Imagine that four siblings are playing a game of Uno. The kids’ names are Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. They are sitting in a circle in the order I have written. All is well and Summer has just taken her turn when suddenly, out of nowhere, their mother, Nature, comes in to the room and throws down a ‘skip’ card. Autumn’s turn is skipped and Winter is up next. Winter then excitedly plays his ‘let it snow’ card and everyone is unprepared and cold.
This anecdote explains how the weather has treated us during this past week.
Elena and I packed extra warm cold weather clothing and more rain gear while we were at home in preparation for the Northwest fall. We envisioned the last tenth of our trip to be a pleasant walk through familiar woods. Our dad dropped us off at Snoqualmie Pass in the dark early morning rain. The trail climbed to a catwalk. The rocky hillside rose straight up to our left and fell dramatically to our right creating an eerie atmosphere in the stormy fog.
As the day progressed so did our knowledge of the fact that none of our rain gear was waterproof. Quite to the contrary our rain gear was water absorbent. Wringing water out of our only barrier against the rain was miserable. At one point we reached a sign that read “Lemah Bridge Out.” Unfortunately we did not process what those three words in our minds. A couple of miles later we came to a river. Support beams for a bridge stood on both sides of the river., but the part of the bridge that spans the river was completely missing. That was when we processed the phrase “Lemah Bridge Out.” We were forced to ford the river which ended up teaching me another lesson: waterproof boots are only waterproof up to a certain extent. Now I had water in my waterproof boots that was unable to drain because of the fact that they were waterproof. The two gear changes I made in Tacoma were picking up new rain gear and buying waterproof boots; all my clothes were now soggy and there was a puddle in my boots. Staying dry just is not my strong suit I guess. We set up our tents hoping for blue skies the next day. When I peeked out of my tent the following morning I was greeted by blue skies and white earth. Winter had arrived and entire season early. Snow days are awesome as a child because school is cancelled; hiking is never cancelled. It took awhile to unfreeze the zippers on Elena’s tent.
Eventually we packed up and resumed walking. We cruised through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into the dark. We became tired and didn’t want to walk any further to a campsite so we set up camp right where we were on the trail.
We cleared off of the trail before any other hikers came through and discovered our tent blockade. Soon enough ski lifts came into view and we were descending down to Stevens Pass. Our Aunt Beth hiked up and enthusiastically met us. She kindly took us to a peaceful little cabin on the Skykomish River and treated us to good food, relaxation, and advice. Elena and I lamented over the difficulty of the past few days, but little did we know that it was paradise compared to what awaited us. The forecasts that I had been reading called for 5-10 inches of precipitation over the weekend, a freezing level around 6,900 feet, and advised people not to plan any hikes.
We hit the trail around midday with high replenished spirits and bodies. Thank you so much to Auntie Beth for helping us recover as much as possible in one evening, it was very much appreciated.
The PCT is split into sections to make planning easier. Sections tend to be separated by major highway crossings as they are the main access points to the trail. Section lengths and difficulty range greatly. From where we entered at Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass is section K. It is 123 miles with over 30,000 of climbing and another 30,000 feet of descending. We heard from many former thru-hikers that section K is arguably the toughest due to strenuous climbs, river crossings, and fallen trees. Another hiker said that “Section K is hell” because there are no emergency escape routes; it is remote wilderness. The weather did not attack us that first day back on the trail. It just threatened us.
We hurried out of camp in the morning to beat any rain that might fall. The last thing we wanted to deal with was wet tents. Slowly, the mist turned into rain which began to turn into slush and then into snow. By ten in the morning the snow began to stick on the trail. The snow became worrisome when the trail was completely covered and there were a couple of inches piling up all around us. As the day warmed up the snow turned back into rain and our fears were assuaged for the time being. Elena still decided to take off her chacos, which she had been wearing due to blisters, and switch into running shoes.
Later in the afternoon we spied a PCT hiker hiking south towards us. It looked as if he had just been crying as he told us he had been on the trail for six months, but now was forced to end his trip since the passes were too snowy. Five minutes later we encountered another PCT hiker who had come to the same decision. This man worriedly cautioned us about the danger we were heading towards. We decided that we would check out the conditions and make a decision for ourselves once we reached Red Pass. We passed two more hikers who were going home and two more shortly after. All in all, we ran into six hikers who were deciding to turn around; that should have been a strong enough message for us. Around sunset we reached Red Pass where the ground was hidden by snow. The trail was nicely boot packed and easy to follow. We made the choice to trudge on. Considering the wet weather that was supposed to fly in anytime we decided that we ought to hike all night to knock out as many miles as possible. Under starry skies we hiked for many hours up towards Firecreek Pass. Our headlamps illuminated the trail and I began to think that the forecast may have been way off. That was not to be. At around three in the morning the snow started to float down to the earth. Thirty minutes later the snow was coming down by the bucketful. The buckets of snow piled up and the trail began to play hide-and-seek with us. Fear began to eat at me when we could not even discern the trail; an uncontrollable panic that we might get stuck in the great big wild. Elena bravely led the way and got us to Firecreek Pass where we started to descend out of the snow.
