Today's miles: 22
Total miles: 2544
I woke up hours before dawn after a very fitful night of sleep. It was freezing. So cold, in fact, that I had trouble sleeping and was getting worried that the 32 degree sleeping bag I had been carrying through Northern California and Oregon was no longer warm enough. I longed for my fluffy, warm 20 degree bag that I had through the Sierras.
It was still dark when we packed up camp and left at 7:00. Since I had been awake so early, I was able to get through all of my morning chores before leaving camp this morning. This was a BIG deal. Out of the five imperative things that have to happen every morning (changing into hiking clothes, packing up gear, eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, and pooping) it's lucky if I get to do two of them before leaving camp. Packing up gear by far takes the longest, so people tend to skip anything of less priority in favor of getting on trail sooner. The more miles we can cover, the better. This is the prevailing mindset. Go, go, go! Hike, hike, hike! Poop breaks often have to happen after we've started walking, which can be rather annoying when you've gotten into a rhythm and don't want to stop. Breakfast often has to happen on the go, hence pop tarts over hot oatmeal. And I'm somewhat ashamed to say that teeth brushing sometimes doesn't make the cut. It gets pushed until second breakfast, or lunch, or sometimes just before bed. Life out here is always on the move, and honestly, I'm not the only one who feels good about the day if I've managed to brush my teeth at least once.
But this morning? All five priorities. CHECK! I left camp feeling super accomplished. Way to go, me! And then I laughed to myself, because at home I'd be stoked if I could finish a million projects for work before the end of the week, but out here? I pooped and brushed my teeth this morning! Score!
I left camp with Katie, Sunshine, Kazu, Razor, Toots and Tears. We were the early risers in this group; everyone else usually caught up to us by lunchtime. We had a big day ahead of us: the elevation chart showed a gain of over 8,000 feet in the next twenty miles. Usually we were gaining and losing about a mile, somewhere in the range of 5,000 feet per day. But today we had several mountain passes to cross over, and so our course would take us up and down repeatedly before nightfall.
As we climbed our first mountain, Sunshine said, "hey, Brambles! Do you want to hear a musical interpretation of our elevation profile today?"
"Uh..." I had no idea what he was talking about. "Sure?"
Sunshine happily cleared his throat and then began to sing: "Uuuuuuup, down, up, dooooooooown, uuuuuuuuup, uuuup, down down, uuuuuup, dooooooown..." and he ran through the entire day's hike this way, shortening and quickening each word as appropriate.
I laughed appreciatively, for he had memorized quite a long series of notes.
"It sounds way more fun when you put it that way!" I said.
(Apparently in Washington, if the bridge ain't reeeeeeally broke, don't fix it.)
We hiked very slowly today. In the back of our heads we knew we had to make good time: we were already on our fifth day out of Steven's Pass, and I was dangerously low on food, as I had only planned on taking five days to get to Stehekin. We were still 36 miles away from town, a distance we knew would take at least two more days. I was cobbling together bits of food to make meals, and limiting myself on what I could snack on during the day. This was the hardest part, for climbing so much elevation was draining me of energy and I was constantly hungry. We knew we had to make big miles, but the terrain and the shorter autumn days were limiting what we could accomplish before dark. We grimly pushed forward, covering as much ground as we could and clutching thankfully to another day of good weather.
At least the sun lifted our spirits. We had been so trained lately on reaching the finish in good health, good standing and good weather that we had almost forgotten to enjoy ourselves in the meantime. After all, we were mere days away from ending our journey, and we hadn't even had time to pause and reflect with our friends. Our minds were constantly running through the what ifs: what if it starts raining again? What if it starts snowing again? What if I run out of food? What if we can't cover at least twenty miles a day? What if we can't make it to Stehekin on time? What if we can't make it to the border on time? What if winter comes early?
Rather than soaking in the views and the emotions of this final leg, we were consumed by logistics and weather and back-up plans.
But today the weather was so nice that for a moment, we forgot to worry about our hike, and we remembered to enjoy our hike.
We crested the top of a mountain, skirted the ridgeline and gazed in wonder over the beautiful blue of the sky contrasted against the white snow. Bubbling rivers cascaded down the mountains, a gentle breeze blew a rolling fog over the hilltops, and everything glistened in the sunlight. It was beautiful.
By second breakfast we reached the top of Fire Pass, and it was a perfect spot to unpack our gear and let the condensation dry. We snacked and admired the view, deciding it was much prettier dusted in snow, and so we were thankful for the recent storm that had blown it in.
Kudu and Alphabet Soup caught up to us, and when we were done with our break we packed up gear and traversed over the opposite side of Fire Pass.
The views down the north side were stunning. Crystal blue lakes, white snow, plump clouds against a blue sky. I walked beside Toots, the two of us pausing every few minutes to take another photo of the landscape. It was too pretty; I couldn't stop staring at it.
As we descended beside Milk Lake Glacier and rounded another bend, we came upon a small moraine called Mica Lake, a crystal blue pool cupped in the hollow of a mountain. I stood beside it for some time, until Toots caught up with me, and I sighed aloud, "I want to live here!"
"Me too," she agreed.
We started to descend from our high perch, down the mountainside to the valley floor, when suddenly Toots tugged my sleeve and pointed across the valley. I looked: there was a wall of mountains ahead of us, and cut into the center of one of them was a bald patch in a field of trees. We could clearly see hundreds of switchbacks cutting their way up the side of the mountain. I groaned. Of course. We had just climbed to Fire Pass, and now we were descending all the way back down to the valley floor where the river was, and then all the way back up the mountain across the way. Sometimes I wished there was an easier way to get from one mountain to another. Zip line, perhaps?
