Cut the Cord
Let’s play a game
You have 100 points. Your life is now a video game, and every time you’re bitten by a mosquito, you lose a point. Guessed where this is going? We’ll call this game ‘The Morning Routine.’
Level 1 – You wake up in your tent at the same time as your bowels. You stare upward at the early morning light seeping through your tent fly and spot the mosquitos perched at the ready. You dash out of the tent, grab your ice axe (quicker for poop hole digging than your Deuce of Spades), and look for a spot. You dig a hole amidst mosquitos, squat amidst mosquitos, wipe amidst mosquitos while you fight to avoid a full set of bites from blossoming on your behind.
Level 2 – You need to get back in the tent. Unzip the two zippers and scooch your butt in there as quickly as possible. Mosquitos make it in there with you? Better squash em quick.
Level 3 – You need to crawl out of your tent to filter water from the nearby stream, aka a mosquito breeding ground. Kneel in place by the stream until your bottles are full, while a mosquito cloud develops around you. Run back to your tent and scooch inside. Mosquitos get inside? You know the drill.
Level 4 – Take down your tent. That’s right, take down the one barrier between you and the mosquitos before starting your day of hiking through mosquitos. You have 30 seconds until they’re all over you. Go!
How many points do you have left? Zero. You have zero points left. It’s 7am.
You learn quickly that the trail giveth and the trail taketh away. Ali started off the first 5 miles with me before giving me a hug goodbye and parting ways. My goal was to make 12 miles to the first water source, even though I’d planned for 10 mile days coming off Rainier. I pulled into the campsite with Lucas, a cool guy from Chile with a small guitar strapped to his pack. The mosquitos were bad, so we filtered water quickly before setting up our tents. I made dinner in the sun to avoid the mosquito swarms just as a group of NOBOs showed up.
When I got back to my tent, the mosquitos were so bad that I backed my butt into the tent opening and pulled my backpack in behind me as quickly as possible. I sat up on my inflatable sleeping pad and rolled my backpack over only to hear a quick ‘pop!’ and hisssssss. Turns out that in my haste, I’d forgotten to take my ice axe off my pack, and the pick had just punctured a gash in the foot of my sleeping pad. The pad deflated around me as I sat there, slowly lowering my body to the ground. I thought well, I can laugh, I can cry or I can just sit here.
So I sat there. I sat there and thought about all my good and bad relationships, my family, my dog… why am I here, why am I doing this, why today, on my first day? Is it all going to be like this? I don’t need these cliche lessons. Then I snapped to and grabbed my puncture repair kit, which seemed to plug the gash on the third try. I woke up on the floor at 3am, reached around in the dark for the nozzle, lifted my body up and inflated the pad, which kept me off the ground until I was up at 6.
The next day had me nervous. A review of my maps the night before told me that I’d need to travel 15 miles to the next water source. I was feeling better than expected after Rainier, so I decided to give it a go. The only problem was that this meant my first encounter with snow travel, a day earlier than expected. I’d have to cross the North slope of Devil’s Peak, a 1’000 ft drop that was still completely snow covered. I’d read reports that hikers ahead of me were using a series of glissade chutes to slide down the peak on their butts, but that some navigation skill would be necessary to refind the trail. Was I ready for that?
I spent the whole morning feeling worried. I ran across a couple other hikers, but they’d be on trail since Mexico and were moving at lightning speed. I found myself wanting a buddy for my first encounter with snow, but there just weren’t many people around. Lucas was still in his tent when I left camp, so I figured that if I got up to the snow and didn’t feel comfortable, I could wait for him to catch up and do it together.
It was around mid-morning that I heard some voices in the woods off to the left of me. A little ways up and I could see a couple marching out to the PCT, and soon they were behind me. We said hi and the man asked, “are you excited for the snow park?! We get to glissade!” with way more enthusiasm than I was feeling.
Turned out this couple was hiking north through Oregon at just about my speed. Their names were Golden Dragonfly and Deet Free, though as of this writing he is no longer deet free. I hiked ahead of them, trudging up to the peak, which thankfully took us out of the mosquito zone, a much needed reprieve.
