Day 126: Second to last, but up there with the best…

Day: Sunday, 2nd October 2016

Miles: 2606.9 – 2630.5

Brush Creek 2606.9 – Remote Site 2630.5

 

 

I mentioned in yesterdays post, that by the time I got to camp last night, there was just a single impossibly small space left between some trees. Somehow myself and FlyBy managed to intertwine our two tents somehow to make it work however. Levels of compatibility between the ZPacks Hexamid and Solplex that even the ZPacks guys never planned for. The crew who were a little further up included Outro, Meerkat, Six and others although I was not aware of it last night unfortunately, otherwise I would have joined them for some fun by the fire. I was on trail at 8:50AM and it was chilly morning. Little did I know that it would be one of the most sublime days of hiking however. Even John Muir himself would have approved. It seems that (just with the Sierra Nevada), that the further from a trailhead that the PCT gets, the more it pulsates with a unique level of immensity and energy.

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Our intertwined tents made our camp look like a shanty.

Immediately rising towards views of Glacier Pass, and the sun was already burning off most of the mornings clouds. It was victorious in its fight against the clouds, and I was certainly happy to feel some warmth on my back as we ascended towards the first major pass and ridgeline of the day, in our traverse towards Harts Pass, the final trailhead and a forestry road the will cross the PCT in the United States.

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It was cold enough this morning that a thick layer of frost covered the ground as we ascended. The spindly veins of the leaves looking like some chilly pathogen was taking over their veins.

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By mid-morning, the sun established itself above, and as usual the colors gradually began to creek out from the shadows. The glacier above our initial pass was small and virtually non-existent however the mountains surrounding it were beautiful in their cloudy cloak, with a thick whitewater creek emanating from the heart of the valley.

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It was interesting to see how vividly different, the exposures of the mountains around here were. On the north faces, gravel strewn slopes unable to support even the stubbly trees and shrubs elsewhere existed. On the South, trees and lush grasses managed to eek out an existence, all but on the verge of calling time on this years growth.

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Cresting over the first high point and the trail maintained a stable elevation along a ridge that led all the way to Harts Pass. Once over the ridge, and pockets of abundance were to be seen in the sheltered spaces. Vivid oranges of the larch trees dotted the mountains in every direction. I was truly lucky to be here to witness this spectacle, all but confined to a narrow window between the autumn and rapid onslaught of the winter weather, that will lock these mountains away for months, in just a weeks time.

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Harts Pass was a pleasant spot to enjoy lunch, with a large gang of hikers assembled for our daily fill of sugar, carbs and protein. It was quiet around here, with the ranger station boarded up, and signs that the season is already over in the camp grounds at the pass.

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Beyond Harts Pass, and the trail again asserted itself with a long but gradual ascent to another ridge, as we gradually took aim directly north towards the border. The distant larches dotted higher slopes of evergreen trees, and with the reflections of the clouds visible for miles along the valley floor below, it was a great moment to reflect myself. I listed to my usual playlist, by now the mood of the music choices today matching up to the somber tones of the landscape. I was thinking a lot of the trail. Of the summer passed. Of what will be next, and where this trail might lead m *after* the trail. So much to think about, and not necessarily with answers that are readily available.

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With each ridge we ascended, I looked to the north and wondered which of these peaks might be in Canada. It became somewhat of a preoccupation, one of no value whatsoever. Regardless, I think we all shared in these kinds of mind games at the end, all part of the experience when a long slow journey comes to an end.

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Occasionally when the drama of the landscape was obscured by the trees, a flash of enormous color would suddenly become visible ahead, the Larches adding an additional magic to our surroundings.

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Looking back towards Methow Pass at one point, and I remarked that it was one of the most fulfilling views I had gained from the trail in recent memory. Virtually every peak could be matched to the placement of the PCT, winding the long way round from valley to valley. Occasional outcroppings of rock, or high peaks giving context to the mass of wilderness beyond.

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Wntering the Pasayten Wilderness, and I passed a number of hikers southbound, the so -called Victory March for those who decided to terminate on the Canadian border and return to Harts Pass. Its referred to as the victory march as you get to High Five all of your fellow hikers that you finished just ahead of! Part of me thought that this was actually a really nice way to finish the PCT. Maybe I’ll do that next time!

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The sun began to drop from the sky in the late evening. Once again the shadows cloaked the hills to the north, but thankfully the rain and flurries of yesterday were nowhere to be seen. I was excited for one last sunset on the Pacific Crest Trail. And thats when it occurred to me. One last sunset. The words are surreal. How can that be. How can this have happened so soon. I was sad this evening. A deep sadness. One that I was perhaps ill-prepared for. The sadness you feel with the end of an era. The last day of school, graduation, the passing of a dear friend. A moment for thought and reflection. I sat on a rock with the view below for a long time. A few small tears in my eyes for some intangible reason. And perhaps even a smile on my face of some sorts.

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Moving further and as the trail passed a high ridge to the east, a rain shower all but enveloped me, before pass right by. It was like the seasons decided to give me a reprieve. Just another day.

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Finally, as the distant horizon began to turn a vivid pink and apricot, I started to see the valleys in the distance widen out. The views now stretched for miles. Miles of wilderness. No noises, no cars in the distance. No aircraft in the skies. This whole area still and quiet. Holding its breath for the first snow.IMG_6542

After spending so much of the day alone today, I arrived to a large camp and a big crowd of good friends already set up. I decided to make camp here, and settle in for the evening by the pleasant fire they had set. Someone produced some Hersheys chocolate and Graham Crackers. And then I had an idea. The jar of peanut butter and grape jelly I had packed (and cursed) in Stehekin suddenly had a glorious use! So it was that we all enjoyed our last supper. The supper of champions, rounded out with Grape Jelly, Peanut Butter S’mores. Delicious!

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This is not a time for sadness I thought, looking into the embers.

Day 125: Sparing the words for the pictures…

Day: Saturday, 1st October 2016

Miles: 2580.6 – 2606.9 (26)

Six Mile Campsite 2580.6 – Brush Creek 2606.9

 

What can I say. My notes for today are brief. Today was not a day for words. It was a day for views. It started inauspiciously given the damp and wet morning. Thankfully the light rain overnight had passed, and is was mostly a cloudy cold day where you’d probably avoid doing much in the outdoors if you had a choice. Our enthusiasm for the day roughly paralleled the colors in the sky, in terms of liveliness. That is to say it was a slow and long haul up to Rainy Pass, and it seemed like the area would live up to its reputation. The forest was pretty, and a number of clear rushing creeks crossed our paths over the initial haul. We were going to meet Heidi at the pass, a friend of Breakaways, who would accompany us for a day or so northbound. Personally I was also excited to reach Rainy Pass, the last major road crossing on the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route I drove all the way back in 2003 with friends.

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The trail was busy in this area, as its a Saturday and relatively accessible in the summer months from Seattle and the populous areas far to the west. I was particularly intrigued by a border collie which I met, clad in a pretty awesome looking pack!

 

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Finally reaching the trail head, and the road was all but empty, with signs directing to the trailhead car park a ways to the north.

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Unexpectedly Heidi had laid out a wonderful little buffet of trail magic, with some great Washington cheese, bread and preserves, gathered in her ride over from the Olympic Peninsula.