"I can see someone hiking it," Toots said, and when I squinted at the faraway trail, I could see two small figures moving slowly up the zigzagging trail.
We descended down, down, down to the very bottom of the mountain where Milk Creek cut a rocky gully there. We stopped for lunch, balancing on some rocks in the sun and filtering water for our meals. We were soon caught by the rest of the group: Rotisserie, Sansei, Games, Reason, Lighthouse, Pony, and St. Alfonzo.
"What part of the song are we at now, Sunshine?" I asked, casting my gaze again at the switchbacks.
"Uuuuuuuuuuuup!" he sang.
It was five miles of up. The switchbacks, at least, made the trail very nicely graded, so after the incredibly steep first mile, I took my time and it wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. It also grew incredibly warm. Everyone stripped out of rainpants, sweaters, and jackets and once again we were hiking in summer clothes as the sun beat down on us. I took a spot at the end of the line, laughing as we played our favorite trail-switchback joke: calling down to the person below us, "oh, heeeeey!" as we passed them in the opposite direction. It was funny every time. I guess because when you spend all day staring at the ground, you're always startled by someone calling out from above you.
After a while, people began fanning out along the trail, but I noticed there was a small group that kept walking very tightly together: Sunshine, followed by Katie, Rotisserie, Toots, Alphabet Soup, Games, and Pony. Sunshine was usually the last in line due to his slow, steady pace, so it was interesting to see him at the front, closely flanked by six girls who looked as though they had no intention of passing him. They were one switchback above me, and each time they came into my range, I could hear Sunshine at the height of some elaborate story he was telling. I listened in fascination, for he would drop out of earshot around each bend, and then come back into it on the next switchback, like an ambulance siren fading in and out. Every time I heard him, he was at a different point in his story, so the whole thing sounded like a crazy, mixed-up, epic tale to my ears. And despite the constant five-mile climb, he was animatedly talking the whole time with no break or pause in breath, walking at a good clip.
"How is he doing that?" Tears gasped from behind me. She, like me, was slowly puffing up the climb.
"I have no idea," I admitted. "He's flying up this hill, it's ridiculous!"
"No, I mean, how is he still talking?"
Tears cried. "I can't even breathe and hike, much less talk and hike! And he's been talking this entire climb!"
"He must have a lot of caffeine in his system," I laughed.
By 5:00 we were at the top of the second pass, where it was equally stunning but also very chilly. Sunshine had finished his story, much to the disappointment of the girls, who had been thoroughly entertained by his adventures abroad.
"Thanks for making that climb go by so quickly!" said Katie.
"Oh, are we at the top?" Sunshine said, in surprise. "Wow, what just happened?"
I laughed. "Tears and I were just joking that we couldn't believe you talked straight through that whole five mile climb!"
"Yeah, wow," he said. "Sorry guys, I had a lot of coffee for lunch. And then a caffeinated drink mix. I don't even remember the last two hours."
We laughed again, pulling our layers back on and starting around the backside of the mountain for another five miles of downhill. There were some lovely campsites at the top of Dolly Vista, and we lamented that it was both too early and too few miles to stop already.
We hiked past dark, down through the forests. There was a lot of deadfall blocking the tight little trail, and since we were on a downhill slope, it was difficult to maneuver around them. It seemed every half mile we had to climb over another dead tree or washout that had destroyed part of the trail. I wished Treekiller were here to put his tree-heaving skills to use. As it grew darker, navigating the trail became even more challenging. I was constantly tripping over roots and branches and growing cranky and tired. I also knew that the campsite we were headed toward was small - only good enough for two tents, according to my maps. We were still walking in a group of nineteen people, and I worried about everyone being able to find a spot to stay the night.
When we reached camp at 8:00, we were greeted by TwoBadDogs, who had already set up camp. I had no idea how they kept appearing and disappearing from day to day, but they always popped up in the most surprising of places! It was fun to have a reunion, and then we got down to logistics: camp was indeed very tiny. We would have to play tetris if we wanted to make everyone fit. Katie jumped to attention and took on the role of puzzle-master. As each person arrived in camp, she assessed the size of their tent and then directed them to a spot. Pretty soon the small area was buzzing with people, setting up tents, overlapping stakes, wedging into corners, and tripping over criss-crossed guylines. It looked like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, but miraculously, all of us fit.
"We're going to have to leave in a very specific order tomorrow," Toots joked, taking in the stacks of tents. Each one was blocked by at least one other, and it would be a game of Traffic Jam to get everyone out. We laughed as we made dinner, jumbled together and exhausted.
Katie and I, to save space, opted to share my tent tonight since hers was so big. We squeezed into my Fly Creek, giggling in the dark as we tried to get comfortable in the tight quarters. Outside, Sansei was talking with TwoBadDogs in the light of someone's headlamp, and his shadow was reflected onto the ceiling of my tent. Katie and I laughed every time Sansei struck a funny pose, his outline two times bigger above us.
"He looks like a muppet!" I said, and the two of us began laughing so hard that Sansei's shadow turned around and he said,
"That's a lot of giggling in there, girls!"
"Your shadow!" we snickered. "We're making fun of your shadow!"
He took the hint and immediately began doing shadow puppets on our tent wall: dogs and ducks and rabbits, which only made us laugh harder.
"Alligator! Do an alligator!" we crowed.
After snapping his hands together like an alligator, Sansei took a bow and said, "goodnight, girls. See you tomorrow."
"Goodnight Sansei!" we cried back. The headlamp clicked off, bathing the world in darkness, and we fell quickly to sleep.