

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As I double-checked my route, I was forced to make a potentially life-altering decision. Do we dare continue on the Stock PCT that wrapped around the side of the mountain, complete with heart-dropping exposed slopes adorned with snow? Or do we summit Old Snowy by climbing straight up the steep snowy incline and continuing along the spine?

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I opted for going straight up toward the summit, and slowly we chipped away up the snowy mountainside, focusing on solely planting each foot where it would stick into the snow and not slide backwards a mile down the mountain.

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We left our packs at the start of the spine and free-climbed the rest of the way up the rocky scrambles to the summit of Old Snowy. The 360° view was the offering brought by Old Snowy, and I breathed in the freedom of the hills as I soaked in the view from its precarious summit. At the top was the skull of a goat, most likely picked up by an eagle and devoured on the summit. Part of me wanted to take the skull back home and add it next to the deer skull currently sitting on my desk, but I left it there for the next hiker to see.

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Mt. Rainier beckoned us from the north and Mt. Adams bade goodbye from the south.

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As I reflected on the past weeks’ journey, I built a small cairn as a covenant to God to thank Him for watching out for me on this trek, and then slowly I began the downclimb back to the spine.

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Downclimbing from the summit was startlingly scary, even more so when I realized that my ice axe was not where I had left it, about mid-way up the summit scramble. Thinking that it had fallen over the edge somehow, the girl and I both peered uncertainly over the edge but couldn’t see anything. Praying for God’s help in finding this ice axe that had been loaned to me by a generous stranger in Trout Lake, Washington, I hiked up and down the summit scramble looking for it. I finally discovered it sticking upright, planted exactly where I had left it. We started off toward Tieton Pass along the Spine of the World (also known as Coyote Ridge), with crumbling shale dusting beneath our steps and frightening exposure all around.

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After going down for about a kilometer and pausing at the only spot where the trail widened, I glanced back up the spine toward where we had been and could barely make out the top of Old Snowy as clouds began to move in.

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We carefully trekked along the spine, and came to several spots where the trail simply vanished from erosion. With awful runout, I said a quick prayer and leapt over each divide. Unfortunately, my camera couldn’t capture the sheer aspect of it, but this pass was by far one of the scariest things I’ve done. To literally watch the path crumble behind you as the rocky shale slid off the rough path and flew down into the valley below and to think how far you would fall with a 40-50lb pack on was a bit frightening.

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The views continued to be incredible as we hiked further and they definitely helped to make up for the sketchy parts of the hike along the spine. Way in the distance was a turquoise gem, contrasting brilliantly with the lush green valley floor below. At a trail junction, a sign directed us to follow a downslope from Coyote Ridge where, after 9 miles, we would eventually reach Packwood Lake. I mentally marked it as a place to go for a future hike when I had more time (and food).

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We came to another widened area of the ridge and stopped again for a quick break. The basalt peaks across from us yearned for me to climb them. I took my gaze off of them and scanned the valley below, noting where numerous fallen trees marked the paths of massive past avalanches.

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Without my ice axe and walking staff, this trail would have been incredibly more challenging. Today, the staff adorns my room as a trophy from this trip of a lifetime.

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The summer sun still beat relentlessly on us and frequent water stops were a must. Sadly, the water bottle I used (pictured below) recently slid off the edge of an icy peak during a recent winter hike and fell 4,390 feet to its demise.

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After coming around the last bend on the ridge, we found ourselves on much wider ground, with snowmelt lakes and tan colored rocks flecked with pieces of obsidian.

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Indian Paintbrush was in full bloom along with fields of Mountain Lupine and they added a nice flavor to the previously rocky slopes of this part of the Cascades. Trails, man-made and natural from glacier runoff, inked their ways across the landscape.

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The trail disappeared in several places, but the snow was an added refresher from the burning afternoon sun. Sometimes we opted for running down the slopes, other times we glissaded.

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As we came near the edges of Tieton Pass, we encountered two guys going the opposite way who referred us to a great spot to camp down in the McCall Glacier Basin. As we descended, I stepped over a log and immediately let out a yell. Something was poking me in the ankle. A yellow jacket was busily stinging me and only after a direct swat did it stop. I hobbled down the path a short ways and took my boot. My ankle had started to swell a little bit and I used the edge of my knife to scrape the stinger out. A chunk of snow was somehow still in my pack from a previous glissade where it had gotten wedged under the lid and I quickly began icing my ankle. I put the snow in my sock and snugly fit my boot back on, and we kept on trekking through the piney forest. We hiked down toward the basin and were soon in a vibrant valley reminiscent to a scene in Tom Cruise’s movie Oblivion

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Elk called each other in the distance, and we followed a worn, unfrequented path toward a clearing where we quickly set up tent and got a fire going. The snowy peaks loomed all around us, and the smell of pine was in the air. Deer fjorded the river behind us and ran into our camp, startled to see strange, bipedal creatures in their home. After the initial shock wore out, they melted back into the nearby thickets. I tried fishing but after about an hour of standing around, I realized that since I was standing only about a mile from the source of the river as it flowed out of the melting glacial snow, the chances of catching a fish were thin.

