The weather was still nice, but we knew it wasn’t going to last. A giant cold front was headed our way from the Gulf of Alaska. There wasn’t anything we could do except hope for the best. Maybe the front wouldn’t be so bad, maybe it would hit farther west than predicted. Maybe we could get to Stehekin before it got really bad. These thoughts in the back of our minds, we headed once more into the mountains.
The first few miles north of Stevens Pass went quickly. The trail wasn’t too steep, and we cruised. We finally stopped at Lake Janus to cook a meal. It was another forested lake, about 1/4 mile long and 1/8 mile wide – completely average in other words. Dinner didn’t take long though, and we were soon headed up the mountains west of Lake Janus. We came out on a ridge and had a good view of distant Glacier Peak on the north horizon. Glacier Peak is a 10,541 foot volcano in the southern part of the North Cascades. The mountain is set among a sea of smaller jagged peaks, and it’s miles from any road. A lot of people live in Washington their whole lives and never see this mountain. That’s too bad, because its quite a sight at any distance.
We walked along a ridge for a while, trying to locate the “perfect” campsite. Before long, we found it – a little grassy micro-meadow on top of a mountain. The grass was short, and reminded me of a suburban lawn. We threw down our bags and enjoyed the night. The air quickly cooled, and I bundled up – snug and warm in my feathery cocoon.
Everything had changed by morning. The air was still cool from the night, and clouds were busy blocking the sun – preventing it from warming the ground below. We were covered in a sheet of dew. It didn’t look good, but at least it wasn’t raining… yet. We continued down the ridge toward Grizzly Peak. We had another open view toward Glacier Peak. The top third of the mountain was now completely buried in a thick flat blanket of clouds. The clouds stretched in a continuous sheet all the way over our heads. We looked up. The sky looked downright evil. It was like a slab of gray marble with continuously shifting patterns. If I’d seen this sky in a hollywood movie, I would’ve complained about the special effects – the clouds looked that fake… But they were obviously real, and quickly clamping down on us.
A little further down the trail, we passed a trail maintenance crew. “Hey, do you like plant matter in the trail, or just dirt?”, they asked. I didn’t care. “Boy, looks like it’s gonna be quite a storm”, was their next comment. They had a weather service radio with them. The nasal crackling voice coming out of it sounded like a military jet pilot. “…level at 9,000 feet… Forecast for eastern Cascades – increasing cloudiness, wind gusts up to 50mph, rain through monday evening, snow level at 5000 feet.” We were in the eastern Cascades, standing at almost exactly 5000 feet, and it was Friday. We tried to appear unconcerned, but we knew we were in for some shit.
For another couple hours, we walked through more woods and small grassy valleys Then, a single light drip. Before I had time to react, there was another, then more. Without saying a word, our packs came off, and we got out the “rain stuff” – plastic bags over our packs, parkas on our backs, and for me, a giant black golf umbrella.
Normally, I would have felt bad about not “sharing” the umbrella, but I carried the damn thing all the way from Cascade Locks. It was finally paying off. The rain came down steadily, but not too hard. My umbrella created a private little rain-shadow. The only downside was that I had to keep aiming the umbrella into the wind. Also, I could only use one hiking pole while holding the umbrella.
The rain wavered, stopped occasionally, then started again, then stopped. There was no break in the clouds though. We hoped that the forecast was off, and we’d only have to deal with one more day of rain. We tried to put in as many miles as possible. We briefly stopped at a trail junction for a quick snack and rest. We didn’t dally – the best way to stay warm was to keep moving. Our “conversation” mostly consisted of coming up with annoying 80’s pop songs. Every now and then someone would blurt out a new one, “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight…”. It passed the time and kept us laughing.
By the end of the day, we made it to tiny Kid Pond – little more than a puddle of water. Michael and Brian found some suitable spots under the trees to set up their tarps. I set up my tent in some nearby grass. I cooked a hot meal which heated my entire tent when I pulled it inside. I slept, hoping for a brighter day tomorrow.
