Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any a Drop to Drink
I spent my 29th birthday on the trail. It was a day whose progress was measured primarily in lakes, climbing to, descending from, or circumnavigating small wooded ponds of blue-green and gunmetal. The morning began with a 500 foot climb through deep woods to Deception Lakes, followed by an 800 foot climb up Pieper Pass. From there I took a moment to enjoy the view over Glacier Lake toward the distant snow clad slopes of Glacier Peak. From everything I had heard that peak would be my final major challenge before reaching Canada.
I descended to Glacier Lake only to climb back up 1,000 feet to Trap Pass, with its own view of Trap Lake. A very welcome gradual descent brought me to Hope Lake, after which the trail took another short climb to reach the edge of Mig Lake. From there I climbed another 600 feet to Susan Jane Lake before continuing the climb over a wooded ridge and down to Highway 2 at Stevens Pass. At the pass, 22 miles into my day, I stopped for lunch. I was fortunate enough to have cell phone reception, so I checked my voicemail, which held a few messages from birthday well-wishers. I was also able to make a few calls to friends and family. Cell phone reception turned out to be the best birthday present I could have asked for.
After lunch I had a nice level cruise, which gave my legs a needed respite from all the climbing of the morning. The rest was short-lived, however, and soon I found myself on yet another steep climb along rocky pine duff laden trail. After a 1,200 foot climb I reached Valhalla Lake, after which I pounded out a gentle downhill section to Janice Lake. My plan had been to camp there, but the mosquitos were out in force and I couldn’t bear the idea of a long evening slapping at bugs. I plodded on, up another 1,000 foot climb to a ridgeline where I could camp in relative peace.
Unfortunately, in my haste to escape mosquitos, I had neglected to check my water supply. I had just settled into my tent and pulled out my water reservoir for a drink when I noticed the oversight. For a moment I thought about hiking back to the lake to top up, but quickly dismissed the idea. I had already hiked 34 miles of steep climbs and I was utterly pooped. Instead, I decided to go thirsty for the night and find fresh water sometime in the morning.
As it turned out, my plan was a poor one. I woke sometime after midnight, in the deep murk of a foggy and moonless night. My mouth was dry and my throat uncomfortably parched. I felt a desperate need for water, a need that kept me uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t sleep. Finally, after it became clear I would find no relief in sleep, I rolled out of my tent and into the gloom. The lake was a few miles behind me, and returning there would require a couple of hours and plenty of steep trails. Instead, I decided to take my chances on the trail ahead. My map did not show any water sources, but I counted on the damp slopes giving rise to trailside trickles that I could take advantage of.
On the trail the mist swirled about me, reflecting my headlamp’s dull glow and casting phantoms beneath the grasping branches of trailside vegetation. Half a mile from camp I found the faintest trickle of snow melt. The water traced its way down tangled roots of an old pine that was eroding out of a rocky slope. I placed my water bottle beneath that trickle, waiting patiently in the cold and damp until, drip by drip, I had about half a liter to show for my efforts. This I drank immediately before collecting another half-liter to take back to camp with me. It was not enough to slake my thirst completely, but it would get me through the night.
On the hike back to the tent I thought about how normal the challenges of living on the trail had become. Back home a midnight drink was as close as the nearest tap. On the trail, poor planning could mean a mile of hiking, followed by half an hour of collecting water, one slowly swelling drip at a time. Strangely, I wasn’t bothered by the extra work. I crawled into my sleeping bag, took another sip of crisp mountain water, and surrendered to sleep without complaint.
Waking Up in Clouds
I was dreading another day of steep climbs, but was pleasantly surprised to find the day’s climbing interspersed with plenty of level or gradual downhill hiking. I packed in a white haze of cloud, which still had not lifted from the night before. There was perhaps 200 yards of visibility before the world faded. Hiking the trail was like watching a muted watercolor painting itself in real time.
By midday the clouds had burned off and I had a number of open views. To either side were steep glacier carved valley walls, splashed liberally with a thousand vibrant colors. Emerald slopes were dotted with cream colored boulders and bushes the color of sage and seaweed. Wildflowers were everywhere – bright pops of cinnamon, amethyst, butterscotch, and ivory. Rich dark earth cut through the fields, edged here and there by the umber bark and thick needles of small pines. Everywhere I looked the landscape was cut by snow melt streams and waterfalls.
I couldn’t have hoped for better views or a more refreshing hike. It was certainly a welcome change from the constant climbing of the day before. It was almost too good to be true, so when I rounded a bend and spotted three attractive women sunning themselves in various states of undress just off trail, I actually pinched myself. Had I wandered into a beer commercial? “Our beer, brewed with crisp Cascade water, makes scantily clad women frolic on mountaintops.” Sold.
By late in the day I reached Red Pass and crossed a saddle heading east into the Chuck River drainage. Thanks to the protection of steep ridges on three sides, the headwater bowl of the drainage was filled with snow. Fortunately, there was only one way to go and the snow was firm enough to walk on easily. As I descended, the drainage narrowed, funneling me out of the snow and into a tight ravine that dropped toward a valley at the foot of Glacier Peak. Here the devastating power of water – from rains, snow melt, and perennial streams – was on full display. The ravine concentrated runoff from the bowl above into a tiny slot, where water dropped in torrents and destroyed anything in its path. Massive trees rested at crazy angles and a bridge of solid timber was snapped and twisted like it was a mere handful of twigs.
