I vividly remember my first moments on trail like they were yesterday. Dennis, his dad, and I sat in the back seat. Dennis’s brother Tom sat in the passenger seat and Tom’s partner Ken was driving. His car looked brand new, fresh from a wash. It wouldn’t stay that way as we turned onto the dusty dirt roads that lead to the Mexican border.
We passed a sign for Lake Morena, the place we would be hiking to the next day, and a place I had only read about up until then. As we got closer and closer we saw the trail itself where it crossed the road. We would be there in another hour. It was my first time seeing the PCT and I was filled with excitement, nervousness, and wonder.
We reached the monument, the southern terminus of the PCT. It stood atop a hill like a beacon. Ken parked the car and we all made the walk to the top. I called my girlfriend. I called my mom. We took pictures. Tears, laughter, hugs. Dennis’s family shuffled back into the car and drove off. The excitement was over and we stood there silently with only the wind to keep us company now. We walked over to the wall that separated us from Mexico and put our fingers through a hole, a PCT tradition so we could say we had “been to Mexico”, and with that we started our trek.
That was five months ago and we’ve been hiking ever since. I remember the excitement when we hit our first 500 miles, and now we have last than that left. We’ve begun the countdown, 417 miles to go.
Goats in the Clouds
When I first got news that the end of the PCT was closed due to fires it felt like a gut punch. Then I crossed the Bridge of the Gods and the air was filled with the worst smoke we had had the entire trip. It left me feeling depressed, that after all that we weren’t going to be able to hike to the official end, and everything in between would be smokey and obscured. But I was wrong, Washington so far had been incredible. The scenery and sense of adventure had not disappointed as we made our way through the final leg of the trek.
We awoke to another chilly and cloudy day. It was the perfect hiking weather as we trekked through the beautiful Washington forests. The dense clouds had replaced the smoke, if I wasn’t going to get my views then it’s a swap I would take any day. But we hoped it would clear for us as we were in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, considered to be one of the most scenic sections of the trail.
As luck would have it the clouds cleared right as we reached the alpine zone. Mountains that had been hiding in the fog began to appear all around us. It was so cool. Awestruck we kept climbing.
But then we came over the saddle of the ridge and peered out to the world on the otherside. The views leading up to that point were beautiful, but this took our breath away. Towering thousands of feet above us was a massive, spikey range of multicolored mountains. Below was a huge valley filled with green that went on forever. It was a view so intense, and one that we hadn’t seen anything like since the Sierra.
We enjoyed hiking through these dramatic peaks for a few hours before the clouds moved back in and covered them up. That evening we hiked up into the clouds and setup our tents in a cold, rainy fog. 376 miles to go.
Slip and Slide
The next morning Dennis was on the trail before I had even started making my breakfast. Everything outside was cold and wet, and for Dennis his tent had offered little protection. Everything he had was completely soaked, it was a good thing we would be in a town that afternoon.
While the previous day had been a day of scenery, this one ended up as the day of adventure. The fog from the night before had only thickened, leaving but 20 feet of visibility. We hiked over glaciers where one could only tell the ground from the sky due to the dirt that had accumulated on the snow.
We made our way over the Knife’s Edge, a section narrow with steep drop offs like the edge of a knife. It was cold but exciting. As we descended further down the mountain the fun began to change to misery.
Due to a fire in the area we took a detour on some other trails so as to keep a safe distance away. These trails were not the nicely graded PCT that we were used too and instead subjected us to a roller coaster of steep ups and downs that went on for miles.
As we dropped in elevation we eventually got out of the clouds. But that meant we instead got cold rain and fog. For hours we slogged on. My fingers were so cold and wet I was unable to use my phone as the screen didn’t recognize the touch. Yet at the same time my body was drenched with sweat from the steep uphill climbs while wearing layers of rain gear.
All this fun ended with a three mile road walk on a terrifying highway. Cars flew by at 50mph while we hiked as close to the edge as possible. Finally we made it to ‘town’ where there was an inn and a gas station with a store. We got a room and dried ourselves and our gear. 357 miles to go.