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As we munched on the spoils of this unexpected bounty, a car arrived with our old friend Outro! Outro had been a half day ahead, but agreed with her trail crew to hitch down to the nearest liquor store to buy some celebratory drinks for their arrival into Canada! She was slack-packing to the eye, but had a huge haul of clinking bottles to get up to Cutthroat Pass to the rest of the crew. It was a pretty funny sight, and true to form, Outro left us all behind with her incredible pace, stamina and enthusiasm as always, one of the absolute best people whom I have had the good fortune to meet on the trail.

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The ascent to Cutthroat Pass was beautiful The gradual pace gave expansive views to the amazing wilderness around us, and thankfully the clouds by now were dispersing, with patches of blue skies and run helping to match the magnificent colors of the mountains around us. Oddly, in the sunshine we experienced some occasional snow flurries, as the Autumn tried its best to push the sunshine away!

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In the ascent we were also treated to some nice creeks and stopped for a break by a pleasant cold and delicious creek that flowed across the trail. I’ll never tire of this great tasting water in Washington, no feed troughs any more!

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Reaching the pass, and the tees began to dissipate into a bunch of straggling golden patches, attempting to survive in the harsh changing seasonal climate up here.

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Looking back, and the trees radiated with an incredible glow, the red carpet on the valley matching up like the work of a great interior designer had worked their palette on the landscape.

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Beyond Cutthroat Pass, and the entire range ahead was visible, with more and more colors that simply drew your eye from the trail. I must have lost my step and tripped along this section more times than when were in the Sierra (thats a LOT)!

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The trail from Cutthroat Pass to Methow Pass gives enormous views along a sweeping valley to a series of magnificent peaks ahead. Again, as I love with the Pacific Crest Trail, you could make out the thin line of the trail miles ahead and into the distance. At one point, that also gave a preview that one side of the valley was disappearing into cloud, whilst the other was emblazoned in magnificent sunshine.

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Obscured behind a cloud, the sunless landscape becomes ominous and dark.

The intermittent changing of the clouds from cloud to sun had the effect of swapping entire seasons within the space of minutes. I was dropping layers due to the heat, only to put them back on with a rain layer after a shower and flurries swept in moments later. It was magnificent in its ferocity, giving pause, due to its rapidity. We have all been warned about the weather up here. Its ability to change, its ability to catch you unaware.

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A magnificent valley, all to myself

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Distant flurries and rain showers spackle the horizon.

As if by some huge victory, in the fight of light versus dark, and the pleasant afternoon chasing the sun all came to an end, with the approach of an enormous cloud from the South. This came with intermittent flurries of snow. A cold wind cut through to my bones and with a final change of clothes, it was as if Winter had arrived. The sun was in retreat, like some army, the blue skies disappeared to the distance.

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Within minutes, the valley could change entire seasons.

Passing Methow Pass, and after a series of switchbacks with flurries that became persistent enough to turn the trail white, I hit one of the final major mile markers. I was at 2600 miles, with just 50 miles to go. My sheep was still with me, my favorite hikers were just ahead and just behind. The views, the weather. Everything really felt just right at that moment in time. I was happy, I was sad, but I was feeling accomplishment for the first time. I can do this!

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Beyond the 2600 mile marker, and the trail again descended further. It followed a long and continuous level for a considerable distance alongside the obscured Methow River. I met some other hikers I knew along the way, and enjoyed the passing of the flurries. The evening was cool but clear and camp was just ahead by the time I pulled my last water refill from a seep close to the trail.

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Our plan for the evening, was to hike as far as Brush Creek. As I approached the camp, a huge fire was roaring in a camp just above the creek crossing. In the darkness I found FlyBy, Heidi and Breakaway, and made a camp in an impossibly tight space beneath some large trees. The night was clear by now. Huge silhouettes of the massive peaks around us framing a bright light to the west. Hopefully the sun can ward off the winter for just another few days!

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Day 124: Stehekin and a brief touch of paradise…

Day: Friday, 30th September 2016

Miles: 2564.2 – 2580.6

Five Mile Camp 2569.2 – Six Mile Campsite 2580.6

Its town-day! Although to refer to Stehekin as a town might be a little excessive. What will be my final resupply point was just 5 miles ahead, and its certainly a special place that I will remember forever. Stehekin is a uniquely remote village nestled in the northern corner of Lake Chelan on the eastern fringes of the Cascade Mountains. Access is solely by foot, seaplane or boat, and services are sparse – a park lodge, shop, restaurant and post office. My last resupply box was being sent to Stehekin by my cousin Carey, and I was excited to release my last shamrock covered box after it was packed way back in April! I was also excited to finally visit the renouned bakery at Stehekin, which is another Pacific Crest Trail milestone – its enormous cinnamon rolls the subject of much trail lore!

Our camp was chilly this morning as myself, Breakaway and FlyBy awoke to glistening peaks in the morning light, high above. The forest canopy was almost entirely deciduous forest, and so many wonderful colors graced the slopes around us. We were on trail by 7AM and planned to walk a brisk march of 5 miles to the High Bridge, the end point of the single road in Stehekin, and the point at which we could catch a bus down to town, on the shores of pretty Lake Chelan.

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Initially I hiked with my camp-mates, who set an eager pace, leaving me in the dust! I bumped into Flying Dutchman, whom I had not seen in some time and shared the last few miles. The trail at this point was mostly flat, and followed the river at a distance, before dropping to a series of large river crossings (the now large Agnes Creek) near to the aptly named High Bridge over the Stehekin River at 8:45AM.

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A fantastic sight was to greet us as we crossed the bridge, hundreds of lake-salmon (Kokanee) were idling in the eddies beneath, taking a rest on their spawning run. It was an amazing sight, their bellies bright red, vivid against the blue hues of the crystal clear water. This is the Pacific Northwest alright, where the rivers team with abundance.

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By the time the retro-styled red bus arrived for the 8 mile trip to Stehekin, there was a large bunch of hikers assembled at the bus stop. Everyone was in great spirits, and why would we not be! It was cool but sunny, it was town-day, Canada is just a few days away, and we’d made it in time for a quick in-and-out at resupply.

As we rode the bus on its pretty route alongside small farms, all eyes turned to the bakery. The bus operates on a simple schedule from Stehekin to High Bridge, with a brief stop each way at The Stehekin Bakery. The quick stop at the bakery being just long enough for all of the bus passengers to engorge themselves through their eyes and their stomach, on delicious pastries, bread, pizza, ice cream and essentially everything a hungry hiker could want. Six and Outro, my old hiker friends were there on their outbound trip to the trailhead, and Six offloaded a jar of Peanut Butter and a Jar of Grape Jelly, as he had bought so much in the bakery that he could not fit it all. I have no idea why I decided to take them, as it added lots of weight, but it came in useful later! Getting back on the bus and every one of us was feasting on some form of sticky oozy breakfast goods.

Arriving into Stehekin, and I was immediately struck by just how beautiful its location is. This is a well known destination in Washington, but the effort to get here hints that its notoriety is in the trouble to get here, as much as the location itself. It was an epic and appropriate remote an outpost for our last resupply. Some people were milling around the small harbor but the town was largely deserted. I reminded myself that its nearly October, and the throngs of tourists have already thinned to just some remaining curious visitors along with the PCT northbound hiker herd.

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I visited the post office firstly, to get my resupply package. Walking in the front door of the little house which contained the post office, and I was immediately immersed in classical music. A gentlemen wearing an eye patch came from the back and tended to my question as to whether a ‘shamrock clad’ box might be around here somewhere. The post office was literally covered from top to bottom with hiker boxes, stacked in every possibly corner. The walls were bedecked in all manner of posters for musicals and kitsch old-school art. I sensed a certain benevolent irritation from the post master – that kindness in a slightly gruff manner that we’ve received in post offices across the west at this point. I do think this little post office had something special though, and definitely a personality that was unique. After going through my resupply box to figure out any extra food I might need, and after reading a really nice ‘finishing note’ from my cousin, I stumbled onto some treats she’d popped in there for me, and decided to keep the little nip of Jack Daniels for the border!