At one point I missed a junction and when I sat down for a break, checked my maps and panicked when I noticed the mistake. I was worried my new friends were going to beat me to the snow park and go down without me! I hurried back to the junction and turned down the right trail. About 5 minutes in, I spotted my friends along the ridge up ahead, and caught up to them when they stopped for a break in the shade. Deet Free asked where I’d come from and what had led me here, and I explained a bit before he said, “So this is like a transformation hike for you. I like that.” I feel like it’s a transformation hike for all of us.
The Dreaded First Snow
I reached the snow park ahead of the others and took my pack off to venture down to the snow line to take a look. I packed all of my loose items (like my water bottles) inside my bag, pulled off my ice axe and microspikes and attached my poles to my pack. It’s a good idea to avoid having much on the outside of your pack when you glissade because things can fall off and get lost along the way.
I waited a while for my friends to show up, even backtracking on the trail at one point to see if I could spot them. I took a look at the path again and saw the glissade chutes, so I decided I’d make a go for it. I scrambled down the rock to the snow and just as I was getting ready to walk on the snow, my friends showed up! They came down to join me and I found out that neither of them had an axe or spikes, so Golden Dragonfly was feeling nervous about the slide. I started it off with my axe, followed by Deet Free and Golden Dragonfly, who needed some encouraging. The slide was fast and at a couple places turned around a tree and bumped over some rocks, so I was glad to have my ice axe to control my speed. Lucas had caught up by this point, so he slid down behind Golden Dragonfly and joined us in our navigation adventure. 3 more glissades and a small climb back up to the trail and we were past the snow park!
Pad Gash Woes Part 2
We made it a short way past the snow and into a campsite beside a stream (enter video game mode). I collapsed inside my tent to do some more doctoring to the gash in my sleeping pad, took half a Benadryl to help with my bites, brushed my teeth, swallowed my toothpaste and crashed within 5 minutes.
I woke up on the floor twice during the night, which let me know that my pad wasn’t getting any better. It was time to pull out the big guns, aka the Garmin Inreach SE. I got this GPS device for the sanity of my family and friends so that they can track where I am and I can send an SOS call if necessary. The unit also has two-way satellite messaging, so I’m able to text check-in messages or, in this case, ask for help. I texted my mom letting her know the situation, and within an hour she had a new (and lighter!) sleeping pad being overnighted to Crater Lake, where I’d be arriving the next day. Mad props to Garmin and mad props to my mom.
The next morning, I climbed up past the mosquito zone again and into a beautiful valley. There had been a big fire here, so all of the trees were tall blackened dead stalks. But beneath them were these gorgeous purple flowers that smelled like heaven, and tons of baby pine trees sprouting up to take the place of their burned out brethren. They were just so cute, at one point I patted a baby pine on the head and said, “You’re doing great, kid. You’re all killin’ it.”
Writing this now reminds me of a magic moment after my lunch break when I passed through my first meadow full of purple flowers. As I passed by, I heard a flute playing from somewhere within the flowers, and I spotted my friends out there taking a break in the shade. They looked like little fairies out there among the wildflowers, and it was one of those ‘is this really my life?’ moments. It made me smile.
Trials by Water
Water was harder to come by on this stretch, and I used a water report on my phone to find a pond off trail. The report said something along the lines of “0.1 miles north of this junction, before the tree with an “i” marked on it, head northwest to a space between two rock outcroppings and march straight up to a pond that should still have water in it.” Alright. I found the tree with the marking and began my search, up one hill, then back down and up again through a different set of rocks. The pond! Beautiful brown-water pond, saving me a mile side trip off trail to another water source. I pumped the water with my MSR filter, which I use when the water isn’t flowing clear. It came out slightly yellow, so I put some Aqua Mira in it and then some nuun tablets, which I got to watch form a nuun volcano while I waited for my friends to catch up.
When my friends caught up, I pointed them to the pond (they didn’t have the water report) and told them I’d see them at camp. It was another 4 miles uphill to the ridgeline campsite that was rumored to have no mosquitos. They weren’t lying! I set up my hammock in the afternoon breeze and wrote in my journal, read my book, made dinner and went to bed. All told, it’s been a well rounded introduction to PCT life, and I’m excited to hit my first town (and first shower!) soon.
Thanks to all of you supporting my journey! Your comments make me smile :).
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