PCT, Section J WA, Part 3
We’re almost done with the elevation gain! This next stretch should be easier! I’m shocked that my friends didn’t smack me each time I consulted my elevation map and assured them that the worst was over. The pinky-blue sky overhead on the morning of Day 6 of our hike motivated me to crawl out of my tent and get hiking. We decided to walk out as a group that morning to avoid the labyrinth of social trails on the shore of Spectacle Lake.
I straggled behind, taking in the view of Three Queens, and trying to focus on my feet as the trail became rockier. LOL, rocks! If only I knew! LOL, gain! If only I knew!
I started the day so happy that it was finally clear enough to see the views around us. I met up with Marta and CN by a meadow at the top of the first climb of the day, and we stayed together while we wound through small lakes and cute campsites, arrogantly thinking that the “trail across the way” was not where we’d end up.
Well, it was. We didn’t talk about it. When I got home, it seems that nobody talks about it either. The first indicator of what we’d be doing was a sign for equestrians warning that they would not be able to turn around for the next few miles, how anyone would take a horse, goat, donkey, or any four-legged creature through that stretch I’ll never fathom. Marta and I were moving more slowly this morning behind CN and the rocky height we’d ascend to made us nervous, so we kept closer together through the first ascent up to PCT mile 2406.7. Mile 2406.7 is the crest of a ridge and on one side is the east where we came from with a view of the lakes, Three Queens, and Hillbox Mountain, and on the other is the Four Brothers, Huckleberry, and Alaska Mountain… And the miles of the most sketchy-ass scree I’ve seen in my whole life.
The three of us kept within talking distance, CN leading, me next, and Marta as our caboose, moving slowly under the Four Brothers, stopping every so often to awe at how high up and how close the top of them was. We learned very quickly that this was a bad idea after a half-mile in CN started a very small rockslide. We froze watching the rock flow between us, filled with absolute terror. We kept farther apart after that, continuing to move as quickly as we dared to solid ground.
We reached a sparse patch of trees about two miles in with large suitable sitting rocks, and I declared that this needed to be our lunch stop. My hands and legs were shaking from nerves, and while CN and Marta took pictures, I calmed myself with glorious food. I reached out to check Guthook to see how much farther we had to go for the day, and nearly fell over at the flood of incoming texts I was receiving. I hadn’t realized I’d turned off airplane mode and we all huddled around my phone as I sent out messages to our loved ones letting them know our status. It was an injection of comfort in this ridiculous place that spurred us onward and increasingly upward.
We passed more and more people as we got closer to Huckleberry Mountain and caught glimpses of Mount Rainier and Keechelus Lake while we paused near 6,000 feet, the highest point of the PCT we’d reach. Home felt so close from here. When we reached the end of the scree, Marta decided to forge ahead to Ridge/Gravel Lakes to secure us a camp spot. Given our close proximity to overnight backpackers, it felt urgent at the time to make sure we had a definite place to camp.
CN and I kept pace across passing both Joe and Alaska lakes and curved around Alaska Mountain. We caught sight of a thru-hiker, making direct eye contact as the thundering sound of a rock fall in the direction he came from cemented us in place. Grateful that it hadn’t caused anyone harm, we kept alert looking for where it occurred but saw nothing but fretful pikas meeping and darting underfoot. The rocks didn’t stop until we reached a junction where Marta was waiting for us to show us to our camp.
I was perched on the bank of Ridge Lake, gulping water because our journey had had no significant source of water since mile 2406.7, my hat blew directly onto the rippling edge. I could only laugh and fish it out, knocking my full water bottles into the water in the process. We quickly realized that fitting two tents would be a Tetris-like exercise, and I ended up with a small tree companion under my rain fly for the night.
Our last dinner on the trail was so blurred and cold. CN was gracious enough to let me polish off the remaining butter and mini tortillas she’d brought along, saving me the trouble of bothering with my stove. We hung our much lighter food bags and hurried to get warm in the tents as the temperature dropped. Once in PJs and snug, I discovered that I had a tree root running under my tent. Such is the way of things!
My alarm going off at 6:00 AM was so jarring and unnecessary. I slept poorly, thinking that we’d experienced heavy rain overnight. We hadn’t, but Ridge Lake had formed a damp weather system overnight, causing the larger trees we camped under to rain down over us. At this elevation, our camp was surrounded by a thick fog. We delayed and delayed in our sleeping bags hoping that the sun would rise and make things better. I internally panicked because I had precisely zero rain gear for the remaining few miles to the car (don’t recommend doing this, don’t be like me).
Eventually, my bright red, cold hands shoved my gear haphazardly into my backpack, up until my sleeping bag and tent itself. I savored every warm moment in my bag until the others were ready to get moving. Eventually, much later than we planned, we were on our way to finish this section of the trail. We couldn’t see much of anything at first, and it became much more apparent that it hadn’t rained at all. Especially when attempting to get a view of Gravel Lake resulted in nothing but gray.
Our talk was pretty focused on showers and food that morning. We tried to distract ourselves from the endless rocks on rocks on rocks under our feet. The weather around us obscured the approach to the infamous Kendall Katwalk so much that we weren’t sure if we were near it until CN was about to cross it. Generally, it is considered a treacherous part of the trail because of the steep drops on either side, but without any view to give us perspective on how high up we were, our crossing was fairly uneventful.
Immediately past the Katwalk, the trail is relatively unstable from erosion and rocks. The stories I’d heard about folks attempting to hike from Snoqualmie, finding early season snow, and having to turn around only a couple of miles from the trailhead now began to make sense. We openly cursed the rocks, and I kept checking to see how many miles we had left, getting GPS drift, and finding we had another mile or more to go.
Eventually, we met with the Commonwealth Basin Trail and began passing more and more day hikers. After days of climbing into the same hiking clothes, it was so bizarre to see all of these people pass by. Marta and I couldn’t stop commenting on how clean they looked and smelled! We were so excited to be that clean again.
Finally, the trail was recognizable, and I darted ahead once I saw the tell-tale picnic tables and waved CN and Marta over. Right ahead of us was the trailhead bathroom and that beautiful, fantastic trailhead sign! The car! Oh my god, the car! After some selfies, changes of clothes, and sitting down in real seats, we were pulling out of the parking lot and away from the trail. I resisted the temptation to rush to use my cellular service and get lost in my phone, instead my eyes fixed on the rapidly speeding tunnel of green along I-90. We stopped for the best truck rest stop burgers in the world, and I looked at my face in a mirror for the first time in days. I washed my hands and face three times. I drank frigid, bubbly soda. I gawked at all the clean people while I inhaled curly fries.
We’d done it, and it was real. The three of us, me and these two amazing people, had traveled ~76 miles and ~16 thousand feet up on foot in the last 6 and half days. When CN dropped me off at home, all I could do is smile that my husband was there, and retreat into my bathtub for hours. It didn’t feel real, but all evidence leads to the conclusion that it was. It was really real.