A Short but Brutal Day
As a through-hiker, making a stopover into town was always something to look forward to. It meant wonderful things like meeting friendly locals, experiencing culture, and accessing much needed shower and laundry facilities. However, each town also held its own dangers in the form of tempting food and drink. My body was a highly tuned machine, accustomed to a fairly limited array of foods. Sure, those foods were largely what you might consider junk, but that junk was a devil my body knew well. In town, I felt constant temptation to branch out and cram my belly full of foods that had become strange and exotic, like fresh vegetables and baked goods.
As I lay in bed, in the pre-dawn cocoon of my hotel room, my body was brewing a mutiny. The two beers I had finished the prior evening with were sloshing about on top of a gelatinous mound of partially digested donuts, cupcakes, fruit, steak, soda, candy, mashed potato, and grilled vegetables. Matthew Inman, creator of the online comic The Oatmeal, once said he took up running because it allowed him to treat his body like a fast moving dumpster. Maybe that works for him, but as I rolled and burbled about the bed, seeking a more comfortable position, I felt my own dumpster was overflowing and a host of feral scavengers were closing in.
Unable to get comfortable, I decided to drag myself out of bed and have another soak in the bathtub. An hour of warm weightlessness helped ease my discomfort, and once again the siren song of food began to call me. I found room in the dumpster for a pancake breakfast, coffee, more fruit, and two more beers. Feeling gross, but confident I had taken in as many calories as humanly possible, I packed to go.
My pack was now heavier than it had ever been before. Resupply points were few and far between in Washington, so I was carrying nine days’ worth of food. To make matters worse, when I had gone shopping in town my eyes had been bigger than my stomach, and I could not bring myself to part with my precious spoils. I decided to eat any extra food throughout the first day, including a burrito the size of my forearm, two beers that I had transferred into my Nalgene bottle, half a bag of fresh cherries, and the dregs of a two liter soda bottle (I needed the empty bottle to replace a broken reservoir in my water filtration system). All told, my pack was well over 60 pounds – probably closer to 70.
I was no stranger to heavy weight, so it surprised me just how badly I was sucking wind as I climbed steeply away from the pass. It dawned on me that many guidebooks had pegged this stretch of trail as the second hardest on the entire PCT, after the High Sierra. I soon concurred, as the terrain around me shifted from gentle forested slopes to precipitous ridges separating deep glacier carved valleys. One look at that unforgiving landscape and I knew my day would be spent on steep climbs and plunging descents. I cursed myself for not being more careful with my pack weight.
Early into the first climb the trail crossed downslope from a lovely cascading waterfall. The trail itself disappeared briefly under a couple of inches of water – not enough to register in my mind as a concern. Unfortunately, the tranquil little stream belied treacherous footing. Too late, I felt my foot slip and my elephantine pack caught in gravity’s sucking grasp. I went down hard on my left hand and right knee, the force of the impact jarring both into numbness. For a moment I stayed that way, prostrated before the merciless gods of the trail and silently praying that nothing serious was injured. Standing slowly, I was relieved to find that my right knee took my weight, although it bitched constantly for the next few miles. My wrist shared in the griping, though I had little use for it and so it was easier to ignore.
Throughout the day I tackled over 4,000 feet of elevation gain – the first climb of the day, alone, was 2,400 feet. I made only 22 miles before exhaustion kicked in, partly because of pack weight and partly due to a late start and deadly hills. I had a look at my guidebook and noted that these steep sided ridges and deep meadow filled valleys would be with me for most of the rest of the trip. So much for an easy cruise to Canada. The silver lining, though, was that these ridges made for some utterly spectacular scenery. Huge looming rock faces, strange glacier carved pinnacles, and beautiful sweeping vistas abounded. The trail itself was often blasted into cliff sides, leaving my eyes bulging trying to take in all the views. The glaciers also left gorgeous lakes in their wake, set like jewels in meadows far below.
I quit early along the banks of Lemah Creek. The bridge there was washed out, so I had a cold fording through knee deep and incredibly strong and frigid water. I had had enough, so I threw down my pack and let my aching body rest. Within minutes, my knee had stiffened enough that it was difficult to bend, making camp life a bit less than pleasant. It had performed well enough through the day, however, so I went to bed hopeful that it would be back to normal in the morning.