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I was really psyched to get this note from my cousin.

Once I was done with my post office errand, I decided to do some laundry and take a shower at the pretty little alpine-style log cabin which contained the public facilities a little ways up the road from the now hive of activity on the docks. Showers and laundry were available for a small fee. Whilst my laundry was running I repacked some of my bag and had a really great hot shower, then turned to strategizing our evening with Breakaway and FlyBy. After some discussion of times and logistics, we decided on making camp at Six Mile Camp north of High Bridge tonight. This was an access-controlled camp, so Breakaway suggested making a reservation at the park office, to ensure we played by the rules. It seems a little silly by now to be worrying about permits, but this area is particularly heavily used, and arriving into camp to a full site, or getting questioned for not following the simple (and free) reservation system wasn’t really our style. Its one of the first places on the trail where access to a legal on-trail remote camp is not available to us rule-prudes!

I then walked to the visitor center a little way from the dock in the center of town. I had an hour to hang around and revel in my cleanliness. I sat on some of the comfy Adirondack chairs outside the harbor lodge and enjoyed the site of people coming and going. It was a busy spot by now, seaplanes had come and gone, and the ferry arrived to regurgitate some new visitors and board a few passengers. I saw one or two hikers getting on the ferry, but I was extremely happy that I mailed my resupply to Stehekin and avoided the long trip down to Chelan, at the southern end of the lake. I spoke with a number of people including a lady from Spokane, WA who was curious about our thru-hike and where we had all come from. She spends summers in WA, and winters in AZ, so this trip was her last visit before avoiding the coming winter. It sounded like a nice way to do it!

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The busy seaplanes buzzing in and out of Stehekin, WA

After this pleasant little moment of downtime. I joined Breakaway and FlyBy at the waterfront park where we had decided to base ourselves. The bus ran a few times a day to High Bridge, and whilst it might be nice to take a night in Stehekin, everyone was intent on getting back on the trail as the weather forecast ahead was turning decidedly mirky. Possible snow showers were showing for later next week, with rain and heavy clouds in the early part of the weekend. This refocused attention that we still have a job to do here. I repacked everything for a final time. It seems like I repack my bag about 20 times on town days, but you just never can rearrange your tetris-game backpack efficiently enough! This was certainly one of the most glorious spots to pack and repack however!

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As we boarded the big red bus in the late afternoon for our return trip to High Bridge. On the way, we briefly met up with the new arrivals off-trail including Blue and S’rocket. It was one of those tough moments where everyone is running to their own schedule and target completion date. For me, I was now set on finishing October 3rd but some of the other groups have set on October 4th or later. So its a sad moment to wave goodbye, knowing that this might be the last time we see each other on the trail. The opportunities to bump into long lost friends after weeks on the trail is becoming very limited sadly. We briefly stopped at the bakery once again on the way, and I filled up with a cinnamon roll and a big French bread pizza for the road.

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It was nice to get back on the trail, although I was conflicted about leaving some people behind, yet trying to catch up to some ahead. The trail is glorious, but its also really hard. In times like this sometimes you have to be selfish, however hard it is. Setting off from High Bridge northwards, and I really did feel an air of finality around this moment. As if to match up to my mood, a golden sunset hue was bathing the trail for the first miles, before it turned to the northeast away from the Stehekin River.  We passed a horse-train heading southwards, and initially stayed low in the valley, in a heavily wooded area of colors and textures.

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The colors in the lower parts of the valley were magnificent, and some of the enormous leaves were simply astounding. I have never seen deciduous leaves quite this big!

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As the trail rose higher in the valley we passed into a new line of vegetation, and some clearings providing views back south to the valley we emerged from earlier today.

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As night began to creep across the valleys in the form of stealthy slow moving shadows, we crossed the large Bridge Creek on a wooden crossing and followed the creek on its north side for the rest of the evening. We also passed the pretty Maple Creek tributary (which sadly was devoid of any apple syrup whatsoever), before the trail dropped back down towards Bridge Creek.

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Some clouds were sopping in the peaks around us by now, so it was much less dramatic than the sweeping miles from Cloudy Pass all the way down to the High Bridge that we so enjoyed yesterday. Still, I wanted to go slow. I wanted the moment to last. It was just beyond dark, around 7PM when myself and Breakaway arrived into camp, after following a cut-off trail that led directly to the river from the PCT. FlyBy was close-by, and Corndoggie was already there and well established. It was a sheltered spot close to the river, and with some warnings about bear activity, we did our best to ensure we kept a clean camp by eating well away from our tents, and storing our food properly. It was around 9PM when we all retired to bed. As a rain shower passed, I hoped beyond hope the weather would not spoil this last sprint to the border. I have about three days to go. Three days to breathe it all in.

Day 123: From one river camp to the next…

Day: Thursday, 29th September 2016

Miles: 2532.7 – 2564.2

Milk Creek Remote Site 2532.7 – Remote Site 2564.2

 

Hikers are creatures of routine, and this morning was no different. Early starts, oatmeal breakfasts, coffee brewing. Hitting the trail with all of the intent and automated motions of a mundane commute. In fact, this place is anything but mundane, but perhaps with time we’ve taken it a little for granted. The sounds of rushing waters. The cool crisp air. The views stretching to distant peaks on the horizon. Soon, these moments will just be memories. I think a certain sadness has joined my excitement in nearing Canada. The transient moments of life sometimes simply cannot be savored enough. The photographs I take, pale imitations of the moments they try to capture. But then, why be sad. When theres a full day ahead. Adventures, risks, new places, new things. Who knows!

I set off with FlyBy and Breakaway, who instantly set a fast pace as the trail descended towards the major bridge crossing at the Suiattle River. The trail was close to the river for the entire morning, and a booming ambient sound of crashing water was a constant. I slowed as the enormous grove of trees that was promised came into view just before thre crossing. These are some of the biggest trees we’ve seen on the entire trail, somehow protected in this hidden valley. Too remote to log, too beautiful not to stop and admire for a while. The trail was certainly remote, a 35 mile walk to the nearest trailhead, by the remote village of Stehekin which itself is cut off from the world except for seaplanes and a boat that plys Lake Chelan.

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After crossing the huge, debris strewn river, the sunnier side of the east bank afforded a pleasant soft and fern-covered area, the filter light streaming in and illuminating vivid greens here and there in the forest floor.

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A number of small creeks cut across the trail and in a few cases, some pretty log bridges similar to Kennedy Creek’s ‘broken bridge’, had been erected. IMG_6238

The trail began a long and steady ascent to one last major ridge for today, close to Cloudy Pass. Most of the day was spent in this ascent, the initial sheltered and heavily forested section giving way to a series of more exposed areas with views ahead. Sadly only a few vistas afforded us a direct view across to Glacier Peak to the South. I spent most of the day leap frogging Breakaway and FlyBy, before eventually they jumped ahead of me when I decided to take lunch. By the time I finally reached the high-point for the day, the clouds had moved in, and a series of distant showers looked like they might finally anoint us. Thankfully however we threaded a needle between them, and stayed dry.

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The views of distant peaks contained many hints of Autumns advance. Golden trees poked out of the evergreen stands in a magnificent explosion of color.