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I packed up my Daiwa backpacking pole and went back to the campsite. After eating my last packet of noodles and counting my supplies, I debated with myself whether or not to hike out to Trout Lake with the girl or to stay alone one more night out here in the valley of life.

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I fell asleep without making up my mind, but when I awoke, I decided to head out to White Pass with her. As I looked out of my tent, I spotted a herd of elk eating a breakfast of grass with their young. I watched them for about fifteen minutes before getting out of my tent, and as soon as I unzipped the tent, the elk bolted.

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We packed up camp and began our hike out to White Pass. Only about 8 miles remained and they went by much too fast. At the time, all I could think about was food. Food became such a dominant thought on this journey. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, hot chocolate… Burgerville Tillamook cheeseburgers, huckleberry smoothies, mangoes…

We began to climb again as we departed the glacier basin and soon were heading up the rest of Tieton Pass. Clouds had rolled in during the morning hours and a storm was barreling in from the south east – all the more reason to get to White Pass a day early!

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We came upon a great looking over Shoe Lake and watched the clouds sweep in.

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The snow was once more back on the path and as we rounded a corner, the trail vanished into the unmarked side of a mountain. As I unstrapped my ice axe, the girl pointed out a guy who seemed to be struggling on the steep slope about 150 yards in front and up of us. I called out, “Hey! Are you okay?”

There was no reply, as the wind had picked up and he couldn’t hear my voice. I clipped my ice axe into the carabiner on my hip and began chipping out a path toward him. We finally reached him and could see that yes, in fact, he was struggling. His trail name was “Alabama” (just as mine was “Animal”, and the girl’s was “Up”) and his trekking poles had snapped in the icy snow. I handed him my staff and set out carving steps with my axe as we all followed the natural bend along the side of the mountain face. [Check out my video from this entire hike to get a glimpse of this part  in the first few seconds.] Distant ski lifts gave us a sense of relief as we grew nearer to White Pass. The photo below (with my sunburnt face) is right before we followed the path around the bend to the left, in which it vanished into the snowy mountain slope. On the right side of the picture, the gap between the dark green hill with trees and the more sparse hill past it is where Highway 12 lies, and along Highway 12 is the tiny, ski resort town of White Pass.

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After getting pass the last sketchy part of the mountain with Alabama and Up, Alabama handed me back my staff and went on ahead at a much faster pace than us. We descended past the snowy ski slopes into a steep dry forest with a buoyant carpet of pine needles and the humid smells of the forest and hum of mosquitoes replaced the airy, fresh clean smells of the mountain tops. The trail spat us out onto a parking lot filled with lifted pickup trucks and the bitter acrid smell of pavement. We walked along the shoulder of Highway 12 for two miles until at last, we had reached White Pass.

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White Pass consists of one gas station with an attached food mart and a lodge. The lodge was extraordinarily expensive ($85/night, even in the blazing heat of summer) and refused to offer any discounts to PCT hikers, but the gas station was great. The first post-trail meal I had was the best tasting Henry Weinhardt’s bottled root beer, Tillamook teriyaki beef jerky, six Goetze’s cow tales (three original/vanilla, three caramel apple) and a taquito. The lady who ran the place had me and Alabama,who had arrived about an hour before us, set mouse traps all around the floor (hidden out of sight of normal customers) and gave us all of the food left in the “Caution: Hot” cooking racks. Corn dogs, taquitos, crispitos, and burritos were all offered to us. I, unfortunately, gorged my shrunken self on all of them. I had lost about 11 pounds, as I burned nearly 6,000 calories per day and only ate about 2,000 per day. I signed the PCT log book there and met one last thru-hiker, Dainty Fingers (a former Marine who had started in Mexico clean shaven, and by now had a massive beard; he also carried 60 lbs, mainly food, after a foodscare from running out of food in the desert). My friend was scheduled to pick me up the following day, so I called my parents who quickly jumped into our family van and came to pick me up.

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I bid everyone farewell and got into the van. This was the end of that trail for me, but the beginning of the road to post-grad life. Life had been moving at the pace of my footsteps for the past 11 days. Now it spend up to 60 miles per hour. As we flew through time, I reflected on my journey. One thing I learned for certain: Man was not made to be alone. Genesis 2:18.

Adventures still await me, and I plan on doing the second half Washington’s Pacific Crest Trail this next summer with several college pals of mine. Here’s hoping for a grand adventure! In the meantime, micro-adventures will suffice, and I can’t wait to see what happens.

End of Part VI. See the Adventures page for more!

JC

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