I struggled a bit with how to file this blog entry as this adventure was along distance backpack that also happened to include some scramble days/hours. I have opted to devote this entry totally to the backpacking portion of the trip. Details on the climbs will have their own post in the scramble section of the blog, but I will link to it in this entry as well for navigation ease. So without further delay:

The PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass has 310 switchbacks. How do I know this? Damien and I embarked on the longer trek either of us had ever taken last week. We sent 9 days in the backcountry hiking section J of the PCT taking several side trips from the main trail to scramble up some summits. The PCT Section encompasses 75 miles and with the side trails we estimated that we added another 30ish miles of off trail adventure. Oh and the switchbacks? Damien counted them.

Prep:

I thought I should add a special note regarding prep and acknowledge Melanie for helping make what could have been a difficult to coordinate trip very easy. She was our “society” base camp coordinator, shuttle driver and food cache assistant manager. On Friday the day before we left, Melanie and I hiked the Hyas Lake Trail and cached 4.5 days of food near the Tuck Lake Trail Junction cutting down the the weight Damien and I carried on our first 2.5 days (there was some overlap in food just in case something went wrong). We also dropped my car off at Snoqualmie Pass that day. The next day she dropped us off at Stevens Pass. During the trip we checked in with Melanie at “Society” basecamp and received weather updates from her via my InReach.

 

DAY 1: Stevens Pass to Thunder Lakes

Melanie dropped us off at Stevens Pass at about 6:30am on Saturday September 18. I’m lucky to have a friend that wakes up as early as I do! After taking a “before” pictures and some farewell hugs, Damien and I set out on our 9 day journey into the rugged heart of the Cascades. It was a cool, misty day with a light rain that grew harder as the day wore on. But for now it less than even a Drizzle as we headed off under the ski lifts and up to the the top of the first ridge. In fact, it felt like most of the day we spent going up and down ridges… and passing thru hikers. Damien talked to them as much as they would allow. They were easy to spot: beard (if male), osprey pack and waffle sleeping pad. We never did find out why 90% of the thru-hikers we met on the PCT had osprey packs. They all said “They carry heavy loads” when we started asking. We also Learned from a Thru-Hiker that when passing through Yosemite PCTers must carry a bear vault or get ticketed $500… but you can just carry the small one ūüôā

The remember the feeling went the final hint of the the ski slopes disappeared from view. It was relief. Finally I was in my world. The world of the wilderness where I feel truly feel alive and at ease. A world where everything is so much more simple and beautiful. We passed by Lake Josephine, Mig, and Hope swiftly. We barely noticed the miles fly by. Of course were were fresh right out of the gate that first day. Things would change! But for now we enjoyed high energy and found ourselves passing Trapp Lake and arriving at Trapp Pass insane ease. Here we took our first side trip off the trail. From the pass we turned left onto a rugged, unmarked side trail that follows a ridge to¬† glorious alpine meadows with towering spires. Slippery Slab is here along the rock towers and further on in Thunder Lakes. By this time a steady rain and thick mist had settled around us and we barely saw Thunder Lakes as we approaching following cairns to the shoreline. Only two other parties were camped by the lake. We couldn’t see Thunder Mountain, but we could see where it was across the lake on the map. We set up camp on the shoreline and enjoyed our first freeze-dried meal. I believe Damien had his favorite: Mountain House Chili Mac. We went to sleep with the pitter patter of rain against the tent fly and excitement for day 2!

 

Day 2: Thunder Lakes to Deception Lakes (Thunder Mountain & Surprise Mountain)

After climbing Thunder Mountain Damien and I packed up camp and headed back to the PCT. It seemed the the weather predictions had been flip flopped. Saturday was supposed to be partly sunny with showers and Sunday all rain. Well, Saturday was all rain and as we passed Slippery Slab on Sunday the sun was shinning! Once back on the PCT we began passing the usual parade of thru-hikers going North. We continued South dropping below Trapp Pass and contouring below the ridge we had just climbed. Above us Slippery Slab and Thunder Mountain loomed above looking more ominous from this preservative. Below us the blue waters of Surprise and Glacier Lakes Shimmered in the sunshine. It was along crisp autumn day on the PCT and like any other autumn it did begin to get clouding again and we reached the large Talus Basin below Surprise mountain… but clouds and rain are always better than the hot sun.

