Today's miles: 18
Total miles: 2295
Despite my excitement for today, I slept in until 7:00 and was still the first to leave with Treekiller before Wocka and Giddyup got up.
Treekiller and I walked three miles to Cispus Pass, the start of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. The terrain became dramatically different right away; we were walking through wide-open spaces of mountains and valleys, and as we grew closer to the pass, Mt. Adams loomed in our periphery, basked in morning light. The path to the pass edged around a deep valley bowl, and the views into the distance were stunning. I kept a keen eye out for mountain goats, for I heard they were prevalent in this area.
When we got to the top of the pass, we stopped to soak in the view with Mudd and Dingo, who had somehow passed us this morning and made it to the top before us. It was so windy that it was difficult to sit still, but no one wanted to leave this beautiful gateway so soon. We met a group of four older men who were out backpacking for the weekend, and we had a wonderful chat about the PCT. They had hiked Goat Rocks many times in the past, and when they heard we were seeing it for the first time, they were ecstatic for us.
"It's gorgeous here," they sighed. "And the weather today is supposed to be amazing! You're going to love it."
When Giddyup and Wocka caught up to us, we descended the backside of the pass and into Cispus Basin, stopping to talk to more weekend hikers along the way. One said he had seen a whole herd of mountain goats in his camp last night, but so far we hadn't spotted any. We moved slowly through the stunning landscape, practically giddy with the beauty of it. No one was in any hurry to get to White Pass; we were more than happy to do fewer miles today so that we could appreciate our surroundings.
We passed through Snowgrass Flats and then began climbing in elevation very quickly. The terrain was unforgiving, but the expansive views were breathtaking. I hiked with my camera in hand, snapping photos every few minutes as each passing scene grew more lovely. The higher we climbed, the more patches of snow we saw, until we crested a hilltop and saw two things simultaneously: a glacier snowfield and Mt. Rainier in all her glory, rising up on the other side of the valley. The snowfield was fun to cross; we hadn't seen snow since the Sierras, and even then, there wasn't much.
At the top we paused with the dayhikers to take in the view, and then turned our sights toward our next challenge: Old Snowy Mountain.
The PCT diverged here into two trails: a horse pack trail and a hiker "alternate." The alternate went to the peak of Old Snowy while the horse trail took a more level route around the center of the mountain until it met back up with the alternate. There was a group of PCT volunteers working on the horse trail, since much of it had been washed out with the recent rain. We learned the climb up Old Snowy was worth taking the hiker alternate, so up we went. Sansei and Rotisserie, who caught up to us by then, decided to take the horse route and avoid the higher trail, since Rotisserie wasn't a fan of heights. The trail to the top zigzagged around rocks and narrow drops, very steep but never too harrowing. When Treekiller, Wocka, Giddyup and I reached the rocky summit, we decided it was a perfect spot to stop for lunch. We found an area behind some rocks so we were protected from the wind, and enjoyed warm meals while gazing out over Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, and the valley below. We were shockingly high above it all, but the height merely made the view more stunning.
After lunch we realized we had only gone six miles, which was pretty laughable. But today we were determined not to crunch away the miles as we did every other day. White Pass, after all, was only 20 miles away and we were in no hurry.
We descended down the opposite side of Old Snowy, which was titled in my maps as the "Knife's Edge." I quickly learned the reason why. The trail was incredibly, frighteningly steep, dropped down thousands of feet in elevation on either side, and covered in loose pieces of shale so that every step I took moved under my shoes. I had to constantly battle to keep from losing my balance and slipping off the edge of the mountain. My heart hammered through the first mile downhill, and when the PCT met back up with the horse trail, I hoped it would level out.
But I was wrong.
For the next four miles I traversed over some of the most terrifying and most beautiful terrain on the entire PCT. The Knife's Edge curled up and down the very crest of the mountain peaks, with merely a foot of space between myself and a long fall down the valley. I gripped my trekking poles until my knuckles turned white, carefully picking my way through the loose scree, washed out sections of trail, and terrifying height. I have never been a fan of heights - in fact, I'm quite scared of them - but I have spent most of my life at the top of one thing or another, and I have learned to manage my fear pretty well. In fact, I can usually stomach heights as long as I'm getting something in return, such as a view so fantastic that it can be seen no other way.
