Looking ahead at Pieper Pass

Looking ahead at Pieper Pass

Stormin’ tackles Washington portion of the Pacific Crest Trail

By December 1, 2009

Editor’s note: After four years, Stormin’ completed the Pacific Crest Trail with this trek through Washington.

Riding down to the Sacramento Amtrak station with my daughter Elizabeth, her husband Kevin and my granddaughter Meiko, my thoughts focused on exchanging the valley’s blistering hot summer days with the cooler temperatures associated with hiking some 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail through Washington State’s Cascade Range.

Hoosier, the first of my two hiking companions for this adventure got on the train at Eugene, Ore. and we were met in Seattle by Saunter, aka Dave, the third and final member of “Team 180-Plus.”

We took a series of buses to Manning Park in British Columbia, the northern terminus of the 2,665-mile long PCT.

We passed through Canadian customs around midnight. The customs agent glared sternly at us from his raised podium as he bombarded us with questions. It was very intimidating. I almost jinxed our entrance when he asked if we would be coming back through customs. I answered “Yes, if there is a station on the PCT.”

Our next stop, the Vancouver Transportation Center, was closed. A security guard opened up to let us in to sleep on the floor but at first light, he tapped everyone sharply with his big stick and said, “No sleeping after five o’clock.” I can only guess that it’s some kind of Canadian custom.

It was a perfect hike for the first several days. We were treated to inspiring views of the Northern Cascades and had sensory overload from such magnificent scenery day after day.

The weather was ideal. We seemed to always find the perfect campsite and were gently lulled to sleep by the sounds of a fast-moving mountain stream. One night we camped next to a giant ice/snow field. We traversed from ridge to valley to ridge. It was somewhat like hiking on a roller coaster and Hoosier had trouble catching his breath.

His problems were magnified when he was sitting down and one time he fainted. He was having difficulty adjusting to a new medication and was not physically prepared for such rigorous activity.

We ended the first section of our hike traversing a long hot valley, beating our way through head-high brush. But after previously traveling several days on trails carved into solid rock along mountainsides with tremendous effort and at great cost, the lack of a little brush-cutting maintenance could be forgiven.

Our first resupply stop was the small lakeside resort town of Stehekin. We spent the night at the forest service’s free campground in the one very small site still available. There was barely enough space for two people without tents. Dave and Hoosier chose the hard-packed ground; I opted to sleep on the picnic table.

This was the worst campground I’ve experienced in all my time on the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. It was on a rocky uneven hillside and our site was only a few feet from the road. We were illuminated by headlights every time a car passed. Now I know why it was free.

Hoosier departed for his daughter’s home in Oregon while Dave and I proceeded on. After three days, we left the official PCT to take a higher, shorter and more scenic route. About halfway up the ridge, we encountered two sloping snow and ice fields blocking the trail.

I successfully crossed the first one but slipped at the far edge of the second one. We didn’t have ice axes or crampons and I was just wearing street tennis shoes. Fortunately the field sloped to one side so I dug the point of one of my hiking sticks into the snow, which slowed my descent and pulled me sideways.

Instead of speeding 100 feet downhill to a possible fatal crash in the rocks below, I slid more sideways hitting the rocks that bordered the field a dozen feet from where my fall began. I escaped the ordeal with scratches and a badly skinned knee.

Where we had planned to camp resembled the middle of the Artic with snow and ice all around us. I started thinking of a spot where a rescue helicopter could land.

We had to get out while the snow was still soft and the footing good. If we spent the night the snow would harden and be too slippery to walk on in the morning. We were still about 100 feet from the top of the crest so we decided to go up over the peak and descend into the next valley.

We had one fairly wide, sloping snow/ice field to traverse and then a rock scramble to the summit. I followed Dave, focusing entirely on taking one step at a time and trying not to think what might happen if I slipped again. Once over the top there was more snow and ice to cross but not as threatening as that first one. We sat and slid down the steeper parts.

If I wasn’t so exhausted and worried about losing what little resemblance of a trail we were on, it might have been fun. Once down in the valley and out of danger we set up camp. After treating my legs and knee, I decided the time was right to recite a Buddhist mantra, “Nam.myoho.renge.kyo,” in appreciation for escaping serious injury and successfully finding our way out of a frozen wasteland.