The Great Stream Ford
My pack was noticeably lighter at the start of the day, thanks to my gluttonous effort to eat and drink everything in sight the night before. This proved to be fortunate, because the map promised a day of climbing – more than 6,000 feet. Right out the gate I tackled a 2,400 foot ridge, followed by a 2,600 foot descent into the Waptus River Valley. My knee felt much better, but I stopped nonetheless to give it time to recover. After lunch was another 2,600 foot climb away from the Waptus, then along an adjoining valley, past Deep Lake, and up to Cathedral Pass.
At Cathedral Pass the PCT splits into two potential routes. The first headed southeast and downhill toward Hyas Lakes via a stock route. The second route, the official course of the PCT, was more direct, but faced a dangerous stream ford where it crossed a runoff stream that crashed down off the mountain before feeding into the lakes below. I was loath to add mileage unless absolutely necessary, so I chose the latter route. Before reaching the stream, I ran into two section hikers, Coop and Alex, who had initially made the same choice as me and were now backtracking to the split. Alex had attempted the ford and, as she said, “I was afraid I was going to die.”
PCT hikers, through or section, are no wusses – even the self-proclaimed “Big Wuss” is a tough nut – so I trusted Coop and Alex. Still, everyone has a different take on the trail, so I had to see the stream for myself. They wished me luck and I pressed on. It wasn’t long before I could hear the stream, even though I was still a ways away, and even at this distance it sounded like the crash and roar of a massive waterfall. Finally, I rounded a bend and came face to face with the beast. My first thought, as I looked up at the torrent of snow melt crashing down the slope, was “There’s no way the trail crosses that!” I looked across to the other side, though, and saw the familiar dusty twining of trail amongst large boulders. “Yuh-huh, it s-u-u-u-u-re does,” I said aloud before silently mouthing “sweet Baby Jesus on a pogo stick.” While I weighed the situation, I took a moment to snap a picture of the stream. No, stream isn’t the right word. It was more like an angry torrent of liquid death. Looking at it now, I can say with 100% confidence that the picture does not do justice to the challenge I faced.
I searched upstream and down for a safer place to cross, but with no success. Twenty yards downstream was a waterfall, a dozen feet tall, that pounded down onto jagged rocks below. Upstream, the water was even more turbulent, and as it worked its way downhill it threw off plumes of spray three feet high. It couldn’t have been a more dismaying sight if you had told me the waters were infested with alligators, piranhas, or Ann Coulter.
Now, I’m not suicidal, but I do a lot of needlessly dangerous stuff. Just ask my dad – his favorite hobby is shaking his head as he recounts the highlights of my stupidity. So, people who know me will realize how gnarly this stream crossing was when I say I was unwilling to try it. It wasn’t a stream ford, it was assisted suicide. There was nothing to do but hike the two miles back to the split and then add three miles of detour. I began back up the trail, picking my way from boulders back to the ragged treeline. A small tree lay beside the trail, evidence of just how far the stream’s destructive force could reach in the right (or wrong, depending on your outlook) season. Inspiration struck, and I dropped my pack in excitement.
With my weakened upper body, it was all I could do to lift the small tree and haul it back to the stream. Lodging one end firmly in the rocks at the near side of the narrowest part of the stream, I let the tree crash down and hoped the tip would catch somewhere in the rocks on the far side. Luck was with me – the tree caught and hovered mere inches above the rushing surface of the water. Standing back to survey my handiwork, I nodded slowly and pegged my chances of survival at a respectable 50/50. Now, how best to cross?
The log was too narrow to safely walk. I didn’t trust my balance, especially in an exhausted state with a heavy pack. Wading through, using the tree as a handhold, was also out. I had chosen the narrowest point in the stream, which meant the force of the water was far too strong to stand against. After careful consideration, I found a compromise. I lay flat with my hands on the log and my legs dangling free downstream. Immediately, the force of the water whipped my legs out from beneath me and left them skimming the surface of the stream as if I were being dragged behind a speed boat. Slowly, I pushed my upper body off the log and edged my way a few inches to my right. Lowering myself back down, I rested a moment before repeating the process. At the center of the stream the log beneath me began to bow. I was reaching a point where the tree narrowed and was less effective at supporting the weight of my body and pack. Adrenaline flooded my body and suddenly I was doing pushups like a fiend. A few more moments of uncertainty and my legs no longer felt the surprising force of the current. I lowered my feet and was able to wade to safety.
After the crossing, life was beautiful and every vista an epiphany. I was treated to an amazing sunset on a vast, rippled sheet of clouds to the south. It looked like an aerial view of some sunburned desert, or a surface shot of Mars turned on its side. I marveled at the view, then tackled a final 700 foot climb to Deception Pass, across the 30 mile mark, and to the end of my day.