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Later in the evening, and we finally crossed one of our last milestones, with just 100-miles to Canada. It seems like such a long long time since I excitedly took a picture at 100 miles from Mexico!

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As we set off down the enormous sweeping valley ahead, all focus turned to Stehekin, our next and last resupply point. We decided on a plan to hike the last few miles tomorrow morning, and not spend too much time pushing to the end tonight. That would put us in the range of a number of potential camps on the far side of a large river crossing.

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The clouds continued to swirl with intermittent periods of sun and cloud. Small, delicate and wispy veils of rain full on the far side of the valley, providing a pleasant spectacle for the descent.

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Once again, the abundant reds and fall colors added to the lighter hues in the sky as the sun began to set. The valley ahead was almost too perfect to believe – gently sweeping to the north and our destination tomorrow, of the High Bridge bus stop.IMG_6267IMG_6272

Eventually arriving to the river crossing, and it was indeed far larger than I expected. As I took off my shoes and socks, some of the other hikers tried to use a large branch to avoid a dunk, with limited success (and a wet pack). I later found out there was a larger log further downstream that most people had used, oh well.

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As the sun set, the trail became deeply immersed in a thick forest stand. This all but obscured what little light was filtering through, and so it was an evening of night hiking in pitch darkness! I hiked onwards until I found Breakaway at a camp spot a few miles short of High Bridge. After some time wasting over where to put my tent, I cooked up some dinner and we spent a while conversing over our plan for tomorrow. Resupply day!

The camp was in close proximity to the large river that resided in this enormous glacial valley, and so we spent the night once again to the sounds of rushing waters. One of those simple pleasures.

Day 122: In the shadow of a giant…

Day: Wednesday, 28th September 2016

Miles: 2503 – 2532.7 (30)

Remote Site 2503.0 – Vista Creek Remote Site 2532.7

 

I spoken many times on this blog, about my love of the volcanic cones of the Cascade Range. We’ve come face to face with all of the giants of the Cascades on this trail, from Mount Shasta through to Mount Rainier. Its an exciting feeling, to come face to face with with an incredible mass like this. Such imposing prominence, their shadows cast to the horizon at sunset, and their steep sides cloaked in fine rock. Their past as destructive and constructive forces in the creation of this rugged landscape has always provided intrigue and interest, as the trail navigates obsidian, ancient lava flows, cinder cones and decadent views of extreme beauty. As I looked towards a day navigating the western edge of Glacier Peak, I was excited and perhaps sad. This would likely be my last volcanic encounter on this endeavor. Adding to the emotion, today was one of the largest elevation gain/loss combinations in recent memory, perhaps even on the entire trip (although the Sierra likely challenges it, but I have not compared notes).

My fellow hikers, that I shared camp with, were exuding enthusiasm and energy at an obscene hour this morning. We conversed as an impression of the sun rose over the desolate ridge east of us, the views were all but obscured by a low cloud base. After yesterday, the presumptive disappearance of this candy-floss blanket should occur some time this morning, so we did not lament the fact that Glacier Peak was nowhere to be seen, albeit just a few miles to the north. The breeze was bracing, as I tending to my morning routine, and a few extra layers were necessary. As I popped a pre-emptive Vitamin-I (Ibuprofen), I stood, stopped and listened for a moment. The color was once again vivid, even in this dull morning light. The sound of gushing water in the creek next door to camp, along with the sound of birds singing was a little magical. I was last out, and it was 7:30AM.

 

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Waking up to some varied skies and a chilly breeze.

Immediately, the trail dropped a little and followed the beautiful creek that serenaded us last night for a few miles. It was cold and fast moving. One comment I must make about Washington – the water is always fresh, clear and tastes amazing!

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Dropping down into the heart of the valley alongside a pretty creek.

Dropping further and further down into the valley floor, and the creek gained size and speed. It energy dissipating into a series of deep ravines, strewn with enormous trees. Debris was haphazardly flung into corners like some kind of natural homage to a teenagers bedroom. The creek joined to a much larger glacial creek after a sudden and marked drop in elevation on the trail. By now, it was a milky colored torrent. Cold and unfriendly to the passing eye.

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Signs of Glacial melt with the milky waters in White Chuck River.

As the creek flushed to the west, the trail then followed a drier, higher routing. This brought me through a series of amazing moss clad stands of trees. As the trees further and further obscured the light, the intense greens and fungi seemed to assert themselves more and more, until the trail seemed like a wander through a well tended arboretum.

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Walking in an enchanted forest.

Passing a few more creeks, and there was obvious signs that early in the season, these rivers contain enormous amounts of power, liberally enacted on unfortunate trees, peering too close to the edge.

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Obviously intense flow is an occurrence in Spring based on these debris flows.

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Beautiful funghi growing amongst the thick mossy carpet in this damp valley.

Towards the lowest point in the valley, and the skies and views ahead opened out to another glorious vista of snow clad high peaks, with thick green forest in all directions. I became aware of the next high saddle the trail would ascend, and braced myself for a morning of climbing!

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A long climb ahead

Almost unexpectedly, after dwelling on the climb ahead, and become preoccupied with my map and elevation chart, I stumbled onto the infamous Kennedy Creek broken bridge at mile 2509.8. I have seen images of this bridge in numerous blogs and websites, but I had presumed it was washed away years ago. Somehow it persisted in this decrepit state.

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Kennedy Creek and the infamous broken bridge

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Kennedy Creek

After Kennedy Creek, the trail immediately begins its climb towards the northwest quadrant of Glacier Peak. After a few switchbacks and I was awarded the view I had anticipated all morning, a sun drenched Glacier Peak to the east!

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Glacier Peak

Rising higher, and views to the high peaks and beautiful valley to the west were also an enjoyable side-show to the drama filled glacial ridges on the east.

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Looking to the west, and a beautiful forested valley.

With almost every turn, a new perspective of Glacier Peak was provided, sometimes from inside the treeline, then above, views up glacial-fed creek ridges and over desolate barren ridges devoid of even the stubborn vegetation. The looming mass of the giant, stationary and motionless even with the moving landscape around me.

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Glacier Peak, ever looming above.

Eventually, I came to a high saddle, that represented the first high point for my morning hike. Amazing views north came into the enormous panorama before me. Up to now Glacier Peak has obscured this perspective, so this is my first proper view towards the North Cascades National Park, and the landscape that will frame my last few days on the trail. I decided to take lunch at this point. A moment to savor a 360 degree view of Washingtons finest jewels.

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Looking north to the North Cascades National Park

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A view to Glacier Peak from its northwestern side.

After conversing with some other highers, and a chat with Syrup whom I had met a few times this morning, I began the long hike down to Milk Creek. Along the way, I stopped at Mica Lake, the bluest of blue lakes shimmering in the sun. A bunch of hikers were gathered at its eastern end taking in some sun, a swim, and some lunch, arguably a better spot than I chose myself!

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A good spot to chat to some other hikers for a while.

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Turquoise waters were inviting, and ICE cold!

After Mica Lake, the trail then followed a grassy ridge for a time, with access to probably the best public convenience yet! Washington just keeps pushing the bar higher with a view like this from the potty!

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The absolute best potty view yet!

Pushing onwards, and a daunting view of switchbacks could be seen dead ahead for a significant portion of the trail. After liaising with my trusty maps, I realized that to get to these switchbacks, would entail an elevation drop of almost 2000ft followed by a gain of 2000ft in order to navigate the Milk River at its bridge crossing and return to the traverse around the north side of Glacier Peak. Thankfully (sarc), as I dropped into the shadow on the ascent, I enjoyed some pretty views of the trail I would be ascending in two hours time’!