The morning came, and it was brighter. “Hey, sunlight!” I exclaimed. The mountains across the valley below were glowing. The sky was no longer a uniform gray, it was a ripped up mess of white puffy clouds. They streamed by, randomly reshaping, reforming, then splitting apart. They were right above our heads. We started hiking, optimistic thoughts forefront in our minds.
We traversed across the sides of hills, high above soft green valleys. Small streams of water created intricate dark cracks in their bottoms. The tops of the mountains were mostly hidden by a steady flow of clouds. Occasionally, the clouds parted, and we got a brief peek at the area above us. At about 6000 feet, there was a dividing line. Above this elevation, the trees were covered in frosty white. It was beautiful and foreboding at the same time – like the start of winter slowly creeping down from high above. Before long, we were above 6000 feet ourselves, walking among the highlighted trees. It was obvious that this was no big deal for the trees – they almost looked more natural with a coating of white, like they were being primed for the big snows ahead.
We rounded a frosty saddle which was Red Pass. The valley on the other side was an incredible sight. The tops of the surrounding mountains were barely visible through the clouds. Snow from the previous winter still draped the hillsides. Wherever the snow melted, rock and grass took over. The valley was long and slender. It took a left turn at the far end, right at the base of more frost-capped mountains. 5 seasons were represented: the snow from last winter, new sprouts of green at the edge of it, flowers still budding in the middle of the grass, the long grasses themselves looking dead and worn, and the fresh frost high above. It was impossible to tell just which season it was. The whole concept of seasons seemed irrelevant.
I paused at the top of the pass to eat some snacks and soak in the view. I finally hiked down the valley, and watched my view slowly change. Then I was given a magnificent treat – as I rounded a bend in the trail Glacier Peak burst into view. A small bit of blue sky highlighted its jagged white teeth. The western half of the mountain was steaming with clouds. It looked like a stoic general, victoriously gloating after a small battle, and begging for more. Not more than a couple minutes later, the clouds returned and obscured the top. It was the only close-up view I got of Glacier Peak. I was happy just for that.
We turned around the bend in the valley, and quickly entered a thick green forest. The trail followed a bubbling stream downhill. Everything was covered in a green carpet of moss. It was like a fairy tale path through an enchanted forest. Giant pillars of living wood rose all around, disappearing into the mist high above. We stopped to cook near a bridge which spanned the top of a small waterfall.
The weather had been getting nicer, we were just starting to hope that the worst was behind us. We went on through the forest, continually dazzled by the array of fungi, mosses and ferns. We were hiking in a long flat forest, but we knew that a lot of climbing was just ahead.
The trail around Glacier Peak is far from a level traverse, it goes up and down every ripple and canyon that emanates from the top of the mountain. We switchbacked up 2000 feet, then down 1000, then up 2000 more. We had a few awesome views of the lower flanks of Glacier Peak. Wicked glaciers were slowly sliding down all slides of the mountain. The bottoms of the glaciers were broken into a thousand ripples and cracks highlighted by a baby blue light glowing from underneath. “Wow, look at at that”. We just stood there shaking our heads. We were only seeing the ends of a few glaciers in dim light, but they still looked incredible.
We began to realize that the weather wasn’t breaking-up, it was just re-organizing for a full frontal assault. The clouds had returned, and looked thicker than ever. We hurried over 6300 foot Fire Creek Pass while the wind picked-up and froze our skin. We hurried down the other side. It was a desolate and frozen land. We passed by Mica Lake, still partially frozen from last winter – it didn’t look like it’d get a chance to thaw this year. As we dipped down into the trees, the rain returned with a vengeance. It came down steady and thick. It didn’t show any signs of easing up. We arrived at a bridge over Milk Creek just as it was getting too dark to see. We scrambled to get our shelters set up – there weren’t any good spots around. I set up on a wide part of the trail, Brian set up on top of the bridge, and Michael set up on the trail on the other side of the bridge. The rain blanketed us all night. It was depressing and eerie. We could only hope that the rain would end by morning.