As I passed the broken bridge I ran into a southbound through-hiker named Scott (“Bink”). I noticed his fast purposeful stride and tiny pack as he approached, both of which made sense when he explained he was attempting a speed record. He would be attempting to break his own record of 64 days, a blistering pace that I could hardly fathom. Scott probed me for information on the trail I had just hiked, then nodded contemplatively before wishing me well and setting off again.
Speed records are not really my thing, but in a way I can understand the compulsion. After all, it had become inexplicably important to me that I should finish my hike in one attempt. Not that I felt there was anything wrong with section hiking – there’s not – but a continuous hike had taken on special significance. I could imagine something similar being the case for the speed freaks, not to mention that most people didn’t have the luxury of taking longer periods off work. In years since I have read online articles about speed hiking. Inevitably, someone in the comments section complains that the hikers are not staying true to the spirit of the trail. It’s as if the competitive nature of attempting a speed record is a personal affront. In truth, there is no “spirit” of the trail. The trail is what you make of it, and I wished Scott the best of luck in his endeavor.
Shortly after parting ways with Scott, I reached a stream crossing. It was at a broad and level bench, where the rush of water was less tumultuous. Even so, a log had been laid across the channel, and it was clear from the rut of numerous footprints that this was the preferred method for crossing. Halfway across the log, which sat four feet above the water, I noticed a thin sheen of moss that made the footing particularly treacherous. “This is more slippery than it looks,” I thought, “I should slow…” That was as far as the thought went before my foot slid out from under me and I felt my world tilting dramatically in slow motion. I had just enough time on the way down to picture fracturing an ankle on submerged rocks below. Somehow, I landed on my feet with no loud pops or searing pain. For a moment I stood there in the calf deep water, breathing deeply in relief. Then a rock shifted under my foot and I slipped again. Down I went, sparing myself a full bath at the last moment by flinging one arm around the tree trunk above. My other arm braced on the bottom of the stream, and for a moment I stayed that way, bent backward like I was playing some strange solitary game of Twister. Finally I was able to pull myself up and finish my stream crossing.
After 36 miles I finally reached the valley below Glacier Peak. I turned in for the day, knowing that the following day would be a true beast, and that I would need my rest.
Hiking Around Glacier
As it turned out, Glacier wasn’t quite the challenge I had been expecting, though it wasn’t far off. My day began with a pleasant surprise. As I checked my map I realized that I had crossed the 2,500 mile mark on the previous day. That meant I had less than 150 miles to go. That thought energized me and helped to get me throughout the day to get through the toughest climbs.
Outside my camp was a small stream bed littered with huge trees, uprooted by torrents of water. I had walked over to the stream to collect water and instead stood there for nearly ten minutes just trying to fathom what kind of earthly force could create such devastation. It was not the first reminder of the power of nature, nor would it be my last. Less than a mile later, at Kennedy Creek, I crossed the remains of a log bridge destroyed by boulders and trees carried by high seasonal waters.
After Kennedy Creek I began my first climb, up 2,000 feet. From there the trail followed a gentle contour for a couple of miles before climbing another 500 feet to Fire Creek Pass. I was feeling good, and for the first time in days I allowed myself to hope that Glacier Peak’s difficulty was exaggerated. Once I traversed the pass, however, my hopes were quickly dashed. The trail ahead dropped 2,500 feet to Milk Creek, then climbed 2,000 feet right back up a mountain face on the far side. I could see the trail from where I stood – it was perhaps a mile or so as the crow flies – and counted no less than 50 switchbacks. I reminded myself of how little trail I had left and then set off, down a snowy slope, past the turquoise waters of a frozen tarn, and down into the glacier carved valley below.
Each downhill stride filled me with dread for the climb looming ahead. At the bottom of the valley I paused for a meal on a bridge over Milk Creek, and braced myself for the day’s final hurdle. It was, of course, every bit as painful as I had built it up to be in my mind. Not only was the slope steep, it also threaded between dense tangles of bracken that trapped heat and humidity. Often I lost sight of my feet altogether beneath the growth and had to be careful not to roll an ankle on some unseen rock or root. Berry brambles and wet fronds dragged at my clothing, tore my exposed skin, and made progress a battle of inches. Of all the climbs I had done, in over 2,500 miles of hiking, I needed to rest on only a small handful of hills. This climb was one of that handful.
At long last I left the overgrown section behind and made better progress. The top of the ridge offered views back toward Fire Creek Pass, and only when that view was behind me did I breathe a sigh of relief. The trail then rounded the northern side of Glacier Peak, enjoying beautiful views of distant mountains, framed by wildflower dappled meadows. It then dropped precipitously to Suiattle River, where I dropped my pack and could go no farther. I had made only 25 miles because of the long climbs, which meant I would have some mileage to make up for in the upcoming days. Unfortunately, the worst was not yet over, either. I had two more 1,500 foot climbs to look forward to before I could enjoy a bit of a victory cruise to the border.