The Approach: Can’t Help Falling In Love
via the Pacific Northwest Trail, 47 miles from the East Bank TH to the Northern Terminus of the PCT, 2.5 days
Most SoBos start at Hart’s Pass. It’s the closest you can get to the monument at the Canadian Border, just a mere 30 miles of hiking after an hour on a difficult dirt road.
I decided that we should take the Pacific Northwest Trail instead. It added 17 miles to the approach, but the trailhead was on the highway and the trail was rumored to be incredible.
The clear highlight of the route, and maybe my life, was a full-frontal view of the Nohokomeen Glacier. It spilled from the summit of Jack Mountain, one of the North Cascades’ tallest peaks at over 9,000 ft.
This was no scrawny Colorado glacier, the kind you should probably take out back and shoot rather than witness its slow and agonizing death. In an age defined by climate change, staring slack-jawed at Nohokomeen felt like peering into the hidden stronghold of geologic resistance. “Glacier lives!” I whispered, clenching my fist.
The climb up to Devils Dome was gentle and the view from the top was transcendent, dramatic and utterly pristine. I gaped in every direction. “I’ve fallen for the North Cascades,” I announced, peeling on my string cheese. “Hard.”
To our relief, the east-facing slope that had concerned us turned out to be snow-free. We made good time to Sky Pilot Pass for a 20-mile day. “Take me to that pilot in the sky,” I sang to NoDay as we staked out our shelters in the dimming light. “PCT tomorrow morning!”
Except it wasn’t that easy. The three miles between Sky Pilot and the PCT were laden with blowdowns. And again, these weren’t Colorado blowdowns, those spindly lodgepole pines that topple like toothpicks into a tangled grid. No, these trees were sometimes several feet in diameter and soaking wet, an impenetrable barrier across the trail.
We hadn’t made good time when we finally hit the PCT. But in a sudden, strange burst of energy, I let out a whoop and twirled around the trail junction, waving my trekking poles and kicking the air.
We had 17 miles of PCT between us and the Canadian border, where we hoped to camp that evening. The first obstacle was Rock Pass, which I had been warned could harbor dangerous snow fields.
As we made our way up, we began to pass hikers heading in the opposite direction. At first it was exciting, then strange, then a little overwhelming — on my first day on the PCT, I saw more fellow thru-hikers than in my first few weeks on the CDT in 2016. Everyone’s opening question was the same: “Are you southbounders or flip-floppers?”
This year, northbound hikers on the PCT encountered a historic and dangerous amount of snow in California’s Sierra Nevada range, one of the highlights of the trail. So a large number chose to “flip” north, traveling to the Canadian border and hiking south towards the point where they departed the PCT, figuring the snow would melt by late summer when SoBos reach the Sierra.
“You look like flip-floppers,” a man told us.
“What do flip-floppers look like?” I demanded.
“Oh, you know… small packs, shorts, hiking fast, that whole thing.”
“I knew you were SoBos,” said his daughter. “You’re not tan enough to be flip-floppers.”
The snowfields on Rock Pass turned out to be nothing more than 10- or 20-foot stretches of very mushy snow, the kind that holds the imprints of every foot that has kicked its way across. A few were pretty exposed, but over so quickly that we never even felt the desire to take out our microspikes.
By the time we reached Woody Pass, clouds were pooling over the distant peaks. We took a break at 7,100 ft to soak in the view, and what something told us was the last of the sunshine.
Three hours later we were tearing through the brush, which I had named Green Goblins because of the way it grasped us in its slimy fingers. The trail was distinct, but the Goblins tunneled across it for miles. It was raining hard and they slapped more water onto our skin with every step.
My fingers were numb. I suggested kind of frantically that we stop short of the border and camp, but quickly changed my mind and kept plowing through. The longest miles are the ones right before the destination.
“How do you feel?” I asked NoDay. We stood in front of the iconic monument marking the US-Canadian border; it was smaller than it looked in pictures.
“Anticlimactic,” she said.
I dig deep in my backpack, shivering. This too was anticlimactic, since my freezing fingers could barely operate the zipper to my food bag. NoDay glared impatiently. Finally, I unearthed two beers.
“Cheers,” I said. She looked so happy she could cry.
We found a campsite nearby and pitched our shelters sloppily before collapsing inside. Everything was wet: tent, sleeping bag, puffy, food bags, and worst of all, sleeping socks.
In a painful reach at good humor, NoDay said, “You know what I just love? The Damp.”