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In reality, the view of the ascent was far worse than the actual ascent. By the time I was working my way back up the switchbacks, the evening glow on the landscape and the peak ahead, had transformed it into something completely new. The softer hues on the landscape and the alpenglow gradually building on the glaciers ahead were simply magnificent.

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Finally pushing through the final switchbacks, and the following ridge once again opened into something completely new, a sheltered series of enormous meadows sporadically populated here and there with stubby evergreen trees. I hastened my pace, such that I could get back into the sun-line as by now, the sunset was established, with a noticeable chill at these elevations.

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After a quick chat with a senior hiker laying out camp for the night on a high ridge with a commanding view near the former Dolly Vista Shelter, I was now about to embark on another large elevation drop, from 5700ft down to the 2300ft and the Suiattle River. As if to give me one last gift from the Cascade volcanoes before my descent off the flanks of Glacier Peak, as I took in my last view of the great expanse to the north from this ridge-line, another silhouette appeared in the northwestern sky, none other than Mt.Baker, the last and (for me) most illusive of the Cascade volcanoes!

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A distant silhouette of Mt.Baker sneaks into view for a short time.

The descent towards tonights target was a slow steady progress. I had been playing with the idea of stopping short of the Suiattle River given how quickly nightfall had dropped in. Also, I was aware that a large stand of old growth forest existed just before the river crossing. It seemed like a shame to rush past in the middle of the night. I viewed the looming giant above, its glaciers glinting in the night for the last time as the trail dropped into heavy growth forest.

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As I descended further, I came against a large number of fallen trees in addition to the slippy trail and worn out trail tread in many places. As with my day of troublesome fallen-tree navigation in Oregon, this started to become tiring and tedious. Some of the trees were enormous giants of the forest, and in one case, the only way to get around it, was to throw my pack underneath and crawl through a tiny space between the ground and the tree trunk.

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Crawling beneath tree trunks in the dark. What fun!

I finally reached one of the first flat areas beyond the descent late in the evening, only to find that it was already filled with a large number of hikers packed into the tiniest of areas. I was tired and not inclined to go further, when I heard a friendly voice, a realized that Breakaway and FlyBy were camped here. There was a small spot beside a broken up tree trunk that I figured I could make my own, and set up camp quietly. Everyone seemed to be in bed or cooking their dinner, so I settled into the same routine, and looked forward to hiking tomorrow with my old crew again! Sprinkles, Homegrown, Blue and S’rocket at this point were most likely camped somewhere behind. Given the long day and elevation gain, I was surprised at the mileage I completed. It was a very fulfilling day!

 

Day 121: Immersed in the color and the light…

Day: Tuesday, 27th September 2016

Miles: 2480.0 – 2503.0 (23)

Pear Lake 2480.0 – Remote Site 2503.0

 

Unexpectedly it rained last night, and whilst thankfully it was not the deluge of last week, it was enough to wet my tent and make the pleasant camp near Pear Lake pretty damp this morning. As I got up, I remarked that I was the first into camp and yet the only tent in the damp zone, given the trees sheltered everyone else! Obviously I have much to learn about choosing a spot in damp weather, but I plead ignorance as this storm was a gift from the gods. The puddle I noticed yesterday near camp was now a large and beautifully reflective ornamental pool right beside my tent. The damp and chilly day prompted a late departure, and it was almost 9:15AM when I was finally packed up to leave.

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After decamping, FlyBy, Corndoggie, and Breakway all started ahead of me, whilst I once again gave in to curiosity and went in search of a random “TOILET” sign close to our spot. Once again, I enjoyed a glorious experience of remote seclusion as I made use of these very nice facilities!

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Pear Lake was a pleasantly sheltered spot, down a short distance from the PCT. As I ascended a little on the link trail back to the PCT, I heard some more voices ahead, S’rocket Blue, Sprinkles and Homegrown! They had unfortunately camped on an exposed ridge that was still inside the cloud line when they awoke, and so all of their gear (and themselves) were more than a little damp and miserable. They were hoping to stop and dry out so I continued ahead, hoping to meet them later on. The day was cloudy and dull, and whilst my weather forecast did not foretell of another dribbly morning, I was not entirely sure what way the weather would turn.

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Navigating northwards and the trail stayed atop the ridges just below the cloud-line for most of the morning. It was pleasant hiking, passing through groves of evergreen trees along with some patches of rockfalls, the stillness punctuated with chirping Pika’s going about their business. The color palette of the morning was grey, dark grey and dark green in every direction, mystical masses of cloud drifting past. Veils of raindrops coated the leaves and spiderwebs by the trail, for which I could not help[ but stop and admire. It was a little magical in its own way.

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I spent a good deal of time this morning pondering the weather. Mostly because this storm was so entirely at odds with the weather forecast I had saved when leaving Seattle yesterday. Did this mean that my confidence was misplaced around the storms coming next week? What if I now put myself a day late and risked completion. The conversations with myself of course were non-sensical, but thats how the human mind works.

Around mid-morning, and suddenly a warm brightness began to assert itself overhead, that moment when the sun is finally capable of warding off the invading clouds. As I wandered further, the sky became an immensely dramatic dance of clouds and blue, the warmth rising and the ground steaming with moisture. As I finally came to a large height after a long climb, I broke the clouds finally, with the views ahead revealing themselves.

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By mid-morning, the low clouds and mist were all but gone, replaced with a new magic, in the form of incredible fall colors in every direction. Whether I had passed into a microclimate, or over a ridge that caused a rain shadow – the colors of fall and intensity of the berries and plant life was immense. Reds, oranges and beige hues blended with deep greens and occasional glimpses ahead to the snowcapped Glacier Peak.

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Almost good enough to eat. Almost.

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Clouds to the left, blue skies to the right

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Glimpses of the mountains ahead

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In some places, the countryside was like a painters easel, with liberal spatters of color folding into the ridges ahead. It was another moment to look, to smell, to listen, to breathe.

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I was looking forward to some lunch by the time I arrived to Lake Sally Ann. To my surprise everyone was there, the gang from last night as well as the damp crew, who were drying out still from last night!

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After lunch, and Glacier Peak became much more focused ahead as our next target. Looking at the map, it was closer than the trail would allow, with a long series of switchbacks and indirect ridges before we would arrive at the foot of Glacier Peak. I discussed plans on camp spots when S’rocket was leaving the lunch spot, and had a mileage in mind that would put me close to Kennedy Creek, and its iconic broken footbridge.

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Arriving to the base of one ridge, I was quite excited to get a side-profile picture of FlyBy and Breakaway at different points of the ascent. I’ll admit, I was very tired at this point, and the idea of hiking up this ridge was absolutely not what I felt like doing at this moment in time!

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As the sun moved to the western side of the mountains, the views back towards the South were pleasant, with an ambient golden hue again visible on the meadows and clearings. I spent a lot of time stopped and admiring these views, it was a shame to rush especially on such a clear day. As of yet however I had not seen Mt.Rainier to the South, and I longed for another little glance at the giant.

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Looking Southeast from one of the ridgetops

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Glacier Peak by now was just ahead, but many miles to hike.