On our way the the talus switchbacks we ran into a pair of thru-hikers who seemed mroe than happy to stop and talk to us. More Thru-hikers are in a hurry to reach their dality mile quota (usually 25+) so Damien and I are always carefully to not say more than a quick “Hello” as we pass unless they initiate a conversation and usually that will only last 4 minutes. These two talked to us for about 20 minutes! We never got their names, but the duo was an American Man and a British woman who had met while hking the PCT. They told us that everyone used an App called Half Mile instead of maps these days. This shows you the next camp, water sources and where you are on the PCT. Phones are powered by extra batteries. Pack base weight ends up being 10-13lbs. Most folks will make the mistake of going to heavy or too light in the beginning. A happy medium is found eventually. It is possible to travel the PCT with just a credit card and no mail ahead boxes. In fact, all the stops except for the ones in WA had easy access to store to restock on food. They were moving at about 28 miles per day, but since they only needed to do 26 miles per day now to finish when they wanted they had a bit more time to spare.

We continued up the talus switchbacks are bidding them farewell and good luck. The trail makes a huge loop around Surprise Mountain and eventually puts you beside Deception Lakes. This is more as pristine looking a lake and was probably my least favorite camp. We set up camp early on the shore in the rain. There was a trail up Surprise Mountain a few yards away that we planned as another side trip that day.

Since Surprise Mountain isn’t a scramble I have decided to describe it here. We followed the labeled Trail to Surprise Mountain. There is a split in the trail again after a few yards. Stay left toward the Horse Camp. The trail is in pretty good condition inute a few down trees. It is only 1200 ft, but it somehow seemed to take forever, probably because it is mostly wooded. There is a nice lookout on Surprise Gap that looked into the talus basin we had crossed of the PCT. From the gap we took the trail to the left that went back into the forest at to the summit of Surprise Mountain. Mist completely blocked the view on this summit that was once a watch station of some kind judge by the metal remnants. We went back down to the Gap. We noticed two things here… there is a very clear trail that leads from the talus basin to the Gap, but it was not of Green Trails Maps. Also, there is a trail to the right on the Gap and leads to????

We headed back down to camp. Another Freeze dried meal and more pitter patter of rain on the tent fly.

Day 3: Deception Lakes to Robin Lakes

The next day we woke to clear blue skies. We packed up camp and headed out looking forward to the opportunity to dry all of our gear out that evening. This was also an important day because we would find out if our food cache strategy had worked. Damien and I swiftly arrived at the multiple junction of Deception Pass. We turned off the PCT here and headed down the Hyas Lake Trail. About .5 miles in we turned left onto the Tuck and Robin Lakes Trail. This is where Melanie and I had cached the food. I was unable to get a GPS reading on the cache we we stashed it due to poor accuracy. It took a bit a searching, but eventually I found the tree (the only white cedar in a stand of fir trees). Our food bags were struck up high about 15 feet off the ground and still intact! We thought of retrieving the food when we camp back down the trail in a day or two, but opted to take it immediately¬† in case our luck didn’t hold. After taking out what seemed like hundreds of knots the bags plopped to the ground. We added the load to our packs and continued up the trail. Wow, what a difference the addition of 4.5 days of food makes.. especially for me. I had way more food than Damien. I have a fast metabolism and I don’t seem to survive very well off fat reserves. Damien, conversely, does very well on little food in the backcountry. I’m jealous!