But today's hike challenged every brave front I have ever put up for myself. The views were indeed some of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, but the precariousness of the hike was so terrifying that it was battling my inner courage. I walked slower than ever before - not more than a mile an hour - clutching my trekking poles and calling out in fear to Treekiller every time he disappeared around a corner. It wasn't the climbs that were scary - going up felt much safer - it was the descents that made me feel as though gravity would simply pull me down, down, down the slick shale and into the abyss.
Our trail travels over the shale and along the tops of those peaks
Treekiller was doing much better than I was, and though I was making steady ground, every time I paused on the trail my legs would lock up and I would have a hard time motivating myself to move again, especially when I had to jump through thin air over a washout and hope I'd hit ground again on the other side. Treekiller often paused to make sure I was doing okay, but usually he was out of sight and I would have to be my own cheerleader. I knew Rotisserie was more frightened of heights than I was, and at that moment I wished she were hiking with me so that we could keep each other brave.
I began to sing to myself, to take my mind off my footsteps. I took deep breaths, pausing every now and again to soak in the view. Truly, it was amazing, and even as scared as I was, I wasn't sorry I was walking this trail. It was proof again that I would battle my deepest fears to reach these perfect moments of unadulterated happiness. Goat Rocks Wilderness was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
After a very terrifying/exhilarating four hours, I reached the end of the Knife's Edge and began the descent on the backside of the mountains. There were large swaths of snow here, and ice cold rivers were flowing from them and into the valley. I picked my way across them, feeling my tense muscles start to ease, leaving behind exhaustion that soaked all the way down to my bones. When I caught up to Treekiller, the two of us plopped on the ground and took a few moments to catch our breaths. We had only gone ten miles and it was nearing 5:00.
We moved slowly along the trail, dropping dramatically in elevation over the next five miles. We caught up with Giddyup and Wocka in the forest where they were making dinner and collecting water. Treekiller and I were hoping to make it to a campsite called Hidden Springs, which was 3/10 mile off trail but had a reliable water source. It was only three miles further, but those three miles felt like torture. We wound through a forested trail, skirting ridges and climbing again. Everything in my body wanted to fall down and sleep. We finally made it to the campsite at 7:00, and though we left a note for Wocka and Giddyup, they either passed us last night or dropped behind, for they never met up with us. Likewise, Rotisserie and Sansei must have been farther ahead, for we didn't catch them.
The campsite was larger than expected and had a nice flat area for tents in a forest clearing. As Treekiller and I set up our gear, we realized that we weren't alone here. Two bow hunters dressed in camo were camped around the corner with three of their horses. In the past few weeks we have seen dozens of hunters on trail every day, since it was open bow season for elk. The younger hunter, named Bill, came over to say hello.
"Are you guys hungry?" he asked.
My body stilled and my eyes lit up. Since I had left most of my lunch meat at home in Portland by accident, I was running dangerously low on food and had been living on scraps for the past few days. Tonight the only thing I had to look forward to was a tortilla and a bit of peanut butter.
"We're always hungry," Treekiller laughed in reply.
"Well, my friend Dave and I have camp set up just over there," Bill said, "we're going to be making some elk burritoes in a bit and we have a lot. You're welcome to join us, if you'd like."
I couldn't think of anything I wanted more at that moment.
Treekiller and I wandered over to the hunter's camp after getting our tents set up, and the four of us sat around chatting while Dave and Bill whipped up an amazing skillet of elk meat, onions, peppers, and spices. They laid out slices of cheese, large floury tortillas and butter on a make-shift table they had crafted from bits of wood.
We learned they came here every year during elk season, and this was their favorite spot to set up shop. In good years they caught up to 500 pounds of elk meat and carted it home on the backs of their horses. This year they hadn't been as lucky, and though they had been hunting in the area for a week, they hadn't caught anything yet.
Treekiller and I told them stories about what it was like to be a thru-hiker, and Dave and Bill seemed fascinated by the culture and the fortitude that comes with hiking for months on end. It was both cathartic and delightful to sit and talk with them for hours. Treekiller and I gobbled down a large 14" burrito in seconds and then surreptitiously eyed the rest of the meat still sitting in the skillet. Dave and Bill seemed content with one burrito each, but they laughed at our hungry eyes and told us, "have as much as you'd like!"
Between us, Treekiller and I polished off the rest of the food, and I was incredibly happy to have a full stomach when I had been expecting nothing but peanut butter. As a bonus, the hunters pulled out a bin of freshly baked cookies, and so it was a fun evening spent with new friends and trail angels.
We stayed up later than expected talking, but it was well worth the loss of sleep, and a delightful end to an amazingly gorgeous day on trail.