Morning came without a single break in the rainfall. The sky lightened to a dull gray, and the patter of raindrops continued against the walls of my nylon tent. “Ugh!” I said, as I rolled my eyes and peeked outside. Brian had a night 100 times more miserable than mine. The bridge acted like a funnel, and he spent most of the night in a cold damp puddle. Everything he owned was completely drenched. His sleeping bag had sponged up liters of water. He was sitting under his tarp, laughing at his pathetic state and eating raw peanut butter. I started cramming everything I owned into my backpack. My boots had spent the night out in the rain and were completely soaked. A little while later, Michael joined Brian on the bridge. Michael hadn’t fared well either. The trail had turned into a river during the night, and he spent the entire time crowded under the edge of his tarp. He still got soaked. Everything sucked. The only way we could deal with it was by laughing. I packed up my stuff, stepped out of my tent and cursed the rain. I rolled up my soggy tent and plopped it in my backpack. The three of us grudgingly headed up the trail, still getting pounded by the ever-present rain.
We had slept at about 4000 feet, the words of the weather forecast still rung in my head: “…snow level at 5000 feet”. Crap. As we climbed, we got fleeting views of the surrounding mountains. They were covered in a thick white blanket. We continued to head up. As we got higher, the rain turned to sleet, then the sleet turned to a heavy wet snow. We were walking up a steep mountainside covered with tall dying weeds. The snow matted them down over the trail. We had to kick our way through the frozen slop. A large chunk of rubber fell off the bottom of my boot. It’d been hanging there for a few days, now there was only a hole where the rubber had been. My feet were already freezing, this wasn’t going to help. As bad as my feet felt, I knew that Brian’s sneakers were almost completely trashed – more hole than fabric, but he wasn’t complaining about it. At one point I stopped to look at the map and noticed that the trail made a level traverse around a flat sloping area at 6000 feet. The snow was heavier than ever, we couldn’t see more than 50 feet through it, and it was quickly covering any sign of the trail. It was still another 30 miles to Stehekin. Almost at once the three of us looked at each other and agreed “this is stupid”. We took another look at the map, and noticed a side trail heading down Milk Creek. The edge of the map indicated that there was a road in about 7 miles. We decided to head out. We turned around and headed for the side trail. We quickly arrived at the junction and found the trail. It was in pretty good shape.
About 15 minutes down this trail, we came across a large group of young people heading the other way. They had massive new backpacks, new parkas, plastic boots, crampons, rope, you name it. They were a NOLS (National Outdor Leadership School) group, heading up to climb Glacier Peak. I stopped a man who looked like a group leader and asked him a series of questions: “how far is the road?”, “are there any trail junctions we have to watch for?”, “what is at the trailhead?”, etc. He gave me the best answers he could. He didn’t have an updated weather forecast – I found that a bit odd. I asked him one last question, “are you totally nuts?”. He laughed and kept hiking (I don’t know if that meant “yes”).
As we got lower, the forest got more magnificent and ancient. I had already walked through a lot of giant old damp forests, but this one was the most incredible I’d seen. We were only at ~2000 feet in elevation. The trees here had a much longer growing season. They were huge, many of the trees measured over 8 feet in diameter. Lord knows how tall they were. Ferns, moss and fungus draped over everything on the ground. I felt like a little elf walking among giants.
By mid-day we made it to the trail head. There were a half-dozen cars parked around. We scouted out the area and found a shelter nearby. We headed inside the shelter and shed our soaked gear. The shelter was in pretty bad shape – the roof was sagging, and it was completely collapsed in one corner. The floor and walls were nothing but bare wood. It did the job though. Michael and Brian wrung out Brian’s sleeping bag – we couldn’t believe the amount of water than came out. It was sick. Michael put notes on all the cars indicating that we needed a ride. I got some water and fired up my stove. We spent an hour or two in the shelter, warming up and attempting to dry off. I was just starting to build a small fire outside when a man came walking by with his dog.
He had a pickup truck (with an enclosed bed) at the trailhead, and offered to drive us into town. We were overjoyed! We crammed into the back of his truck. His wife and dog shared the front seat. The gravel road was littered with fallen trees and branches (luckily, someone had come through that morning with a chain saw). He said that it was completely clear a couple days ago. It was 20 bumpy miles to the nearest paved road. We finally stopped at the only hotel in Darrington. The headline on the evening news: “Storm Watch ’99”.