“Oh my god, me too. The best part is when I touch my stuff and I can’t tell if it’s wet or cold.”
“Oh, it’s wet AND cold. Divine.”
“Welcome to Washington, Home of The Damp.”
Colorado had never felt more like the desert.
I woke at 3:00 am to leg pain and lay there for a while, trying to will myself to sit up and swallow another ibuprofen. The world outside my sleeping bag was made of water and darkness; I listened to the rain pound the roof of my single-wall tent. Sometimes it slowed and I heard the individual drops pluck at the nylon like loose guitar strings, and sometimes it crescendoed into gunfire and then a giant white droning buzz that overtook all other sounds, thoughts, and feelings. As it struck the tent, built-up condensation sprayed onto my face like ocean mist.
I cinched my sleeping bag around my face, alarmed. What if it was raining like this in the morning? What if we had to pack up our tents, sleeping bags, and clothes, all wet? I remained awake, rolling over and over on my tolerant sleeping pad.
Day 1: Love Hurts
Canada to Holman Pass, mile 17
I could still hear the plonk of raindrops against the green nylon, now glowing in the diffuse morning light. But they were so few that I dared to open the vestibule. The skies were clear and the lingering water fell from the pine needles overhead.
NoDay and I stopped at the monument for a real photo shoot. Even though it wasn’t raining anymore, I grabbed my trekking poles like an umbrella and swung from the monument like Gene Kelly, opening my mouth in a loud and genuine belt: “The sun’s in my heart, and I’m ready for love!”
Early morning hiking is usually defined by the distance between you and the sunlight. We urged each other on — “So close!” — until we found a tiny patch and immediately spread out our gear. But the sun came and went so rapidly that we gave up after nearly an hour. Clouds moved across the sky without explanation here; it seemed to be a wholly different configuration every time I looked up. “Washington!” we cried. “The Damp Consumes.”
We had more success by Hopkins Lake, where we also lingered before heading back up. On the climb to Woody Pass, precipitation moved in.
“It’s snow and hail,” NoDay said.
“Snail,” I replied. She laughed. “It’s snailing.”
As we clambered over the pass, we started to hear thunder. It continued as descended into the trees, so we waited about fifteen minutes before the climb back up to Rock Pass, to ensure it wasn’t getting closer.
A passing hiker informed us that our desired campsite was full of people, maybe too full for us to camp. I was alarmed. How could there be so many people? It would have to get better, I assured myself, once we were no longer criss-crossing those heading north. Herds thin.
We arrived back at Holman Pass and the junction with the PNT. Hesitantly, NoDay suggested that we stop and camp.
My legs ached and the world was kind of far away. I threw down my poles. “Good, we’re in agreement.” It was 6:15 pm.
I fell asleep almost as soon as I hit my pad and had to wrench myself awake to make dinner. Idahoan instant potatoes tonight, which are never as bad as I fear.
Tomorrow it might be sunny. Tomorrow would be new trail.
Day 2: Trouble
Holman Pass to Hart’s Pass, mile 30
In the morning we stopped at a stream with Footjuice, a flip-flopper we had met in camp the night before. He was attempting the Sawyer Straw method: screw the filter to the top of a water bottle and drink through it.
“Sawyer Straw is life!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know why anyone does anything else.”
He shook his head. “I hate working for my water. That’s gravity’s job.”
“Oh. I have a problem with spilling it on my face. Like a dog.”
The amount of fog on the trail suggested that this may not, in fact, be a sunny day. We stepped into the burn scar from last summer’s Holman Fire, which closed much of this part of the PCT for unlucky northbounders in September. It was hard to imagine such a lush forest burning. The trail itself had acted as a fire line.
Blowdowns once again littered the trail like speed bumps, those big old Pacific Northwest blowdowns that required us to climb. “Save a horse, ride a blowdown,” I called, straddling one.
Foggy Pass was predictably foggy. I was not feeling great: unexpectedly, the first few days had been characterized by doubts over whether this trail would be the antidote I hoped for. Low spirits were compounded by my desperation to enjoy the PCT, as if a single moment lost to sadness or frustration would mean this whole ordeal wasn’t worth it. I knew this was impossible and self-defeating, but I couldn’t control the spirals in my brain.
I tried to describe it to NoDay. “I feel –” I used my trekking poles to gesture at the fog, “– like this.”
“Maybe it’s the weather,” she said.