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Yet another beautiful sweeping valley

With the evening pulling the sun towards the west, I was overtaken by a sense of PCT nostalgia as I consumed the amazing views in every direction. I’ve always been a sunset guy, but it seemed like this might be one of those moments I would not forget in a hurry, and there was few moments for more PCT sunsets in my future! The trail kept ascending, and would top out at an enormous ridge just Southwest of Glacier Peak. By my pace, my eagerness to enjoy the moment, and my intense desire not to rush, I suspected I should really look at camping in advance of my plan.

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I was surprised by the size of the mountains to the west of Glacier Peak, an enormous ridge that was still snowcapped in late-September.

Reaching a saddle between two ridges, I took a break at Reflection Pond for my usual ‘salty-snack every 5 miles’ plan that has helped to get me this far. It was a good place to stop. I looked at my plan and mileage, as well as a long haul up to the next saddle, and figured that my target would not be possible without some hardly necessary night hiking. I started to ponder an earlier stopping point.

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Leaving the grove of trees and the pretty lake, and finally Glacier Peak was cloud free ahead. Its immense cone against the blue skies was truly magnificent.

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As I started to tackle the second to last haul of the day to the next high saddle at White Pass, it was cold in the shadows. I was certainly happy to see that the trail followed an exposed westerly facing ridge so I could get back into the sun (not to mention take in another epic sunset!) after the pass.

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I really liked the slightly passive notation on this sign at White Pass. NO CAMPING does sound a bit aggressive, so these guys went for “PLEASE CAMP ELSEWHERE”.

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Cresting the ridge-line at White Pass and I was not to be disappointed by the enormity view ahead, and the incredibly bright sun, low in the sky to the west. I was also pleasantly surprised to finally receive a panoramic view of the ridges we had gained some glimpses of to the west. They were far bigger than anything I expected to the west of Glacier Peak, and I decided that its an area I must explore at some time in the future.

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Unexpectedly I then hit another milestone with the 2500mile marker. Im rocking out my worst Jackie Onassis look with my sunglasses, but assure you that they (and my puffy) were required for this chilly westward walk tonight!

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Ascending further and further towards Red Pass, and the enormous sun gradually slipped into the darkness. The alpenglow surrounding me gradually began to ebb, and as I advanced to the top of the saddle, a beautiful wispy series of white clouds began to invade the valley from the north, leaking over a ridge like some kind of milky flood.

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Looking south from just below Red Pass, and I was finally provided me with the view I had longed for now all day, the distant enormity of Mt.Rainier and little Tahoma, clear against the southern horizon. I sat for a while. The stillness of the view was breathtaking. No sound. No movement. Only the gentle hues of the setting sun changing before my eyes.

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Finally reaching Red Pass, and the trail takes a very sudden easterly turn into an enormous and sweeping valley, virtually devoid of any vegetation. Snowbanks still lined the flanks as it gently curved towards Glacier Peak. It was an enormous and beautiful view, gradually sliding into darkness, as the sun behind me was already set.

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As I descended towards camp from Red Pass, the darkness now firmly established over this desolate valley, I finally caught up with S’rocket, Blue, Sprinkles and Homegrown by a roaring creek. They had made camp in a nice sheltered spot, and after a little mileage-hesitation, I decided that I would make camp here. I figured some ambient falling water to help me sleep, and good company before bed would be a good thing, and I had no idea how far my two compadres had gone! I had my favorite dinner of Avocado with Fritos and a packet of Mexican flavor rice all rolled up in a burrito for dinner. Just the ticket to end a long hike in the Washington hills. What an amazing day!

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Day 120: Time for the final push north…

Monday, 26th September 2016

Miles: 2461.6 – 2480.0 (18.5)

Stevens Pass 2461.6 – Pear Lake 2480.0

Just one more helping of salsa soaked scrambled eggs. And maybe another pancake. Or two. You can never be too careful as regards breakfast. In my case I wanted to enjoy this final Pacific Crest Trail pre-trail breakfast as much as I could, so I certainly made the most of the buffet. My cousin Pat (as commander in chief for more than a few group physical excursions in the past), was very rightly trying to ensure I was back on trail early, and so we hit the road promptly with time for a quick resupply en-route. I was pretty ecstatic to see that Mt.Rainier had finally decided to reveal itself, and was sitting there in all its glory, if a little annoyed it had not bother to do so when I was literally walking alongside it!

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I picked up some supplies for myself at the grocery store, and a few items requested by S’rocket and Blue who were about to arrive in Stevens Pass (some celebratory drinks for the final hurdle and some Dr.Scholls foot inserts). It was around 10:30AM when we finally got to the Stevens Pass trailhead, and after some initial packing and introducing my family to the hikertrash crew who were just getting into town, we went down to the trailhead to start off the day. The visitors had a plan to venture south to Mt.Rainier National Park after dropping me off, so we did a quick half mile of the trail together before saying our goodbyes. It was great to have some extra supporters for my spirits, and it was a melancholy feeling to say goodbye, but look ahead to a solo victory march of sorts – the final week of hiking to the border!

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On trail with my uncle. He flew from Ireland to hike a few miles with me!

As I departed, around 11:30AM, I was really very happy with the sunny but cool weather for the initial ascent back up to the ridgeline north of Stevens Pass. As the cell coverage came and went, I realized this may be the last coverage I will have until Canada, and grabbed a screenshot of the weather forecast at one of the final ridges with a view south. What previously showed as intermittent rain all week was now entirely clear through to Saturday at Cutthroat Pass, just before Canada! Washington you beauty!

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I’ll take this weather forecast. My last week, clear and moderate temps.

I had the entire trail to myself, and it was quite a few miles before I met the first humans on the trail, unexpectedly in this case a crew on horseback. In the golden hues of the Autumn landscape, it certainly was a nice afternoon for a ride.

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Finally reaching the top of the ridge, and the trail meandered gently northwards, before revealing an incredible view ahead to Glacier Peak, my first time seeing this beautiful mountain from the trail, and our focus for the next few days as the trail circumnavigates its west and northern flanks.

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Glacier Peak, our final major peak on the PCT

Hiking further, and I noticed how the sun was really having an incredible effect on the color palette ahead. Its been a few days of clouds for me, and given the blue skies I was now noticing the unique way that the huckleberries and some other vegetation turned into a radiant red when backlit by the sun. The colors ahead and the snow clad peaks to the Northwest were incredible. Once again the terrain had completely changed, now we were walking a ridge top, almost like a catwalk, parading between giant snowcaps to the far west and north.

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Hiking onwards, and I was eager to make camp around the 20 mile mark, however I had been moving a little slower than hoped given my full pack, late start and the incredible views. The sun was dropping in the sky, giving a magnificent sunset, but I was also cognizant that FlyBy and Breakaway were going to rejoin the trail at Stevens Pass sometime in the afternoon, and if I wanted to camp with them, it would probably be best to hold short, as they were less interested in night hiking. As the sun began to set, it was quite noticeably colder up here than I expected. The ridge-top hike was exposed to the west for the first time in many days, and subjected to a cool breeze, but there was also some clouds to the west that suggested it may cloud in overnight. I was eager not to camp too high as a result. Looking to the map, I picked out the pleasant sounding Pear Lake as my target, that would make it around 18 miles for the day, and the potential for being joined by my long lost compadres if they made it this far!

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At some points today, Glacier was feeling closer and farther with every bend!

