PCT 2019: Day 64, Vista Creek to Fire Creek

He never runs, he just stumbles and hops

A local Washington newspaper quoted a PCT volunteer a few years ago, who said the section of trail from Stehekin to Stevens Pass was "unambiguously the most challenging section in Washington."

For my first two days in that section, I’m not sure I would call it challenging. Perhaps after completing the Appalachian Trail and roughly 850 miles of the PCT I’ve become jaded, but I didn’t think this section has been especially difficult so far.

My opinion was about to change.

DateTuesday, July 9, 2019
WeatherLightly overcast, becoming cloudy with light rain late in the afternoon and into the evening
Trail ConditionsOvergrown sections made walking difficult, long descent and climb, unmarked trails and snow cause some confusion
Today's Miles17.4
Trip Miles871.3

I should add that in my opinion, many trails with a reputation for being challenging are not difficult because of the terrain. Toss in cold temperatures and precipitation, though, and that’s when you might have more of a challenge than you bargained for.

Hiking the AT through the Smokies comes to mind as an example of this. By itself, that section of trail has some significant ups and downs, but any fit hiker should be able to handle them without being over-challenged. When the weather becomes cold and rainy or snowy, as it often is, that ordinary trail becomes troublesome and perhaps dangerous for even the most experienced hiker.

Aside from the weather, the trail can throw little extra challenges at you, and that happened first thing this morning.

Right after leaving camp, I found a large, fallen tree lying across the trail. It was too large to climb over and the slope of the mountain made it too difficult to walk around.

Fortunately, there was just enough of a gap between the tree and the trail that it was possible to crawl under it, but only after first removing my pack.

The day began overcast, but not unpleasant. In the distance, I could see Glacier Peak, for which the wilderness area covering this section was named.

The 10,525-foot mountain is considered to be an active volcano, though the last time it erupted was about 300 years ago.

It is the fourth-highest major volcano in the state. Only Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Baker are higher. Because of the wilderness area’s size, Glacier Peak is the state’s most remote volcano.

The first climb of the day was more difficult than I expected, which would become a repeating pattern for the day. Several switchbacks made the climb easier but quite a bit longer in distance.

From my campsite, the climb was nearly 2,500 feet in four miles.

Nevertheless, I was constantly rewarded with outstanding views during the morning. Besides Glacier Peak, I saw Chiwawa and Fortress mountains during the first part of the climb. They sat adjacent to each other and made an impressive sight.

Approaching 6,000 feet in elevation, there weren’t many trees on the mountain ridge to block my view.

Near the top, a lone marmot called out to friends with a shrill “peep!" It seemed to be enjoying the weather as much as I was.

As the trail crested the ridge, I had wonderful views of distant mountains. The most notable of these peaks was Mt. Baker. It stood at 10,781 feet and a little more than 50 miles away.

At 9:30 a.m. I entered a boulder-filled cirque. A stream flowed through the middle, so I found a large rock next to the stream where I could sit and prepare my second breakfast.

My gear wasn’t especially damp, but I decided to lay out my quilt to dry it. There was just enough sun filtering through a thin layer of clouds that I thought the warmth and a breeze would help to fluff up the down, making it warmer for tonight.

While I prepared coffee and ate my breakfast, a Navy fighter jet buzzed the cirque.

Then I heard a marmot, so I looked around to see where it was. When I turned, I had a sudden moment of panic. My quilt wasn’t on the rock where I laid it. It was nowhere to be seen.

Did the marmot drag it away? That seemed improbable, but I didn’t see my quilt anywhere. It took a few minutes of frantic searching before I saw that it had blown several yards away.

With that crisis averted, I finished my breakfast and prepared to leave. I saw or heard at least four more fighter jets fly by during that time.

On the other side of the cirque, where the trail crossed another stream, I passed a woman and her four children, ages three to nine. I said hello, but didn’t spend time talking to them. I generally don’t like to talk to kids on the trail unless their parents are around and their mom had gone to collect water.

I soon caught up to their father, whose trail name is Kidnapper. He was talking to Kermit and he told me a little about his family.

The Bennett family left the Mexican border about two weeks before I did and began hiking north on the PCT. Like me, they decided to avoid the Sierra’s snowpack, so they skipped north to Ashland. They then skipped ahead again after running into more snow, which is how they wound up hiking north in Washington.

They prepared well for their hike and the children appeared to be enjoying themselves. That didn’t look to be the case with the other kids I previously met on the trail.

The trail followed a ridge and crossed alpine grasses, which offered one last look at Mt. Baker before beginning a long descent.

The trail was heading deep into a valley. If it weren’t for something like 42 switchbacks, the route would have been a fast elevator ride, plunging nearly straight down 2300 feet to the bottom.

