Monday, September 19, 2016

Snoqualmie Pass to White Pass: Day by Day

Two of my friends and I have an annual ritual;  sometime between Thanksgiving and early in the new year, we head north to the Korean spa in Lynwood, soak, get warm to the bone, and get scrubbed until our skin is almost as soft as a newborns.  Sitting around in hot water, especially at this time of year, often seems to lead to some introspection and reflection on what the past year has been like and what lies ahead.  The last time we did it, I was looking ahead to my 40th birthday when Ambika started talking about her plan to hike a 100 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I asked questions, listened intently, and an idea started to bloom in my head.  That's what I wanted to do to celebrate turning 40.  Something bold.  Something big.  Something physical.  Something momentous.

At some point, I decided to go for it, and asked Ambika, "If I can get Tyler to agree, could I come, or do you really want to go it alone?"  I don't know how she really felt in the moment, but she said, "Sure!" and this tiny spark of an idea (built upon Ambika's) became something that was really going to happen.

It's taken a little while to really let the experience settle in.  And as I've found myself missing the experience and seeking out other people's blogs I've been at times underwhelmed.  While talk of miles and pack weight and starting and ending points are of great interest on the trail, they can hold less allure in the day-to-day world.  So I decided to tackle this in two ways:  one going over some of the day-to day experience, another with some more reflective thoughts on the experience overall.  It still won't be the full blow-by-blow.  For that, you'll need to sit for a narrated slideshow with a glass of wine.

So here goes....

Day 1:  Getting Started, Snoqualmie Pass to Meadow Creek (~12 miles)

I'd found myself feeling anxious the few days before heading out.  I'd prepared, not as much as I'd liked.  It felt weird to be disconnecting so entirely.  I felt guilty about leaving Tyler with the kids and doing something that felt so completely selfish.

At the trailhead--finally beginning
 We started on a hot day, and I knew from a previous hike that we started in exposed ski lift areas and with a pretty decent climb up.  With our packs at their heaviest.  But once we got moving, it felt good.  We agreed to go ~6 miles before taking a proper break for lunch.   And while it felt good, I sure was glad to throw down my full pack and take off my shoes for a breather.  We went as far as we intended that first day, about 12 miles, but we mis-read the map for the last two miles or so, falsely expecting flat or downhill when, instead, we had exposed climbs up.  I won't lie, I was breathing hard, taking breaks and a tiny bit worried about how it was all going to go, but we made it to camp and settled in well.

Olallie Meadow 

A rare shot of me from behind--I thought I had always let Ambika take the lead and set the pace, but this proves one exception 

Day 2:  Long and Slow, Meadow Creek to Reliable Creek, (14 miles)

We knew from our planning that access to water was going to be an issue for a few days and near the beginning.  So while we only needed to average ~11 miles a day, we had some potentially long days at the front end.  When our packs were heaviest and we were least conditioned.  While we kind of jointly made noise about seeing how far we got, I knew Ambika really wanted to make it the whole way, so it was the one day that I was a little slower than her as we went up and down and up and down.  We did meet a great couple about two-thirds of the way along who were thru hiking (going from Mexico to Canada) and were likely in their 60s.  they were so happy and mellow and enjoying the experience that it helped me really appreciate what we were doing and just keep walking.  Those last few miles were a slog, and man did my shoulders ache when I threw down my pack for the last time that day, but then I knew we *could* do 14 miles, pack and all.

Morning sun from our campsite 

 First glimpse of Mt. Rainier, something that always made Ambika smile
Day 3:  A Great Day for Up, Reliable Creek to our "High and Dry Camp" (~12 miles)
Our camp on the second night was low in the forest, cold and dark at the start of the day.  After breakfast and while we were breaking camp, pine cones started falling down from some of the trees in our little clearing.  You'd hear some little sounds in the branches and them, "WHAP!" as they hit the forest floor,  It would not have been pleasant to be on the receiving end, so we hustled and got moving.
Even Ambika was a little tired after the 14-miler, so we set off knowing we'd likely have to carry water so we wouldn't have to go maybe 16 miles to hit the water source that was far enough to be worth a day's hike.  So we agreed at the best water source on the map that we'd each load up and carry five liters of water, figuring we'd need ~3 for the day, 1 for breakast, 1 for dinner and some to get us to the next water source another 4-6 miles from where we figured we'd stop.
Oh, and I haven't mentioned my feet.  When I started training in the spring, I started getting a blister on my instep.  After hemming and hawing, I decided to get new, sturdier boots.  I tried my best to break them in (including wearing them to the office and to run errands), but there's nothing to quite prepare you for this scope of walking.  After a few days of experimentation, I got the right sock/blister first aid combo down, but on this day my feet either hurt or were numb, and every time we'd stop, it would hurt to start again.
A good day for up:  we were really getting up in elevation at this point, from 3000 feet at the summit to 5300 this day