By the time we got below the freezing level we had been awake hiking for twenty-four hours. A nap was necessary so we set up our tents in the pouring rain and attempted to sleep. An hour later I woke up violently shivering. I was wearing all of my warm layers and inside of my zero-degree down bag, but I could not manage to warm up. Elena was having a similar issue so we quickly packed up. Walking was the only way we could stay warm. This realization was frightening as we were over fifty miles from the nearest road no matter which way we hiked. I would say about now is when my fear completely overtook me. Luckily we had brought some hefty trash bags along so I was able to craft a makeshift rain jacket to cover my innermost layer. The trail dropped a couple of thousand feet and then regained it all with endless switchbacks. Rain continued to piss out of the sky and flood the earth. Mini rivers and rapids were streaming down the trail. It is a shame that no squirrels or marmots raft because they would have had some sweet class IV rapids.
As we were making our way around many overflowing creeks, and descending from the third pass that section, we were passed by two other fellow thru-hikers (who are both safe and sound, thankfully). Seeing them simply made us feel less isolated and scared. Our breaks could not last any longer than five minutes or so. After the five minute mark one of us would begin to shiver and warming up takes some time. Down, down, down we went to the bottom of the Suiattle River Valley. The escape plan we had formulated was to hike all night again and make it to High Bridge in time for the first shuttle into Stehekin. Once we reached civilization everything would be all right. Having this plan made us feel confident that we would be dry, warm, and out of the woods soon. The Glacier Peak Wilderness had other things in mind though. After hitting the valley floor we hiked along the river towards the bridge that crossed the Suiattle river. Downed logs were everywhere and plants overgrew the trail in many places. Rain fell at a monsoon rate and the entire valley floor was either a puddle or a stream going downhill. Finally we reached a brownish river that was gushing more water than the riverbed could contain. Rivers and creeks were becoming monsters in all of the rain and snowmelt. Naively, we thought that this roaring snake of water was the Suiattle. The only thing missing was the bridge. Fording the river was not an option and we actually had no options except to wait for the water levels to decrease. The idea of setting up a wet camp and being sedentary for a night was scary, but there was not much else we could do. After finding a dry area to camp and setting up our tents nearly everything we owned was soaked. Our down jackets and sleeping bags were dangerously damp. Once again I was periodically woken up by fits of shivering. Finally the sun rose and we wasted no time in packing up our gear and getting on the move. Walking back to the river was nerve-wrecking as we had no idea whether the water had gone down or not. All we knew was that we had to cross it some way or another. Thankfully it had gone through a complete transformation. Brown and scary the night before, the river had turned into a calm, clear creek. Easily we crossed it and eventually reached the Suiattle River bridge. It was nice and warm to be on the move once again. For the next four hours we climbed and climbed up to Suiattle Pass. Around a mile from the pass we encountered snow once again.
Elena claims that the overflowing creek was a blessing in disguise. If we had climbed up to Suiattle Pass the night before then we may have been caught in a major blizzard. As we neared the pass the snow kept falling harder and harder until footprints on the old snow were covered. Quickly we descended and got out of the snow zone. During our next break we did the hokey-pokey for a while to warm up. A little fun and humor can always take the edge off of a seriously scary situation. Our new plan was to hike until we reached Rainy pass, 40 miles away. Night fell and the rain followed suit. For most of the nighttime hours we followed Agnes Creek in a torrential downpour. The underbrush was up to our shoulders. I could have believed that I was in a rain forest if it had not been so chilly. Coffee was necessary every couple of hours to keep our eyes open. Elena began to have short vivid dreams every time her eyes shut. Finally the rain passed and was replaced by fiercely cold wind. We began to hear noises that sounded like boulders being hurled at the ground. I guessed that it was trees falling, but we definitely did not stop to investigate. After walking out of our mind all night long we reached High Bridge and the entrance to North Cascades National Park. The trail hit a dirt road and it took an hour of aimless searching to find the trailhead. Then the sun rose. Seeing the sun rise that morning put a blanket of comfort and calmness on my manic mind. Elena and I cooked beans and rice for breakfast. We gave each other a big hug and just said “We’re alive.” The twenty miles to Rainy Pass from there were painful and long, but they passed, as all things do. Before we knew it, we were both safe and sound in Winthrop at our Oma and Opa’s house. A big thank you to our Oma and Opa for putting up with wet, smelly hikers and their wet, smelly gear. We even had a preemptive 23rd birthday dinner for Elena with Oma’s classic raspberry cloud cream cake and mimosas. Many fellow hikers are still out in the cold and the wet. The PCT community is one big family to us now regardless of how well we know someone. We have shared miles, poptarts, pain, and an unbreakable camaraderie. Keep all these hikers in mind and send them good thoughts as they make their way out of the cold, damp woods as well.