I didn’t go fast down the mountain. Instead, I tripped and stumbled most of the way down. The trail was badly overgrown, making it impossible for me to see where my feet were stepping. Far too often than not, they were hitting hidden rocks or roots.

First, my foot planted badly on a rock, which rolled and I sprained my ankle. Then I hit my knee against a large boulder while trying to step over it.

White spiraea shrubs were partially responsible for the tangled mass of weeds and shrubs that crowded the trail. They are known to grow in tight spots and that was the case here.

Closer to the bottom, I slipped on a wet rock, then tripped over roots of a plant and fell flat on my face.

The pratfalls weren’t over, however. I twisted my ankle one more time before reaching the end of this frustrating, miserable descent.

Seeing one of the glaciers on the slope of Glacier Peak during this descent was impressive, but I would have gladly traded the experience for a smoother trail.

After crossing Milk Creek on a wooden bridge, I began to smell smoke. This was alarming because of the time of day. The scent of a campfire might be expected late in the day, but this was only 2 p.m. I was concerned that it might be an untended fire.

The trail then made a switchback and I turned to see the source of the smoke I smelled. Kermit had stopped to cook his lunch. He told me he was low on stove fuel, so he was building a cooking fire.

I stopped and joined him for lunch. The time was later than I would normally stop for lunch, but there had been no place to stop on the descent I had just completed.

After lunch, the trail continued on the climb up the other side of the valley. It was not as steep as the descent, and though it was occasionally overgrown, it didn’t cause me nearly as much difficulty as the descent.

On the way up, I could look back from time to time and see the switchbacks of the trail I had followed this morning.

Late in the afternoon, the sky became gray and overcast.

Tamara and Lynlee, the section hikers I camped with last night, arrived at a stream just as I finished filtering water. They said rain was expected after midnight, so they planned to find a place to pitch their tent nearby.

I continued up the trail. Though the air was becoming cooler, I was sweating from the steep climb.

Once the trail reached about 5,400 feet in elevation, there were few trees. The ground was much rockier and at one spot a large boulder blocked the trail.

When I reached Mica Lake at 5 p.m., I considered stopping for the night. Six Pound had already pitched her tent there.

I had only hiked 14.4 miles so far and that was too short to keep my average of 20 miles per day. I decided to keep going.

As soon as I made that decision, a light rain began to fall.

By the time I neared Fire Creek Pass, heavier rain began to fall and low clouds moved in to create a thick fog.

On a clear day, views from Fire Creek Pass would have been gorgeous. For me on this foggy, rainy late afternoon, there was nothing to see.

I don’t just mean there were no views to see. I also couldn’t find the trail. Patches of dirty snow obscured the trail. Several footprints meandered in different directions, making it difficult to pick out where the trail was supposed to go. I could only guess where the trail went, then bushwhacked my way in that direction.

On the other side of the pass, visibility worsened to just 100 or 150 yards. There were also more patches of snow on the ground, but crossing them wasn’t dangerous.

I followed some footprints over one section of snow, assuming they followed the trail. That turned out to be a wrong assumption. For a moment, I was confused about where the trail was supposed to go.

Through the fog I saw another hiker and it seemed he was also confused by the direction the trail was supposed to go. I headed toward him anyway, hoping he would find the trail, or we could work together to figure it out.

Just as I realized the hiker ahead of me was Kermit, he found the trail. Before long we were out of the snow and walking down the mountain on solid trail.

By now at 6:30 p.m., the rain had diminished to a fine mist. I caught up to Kermit near where a side trail and Fire Creek led to a campsite. He was thinking about stopping, then decided to keep walking. I decided to stop.

The campsite was near the creek, with a small number of flat spaces for tents scattered over a wide area. I saw that Wonder and Allison were camped here, so I walked toward Allison’s tent and asked her if she would mind me setting up my tent on a flat space near hers.

“Do you snore?” she asked, gruffly.

"Perhaps it’s best I find another spot,” I answered.

I wandered the area for several minutes in the light rain to search for a suitable spot for my tent, and eventually found a flat space about 200 yards away from Allison.

This site was 3.4 miles short of my goal for the day, but given how the weather had turned, I didn’t mind stopping an hour early.

Sailing down the river in an old canoe
A bunch of bugs and an old tennis shoe
Out of the river all ugly and green
Came the biggest old alligator that I've ever seen
Teeth big and pointed and his eyes were bugging out
Contacted the union, put the beggars to rout
Screaming and yelling, he was picking his chops
He never runs, he just stumbles and hops
Just out of prison on six dollar's bail
Mumbling at bitches and a-wagging his tail

From “Alligator” by Robert Hunter, Ron McKernan, and Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)

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