We also learned the advantage of going southbound this day--all the thru hikers were northbound.  We met one other couple going south over the 9 days--but it was great to occasionally get into on water, when the climb would end, and, on this day, whether there were any campsites in the foreseeable future.  There were a few, thankfully, though they were far less trafficked and definitely felt wilder--there was a lot of scat, and we heard an owl hooting at us during the night.

One of our favorite meals that was--fortuitously--dish free, since we were camping without any access to water.  The dehydrated slaw with some homemade dressing was worth the weight.
We also were able at this point to more reliably set our plans for the remainder of the hike.  While we'd mapped things out several times, it also was hard to know how the mileage would feel, how fast or slow we'd want to go, and how we'd deal with the water access.  On the third day we agreed to be done at noon on Sunday, which meant we could backward map and figure out how to pace ourselves for the remainder of the trip and know we could enjoy the days and not feel like we needed to be covering more ground.
Day 4:  Settling In, High and Dry Camp to Government Meadow (~9 miles)
After putting in several good mileage days, we decided we could take it easy (ha, 9 miles--easy!).  We had one of our only two misteps with navigation and doubled back at one point maybe adding a mile (it felt so much longer going back, uphill in the sun, then it had when we were chatting nonchalantly, walking downhill).  But early in the afternoon we hit the one shelter in all of Washington.  It was great to end a day not completely spent, have time to read and write and chat with the many thru hikers passing by.   We also unloaded a little bit of food we had overpacked that got happily taken before we left.
It was a gorgeous day, my second favorite of the trip, with gorgeous views of the southern Cascades and Mount Rainier, and it felt like I was starting to really hit my stride.
Morning blister routine--it took a good 20 minutes to add moleskin, bandages and tape for the day, but it did the trick.  By the fifth day I was pain free and had passed the worst of it. 

As we were getting ready, I heard Ambika say, "Oh my God" and came hustling over--to find we had a gorgous view of Mount Rainier when we could glimpse past the tree cover. 

We entered a clearing on the trail and got gorgeous views of the Cascades, too, where we ran into two nice Quebecois gentlemen who didn't speak English, really

 It was gorgeous hiking on our way to a spring for water, beautiful alpine scenery, blue skies, and the moon

The day before I'd heard noises that sounded like a fighter jet--we saw proof of them today. Earlier, two jets came zooming past us, passing Mount Rainier as they did barrel rolls.  I didn't think to grab my camera, but we did have another fly by later.  You'd think it woudl feel anachronistic--and it did--but it was also somehow incredible and exciting 

Taking a break at a gorgeous spring where we chatted with a young couple from Ontario and two solo women hikers.  The man in the couple noted that it was strange to be "outnumbered" by women 

The Shelter--interestingly, no one who stayed the night slept inside.  I think we all feared mice.  And we were bummed there was no toilet paper in the outhouses.  But it was nice to have something besides a log to sit on.
Day 5:  Don't Get Cocky, Government Meadow to Big Crow Basin (~14.5 miles)
After a lighter mileage day, we headed out thinking we were going ~10 miles.  Ambika and I were hiking at a pretty respectable speed, chatting as we went uphill (something that didn't happen the first few days) and generally feeling great.  But somehow the Half Mile maps Ambika had and the Green Maps I had disagreed about mileage.  So we didn't take our usual afternoon break and decided to just go on so we could set up camp and relax.  That was a mistake.  We ended up having about four more miles than we expected and felt our age as we shambled into camp.  We saw a small campsite and kept going, but when we saw the tiniest of moving creeks, Ambika declared, "That was a campsite.  This is water.  I'm calling it." 
Government Meadow in the morning--it was cold enough there was frost on the ground before the sun rose 

A day of hiking rocky ledges, something I learned Ambika does not love 

Airing out our feet a lunch, fully taped 

The point at which it is hard to appreciate the natural grandeur because you keep hoping you'll see the campsite after each turn you see ahead.  It was still a few miles away here. 