We walked through knee-high wet grass all the next morning, making for a day of soaking wet shoes and socks. Then conditions really got tough. We had to bushwhack our way 800 feet through dense Alder to reach the valley floor, a slow, painful and energy-draining experience.

We came to a detour the next day. Several key bridges were out along the official trail and hikers were strongly encouraged to take another route to avoid a dangerous ford. Our decision to take an alternate trail from the detour to save time and effort was disastrous.

The trail quickly degenerated into a 6-inch wide path totally overgrown with chest-high brush. We climbed over and around huge trees torn loose by past avalanches and forded narrow but still rampaging streams. It was more of an obstacle course than a trail and took us nine hours to walk 10 miles.

Our feet and clothes were soaked from a combination of rain showers, a trail that at times reverted to a small stream and from the rain-soaked vegetation we plowed through. Dave led the way and I followed. How he was able to keep us on this narrow band of trail through jungle-like conditions was a miracle to me.

Once back on the official trail, Dave departed. He had only planned to go the first 160 miles and I was on my own. He had really come through in our two crisis situations and I owed him a lot. But I was happy to be by myself and set my own pace.

My next stop was the town of Skykomish, which looked like the middle of a war zone. The soil through the center of the town had been contaminated over the years with oil and heavy metals from the local train yard.

Workers were in the process of temporarily moving the town’s main buildings, digging up and removing the contaminated soil, bringing in clean fill and then moving the buildings back to their original locations. It was a big, big project.

Outside of some deer that live around campsites to get the salt they find in people’s urine, I didn’t experience any wildlife. I did encounter hoards of small biting flies and mosquitoes. Deet, an industrial strength bug spray, kekpt the mosquitoes away but nothing seemed to work on the flies except constant swatting.

They were slow, not too smart, and so numerous it was possible to kill two or three with one slap of the hand.

Once by myself I was able to pick up the pace and put in 16- to 18-mile days. My longest day was 25 miles but it came at a price. Coming down from a long mountain ridge I missed a turn and spent the day descending the east side instead of the west.

I discovered my error the next morning when I came to a gravel road and trail head parking lot. My 25-mile achievement had taken me totally off my map. It took me two days of walking and three rides to get back to the trail where it intersected Interstate 70 at Snoqualmie Pass.

My last ride was in a Volkswagon bus driven by a 2006 PCT thru-hiker whose trail name was Tabasco. My inadvertant detour had taken me some 50 miles east of the pass. I picked up my resupply box and spent the night in a ski lodge on the summit where the rumble of traffic going over the pass replaced the lulling nighttime sounds of cascading mountain streams.

Once I was south of Snoqualmie Pass the weather changed for the worst. The temperature dropped and most mornings started in rain, fog or drizzle. I quickly learned how to set up or pack up camp in the rain.

Many a day I hiked in wet shoes and socks. Even if it wasn’t raining, every time I brushed against dew-soaked vegetation overhanging the trail, water ran into my shoes.

From time to time I had to wear my foul weather gear to keep dry or warm. The fog and clouds prevented me from enjoying any of the magnificent snow-draped mountains that bordered my route.

One of the more memorable encounters was meeting the legendary Scott Williamson, who is the first and only hiker to complete the AT, the PCT and the CDT in a single season, an amazing 7,200-mile feat.

He and his sidekick, The Crud Meister, were trying to set a speed record and had covered the 2,360-miles from the Mexican border in an unbelievable 45 days.

Shortly afterward I met a family hiking with pack goats. The animals were unhaltered and freely followed the family members, stopping occasionally to munch on foliage. One night I camped near a couple who had a pack mule and three llamas to haul their copious amount of gear and supplies. Four dogs completed their menagerie.

One of the better known sections of the PCT in Washington is the “Knife’s Edge,” several miles of trail above the tree line at 7,000 feet on a narrow ridge with glaciers below on both sides.

The weather was cold, windy, rainy and foggy as I ascended toward it — what had become typical Washington weather to me.

The higher I climbed the more blustery it became. I stopped at a sheltered campsite at 5,800 feet. It was only 2 p.m. and I had covered just 13 miles but I didn’t want to go any higher due to the wind, rain and cold. A little later two young thru-hikers Kevin and Andy arrived. We agreed to hike the Knife’s Edge together the next morning.