The 1000ft of gain on the trail to Tuck Lakes is no cake walk. It’s rather steep and built more like a climbers trail. However, the next 1000 ft of gain on the trail from Tuck to Robin Lakes make the Tuck Lakes Trail seem like a lazy walk through a city park. After crossing the log jam between Tuck Lakes the trail becomes more less a scramble. Carins led us over vertically challenging rocky bluffs and up steep, muddy slopes to slabs above. From the Slab view open up of Hyas Lake, Mount Daniel, Cathedral Rock and Even Mount Baring in the distance. It was gorgeous and my glutes were killing me from all the high stepping! After crossing the slabs we found ourselves on top of a flat plateau above Robin Lakes. We descended to the pristine Alpine Lakes that are indeed some of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. We found a secluded spot on the lower lake near the Ridge we planned to climb up the next day to get to Granite and Trico Peaks. It was an early camp day (3:30pm). We used to time productively though and dried all our wet gear in the sunshine. I even took a bath in the lake. Damien took his more sponge bath boiling water on the stove first!

Day 4: Robin Lakes to Cathedral Rock Basin (Granite Mountain, Granite Mountain South Peak and Trico Sub-peak)

The morning was spent climbing¬† Granite Mountain, Granite Mountain South and Trico Sub-Peak. When we returned to camp it was about noon. After a short rest we packed up and followed the ruggest trail back down to the Hyas Lake Trail. I thought it would be worse going down… but it was easier to my delight (I’m one of those people that dislikes the feeling on the body of downhill and likes going up). We rejoined the PCT at the Deception Pass Junction and continued south in the shadow of Cathedral Rock heading toward Cathedral Pass. There is a “treacherous” ford 2 miles from Deception Pass in a canyon, but the water wasn’t too high and there are two log crossing options. At this point my glutes really really hurts as did my feet. But we pressed on!

We ended up making camp in a basin below Cathedral Rock were a creek provided plenty of water. Damien told me not to pump as much water as I;d been filtering since I always had more than I needed when the morning came. He promised that if i needed mroe the creek would still be there in the morning.

Day 5: Cathedral Rock Basin to Plateau Camp

I think this was my favorite day on the PCT. It was a harrowing 18 miles and chock full of some spectacular views. My favorite combination: suffering and beauty. We woke up to another sunny day in the basin. It had proven to be a very frosty night indeed. Mud had fused into these amazing ice crystals and puddle with ice sheets. Another crisp fall day! We packed up and followed the trail the rest of the way up to Cathedral Pass. The last time I was here was in 2014 when I climbed Mount Daniel. It looked very different without the snow on it! began to follow endless switchbacks down to the valley. These took forever, but we were afforded with wonderful views of the surrounding peak and cascading falls. The views here were some of my favorite. Not only where the autumn colors glorious, but the color of the rock on the mountains were stark as well with shades of grey, rusty red, copper and black. It was simply magical to walk beneath such majestic summits.

Finally we reached Deep Lake and stopped for a quick bit. Damien was at this point eating about 3 bars a day + Dinner. He also brought along some little candies… but at the food cache he realized they were sugar free so I don’t know if they count. I was getting pretty hungry at that point and the food fantasies had begun for both of us. Strangely, by that evening the craving for fresh food subsided and didn’t return.

We headed on through the valley. This part of the trail went on forever gradually loosing elevation. Damien and I began to play a game with the counting the switchbacks and told each other what we were each doing in the year 93, 94, 95, etc… when we got to 215 we switched and shared what we were doing at the age of 15, 16, 17…. this was actually great fun! We passed the trail Junctions for Waptus Lake which the PCT does not touch and finally reached the low point of 3000 Ft at the Waptus River at 3:30pm. We knew the next camps with water were on top of the Plateau the laid a head of us another 2,200 ft and 7 miles away. We talked to some PCTers on the bridge of the river. They seemed shocked that we planned on going another 7 miles.

It was hard 7 miles. The elevation gain wasn’t horribly steep or anything, but having already put in 8 hours of trekking everything was amplified. Luckily, we were granted some amazing views of Bears Breast Mountain and Waptus Lake as we gained elevation. We reached the top of the plateau at sunset and followed the ridge as the colors of the pink and orange sky reflected on the new landscape before us. It was astounding and I felt re-energized.

We reached the first small lake at the sky began to dim. By the time we set uo our tent it was funny dark. We filtered water by headlamp and ate dinner in the bright moonlight. it had been a perfect day on the PCT.

