PCT, Section J WA, Part 1
It was real. CN’s car was waiting for us at the Snoqualmie Pass trailhead, the packs where loaded, and I was gripping my last real cup of coffee in my hands. Wait, hold on. This was real. My husband had pulled out of the Steven’s Pass parking lot, my Outback becoming a smaller gray-blue dot and disappearing around a corner. Whoo. This was really, really real.
My full backpack swayed as we passed what we each swore would be the final ski lift. How many ski lifts are here even? After our first thousand foot climb, we came upon the eerie site of the dry and stark Jupiter Express, meeping pikas, and thick warmly lit smoke. This moment was the first of many times I consulted my Guthook app, confused by the obscured valley below and the semi-trail spurring off in two directions. Surely we wouldn’t be hiking back down already? Yep, we were going down the same elevation we’d just climbed. CN, Marta, some day hikers, and more backpackers snacked on blueberries as we made our way to our first pitstop and lake, Lake Susan Jane, where I was grateful for my ridiculous sunhat and bug net setup. Fueled by gummy bears and macadamia nuts, we climbed back up to camp, taking in even more flowers and cool butterflies and bugs.
Our first night’s destination, and given our late start and a desire to ramp up our mileage as gradually as was possible to do, with respect to water sources and climbs, was 7.5 miles in at Mig Lake. As we arrived, I noticed a group of backpackers we’d passed lounging at one of the remaining flat camp spots. Determined not to wander, I plucked up the courage these six strangers if they were planning to camp there for the night (they weren’t), and we spent the next half hour getting to know more about them with our heavy packs resting on the ground. Mig Lake I’m sure would have provided an amazing sunset and views (mainly from the pit toilet looking back at Steven’s Pass… what?!), but the smoke was pervasive.
After a slightly rough first night of sleep, wherein each sound, snap, and gust of wind jolted me awake, and a complete breakfast fail (the jar of peanut butter was opened this morning and never reopened for the remainder of the trip), I was eager to get moving and start our climbs for the day as early as we could. We quickly came upon the most magical meadow I could have imagined that morning. I’m a sucker for meadows and snapped away as CN and Marta moved along ahead of me. At our water filtering/snack stop, we watched tadpoles wriggling around and caught glimpses of frogs before they scurried away out of the rising sun.
Along the rocky ascent above Trap Lake and towards Trap Pass, while I was getting a little grumpy about how smokey and uphill the trail was about to be (technically, we saw the lake, but I don’t think it’s really as brown and sad as it looked on this day), I bumped into @hiker_katherine! The excitement about seeing someone I recognized was enough to keep me focused as CN and I turtled up the switchbacks where Marta was meeting us at the top of the pass.
Once at the top, we lamented the lack of views and started down the other side intending to eat lunch on the shore of Glacier Lake. I learned that my strength within the group is my decent downhill cruising speed. We thought we had caught a glimpse of Surprise Lake, but again, smoke filled the afternoon. We crossed over some talus, where I spotted a few chunks of quartz, but mostly focused my clumsy feet navigating the loose rock. As anticipated, the lake had very little in the way of a view, though the fresh water was blissful relief.
Ready for the second climb of our 12-mile day, and establishing our climbing pattern of Marta being the master of elevation gain in the crew, CN and I came upon the base of Pieper Pass. We stopped at the tent sites at the bottom of the climb and stared upward, trying to figure out exactly where the trail would end up taking us. But onward we went, eventually switchbacking up what didn’t look like the pass to us from below. I ended up quite far behind, frustrated at my slow feet, but finally, a smile crept over my face at the top. Drawn in the dirt was a heart with a message of encouragement (there would be a few more over the coming days). And on the downward stretch, I met up with the other two.
At Deception Lakes we finally caught glimpses of something beautiful! Though, my smoke-addled brain over many stretches of this trail just couldn’t be bothered taking my camera off my pack. We chatted with an older woman who was from California doing the same section for a bit and compared our journeys so far. After some freshly filtered water, we continued for a couple more miles to a less scenic camp to put us closer to the next climb. Pooped from the double-pass day, we set up camp in the near-dark, and I shoveled unappetizing rehydrated lasagna into my tired and underfed body.
Determined not to fall as far behind as I had done the day before, and fueled by irritation at not being able to sleep from smoke-related breathing issues, the next morning I hurried to pack my tent and gear and hit the trail on my own ahead of the other two. I bounced along smoothly on the soft PNW dirt trail until encountering an older man who seemed to be doing his best to frighten me with talk about a dangerous stream crossing ahead. I continued onward, until realizing that this danger was overblown. Just as I was pulling down my poles to cross, CN and Marta arrived, and we crossed as a group, though my shoes dived on the final leap to dry ground. And so began the slow trek up towards Cathedral Rock, in wet socks and wet trail runners.
CN and I eventually met back up in the meadow below Cathedral Rock, gawking upward at the jagged peak and beyond to snow covered mountains. This was our best view of the trip so far, and the walk up to our meeting spot was slow as each turn resulted in more impressive sights. We came upon Marta sprawled on her sleeping pad, and I was slightly jealous, as mine was buried too deep in my pack to warrant such a luxurious break.
On the down, we decided to assess our status once arriving at Deep Lake to see if we wanted to hike longer than a 10-mile day. This descent was harshly steeper than we expected, and the lake was more beautiful than we had conceived, so when Marta and I arrived to take a “break,” we instead started to set up camp once CN arrived. This campsite was one of my favorites, though I wish I hadn’t been as beat so that we could explore other options along the forested side. Our outcrop that night was filled with the sounds of cascading waterfalls from across the way and the lapping lake water. Curled snugly in my sleeping bag I finally drifted into my first full night of sleep.