I awoke to another cold, wet, windy morning and drank one of my 600-calorie milkshakes for breakfast. It was too wet and windy to cook and I needed something with calories to power over the Knife’s Edge. I found Kevin and Andy’s campsite and we started up together.

The higher we climbed the worst the weather became. When we got near the Knife’s Edge we met two groups of hikers who had decided to turn back, feeling that the weather made it too dangerous to cross over this legendary obstacle.

We pressed on. Contrary to what we expected, Knife’s Edge turned out to be a mundane 30-foot wide ridge. There was no danger of falling onto the glaciers below, though with the wind, rain and fog it was not an easy traverse. With its numerous short ups and downs it resembled more of a broad dragon’s tail than a knife edge.

After six straight days of off and on rain, everything I had was damp — clothes, shoes, socks, sleeping bag and mat — and of course, my rain-soaked tent.

I normally used an extra pair of socks to cover my hands in cold weather but with the rain, they were wet and useless. Between picking up water from the vegetation and the puddles on the trail, my feet were constantly wet. At times I saw water squirting out of the tops of my tennis shoes as I plodded along.

With less than 50 miles left I reached the last challenge of my journey, the Lewis River, which was fed by melting snow off 12,276-foot high Mt. Adams. During a warm afternoon it can be a 20 feet wide, thigh-high-deep roaring obstacle to ford. Because of the cold, on this morning it had retreated into three shallow 1-foot streams.

I was tempted to ford wearing my already soaked shoes, but decided to cross in my Crocs (rubber sandals). My feet were white from the cold. I remembered that swimmers rub grease on themselves to insulate their bodies so I massaged suntan oil on my feet in hopes of reducing the effects of the wet and cold. It didn’t work.

My hands were already numb from cold, now my feet were numb. About this time my personal misery index was off the scale. Fortunately as the day progressed the weather improved.

Later I met Curt, a hiking companion from a southern excursion on the PCT back in 2006. He was heading north on his second PCT thru hike. He told me about a senior hiker found dead apparently of a heart attack two days ago. The gentleman was apparently headed toward the nearby town of Trout Lake for help but died before he could make it.

While he may have died doing something he loved, his death may have been prevented had he carried a satellite personal tracker. With a push of a button this high tech instrument sends out your location to the nearest search and rescue unit, notifying it of an emergency and providing a tracking signal for rescuers. I’ve carried one the last two years.

Once at the highway I hitched a ride into Trout Lake, my last resupply stop. I picked up my food box and checked into a hostel run by the town’s general store. The town is apparently the huckleberry capital of America.

The store sold huckleberry jellies and jam in addition to fresh berries in 1-gallon plastic bags. The town’s café had huckleberry pie, cobbler, cheesecake and milkshakes.

I left the hostel after two days of drying out, warming up and consuming 5,000 calories of fat-filled, vein-clogging, cholesterol-loaded hiker food. I walked 16 miles back to the PCT on a combination of paved and gravel roads. It was a rather pleasant walk in the shade of old-growth timber.

It was a Sunday and the peak of the huckleberry season. I found myself in the middle of a huckleberry rampage as numerous cars raced up and down the rural forest road in search of those small round, blue berries.

The remaining three days of my adventure were uneventful. I completed my hike in Stevenson, a town just inside the Washington-Oregon border. A series of short bus rides took me to the Amtrak station in Vancouver, Ore., for the train ride home.

This was truly an adventure of extremes — from ambling along well-maintained mountain trails to thrashing through jungle-like conditions in the valleys; from bright, warm sunny days to endless fog and rain; and finally from 100-degree valley temperatures to snow/ice fields and near freezing weather atop a a mountain crest.

For the first time I was not prepared for the conditions. Warmer clothes, lug-sole boots instead of street tennis shoes, gaitors — laced coverings that go over the top of one’s boot and leg to divert water and debris from getting into the boot — and gloves would have made this a much more pleasant and at times, safer experience.

Still I accomplished my goal. With this section of the PCT behind me, I have backpacked the entire PCT from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, a project that took four seasons to complete.

I finished the Appalachian Trail in 2003. With only some 1,200 miles left to finish on the CDT, I am well within range of completing America’s Triple Crown of long-distance hiking before I reach the youthful age of 70 in 2011,

Norm Stoldt

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