Day 6: Plateau to Park Lakes Basin

This was perhaps a close second favorite day along the PCT since there were more gorgeous views and some up close looks at Chimney Rock and the Lemah Summits. We were surprised that the temperature didn’t plummet as badly as we expected and tucked our gear into our packs. It forecasted to be partly cloudy, but thing seemed to be erring more toward sunny. The trail say high and goes through an old burn. Because of the lack of trees the view are pretty much unobstructed of Four Brothers, Chikamin, Stuart, Lemahs and Chimney Rock. The vistas from this part of the trail were not just beautiful. For some reason looking at the rugged faces of these peaks demonstrated the fierceness of the alpine.The wilderness is not just romantically beautiful, it is also a powerfully rugged and dynamic environment. This that I felt as I passed in the shadow of these peaks.

The trail eventually switchbacks down again to a valley There are signs about the Lemah Creek Cridge being washed out and to use caution on the difficult crossing or the bypass trail (Lemah Meadows). It turned out the the crossing only require a few easy steps across rocks. The trail then entered a burn just in time as the heat of the day was upon us. I don’t like hot autumn days. We sweated as we crossed over a section of endless downed trees and began switchbacks back up toward Spectacle Lake.

We reached the bridge with the waterfall much faster than expected and wasted no time stripping down to our underwear and jumping into the water. It felt simply amazing! Re-energized we sat on the rock drying off and just glowing. The water had brought the life back into us! We carried on reluctantly up the endless switchbacks toward Park Lakes. We crested the high point of the ridge and headed back down again to a a small lake where we set up camp. This would act as a base camp for climbing Chikamin Peak the following day

Day 7: Chikamin Peak Attempt

Day 8: Park Lakes Basin to Ridge Lake (Alaska Mountain)

We headed up to Chikamin Pass in swirling mist and partial views. So much for the clear weather that was predicted. I love the mist in the mountains though. It gives things a real alpine feel. We dropped down and contours below the peaks and above a new valley. Normally you can see the trail all the way on the other side of the U shaped ridge but in this valley we were socked in with mist for the better part of the morning. It did begin to lift though and were were able to see the trail we had come from far far away. It really gives a sense of how far you walked to look back and see the line of the trail on the slope opposite you. We climbed Alaska Mountain and passed Mount Thompton and the the mighty basin of talus I once crossed to climb to the summit. I was glad I didn’t have to cross it again on this trip!

It was a short mileage day and we reached camp at Ridge Lake pretty early at 3:00. It was kind of a bittersweet evening for us. We set up the tent, dried out sleeping bag filtered water and ate dinner. We did all the things that we had done over the passed 8 days. We were masters at it now and our efficiency made us happy. However,  knew that it would be the last time we did it on this trip.

That night it was warm until about 2:30am when suddenly we both woke up freezing. The cold had finally come. We put a bunch of layers and huddled together relishing the cold on our last night. It somehow felt fitting.

Day 9: Ridge Lake to Snoqualmie Pass

After a freezing night we woke up to an equally freezing morning. After convincing ourselves to emerge from our cozy sleeping bag we removed as much frost from the tent as possible (leaving a dusting of snow on the ground) and headed up and over our final climb up and down a ridge. We followed the trail along the famed Kendall Catwalk and admired the mountains and valley one final time before dipped back into the trees. In the trees I mostly reflected as I passed day hikers and smiled politely. I didn’t really want to be among the day hikers. I wanted to be back in the deepest wilderness with the thru-hikers. I wanted to go back where my life was so simple and yet the most meaningful. I wanted to go back to a world where my greatest worry of the day was when I should eat my next cliff bar. I wanted to go back to when all I needed to be happy was the 30lbs I carried on my back. My happiness is not derived from things, but experiences. The only things I needed were what I needed to survive and live those experiences. And yet I was walking back into a word of things and complex stresses of finances and society survival. When we neared the TH Damien joked around and turned back a ran a few feet saying he was afraid of civilization. I wanted to follow him, but for more than just a few feet I wanted to go back to the world of simple problems and few things. But for now I am here back in the society with a shower, sink, mattress and computer writing this blog. Until next weekend….

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *