The Final Countdown

California reminds me of an old rabbi or sage, providing numerous trials and tribulations to make sure we were actually committed to hiking the PCT. We had to survive 700 bone-dry miles through the desert before being thrust into the snowy peaks at high elevation. Each section taught us valuable introspective lessons and prepared us for the road ahead.

Oregon is the monotone college economics professor, trying to show you how vast and diverse his breadth of knowledge is, but you find yourself constantly looking at the clock asking when the tediously boring lesson is going to end. There are several days that blow you away with beauty and awe, although they are often separated by a week or more of mind-numbing monotony and eraser-chewing boredom.

Washington was the indescribably beautiful, though incredibly fickle, high school girlfriend that everyone desperately tries to understand. An afternoon of sunshine and gaiety is quickly followed by a downpour and thunderstorm, while the trail continues to bounce daily between 3000 and 7000 feet in elevation as it snakes it’s way through the Cascade Mountains.

Our first day in Washington started as we crossed the Columbia River at the Bridge of the Gods in the town of Cascade Locks. My close friend Betsie from my time in New Zealand joined us from Cascade Locks to Stevens Pass, keeping up on 25 and even 30 mile days after coming from her summer geology research stint in Colorado. Numerous cars angrily honked their horns as we ran across the shoulder-less/sidewalk-less bridge to take selfies with the “Entering Washington” sign and watch our pee cascade 100 feet down into the calmly flooding river (sorry Portland residents for contaminating your water supply). This bridge coincides with the lowest point on the PCT, at just 200 feet above sea level, which coincidentally also happened to be one of the hottest points on the trail for us. After personally downing a half gallon of Caramel Cone ice cream, we slowly worked our way up through blackberry brambles and clear-cuts to a few groves of trees as our shirts became absolutely drenched in sweat. Another hiker’s thermometer read 108 degrees, a figure I could definitely believe despite all we had heard about Washington’s cold and rainy weather.

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Crossing a broken bridge in northern Washington

We didn’t have to wait long, for the next day a storm rolled in that dumped nearly-continuous rain for the next four days. We spent most of the (supposedly beautiful) Indian Heaven Wilderness in our rain gear or inside the tent, gazing at the beautiful lakes with an “I would go swimming but I’m already soaking wet” mentality. Luckily, we were able to keep our pack covers cinched tight and our sleeping bags dry (unlike many other thru hikers we saw), so we never got dangerously or even uncomfortably cold.

A close college friend’s mom met and drove us to the Huckleberry Mecca of Trout Lake during a shirt break in the storm, where we resupplied at the local store across the street from the first legal marijuana dispensary I had ever seen. At dinner, I downed two entire large hamburgers and was still fiending for more. Lucky for us, the restaurant specialized in huckleberry pie and milkshakes, definitely enough to ease our stomachs and prepare us for a few more miles that night. Glacially capped Mt. Adams loomed above through breaks in the clouds, providing periodic breathtaking views (as bites of that night’s burgers dropped from their hiding places in our beards).

 

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Spectacular fern canyons and waterfalls

The clouds continued to hide Mt. Adams from view most of the next few days, although occasional glimpses of the mountain made our difficult hike entirely worthwhile. The flanks of this giant volcano are covered with thick lush forest (which continue to drip water on sorry hikers long after the rain has stopped.) Numerous huckleberry bushes hide near the trail within this forest, providing delicious snacks for weary hikers and often distract us from accomplishing our daily allotted miles. Early one morning, we stopped at a spring to refill our water bottles, only to realize we were surrounded by a plethora of Costco sizes berries. After filling up a bucket (provided at the spring to easily obtain water from down below) to the brim with berries, we stuffed our faces and refrained from picking more as we hiked, at least for a few hours.

 

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Nick delighted to eat a bucket of wild huckleberries

When asked what’s their favorite section if the PCT, many thru hikers claim that the Goat Rocks Wilderness has the most beautiful terrain and pristine mountain peaks of the entire trail. Having heard legends of these rocks’ beauty for over 2000 miles, we were stoked to finally enter the glacially carved aretes and columnar basalt fields so prestigiously acclaimed. Unfortunately, the storm had not yet cleared and we were left with views of each other’s backsides and the ground directly beneath us, not being able to see more than 50 feet in any direction. The trail follows “the knife edge” for about a mile, a precipitous path with a 2000+ ft drop off on each side, providing unparalleled views of the surrounding peaks. Much to our dismay, and the unbeknownst terror of our mothers, we skirted along the trail (that many slowly inch along with fear) without any inclination of how close our toes often came to certain doom.

 

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A brief reprieve from the rain in the Goat Rocks Wilderness

 

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Approaching the Knife Edge in the Clouds

That night, the storm finally cleared (after giving us the courtesy of a 20 minute rainstorm to soak our already wet possessions) yielding three days of perfect sunshine and warm weather. We made our way to White Pass, with spectacular views (our first since crossing into Washington) of Mt. Rainier and the North Cascades far in the distance. A short alternate trail led directly down the face of the White Pass Ski Resort to the lodge a few hours and feet below. This trail supposedly switchbacked it’s way down an easy run making the descent somewhat reasonable on the knees. We must have missed that turnoff, since we found ourselves sliding pell-mell down the face of the resorts steepest run, hooting and hollering the entire time at how much fun we were having skiing on the grass and rocky cliffs in our tennis shoes.

 

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Gazing at Mt. Rainier while we walk through the national park for a few miles

Upon arriving at the lodge, we quickly learned that we had walked into the Rocky Mountain Elk Society’s Annual Meeting, where life size plastic game animals and hay bales lay strewn about the lawn for target practice. Bewildered by the amount of camo, handlebar mustaches, and giant RVs in the parking lot, we were at first afraid to even use the bathroom inside. We quickly realized that these hunters were harmless as long as we didn’t have 8-point antlers attached to our heads, so we decided to help them clean up their lunch leftovers. After scarfing two sloppy joes, some pulled pork, 8 cookies, a bag of chips, two handfuls of grapes, and a large soda, I was delightfully satisfied. We bid the perplexed hunters adieu and crossed the street to the gas station, where we resupplied and dried our gear from the week long rainstorm along with a dozen other hikers that had taken over the parking lot.

As we tried to leave White Pass, we caught wind that a wonderful couple was providing trail magic at the trail head. A necessary stop led my appetite to stomach another burger, more cookies, several cups of blueberries, a few sodas, and a dozen or more homemade pumpkin muffins. I was barely able to waddle away from the trailhead, as we slowly made ten more miles that night before bedtime.

An uneventful few days through clear-cut logging terrain and mosquito infested swamps led us to Snoqualmie Pass, the end of the volcanic Cascades and the beginning of the mountainous northern Cascade granite. We filled up on pancakes and omelets, recharged our devices (the solar chargers don’t work too well in the continuous rain and shaded forest), and set off on the Goldmeyer Alternate – a trail that bypasses 30 miles of the PCT but leads to some of the most beautiful hot springs we’ve ever seen. Unlike the Deep Creek Hot Springs at mile 310, these natural hot springs were well taken care of: cleaned weekly and limited to non-penis-pierced-parades of men, the caretakers of this backcountry haven were incredibly welcoming to a smelly group of hikers after a long day. We made dinner and wandered up to the gazebo to strip, sat in the nearby pools for several hours looking up at the stars and listening to the sound of the waterfall, and truly relaxed for the first time in weeks.

 

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One of the lower pools at the Goldmeyer Hot Springs

We slept for quite some time that night, our muscles being incredibly relaxed from the warm water, and eventually broke camp to face the upcoming uphill battle back to the main PCT. Eventually, we reunited with the trail amidst the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, aptly named for the hundreds of glacially carved peaks and lakes that litter the landscape. We passed some of the most picturesque campsites imaginable, but had to push on in order to reach Canada by the end of the month. Every day, it seemed, we would be sweating uncontrollably in the morning as we worked our way up precipitous climbs over passes or around mountains, but whenever we stopped to eat lunch at a beautiful lake, the wind would start howling and the sun disappeared behind dark clouds or cliff faces. Fortunately, whenever we started hiking again the sun would poke back out of the clouds and the temperature would shoot upwards again. Thanks, Washington.

 

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Another tranquil lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

We descended the trail through the Stevens Pass Ski Resort and reached the highway, our last glimpse of real civilization until Canada. After an easy hitch down to the Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven in Skykomish, we showered and dried our clothes in the brief spot of sunshine. Somehow, we accidentally sent our resupply package to the post office instead of the trail angels’ house.

Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but we arrived in Skykomish on a Saturday and the post office wouldn’t be open again until Monday. The box contained our passports (which we obviously needed to cross the border in and out of Canada) and several days of food (the “store” in Skykomish only contained a few rolls of toilet paper and a bag of expired granola). We thought about bouncing our box ahead to the next and last resupply location, but the town of Stehekin can be only accessed by foot, plane, or boat and wouldn’t receive our package in time. We couldn’t take a day and a half off, for we wouldn’t reach Canada in time for my flight. We mulled our situation over and Mrs. Dinsmore asked if we would be upset if we had to finish the trail next year (yes!) or if we would risk express shipping our passports to Stehekin by plane ($$$).

 

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Not quite sure what to do when the sign says not to walk

When it seemed like all hope was lost, the Dinsmores mentioned that they might be able to help us out. They drove us around town and asked a few locals if anyone had the postmaster’s phone number. Luckily, someone did. We gave her a call pleading her to help us out and she promised that when she returned to town that evening she would get us our package. We were saved! We spent the afternoon using the (incredibly slow) internet, reading in the sunshine, and taking our one and only shower in Washington.

Betsie’s dad came to pick her up that afternoon, bringing two extra large pizzas, cookies, blueberries, peaches, and ice cold beer. Needless to say, it all disappeared in a matter of minutes, not leaving any leftovers for the next day. We bid farewell to our faithful hiking buddy and made it back on the trail for a few more miles that night.

The 104 miles between Stevens Pass and Stehekin are some of the most difficult on the entire trail. As the PCT works around the Glacier Peak Wilderness, it ascends and descends 29,000 feet in elevation (the equivalent of Mt. Everest from sea level) in a series of steep descents into glacial outwash rivers and brutal ascents out of them. The weather again took a turn for the worst, but the few sunny hours we were blessed to hike in were amongst the most beautiful of the trail. We alternated snow crossings in view of plentiful glaciers with lush forest waterfalls and beautiful moss covered rocks resting in between old growth cedar forest, we really were spoiled with all the sights.

 

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Trying to size up an old growth cedar near the Suiattle River

 

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Resting near a spectacular alpine lake

 

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More beautiful glacial views in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

We reached the daily NPS bus down to Stehekin (the only way to town from the trail unless you want to walk the 11 miles) and made our obligatory stop at the trail-famous bakery. After sufficiently stuffing our faces with cinnamon rolls, muffins, cookies, scones, slices of pie, and danishes, we rode down to the ferry landing and grabbed our (last!) resupply package before the post office closed. A hiker had called ahead and pre-ordered a birthday cake for our hiking buddy Strawberry, which kept us occupied for a few minutes as the cake magically shrunk before our eyes.

Located at the end of beautiful Lake Chelan, the “town” of Stehekin consists of a restaurant, store, post office, and NPS ranger station. That’s it. They are completely off the grid, relying on solar and hydro power, satellite phones and internet, and daily food resupply via the ferry. We relaxed outside the store, cleaned ourselves in the refreshingly warm lake, and devoured several courses at the restaurant before falling asleep on the lawn outside (what they call their “campground”). Early the next morning we hopped on the bus, stopped briefly at the bakery again, and hit the trailhead for our last major climb, 25 miles of continuous shallow uphill back into the subalpine region.

 

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Our swimming hole near the landing on Lake Chelan

We climbed and climbed all day, pausing to swim in a creek on our lunch break and rinse our socks out. The last three days continued to oscillate between low river valleys and high alpine tundra, providing beautiful views and scenic panoramas when the rain held off for long enough periods to grab our cameras and snap a photo. We worked our way around many washouts from the early season’s storms, hopped dangerously on rocks across rivers, and slept under the stars (when possible) during the last three days of our adventure. We raced along as the terrain leveled out a bit, accomplishing 27 miles by 5 pm one day and 30 by 8 pm the next. We had finally found the perfect rhythm, but we were only one day away from the border.

 

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Just your average swimming location along the trail. Notice all the ice, even though this is late August

Our final day was a series of commemoratives: Last Svenhard Pastry, Last Lunchtime In the Rain, Last Poop, and Last Night in this Smelly Tent (thank god). We raced 27 miles to the border and found ourselves literally sprinting to the finish, smiling wide. We snapped a few photos, signed the register, and crawled into our sleeping bags before attempting the 8 mile downhill to the trailhead the next day. We had finally reached Canada, 2660 miles and 129 days after setting off from the Mexican border.

 

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Almost there!

 

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Gabe and Nick at the northern terminus

 

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And the celebratory buffet, we each ate four plates of Chinese food

Nick’s dad met us at the trailhead and, after holding his breath against the smell, drove us to the Chinese All You Can Eat Buffet we had been dreaming about for months. We traded smelly gear that wound up in the wrong packs and have each other a final hug, about to be separated for the first time since April 15. With tears in our eyes and fulfillment in our hearts, not to mention the putrid smell emanating from our socks, I watched his car drive away and disappear into the Vancouver traffic. An adventure not soon to be forgotten, but hopefully to be shared with others and remembered forever.

7 thoughts on “The Final Countdown

  1. Miles

    so cool! congrats! I can believe you guys walked all that way though to get to the southern terminus… seems loke yu could have just stayed in sd!

  2. Charles Minton

    Wow! I feel like I am at the end of a good novel. An epic journey and a great blog. It has been an excellent few months of living vicariously.

  3. Lauren Lester

    way cool. Thanks for sharing. Consider sharing some thoughts as you come back to the “front country”. I found that transition more challenging than expected when we came off the JMT after a month on the trail- a fraction of what you guys did.

  4. Lori Chester

    Congratulations! Wow! I loved reading all about your epic journey. Thankyou for sharing and best of luck to you both always!

  5. Rees

    Glad to see you have had some time to catch up on your entries. I intend to re-post an edited version of “The Final Countdown” in two parts on September 5th and 10th on http://www.pcttrailsidereader.com . . . keep writing (as school and work permit). Well done!

    It appears that Gabe wrote “The Final Countdown” . . . let me know if I should credit both of you or Nick instead.

    Rees Hughes
    (hughes@humboldt.edu)

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