I arrived at Pear Lake a little after sunset. It was dark and as I haphazardly fetched water from the lake down a steep drop into the waters, I could make out ghostly shadows of trees in the dark. It was a solitary place, and lonely at that point. Only a breeze in the trees broke the silence. I made my dinner and enjoyed the moment, for all its creepiness, it was beautiful and maybe provided even more of a moment to enjoy, given the realization that I wont have many more moments like this on the trail. Every one needs to be enjoyed, to be savored. In the distance at one point I could hear noise, barely perceptible and possibly miles away. I listened intently, hoping it might be some other hikers joining me for the night, but sadly it gently blended into the wind. I had placed a crudely marked arrow on the trail, pointing in the direction of Pear Lake, with the words “SHEPHERD” marked in the dirt.

Around 9pm and once again I heard a noise, then another, and then light, and realized that I was indeed being joined by company! At least my little marker on the trail was seen! Breakaway, FlyBy and Corndoggie then arrived into my little outpost and set up camp. It was really great to see them all, to share stories of the last few days, and beta on the week ahead. Everyone was in great spirits. Ready for the final push north! To Canada!

Day 119: Pretending I’m a real person… (ZERO)

Day: Sunday, 25th September 2016

Miles: 2461.7 (0)

ZERO Day – Seattle Washington

It was likely to be my last ZERO miles day of this Pacific Crest Trail endeavor, and the decision to do it was an impulsive one. Family had travelled thousands and thousands of miles to meet me on the trail at Stevens Pass. It seemed like a travesty to race back on the trail just hours later, when the weather forecast suggested sunny skies through the next week. As I awoke in Seattle to this epiphany, my ‘whats the rush?’ mantra had been fully reinstated and it felt really good. It was time to have some fun in the company of family. The sun was shining, and what better way to enjoy the great Emerald City.

Firstly of course, breakfast was in order, and after a short trip to the waterfront, I enjoyed both first and second breakfast at one immense sitting with my family. It was certainly one of the more memorable breakfasts of the PCT although sadly it was a little too classy to have a ‘Lumberjack Special’ on the menu, my usual favorite (along with a short stack of pancakes). A tantalizing and scary glimpse into life off-trail for me – very soon these enormous breakfasts will be a thing of the past!

After breakfast, we took a walk down to the waterfront, and enjoyed the views of Elliot Bay and Puget Sound all the way to the Olympic Mountains. Mt.Rainier even decided to show itself, albeit a little unconfidently with some cloud cover swirling around its peak to the south.

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Wandering through Pike Place Market, and I pondered the idea of a haircut and beard trim, before thankfully realizing that it was a ludicrous idea. My enormous mop of hair was far too wonderful to sacrifice so close to the end. I’ve spent 5 months growing this beautiful beard, Im not leaving it behind now!

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After a quick look at the Olympic Sculpture Park, I went to the REI flagship store for one of the most important parts of this ZERO day, new shoes! I have been wearing my current shoes since Etna, CA (1597.1 – 2461.7) and a change is long overdue. This is my fourth and final pair of shoes supporting the PCT. This pair has lasted the longest, thanks to Oregon and Washingtons largely pine needle clad trails, not to mention the good weather. It felt really great to get some new bounce on my feet, although I was a little sad to say goodbye to the old pair, as it seems like only yesterday I had them delivered to Etna!

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After a nap and some further chats and catchups with my sister and cousins, we went for a proverbial last supper at a seafood restaurant down the road from the hotel. It was a great dinner with great company. Definitely a superb ZERO day, and after running some quick calculations in my mileage cheat sheet, its just seven days left on this magical trip. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Monday morning and my final big push to Canada!

Day 118: Wandering through the clouds…

Day: Saturday, 24th September 2016

Miles: 2437.3 – 2461.7 (24.4)

Dry Creekbed Remote Site 2437.3 – Stevens Pass Ski Lodge 2461.7

There was no hesitation at getting out of bed this morning, since the payoff would be an early meet-up with my cousins, my uncle and my sister in Stevens Pass. As I quickly ate my double oatmeal portion, I surveyed the elevation profile for todays hike. It was a little under 25 miles through to Stevens Pass, through undulating terrain that should provide some good views (not to mention a good workout). My hope for a 10miles by 10AM and 20 miles by 2PM plan was likely a bit ambitious even this early in the day, so I sent a message on my InReach device to warn my meet-up crew that I may be a tad late. The sun was shining, my pack was light and it was a great day for a hike! At 7:15AM I hit the trail, the sun having only just provided some illumination into the deep valley. In the distance I could hear falling water, a remnant of yesterdays somewhat miserable deluges filtering down the valley. Almost immediately I had a fun traverse over a river that was emerging from a very impressive rock strewn spill way that seemed to emanate high up on the ridge to the west.

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This nameless creek on my map at least) presented a fun traverse at the start of my day.

Continuing beyond the river, and the trail quickly rose through a very pleasant area of high forests. I met some hikers aiming southbound and chatted briefly about the usual things – when I started, when I hoped to finish, and how has it been (a question I always struggle to answer properly). At times I gained some amazing views of the high ridge behind me, as they slowly revealed themselves after a few days of being hidden in the clouds.

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Looking southwards as the sun struggles to advance over the ridge tops.

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Amazing smells and sounds through the high forests.

Pushing northwards, I started the ascent to Piper Pass, the high point for today. I was once again into the cloud line, and witnessed a magnificent game to tug, between the sun and the clouds. Inversions swirled below in the deep valleys, occasionally allowing the light in, before the wind built up and once again hid the amazing peaks from view. I stopped many times to simply breath. To smell, to listen and to watch this natural drama of gentle movement.

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Gazing back to the huge ridge in the west that has sheltered my hike over the last day,

By now the sun was established and I was virtually atop Piper Pass. The golden and red colors of the fall huckleberry bushes, mixed with blue skies, white clouds and deep greens of the evergreen state was really quite magical.

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A cloud sopped panorama of Washingtons beautiful Northern Cascade Mountains.

As I passed the ominously sounding Deception Lakes, the reflections and stillness of this sheltered spot was instantly inviting, so I stopped for a short snack, and to follow an unexpected sign for a toilet. I had to see what this was inferring (such a considerable distance from any trailhead), only to find a particularly pleasant wooden potty, built into a private spot a little way from the trail. Washington just keeps delivering on these little conveniences!

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Deception Lakes in the autumn stillness

The final ascent to Piper Pass was far less strenuous than expected, if a little obscured through to the final reaches of the pass. Compared to the Sierra Nevada passes, Washington has many passes inside tree-line, where you might be barely aware that its a pass at all. Regardless, just before I dropped into clouds at the top of the pass, I received one last beautiful view of Cathedral Rock, all but obscured by cloud and darkness for the entirety of yesterday!

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Looking Southwest, Cathedral Rock (on the left), Terrace Mountain and Mt.Daniel range.

Beyond the pass, was blue skies and more jagged imposing peaks to the northwest, the direction the trail begins to follow through to Stevens Pass.

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Crossing Piper Pass, and epic views to Thunder Mountain and the north emerge, along with Glacier Lake deep below with a huge rock slide area that I will traverse later.

Dropping down into the valley by Glacier Lake, and more dramatic features of glaciation, weather and harsh winters were observed, the trail delicately winding its way through debris flows with rocks the size of houses.

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Beyond Glacier Lake and once again I was in the clouds, occasionally being awarded glimpses of emerald and turquoise colored lakes below the trail. Almost as quickly as a picture was taken, the view would disappear or explode into a wondrous panorama of colors and alpine splendor.