Over the next couple of days we would hike through incredible scenery and wildlife. I saw a small elk family walk across a meadow, marmots chase each other through the rocks, and pikas squeak and scurry about with branches of blueberries in held tightly their mouths.
I would be blown away by my first view of Mount Rainier. I had seen some incredible sights on this trip but the shear size of this mountain caused me to make an audible ‘woah’ when I first saw it. The top of it was in the clouds, but the base was so massive I could only imagine how high it must be. Then I realized I didn’t have to, the top was actually above the clouds, towering even higher than what I had envisioned in my head. I wasn’t ready to end this trip. Only 302 miles left of these experiences.
But then we would wake up in the morning in a cold fog. Things inside the tent would be damp from the night. Motivating myself to get out of my warm, dry sleeping bag and put on cold, wet, sticky, stinky clothes became a chore every morning. Every night my legs would throb so much it was hard to fall asleep. Previously the pain would be gone by sunrise, but now the throbbing would last well after I woke up.
One of the days I thought I might’ve had a fever. I had nausea all day, fatigue beyond the usual, chills, and a loss of appetite. I still had to push myself through 28 miles of hiking, there is no calling out sick on the PCT. Another morning I woke up to the realization that I had set up my tent a foot away from a human turd. I had come in after dark the night before and by some miracle had avoided stepping on it or setting up my tent in it. I am ready to be home again, only 261 miles to go.
Never a Dull Moment
We made it into the next town, Snoqualmie Pass. In addition to some nice rest, we also had some good old internet access where we learned a bit of good news. Thanks to the cold and wet weather we had been having, the northern fires had shrunk in size. This meant the end of the trail was open again! I was ecstatic, the sadness I had about not getting an official finish was gone. We were going to be able to end at the true terminus.
The next morning continued to be cold and rainy. After a slow start we were all packed up and ready to go before we made what Dennis called a “record breaking u-turn”. As soon as we stepped foot outside and felt the weather we decided to go back to the inn and get another night of rest instead.
Boy were we glad we waited. The scenery turned out to be absolutely breathtaking. Had we hiked out the day before we would’ve been in a fog and missed this whole section.
Instead we walked through some clouds, under others, and above the rest. With huge, jagged peaks, the mountains were as dramatic as that of the Sierra. Yet the forests were thicker, lusher, and greener. The scenery of that day was perhaps the best of the trip thus far.
My blissful wandering was interrupted by the loud buzz of a nearby helicopter. It skirted out of the clouds above me and I watched it start making loops in the area. A few minutes later I turned a corner and saw a couple hikers waving in the air. It was a search and rescue.
Their friend had fallen 75 feet of off the edge of a cliff after losing balance while going to sit down. He had been down there for 3 hours while awaiting search and rescue. Possible broken ankle and possible shoulder injury, but otherwise okay. I joined in with the other hikers to wave down the helicopter and point to where the injured member was.
I was amazed by the precision of the helicopter pilot and the efficiency of the team doing the extraction. The pilot kept the massive vehicle hovering as close as possible, nestled right between several trees, a foot in either direction would’ve lead to a collision. Then the team dropped down and the whole operation was done in 15 minutes.
The helicopter passed and the excitement died down. We were back to the quiet serenity of nature. 234 miles to go.
Yin and Yang
For the next couple of days we hiked through scenery that felt like the best hits album of the PCT. Rolling hills and giant, jagged peaks. Pristine alpine lakes and lush forests. Piercing blue skies alternating with huge dramatic clouds.
For those same couple of days we were subject to all the hardest parts of the trail rolled into one. Killer climbs followed by knee breaking downhills. Hot, exposed sections followed by freezing cold nights. Burn zones, rain, river crossings.
Washington was all the parts that I would miss the most on the trail. It was also all the parts I was most ready to be done with. Each step forward now felt like a very tangible step towards the finish line. It has been an incredible journey, one that I am sad to see end but am very ready to reach the conclusion of. When my next update comes out, this trek will be over. 188 miles to go.