Any views we might have had were obscured as we approached Hart’s Pass, home of our food cache for the next three days. We cheered upon reaching the one-mile mark.
And then it started to rain.
Not rain, snail. It was coming down faster and colder than ever, and the trail turned to a little stream beneath my feet. I wanted to scream but it fluttered sadly and died in my chest.
And then I started to run. Not fast, just a desperate little trot through the mud.
I don’t run. But it seemed like the only way to fight the driving rain, with force. All I could think about was the pit toilet at Hart’s Pass. How many more tenths of a mile? Could it really be there waiting, cold cement and sour smells, with a real roof to shelter us as we shook? Pit toilet pit toilet pit toilet. Maybe we could dance to warm up. Maybe the rain would stop while we stood inside.
But the rain only seemed to intensify as the trail dragged us around a hillside and through more brushy green. My shorts and socks were soaked as if I’d been swimming.
Finally, I stumbled onto the dirt road. There was a hand-written sign in a plastic sheath hanging off a bush and I stared, spell-bound, until NoDay arrived.
“What are you doing?” she cried.
I pointed. Broken Toe’s Trail Magic.
A short stumble later and we found ourselves huddled around a campfire with six or seven other hikers. “Oh my god,” was all I could say for a while, looking up at the tall logs and twin tarps that had been roped into a semi-permanent shelter. “Fuck. Oh my god. Thank you.”
“What kind of tea do you want?” asked Broken Toe. “I have all kinds.” He also has watermelon, roasted veggies, and just about anything that anyone requested. A former thru-hiker, he had parked his magical van at Hart’s Pass for the SoBo season. I was incredulous and assured him that no one had ever needed a campfire more.
And we stayed for hours. Others did too, lulled by the same warmth and camaraderie, repelled by the same storm that had now turned into snail and thunder. I dried my socks and even my shoes. Various passing folks offered rides into town, where there was a donation-based hiker hostel with warm showers and beds. NoDay and I refused once, twice, three times. Then we locked eyes across the circle and nodded.
Down in Mazama there was no rain, but we heard later that conditions in the mountains had approached white-out as the night wore on.
That was a twist, I thought, lying on a cot at Ravensong’s Roost. We had met PK, the hostel caretaker and trail angel who had generously cached food for us at Hart’s Pass so that we could take the longer approach on the PNT. That same food made it back down to his hostel several hours later. Nonplussed, he offered to drive us back in the morning.
Another twist: I was so fucking stoked to get back on trail. I knew it probably meant more rain, more freezing fingers, and more Damp saturating our worldly goods, which were currently hanging from the rafters of the Roost. But I grinned into the pillow of my puffy and pictured the mountains and the soft green trees.
Day 3: Let’s Stay Together
Hart’s Pass to Golden Creek, mile 47
There was still a crowd around Broken Toe’s fire pit, and we were regaled with tales of the night before. “It was a whiteout,” a man said. “Snow, hail, I couldn’t see ten feet in either direction.” NoDay and I exchanged a smug glance.
She had purchased a 10-pack of latex gloves in Mazama and handed them out around the fire. I took the trash bag from our food cache and made a rain skirt. It’s a heavy-duty yard bag, so it may stand up to Hurricane Cloud. (NoDay uses a thin plastic ground tarp — think Saran Wrap — and a kitchen liner bag for a rain skirt. I have no idea how she keeps them from turning to shreds.)
Sure enough, it wasn’t long after we left the pass before it was snailing again. I pulled my latex gloves on over the regular ones and they fit — barely.
The fog was back, and we angsted over what views we might be missing. But it swam through the sky and curled around the high peaks, offering intermittent glimpses.
All the really pointy, prominent peaks are named Meru, I decided. Just like all marmots are named Big Daddy. I turned to NoDay and grinned. “I bet Jimmy Chin is up there right now, saying Fuck my life.” As we rounded the corner into another cloud, it was nice to imagine that we had it easier.
We crossed a rather large snowfield and crested a new ridge, where new peaks were mostly obscured. Their cracks and couloirs shone through the fog like dancing ghosts, and we lingered until it lifted.
From my perch, I could see the trail zig zag into the valley below, as though someone had taken chalk to the mountainside. Down, down, and suddenly there was sunshine. Rapture! It was like that meme: Yeah sex is nice but have you tried hiking in freezing rain until the sun comes out? Seriously, it was like floating blissfully through an enchanted valley, a dreamland where colors swirl and glisten, and peaks tower like castles in the distance, promising a world of warmth and light…
Oh wait, that was literally happening.