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Moving out of the close valleys around Piper Pass and emerged to deep valleys with enormous views to the peaks in the east and north. I was now on the sunny side of the pass and the sun was warm and pleasant with a cool breeze. At one point I rested up for a while, eating a wrap with peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies and strawberry jam. By now a predictable lunchtime treat. There was many day hikers in this section, and so I checked my map for any trailheads, finding that the Tunnel Creek Trail actually brings hikers to Rt-2 very close to my position. As the trail dropped in elevation to the trail junction, the crowds grew and grew. The trail now had all of the signs of overuse, with a heavily eroded tread, mud and alternate trails in many places where users were avoiding drainage ditches still filled with water from the recent rains. I was unhappy in this area. It was hard to make progress, my shoes were now caked in mud, and the huge amount of day hikers were not in the rush that I was to get to Stevens Pass! I was happy to pass the trail junction and crowds around Hope Lakes, and by the time I ascended my last ridge of the day, the trail was all mine once again! Seemingly the northbound trail was too steep for most day hikers, with barely and signs of use!

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Descending to the Hope Lakes and a busy trail junction with the Tunnel Creek Trail.

Following a really pretty saddle between a lake and a small river, I received my first glimpse of ski lifts on the horizon ahead. As I ascended a dizzying array of switchbacks taking me in the opposite direction of the final pass (at the top of Stevens Pass ski resort), I finally reached the Pacific Crest ski trail. This provided a magnificent view northwards, to the mountains I planned to hike tomorrow, along with the ski resort lodge below, where my family would meet me!

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Once again I pass a ski resort, in this case Stevens Pass and my destination for today!

I suddenly had phone coverage once again, and virtually ran that last 2 miles down the hill to the lodge, surveying some nice looking ski runs in their sad looking fall state. As I walked every last inch of one final (and slightly frustrating) switchback right at the very end, I could hear my cousin calling to me from the deck. I had made it to Stevens Pass!

We all enjoyed a beer and celebrated the occasion (as well as allowing me to take a little rest!). It was around 4PM, quite a bit later than hoped, but the whole area was enveloped in a warm sunny glow, and it was great to catch up. After a while, we jumped in the car and headed to Redmond, near Seattle, for dinner, where my sister surprised the group by arriving from New York for a quick hello! We had a lovely dinner, before making camp at a hotel near the REI in Seattle itself (chosen thoughtfully by my cousin as he figured REI was a must-visit for me – and I did need new shoes!).

It was great to get cleaned up and share stories – to my uncle and sister, who had flown from Ireland and New York, and my cousins from Pennsylvania. I was awestruck by how much trouble everyone had gone to, so that they could join me on the trail for a few miles! It seemed like such a shame to only spend a night with them, and as I lay awake in bed that night, with dates and numbers swirling in my head, I once again remembered my PCT mantra ‘whats the rush?’. I would never be back here in this moment with my family again, it really was not worth leaving tomorrow for a NERO day, when I could make up that 10 miles another time. The decision was made. Tomorrow is a ZERO day!

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After a quick drive to Seattle, a good long shower and a nice dinner, I can relax with family!

Day 117: Chilled to the core…

Day: Friday, 23rd September 2016

Miles: 2408.9 – 2437.3

Delate Creek 2408.9 – Dry Creekbed Remote Site 2437.3

Waking at 7AM after the most glorious nights sleep (on a mattress of pine needles) was certainly a good way to start the day. The realization that it was already raining however did not exactly add to this mornings positive vibes. I was on my own, and I was not quite sure where everyone else was (likely ahead, but potentially behind), and that coupled with the rain certainly put me a few steps backwards in the mental department as I decamped. The nice sheltered spot I camped in was bone-dry however and that eased me into the dribbling attempts at rain outside my camp. As I started walking I just hoped it would stay dribbling and not become a repeat of a few days ago. Literally inside a short distance I entered a large burn zone, something I had not seen in over a week. Theres something about burn zones that really is sad. The withered tree-limbs and incinerated soil, within eyeshot of verdant green slopes was quite jarring.

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The dribbling morning rain eventually began something more persistent if not a convincing set of rain showers, and I continued hiking throughout the morning enjoying the blowing mist amongst the hills, as well as the occasional puddle jump. There appeared to be an enormous amount of trails in this area, cross-cutting the PCT in every direction. At one point the trail followed a large river, and included a pretty meaty river crossing over the Waptus River, where a stock alternate was in place for the PCT.

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Eventually the rains subsided into a light drizzle, but the rain was replaced with a cold wind which certainly did provide a good chill. A reminder that Im on the wrong side of summer and still heading northwards.

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Around noon, the rain started again, and along with the wind provided reasonably uncomfortable conditions for hiking. At one point I really felt the chills (my hands were shivering), and decided to don some extra layers. As simple as rain and a cold breeze may sound, Im not sure I was prepared for exactly how cold and wet I had become during the mornings hike. When I decided to stop and relayer, I realized that I was literally freezing cold right to the core. Not just a winter chill, but something was not right. I began to realize that I was not just freezing cold, but I was damp to the core (perspiration inside my gear) and finding it difficult to coherently open my bag to get more layers. Its a difficult to describe feeling, but I suspect that when the words exposure are used, in describing the physicality’s of a temperature induced emergency, that I likely was not in a good place at that time. I struggled with the simplest of tasks, and spent a considerable amount of time attempting to open my bag. I was shivering and barely able to take off my jacket to relayer, never mind put on more layers. It took me almost 30 minutes of incoherence and barely working hands, to try and take off my wet top layer and redress. I was coherent enough to realize that I needed to do something about the situation, and sat beneath a sheltered tree for a time in a tiny dry spot, boiling some water for tea. Im really still not sure to this day what actually happened at the moment, but from start to finish it likely took around 2 hours from feeling a chill to the core, through to feeling warm and coherent enough to continue. I certainly got a fright, as on a personal level, I have always felt very independent and capable of handling conditions appropriately, yet today I was completely caught out. As I ventured further I was very aware of the conditions and the fact that Im not an expert in dealing with this area of the country, never mind my perceived ability to deal with cold and rain having grown up in Ireland. It was a useful learning experience, i.e. be aware at all times that conditions change, and you need to be appropriately attired.

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As the trail dropped into a series of valleys, the fall color was ever more apparent. At one point I met a southbound hiker named Serenity, and we sat together for a break for an enjoyable chat in the dripping rain. She had a little platypus wetbag of tequila, and we shared a sip for the trails sake(!), enjoying a brief moment with a new friend before continuing on our respective north and southbound journeys! Around that time I also finally met the rest of the trail crew, including Outro, Six and Meerkat as well as Budd and Fret. It seems they were the crew back at the waterfall, and I had managed to miss them!

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Hiking further into the mountains and occasional glimpses of beautiful snow capped peaks occasionally revealed themselves. The Cascades are magnificent in any weather.

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Finally reaching a flat meadow with a large lake, the larger trail crew decided to camp for the night, however I had a schedule to keep to, namely meeting my cousins at lunchtime tomorrow in Stevens Pass, so I elected to continue further, and as the skies finally cleared, I hiked towards a monumental peak (Cathedral Peak I believe) to the north, which the PCT would cut around before dropping to the valley on the far side. My plan was to aim for a dry creekbed camp site on the far side. Morale was high and with my layering correctly (and lessons learned) from earlier, I was enjoying another evenings hiking.

IMG_5803IMG_5806IMG_5809Finally reaching the creek bed after dark, I put down camp under the gaze of a curious field mouse. Eager not to let him get at any of my food, I made sure to stash everything properly tonight. I’ve been lucky to avoid the critters up to now, and would like to continue! After a little adventure trying to find water way up the creek bed, I finally settled into bed quite late, exhausted, but most importantly warm!