 Oh, but Big Crow Basin was gorgeous and worth it
Day 6:  My Favorite, Big Crow Basin to Sheep Lake (~12 miles)
We didn't get a great sleep at Big Crow Basin.  At some point in the middle of the night there was a "coyote party", when we heard animals yipping and howling and screeching from a distance, then closer, then closer, then fading off into the distance without coming to investigate our camp.  We enjoyed a relatively leisurely breakfast then headed off for our destination, Sheep Lake.  We also knew we were going to be close to the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort and have a brief stint with cell coverage so we could check in and arrange our Sunday meet up with Tyler and Russ.
I can't describe how beautiful everything was this day--we were high up (5400-6500 feet elevation).  The weather was perfect.  I was hitting my stride physically.  And it was just perfect.

Enjoying my morning coffee and taking in the view 

 Hiking out we walked above Basin Lake
You probably have to click to see, but we saw a group of ~30 mountain goats in the distance, one of our few wildlife sightings that wasn't a chipmunk 

We went from the gorgous views of the Basin to this incredible opening toward Mount Rainier.  It took my breath away.
Ridiculous, no? 

Panorama from a ridgeline 

Lunch break (socks drying in the sun) 

Another panorama--still doesn't do it justice 

Walking up to Sourdough Gap, that little notch in the rocks (6400') 

Looking down at Sheep Lake, our destination for the night 

Looking back up at the gap--see the notch again in the rocks? 

Home for the night--it was interesting to be among casual hikers/campers.  Sheep Lake is just 1.2 miles from Chinook Pass, so there were kids and day hikers (which seemed to keep other thru hikers away) but it was a gorgous spot 

Soaking in the feeling of satisfaction and bliss on the lake
Day 7:  Lower and Wetter, Sheep Lake to Two Lakes (~11 miles)
From the highs of Day 6, we touched civilization as we crossed the highway at Chinook Pass and skirted the edge of Mount Rainier National Park.  So after lots of up, plenty of down and more lakes.
I have the fondest memories of this morning, having breakfast with Ambika as we look at the lake.  I think we really just enjoyed every second.  We weren't done, but the end was nearing.

Touching civilization, looking at Chinook Pass from the trail 

Happy at the Pass (especially happy to snag some toilet paper at the pit toilets since we had both run out!) 

Crossing the walkway over the highway, demarcating the national park 

A new day, a new landscape 

Still some beautiful views of Rainier 

You can't really see it here, but it was amazing to see Mount Adams and Mount Rainier in the same vantage point, something that  normally only happens from an airplane.... 

Another night, another campsite, this time Two Lakes, on a trail adjacent the PCT

Day 8:  Last Full Day, Two Lakes to Buesch Lake (11 miles)
We hiked up and out of Two Lakes to rejoin the PCT for our last full day of hiking.  It felt good--I was glad that we didn't end sooner, but I was starting to miss Tyler, Stella and Otto, and I felt strong and accomplished and restored.  And we feasted on huckleberries and just enjoyed ourselves.
Looking down at last night's campsite 

Crazy cloud over Mount Rainier, like a reflection 

Backpack at rest--socks drying, pee rag (yes, what it sounds like) airing out, but lighter than ever! 

A rare boardwalk 

Break time selfie--we are laughing realizing we hadn't seen our own reflections in over a week! 

Final campsite 
Day 9:  Final Half Day, Buesch Lake to White Pass (~6 miles)
We packed up camp and hit the trail in record time.  We'd typically let ourselves wake up naturally, take our time over breakfast and get moving when we were ready, but we didn't want to miss our rendezvous and were excited to reconnect with our people.  We made good time (for us), doing two miles and hour and having an hour to kill at the rest stop while we waited.

Final time packing up camp 

White Pass--we made it! 

Reunited!  Otto unbuckled himself and got out of the car as soon as they stopped and threw himself in my arms.  I was pretty escited to see them, too.
The End:  (Brief) Closing Thoughts
There's so much more to the hike than even what I could cover in what has become a long entry.  I'm so grateful to Tyler for supporting me.  I had so much fun spending time with Ambika.  I still, almost a month later, feel so much restored from the experience.  I realized I haven't had that much time to just be myself in so long.  Not someone in my profession.  Not a wife.  Not a mother.  And while I love those things and they are integral parts of who I am, I think taking this trip helped me reconnect with who *I* am at my core.
As I mentioned at the start, I have plans for one more entry, sharing more reflections about the hike.  But this is at least a decent start.