That night, while we were admiring the simple genius of an Elvis movie, we heard some familiar voices upstairs. They were more PCT hikers. Jen, Ellen & Jordan ran into the same storm and had a similar story to tell. They had been about 8 miles ahead of us, and got 6 inches of snow the previous night. They took another trail, which led to the same trailhead we arrived at. They said there were still more PCT hikers next door. I couldn’t believe it, Jamie and Beth were at the hotel too (with another hiker, John). I hadn’t seen them since Bridgeport CA – 3 months ago (where they had been stuffing themselves at a bakery). They had been a few miles behind us and came out on the same trail. They also passed the NOLS group, who had told them about us. When they asked the NOLS group if we were PCT thru-hikers, they had responded “No, they were only wearing tennis shoes and had tiny backpacks”. That was all the information they needed.
We decided that it was going to be logistically “very difficult” to go back to the point where we’d come out. We decided to get a ride to Rainy Pass, then head south the 12 miles to Stehekin for resupply… then head back north to Rainy Pass. It would mean missing 30 miles of PCT. But, we figured we had hiked a lot more than 30 miles in side trails all over the PCT.
The next day, Jordan’s friend Matt came up from Seattle with a big brown full-sized crusin’ van. There was plenty of room for 6 hikers and backpacks. We lounged in the back, treated to live Herbie Hancock blasting through the speakers. We strained our necks to see the tops of the peaks as we rode up Highway 20. They were all covered in snow, clouds buffeting their sides. It looked… well… very very cool. We looked at each other and just nodded our heads.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at Rainy Pass. I quickly realized that I’d screwed up. I had left my hiking poles in the hotel in Darrington. I couldn’t believe it, this was the second time during the trip I’d left my poles behind. I could hike without them, but they were also my tent poles. I decided to just go to Stehekin, call the hotel from there, and figure things out. We started down the trail and within 5 minutes we saw a familiar face coming the other way. It was Larry, Helen’s husband. Apparently, we’d just missed Helen that morning. She was in Stehekin when the storm came through… a lot of hikers had been stuck there. Larry was just hiking a few miles for fun. The subject of my poles came up, and he offered to help if he could… no guarantees though. His sympathy alone would have been enough.
We continued down the trail. The PCT between Rainy Pass and Stehekin follows a creek-bed and stays rather low in elevation. Snow flurries had been falling at Rainy Pass, but those soon ended. The weather was slowly clearing up. As we hiked down, we saw snowy peaks high above us. We speculated on the condition of the trail “up there”. The 12 miles went quickly. The area around the trail was mostly high thick brush. We passed around a number of streams falling from the peaks high above. We finally made it to the isolated “Stehekin Road” at evening. This road connected Stehekin with… well, nothing but miles of uninterrupted wilderness. A shuttle-bus made a regular route up and down the road twice daily. We’d have to wait until morning for the next shuttle.
We arrived in town by noon the next day. The only way to reach Stehekin is by hiking, float plane, or taking a ferry up the length of Lake Chelan – about 50 miles. I went to the PO, and discovered there was a fax for me. It was from Larry. He’d found my poles and left them at Rainy Pass. I was elated, but I had no way to thank him.
After hanging out on the patio for a few hours, Michael, Brian and I split another “way to expensive” room, and waited for tomorrow.
We caught the shuttle back to the trailhead (with 8 other hikers – all the folks from Darrington plus “Swiss Couple #2” – not the same ones who had the goats.) and headed back to Rainy Pass. We were hiking the same 12 mile section for the second time in three days. It wasn’t fun. We got to the top of Rainy Pass and shivered. It was cloudy and windy.
Michael had someone meeting him at the trailhead. I didn’t know what to expect… neither did he. His cousin Lisa pulled up in a big white SUV and said “come on, get in. We’re going back to our place”. It didn’t take any convincing. We were soon getting a ride back to Concrete WA… incidentally, only a few miles from Darrington. Lisa & her husband were excellent hosts and had a wonderful home. We had a home cooked meal, good company, and a comfortable night. I slept well.
The next morning, Lisa drove the three of us back to Rainy Pass. We’d had our fill of detours, driving, rain, and hiking backwards, it was time for the final push to Canada.