Then, for the second time in a few days, I was overcome with the extremely sudden, barely controllable urge to take a shit. The issue was that to the right of the trail was a drop into a river, and to the left was a very steep slope. Both were thick with Washington’s tangled vegetation.
It’s hard to poop on the PCT, I thought. Important beta. Why does no one tell you this?
At least there was an abundance of soft green leaves.
We passed most of the hikers we knew — Keith and Sarah, a couple from Michigan, and Highlander and Honeylegs, friends from the AT. They were making camp. NoDay and I hiked a little further and assessed the situation; we had plenty of time to continue to Methow Pass, but would have to camp at the top. It was 6,500 feet in elevation. Too cold.
So we made camp at 5:30, which was strange and kind of nice. The hours passed quickly before I turned off my headlamp and cinched my sleeping bag around my face. Even here, 2,000 feet lower, it was very cold.
I can’t wait to get up and hike.
I love the PCT.
Day 4: You Send Me
Golden Creek to Bridge Creek, mile 64
It did not rain at all today.
Not one single, solitary drop.
NoDay doesn’t agree. NoDay says that a few drops must have fallen sometime, somewhere, that maybe she even felt them.
But I know the truth.
It didn’t rain on the climb up to Methow Pass, which we learned is pronounced “Met-how” and bears the name of its first human inhabitants. It didn’t rain on the circle of SoBos that gathered pair-by-pair to dry their tents and smoke pot and laugh together, as if this was the beginning of a beautiful adventure. It didn’t rain on me as I scrambled up the west ridge on a tip from Guthook because I can never, ever resist the urge to see farther.
Our bodies made shadows on the dirt as we contoured the mountainside, and with no urging from the sky, NoDay took off on the final climb of this section with unprecedented speed. The sun beat my neck as I lurched after her, not one single cooling drop of precipitation.
“Shit,” I panted. “Did you go into Beast Mode?”
NoDay cocked her head and laughed. “Yeah, I guess. Sometimes I do that. On the CDT, it meant I could keep up with the guys.”
I thought about how women are expected to be the best at whatever they are doing if they want to be considered equal. Still, it did not rain.
I wore my sunglasses the whole way to Cutthroat Pass, where we suddenly met a slew of day hikers and their dogs. Most of them were at least somewhat familiar with the PCT.
“Oh my god!” a woman exclaimed. “Look at your pack! I can’t believe it’s so small. That’s smaller than what we would take for an overnight!”
“I’m going into town tomorrow so it doesn’t have that much food,” I mumbled. I had forgotten that they say that.
Inexplicably, it failed to rain at Rainy Pass. Rain didn’t follow us to the trailhead for North Cascades National Park, which warned us several times over that we needed a permit to camp.
PCT SOBOS TAKE NOTE: The last 15 miles before Stehekin are all in NCNP, where a (free) permit is required for camping, and only in designated sites. They can’t be reserved over the phone, but NoBos can pick up their permits in Stehekin. No such luck for us.
NoDay and I decided not to take our chances on stealth camping in the park. First of all, finding campsites in Washington is difficult because of all the undergrowth. Secondly, it’s important to remember your own mental well-being when making decisions about breaking the law. Even if we could get away with it, what’s fun about being scared all night?
So we stopped at 5:30, again. Again I had to confront my need for constant motion and the idea that time out here could be “wasted.”
I unpacked, set up my tent, and walked around without a puffy or rain gear. I felt light as a feather. Once in my tent, there was no sound other than the rushing of the creek.
We had a visitor:
Keith and Sarah arrived just before dusk, and told us that everyone (all six of us) was planning to catch the 3:00pm bus to Stehekin the next afternoon.
“NoDay,” I called as we said goodnight, “it hasn’t rained today. Not one single, solitary drop.”
Bridge Creek to Stehekin, mile 80.7
We started at 6:00 am and hiked 17 miles by noon to catch the 12:30 bus to the Stehekin bakery.
And we lived happily ever after.
Up next: Stehekin is an unfriendly money pit, so Cloud and NoDay decide to blow this joint and head back to trail without taking a zero. All the fearmongering in town is about… blowdowns? Will they make it 70 miles through the snow and the trees(?) so that NoDay can finally complete her PCT hike, six years after an early-season blizzard forced her off trail? Find out next week on the blog!